Thursday, July 31, 2008

Clowning around

I really had to restrain myself from choosing a title like "Discovery Channel - nothing more than a bunch of effing Clowns", or the like. But quite frankly, in the face of this, I feel kinda deflated and ranted-out.

The picture is advertising the Shark Week episode "How not to become Shark Bait". Guess it's true when they say it's worth a thousand words.

Well, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time.
And, you may want to check out this excellent review by Grant Butler.

Enough said.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

About shooting Orang Utans

Have you read "The Malay Archipelago"?

First published in 1869, this captivating book chronicles the scientific explorations of Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist, explorer and biologist who traveled through the Malay Archipelago or East Indies (now Malaysia and Indonesia) to collect specimens for sale and to study nature. His observations of the marked zoological differences across a narrow strait in the archipelago led to his proposing the zoogeographical boundary now known as the Wallace Line. Wallace collected more than 125,000 specimens in the Malay Archipelago (more than 80,000 beetles alone). More than a thousand of them represented species new to science. While he was exploring the archipelago, he refined his thoughts about Evolution and had his famous insight on Natural Selection.

Among his fascinating descriptions of foreign landscapes and peoples and mysterious animals, we can read a meticulous account about how he hunted, shot, and the number of bullets it took him to kill several Orang Utans.

Not cool.

But only by today's standards.
Back then, people like Wallace were merely providing specimens for naturalist collections set up for the advancement of scientific knowledge. In fact, the rarer the animal, the more sought-after and valuable it was and there are documented incidents where some collectors commissioned entire hunting expeditions, and then prided themselves in owning the very last specimen ever recorded of a particular species. Killing, and even exterminating animals for scientific purposes in order to "preserve them for posterity" was perfectly acceptable.

According to Inuit myth, a urine-soaked cloth was once whipped from an old lady's hand and carried out to Sea, where it turned into a sea monster called "skalugsuak". Of its legendary peculiarities, skalugsuak lives for 200 years, has thousands of teeth, weighs over a ton, eats caribou whole, has skin that can destroy human flesh, and may even possess—in place of eyes—living, glowing creatures which lure its prey.
But skalugsuak isn’t a fable—it’s a real Shark, whose flesh is so packed with urea that it smells and tastes like urine. Commonly known as the Greenland Shark, the animal is the apex predator of the eastern Arctic. When their carcasses have washed up, scientists have opened their stomachs to find eels, sharks, beluga whales, sea birds, dog, horse, polar bear, reindeer, a human foot, and a lot of fish, and they’ve even been reported to hunt caribou in the manner of a crocodile ambush.
Very little work is currently being conducted on the smelly monster, and virtually nothing is known about its behavior.

In the name of science, University of Windsor's Aaron Fisk hauls monster Greenland Sharks out of the frigid Arctic depths, then guts them to see what they had for dinner. Research has shown they grow very slowly -- about one centimeter a year - so the Sharks Fisk has studied that measure three to four meters probably lived several hundred years.

Somebody has to do it, says Fisk.

Yeah - right (and yes, I'm about to embark on yet another rant....... again).
"Somebody" just has to go kill an animal that is several hundred years old in order to find out what it eats. With a name like Somniosus microcephalus, i.e. the sleepy tiny brained one, it's likely to be too sluggish, and too dumb to notice anyway.
After all, it's all being done for the advancement of scientific knowledge: thus in the Big Scheme of things, the small sacrifice of a few individuals is absolutely irrelevant.


Try substituting "Greenland Sharks" with another arctic top predator and see how you feel about that. How about
"Beluga Whales"?
"Polar Bears"?

When i was a student in the 70ies, Biology was largely being pursued for the sake of increasing scientific knowledge per se.
All too often, the objects of the research were just that, Objects: to be examined in an objective , dispassionate, analytical way. Any emotional attachment, let alone Love and Awe for the animals was being frowned upon as being highly suspect of carrying the risk of unduly influencing the findings.
Thus, to make an example, killing a couple dozen Sharks in order to explore the anatomical peculiarities of their vision was perfectly acceptable, the same way as it was acceptable to kill a dozen Orang Utans in the 19th century.

But in the 21st century, the Big Picture I believe is this:

In this day and age where the Planet is going to shit largely because of us, Life is just too precious - even that of a greedy, ungainly, smelly, poisonous, stupid and ugly deep-sea monster.

Today, investing scarce and valuable scientific resources both in terms of brainpower and funds can only have one possible justification, and that is that to preserve what's left and hopefully, to reverse the tide of ecological degradation and species extinction.

