Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Diving with Sharks

There has been a fatal Shark diving accident in the Bahamas and as always, the web and news tickers are buzzing with controversy.

On one side, and sadly spearheaded by a direct competitor, you have the usual assortment of know-it-all, I-told-you-so pundits and self-proclaimed wannabee Shark Experts fanning the flames and heaping judgmental blame, scorn and sarcasm on the operator and the victim alike.
On the other side, the operator's friends and clients have quickly circled the wagons and are busy singing his everlasting praise and fending off any perceived attacks regardless of their provenience or intention. Good on them and good on him, he certainly needs it and most probably deserves it.
And of course there's that smug ueber-charlatan Mr. Ritter desperately trying to garner publicity by sanctimoniously offering his help and "expert advice".

Did a single one of those people witness the accident?
Did I find a single exhaustive description of what really happened?

On a positive note, until now, nobody is blaming the Shark.
Many however blame the Shark diving Industry in general, asking for better regulation or an outright ban of those activities. The latter is highly worrisome, as one of the undisputed merits of Shark tourism is to help change perceptions and to contribute to Shark Conservation. Sharks are still being slaughtered by the millions and deserve any help they can get.
Fingers crossed that common sense will prevail - maybe through more honest dialogue?

Am I about to join the fray?
Hell, no.

But being a Shark Feeding Operator, BAD are being asked for an opinion, so there:

Does diving with Sharks involve risks?
The answer is unequivocally Yes, it does - but what doesn't?

I won't bore you with wonderful statistical comparisons involving collapsing sand holes, Life in general (!) and lightning, I also don't want to discuss the pros and cons and ethics of feeding and I will also not engage in speculation about the causes of Shark strikes, a tedious and ever-changing assortment of sometimes plausible pseudoscientific theories that will never be verified or falsified.
Unless one could convince a thousand volunteers to go thrashing about at dusk in deep water off the coast of, say, Kona , that is.
You get the gist.

The fact is that Shark incidents happen. They are exceedingly rare and poorly understood.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the question whether adult people should be free to make their own informed decisions about engaging in potentially dangerous activities at their own personal risk.
We believe that the answer should unequivocally be, Yes they should. Life after all holds no guarantees and it should be everyone's personal decision how to conduct it meaningfully and enjoyably - whilst clearly assuming the responsibility for one's decisions.

We however also believe that operators who conduct Shark dives commercially need to do so as responsibly, professionally and safely as humanly possible.
That's what the clients have a reasonable right to expect.

Also, believe it or not, we don't have a death wish.
Thus, upon having taken on the Shark Dive, we quickly agreed that we needed to devise a set of new and stringent safety procedures, and pronto.

Having contacted Gary Adkison, arguably one of the world's most experienced, and generous shark people with decades of experience in Bull Shark interaction, he promptly proceeded to descend on us with messianic fury urging us to discontinue our "dangerous" hand feeding routine.
Thus prompted, we obediently rigged up several humongous chumsicles only to capitulate in the face of prohibitive logistical challenges and the fact that 400 pound Bull Sharks are simply not Caribbean Reefs and will tear anything apart in a matter of seconds. We tried dumping food, only to be confronted with clouds of sand, blood and gore and signs of incipient feeding frenzy. We tried pole feeding only to have the Sharks bite the poles and break off their teeth. Crates got torn to pieces and swept away, rigged fish got gobbled up in the blink of an eye - you name it, we've tried it.

In the end, we all agreed that hand feeding, whilst also providing for the best entertainment value, was by far the safest and most controlled way of handing out food without polluting the reef and incurring uncontrollable risks.

Did we try out metal cages? Frankly, we didn't even consider them.
Procedures are circumstance-specific and cages are probably the best way to safely observe some very large, predatory Sharks like Great Whites, Blues and Makos, especially when diving in open ocean and at very shallow depth to which the animals are being baited. This is however not what we do.
In a reef environment, there are other ways of achieving the same result, i.e. ensuring that the animals do not approach the clients, and vice versa.

This has led to the present format whereby The Shark Dive is essentially a show with clear segregation between Spectators and Performers.
Clients are dressed in dark, full-body garb and gloves, supervised and confined to a walled-off viewing area and any personal and hands-on interaction with the Sharks is being discouraged.
Much easier for the safety divers, much more controlled and also, certainly less stressful for the animals.