Thus, I believe, modern age Biological Research has to be able to withstand the following double test:
- are the purpose of the research, and its likely results, aimed at achieving those aims?
- and, is the method employed to collect the required data the least invasive one possible?

Everything else is not only frivolous and wasteful, it is also profoundly unethical - especially when it involves killing wildlife.
And guys, please: show the Love and the Respect!

This is precisely why before engaging in Research on Shark Reef, we spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the Why and the How.
This is why instead of attaching our radio tags externally where they would be happily beeping away for years to come whilst however greatly irritating the skin, we prefer to feed them to the animals, this despite the fact that we will only be able to collect a maximum of two weeks' data.
This is also why when we deploy satellite tags on the Bull Sharks, we do it underwater, at the risk of losing the tags at a rate of several thousand dollars a pop. The alternative would be catching them, hauling them aboard and using a drill to secure the tags to the dorsal fin . Very effective for sure - but at what consequence to the animals?

Investigating a Shark's diet may conceivably allow for the formulation of better-adapted Conservation strategies and thus, contribute to its survival.
But is it equally cool to go out of one's way, undoubtedly at great expense of money and personal hardship, to go catch, and then kill them in person when there must already be thousands of available and equally valuable specimen caught by local fishermen? In a sub-zero environment where carcasses don't rot?

You be the Judge of that.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Shark Week - frightening swimmers right back out of the water

From the 2007 New York Daily News Entertainment Guide:

"The folks a Discovery Channel are at it again!
Just as the weather heats up, sending throngs to the beach, Discovery Channel kicks off its annual "Shark Week," which is sure to frighten some swimmers right back out of the water.
In keeping with that theme, the week-long bite fest begins tonight at 9 with "Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever," a two-hour special. (........)
"I get on the back of a hammerhead shark and get rammed by a great white shark," he says. "Wow, for me, it's almost euphoric. You think you're touching a beast that if it really wanted to could rip you apart.
"That, of course, is the concept of "Shark Week," playing off that fear."

Last year, we blogged about an open letter to Discovery addressing the principal grievances of the Shark Conservation community. It was an excellent letter (and one of my better posts) and quite frankly, I was encouraged and hopeful that something would change.

Has it? - You be the judge

Mithbusters: Do dogs attract sharks? Do the vibrations caused by a flapping injured fish attract sharks? Does chili powder repel sharks?

Surviving Sharks: While in South Africa, Les and marine biologist Jeremiah Sullivan conduct an analysis of the great white's bite, and test whether kicking and splashing attracts sharks, and if it's safer to stay in a group or tread water alone if stranded in the ocean.

Day of the Shark: Do shark encounters happen more frequently in the morning or night? This special chronicles six recent shark attacks that took place at different times of day. Top shark experts weigh in on what time of day is better or worse for avoiding sharks.

How not to become Shark Bait: In the process, viewers learn strategies for staying safe when in the water.

So, it's still all about Them versus Us.
Not about how We kill them by the millions, but about how They are lurking just off the beach waiting to devour us. And sorry, the fake Shark Conservation Blog by the Ocean Conservancy isn't fooling anybody - but nice try guys...

It's gonna be just like in 2007: playing off the fear and frightening some swimmers right back out of the water.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

New Manta Ray discovered!

Not even the most inveterate lover of toothy Apex Predators will escape the gentle charm of the beautiful and friendly Manta Ray, the more as it sometimes shares the same habitat as Sharks, like in Cocos, the Galapagos, Socorro and sometimes, even Shark Reef.

Like many of my fellow divers, I've often wondered at their massive range in size and coloration: quite small and lightly colored on the reefs of say, Yap and French Polynesia, much bigger and darker on the west coast of the Americas or in the cold waters around Komodo.
But despite the best efforts of the Taxonomists, even including illegal DNA sampling within Marine Protected Areas, no evidence could be found that the "Giant Pacific Mantas" were anything different than their fairer and smaller cousins. The difference in size and coloration was apparently merely due to environmental factors and nutrition. After all, the reason for the crystal clear azure water on coral reefs is its lack of nutrients which has forced corals to co-operate with algae; whereas in the Americas, the cold and dark Humboldt and California currents carry plenty of nutrients allowing for abundant plankton growth and thus, a much larger size of plankton feeders.
Thus, scientific wisdom had it that all Manta Rays belong to one and the same single circumtropical species of Manta birostris.
Until now it seems.
Now and again, there would be reports of truly whoppingly gigantic individuals, reputedly with wingspans in excess of six meters, and this mainly from coral reef habitats in the Indian Ocean. With the exception of a possible encounter in the Seychelles many many years ago when I was green and impressionable, I never saw such an animal, and this despite of hundreds of sightings - so I quicky started filing those reports under the category of urban legends.