Keeping in mind common sense and all of the usual caveats, we are reasonably confident that Sharks are largely predictable and can be conditioned to follow a simple set routine.
Tourists however are not. Fear, bravado or overconfidence can quickly lead to problematic situations. Photographers and cameramen can typically become oblivious of their surroundings or incur unreasonable risks. As a commercial operation, we believe that it is our duty, and interest, to limit those hazards.

Direct Shark interaction -especially in baited conditions- is a special skill requiring years of experience and also, great respect and knowledge of the animals, both individually and as a species.
It is loads of fun and highly rewarding - but in a commercial operation, we believe, it needs to remain confined to Industry Professionals.
Some of our staff have logged thousands of hours interacting with Sharks and none of them would ever claim to be in total control of those situations.
After all, big Sharks are never pets and giving them cute names and ascribing anthropomorphic attributes to their behavior should never detract from the simple truth that they are hard wired, powerful and potentially lethal apex predators. It is probably true that they don’t perceive us as nourishment but it is equally true that they certainly don’t perceive us a “friends”, either.
Generally speaking, they will tolerate our vicinity provided that we display adequate behavior and remain calm, alert and sometimes, assertive. And sometimes, we might be prompted to leave.

No dive briefing, however exhaustive, detailed and professional, will ever succeed in uniformly transmitting those skills to a group of, essentially, strangers with diverging backgrounds and experience.

You can however rest assured that we'll always try our very best to entertain and amaze you with a well-choreographed, exhilarating, mellow and above all, safe experience!

Well, yes - but it will always be you who will need to make your own, informed decision.
After all, you are an Adult.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bull Shark Mania!

The prime Bull Shark season is in full swing and the first batches of killer shots for 2008 are already starting to populate the world wide web.

The Running of the Bulls has exceeded even our wildest anticipations, with over 30 Bull Sharks turning up on every dive. Our record so far: 36 fish heads gone in 28 minutes, then the fish bin was empty and the show over.
With the exception of Kinky and Long John who usually turn up later in the year (beats me why, but that's the pattern), all of the usual suspects have already made an appearance and are busy teaching the proper etiquette -don't rush, come in from the left- to the newbies.
Word seems to be spreading that Shark Reef is the place to be and the numbers of newcomers are truly staggering, ranging from several big females to dozens of sub-adults fresh from the nursing areas. This is a big challenge for the feeders as especially the small teenage males display much, eh, attitude and always try to rush in for a quick snap. Makes Whitenose, our longest lasting regular male, look placid by comparison!
Talk about intense!

Any Tiger Sharks?
You bet, especially huge and mellow Scarface, always an awesome and amazing experience.

Also present Whitetail the Lemon Shark who doesn't stop getting bigger and loves spooking the guests. Giant Groupers Ratu Rua and Ratu Tolu with their escort of Golden Trevallies. And all of the "lesser" characters, amongst which for the first time an elusive male (!) Silvertip Shark and of course the ever troublesome Gray Reef Shark duo of Bevis and Tootsie.

Juerg of course is having one hell of a time.
The adjacent reefs are littered with acoustic receivers and the data are coming in fast and furious. Plus, we're learning about dominance, field testing the latest generation of sat tags, evaluating our huge database and ever refining our procedures.
All very very cool, and loads of fun in the process!

And what about the other reefs out there?
Despite having been pummeled by the tail ends of not one, but two Tropical Cyclones that sandblasted some of the popular dive sites like Side Street and one of the wrecks and despite the mild La Nina conditions favoring an outbreak of Crown of Thorns Starfish, Beqa Lagoon never ceases to provide for exhilarating coral dives and amazing encounters.

Take this little guy for example, one of maybe a dozen ever photographed worldwide.
Dubbed the Hairy, or Irish Setter Ghost Pipefish, it is so elusive that it hasn't even been described, i.e. scientifically named yet!

The pictures in this blog are from patsOn 2.0's fabulos Blog "dreams and nightmares of beqa lagoon". PatsOn was with us at the beginning of January, not a photo pro by any stretch of the immagination and best described as "self effacing": but what a truly gifted photographer!
Do you speak Russian? Me neither, but Alta Vista helped me to at least get the gist ("Benga of lagoons awaits you!") of the informative, emotional and humorous descriptions.

All I can say is: Whow!!!
Very, very well done and спасибо vakalevu!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Renaissance Man

Meet John Earle, Homo universalis extraordinaire!

How to describe the man?
For sure, a bonvivant and raconteur. A sportsman and adventurer. A brilliant analytical mind. A Philosopher. Meticulously attached to minutiae whilst never forgetting the Big Picture. Wits that always manage to crack me up. Husband to formidable (and obviously, endlessly tolerant) corporate lawyer Jackie. Father and, I think, grandfather (at which, having become biologically redundant, he had to devote himself to other worthwhile tasks).
Bachelors degree with honors from Princeton University. Ex Navy and airline pilot. One of the original Hawaiian surfing bums. Extreme climber. Accomplished fly fisherman. Dives since 1957 and once "cornered" the market for rare endemic Hawaiian shells, pocketing a small fortune in the process. Has three fish, two shells and one shrimp named in his honor.
Did I miss anything? Most probably!

Certainly once a reckless mad dog, John must have somewhat mellowed as time went by.
His latest, and passionate incarnation sees him as a Research Associate in Zoology at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and fervent disciple of Prof. Dr. John E. "Jack" Randall, the unmatched guru and elder statesman of Fish Taxonomy, considered by many to be one of the more tedious disciplines of Ichtyology.

Did I say: "mellowed"? And: "tedious"?
With Jack having described every reef fish all the way down to the limits of certain death by DCS, John and fellow researcher, and desperado, Dr. Richard Pyle decided to strap on a couple of Cis-Lunar MK4 closed circuit rebreathers and headed straight down into the twilight zone.

Several near-death experiences and quasi fatal decompression accidents later, they are considered to be the pioneers of tech diving and deep water exploration. With every dive yielding one or more new species, they have thus positioned themselves smack at the very cutting edge of science.

I first met John in July 2002 when he and Jack joined Pelagian's infamous Voyage of Discovery from Kimbe Bay to Rabaul, PNG. The trip yielded Amblyeleotris neumanni, a pretty shrimp goby from remote Lolobau Island and my very own ticket to immortality.
Like most people touched by Jack, we became friends and have since tried to keep contact, not an easy feat considering his ever busy ichtyological schedule and my own erratic girovagations.

When we established Shark Reef Marine Reserve in 2004, John was gracious enough to fly in and conduct a first baseline fish count.
267 species in 7 dives represent a (and I cite) "high species count for a few dives in a limited area, especially considering that the presence of large sharks distracted somewhat from a focus on smaller fishes. The fauna of Shark Reef is exceptionally rich."
Ceci-dit, it was always obvious to me that the condition of Shark Reef was way below its true potential. The hard corals were just beginning to stage a tenuous comeback after the double whammy of the 2000 coral bleaching and tsunami; and the reef had been transformed into a garbage dump by the previous operator, thus tipping the balance in favor of predators, grazers and scavengers.

Four years later, the coral is thriving and we've substantially reduced the amount, and augmented the quality of introduced nutrients.
John enthusiastically offered to come document the changes to the ecosystem. Having achieved mental mastery over 5,000 fish species along with all of their distinguishing features, he's now a scientific silverback in his own right, all the way to turning up with a wise man's beard and his very own first disciple, Rob Whitton, a young, smart, promising computer whiz.

And boy, what a harvest this has been!
Preliminary findings point to a much more balanced ecosystem harboring over 370 species, and counting, among which such oddities as Cockatoo Waspfish and Longtail Ghostpipefish.

And there's more: at least 2 range extensions, among which the spectacular hovering shrimp goby Stonogobiops yasha.
Last time I saw one of those was in 2002 in Palau. At that time, I was still a photographer and my attempt of getting the ultimate picture of both gobies together with both shrimp, a blue-faced shot at 43m on Nitrox 32, earned me both 125% EAN and a permanent excommunication by my trusted Aladin Computer.
This time, yasha was peeking out from a hole in the midst of a colony of equally beautiful Yellownose Shrimp Gobies. Must be that the presence of large sharks had so far somewhat distracted me, too.

And, very possibly, Shark Reef might boast the presence of not one, but a whopping three species new to science!
Two shrimp gobies are "cf", i.e. comparable (yet clearly different) to known species, requiring DNA sampling. One, a dragonet, is obviously something brand new, triggering a Code Red Capture Alert from Jack in Hawaii.

Click the pictures and judge for yourself!

All-in-all, very very cool indeed!

And, what next?
I cite John: "...........our return next year with collecting gear to capture these species and surely add more to the list. On our last dive I added 4 additional species to the list, so the well is not dry and the count could eventually exceed 400 species. This is astounding given that I have not used ichthyocides….yet. A little whiff of rotenone does work wonders in convincing recalcitrant Amblyeleotris to become scientific specimens."

Watch this space!