Well, it seems that as so often, I was dead wrong.
It now appears that the behemoth not only exists, but that it even represents a new species!
Keep in mind that discovering such a large marine animal, and this on reefs and at depths teeming with recreational divers is nothing short of miraculous! The last such marine discovery, after the two Coelacanths, was the Megamouth Shark and those animals are found in deep-water and pelagic habitats people like us would never vist.

Here, a massive ray with a wing span of up to 8 meters (!) would have gone unnoticed but for the tireless efforts of University of Queensland's PhD researcher Andrea Marshall and her Manta Ray & Whale Shark Research Centre.
Situated in a small village on the coast of Mozambique, people in the know tell me that it's as remote and lonely as it gets and subject to regular natural catastrophes as floods and cyclones. To persevere in such an environment is a testimony to her dedication and some would say, obsession - but what a wonderful vindication to be able to come up with such spectacular results!
This is like discovering a new species of African Elephant in the middle of Kruger National Park after years of it perambulating in total impunity from detection among thousands of safari tourists.
Truly, a remarkable feat!

Apparently, the new species is much rarer and much bigger than the "usual" Manta and lives a migratory, more pelagic life in contrast to its more resident and reef-bound cousin. Alas, like in the case of the migratory pelagic Sharks, and Fish, it is the object of substantial fishing pressure owing to the difficulties in establishing collaborative and coordinated conservation and management practices in such a large and unregulated environment.

You can watch Andrea talk about her discovery on this webpage of her proud sponsor, the Save our Seas Foundation (Video #1) and you can learn more about her research on her Manta Ray webpage. With a possible third species in the works, the future looks bright indeed!

Paper here!

Be amazed and enjoy!

Olympic Shark Savers

The Beijing Olympics are less than two weeks away and the celebrations will undoubtedly include thousands of portions of Shark fin soup.

This dish is one of the principal causes for the global extermination of Sharks, at a staggering rate of somewhere between 40 and 100 million killed every year. As a result, the numbers of some species have dropped by as much as 80% over the last 50 years, with devastating consequences for the ecosystems they once lived in, where the food chains and the fisheries depending on them are collapsing .
A comprehensive and chilling summary of the Global threats to Sharks can be downloaded here.

Much of the trade in Sharks' fins is derived from fins cut from living Sharks; this process is called finning. Because Shark meat is worth much less, the finless and often still-living Sharks are thrown back into the sea to make room on board the ship for more of the valuable fins. When returned to the ocean, the finless Sharks, unable to move, die from suffocation.
Apart from being wasteful, the practice of Shark finning is brutal, cruel and unethical.
In case you've never seen it, you may want to watch the following clip.

Many Shark diving operators like us are trying to buck the trend via Sustainable Tourism, Habitat Protection , Education and by sponsoring Research, often with help from NGOs like in our case, the Shark Foundation and Save our Seas Foundation.
Other more powerful organizations operate mainly via media campaigns and by influencing legislation. Two of those, WildAid and Oceana have captured the occasion by airing a series of smart video clips featuring two of the best-known, and most charming American Olympic swimmers.
We say: Well Done and Good on You!

Here is Tara Kirk.

And here, Amanda Beard.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Juerg online!

You have to hand it to Juerg: despite the traumatic experience of his recent visit to Florida and despite the jitters about the imminent arrival of his first child, her keeps cranking out the goodies!

His latest creation is a completely re-vamped website where we can finally find all of his scientific papers, along with plenty of useful information about his pet animals, explanations about the methodology and technology involved in his research and obviously, a description of his very favorite Conservation project.

Much much more is in the works.
For some time, Juerg has been studying Whale Sharks in the Indian Ocean and I'm looking forward to his first paper on the subject. And, I hear, there will be a piece on something completely different: gay Sharks!

But most importantly, expect to see the first publications about his most recent research in Fiji: new behavioral observations, the first results from the ongoing radio-tagging small-scale movement study and a first evaluation of our enormous data base where we've recorded every single Shark Dive for the past five years.

And then, finally, there will be a piece about my very favorite topic.
I'm not allowed to spill the beans quite yet - but readers of this Blog will know what I'm talking about.

Keep watching this space!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Challenging the Uprising

According to a local blog, Pacific Harbour is the "Adventure Capital Of Fiji Brotha! Need We Say More?"

What was once a quaint and tired residential development built around an equally tired golf course is experiencing a veritable renaissance, this in no small measure owing to the selfless efforts of our landlord Jim and his co-conspirators from the Pacific Harbour Business Association.

Want to try out some crazy Adventure?
Look no further than The Uprising, Fiji's coolest Beach Resort and go check out the latest funky inventions of our hyperactive friends and creative geniuses Rene and Alfie! Their ever-growing Activities page brims with unusual and fun propositions, not least of which that of joining Fiji's very own BAD Boys and Girls on the Best Shark Dive in the World.
Obviously, all personally tried and tested. For the benefit of Tourism and not, as some would say, merely developed in order to continue attracting the creme-de-la-creme of shapely talent, local and foreign alike!

Everybody is now waiting with bated breath for the next big Grog session and subsequent rolling out of creative folly.
But: how on earth will they manage to top such iconic pastimes as Horse Boarding and Quad Bike Surf Skiing?

Quads? Horses? - Bah!
Now how about THIS for a challenge, guys!
Tell you what: you provide for the beach setting and the guy with the cojones, we throw in the bait and the critter!


Good on 'ya, Google!

The plight of Sharks continues unabated, as witnessed by these shocking statistics for Shark landings (that is, EXCLUDING finning where the carcass is dumped) for June in Ecuador - the same country already infamous for its ineptitude in managing the Galapagos National Park.
As always, well done to Shark Diver for having found and posted them.

But for once, where there's plenty of shadow, there is some light as well.
Whilst Yahoo's Alibaba portal continues to brazenly ignore the petitions by Conservationists and offers a "choice" of hundreds of sites selling Shark fins, one of its principal competitors has obviously decided to forgo those earnings in favor oft ethical considerations.

As of today, I believe, Google has updated its Advertising Policies that exclude the sale of products obtained from endangered or threatened species to explicitly mention Sharks.
This of course is not only laudable, but smart business sense as well, as anybody loving Sharks should, and probably will completely refrain from conducting any business with Yahoo and its despicable subsidiary but deal on Google instead.

Thank you Helen for he heads-up about this wonderful piece of news.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

World Record Great White - and it gets even better!

Another tacky joke, I hear you ask?

You be the judge: first spotted by the guys over there at Shark Diver, this wonderful news tidbit from the beautiful land of Oz is spreading like wildfire across the ticker.

Incredible - but then again, why not..... in a country famous for its killer spiders, deadliest snakes, disemboweling birds, venomous egg-laying mammals, the most venomous marine animal known to mankind , the most lethal fish and mollusks and largest crocs, news of a lake harboring a 21 foot Great White may just be ordinary fare.

Although, according to Ozzie "expert" opinion, "a large shark like that would stick out like dog's balls". Right.....

But indeed - if true, that animal would be a veritable "Submarine", a world record fish weighing about two tonnes.
Of the kind an "elderly gentleman" could easily disentangle from his net. Mind you, all by himself.
And, as any fisherman, would refuse to talk about.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Mexico: Big Shark!

Two surfers have been killed and a third one injured in an recent spate of Shark incidents on Mexico's Pacific coast. The token Shark "expert" believes the reason may partially be "unusually cool sea-surface temperatures due to the La Nina phenomenon" bringing the Sharks closer to shore.

Well, yes: "may be".

Then again, "may be" not.
TOPP's fabulous real-time tracks sure point otherwise. And there have been plenty of "eventless" La Ninas between 2008 and the last recorded Mexican attacks in 1972-1973.
Aint "science" by experts just a wonderful thing.

In the aftermath, following a ceremonial shark massacre and community panic one expert described as "everything you saw with the movie 'Jaws,' only in Spanish," mania still flares.

Because as always, the locals know best: there's one helluva Big Shark lurking out there, chomping on Mexican flagged ships.
And on the token expert trying to flee the scene.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Mako Shark Predation finally filmed!


History has been made.
With the aid of the world's fastest underwater scooter, "Animal Grappler" Erwin Marlin and his team have succeeded in capturing live video of a Mako Shark catching its prey at full speed in the open ocean!
This has to be seen to be believed!

Proudly powered by Moose Horn Beer.

Tiger Shark - and more!

One year, and 130,00-odd views later, Dominique's re-edit of some of my images remains a hot item on YouTube. I just love the comments!
For the record, I didn't choose that music and most images are from the "naughty file", a collection of unusual, albeit really harmless -and to us, rather endearing- situations from over 500 dives on The Shark Dive.

And here's another one of my all-time favorites by a group of intrepid Ozzie clients - really amazing, and very lucky too, especially considering the limited time they spent with us. As you can see, the Sharks are usually much more mellow!