Friday, February 20, 2009

The token Shark Expert

You have to hand it to George, he always comes up with the answers.

Last year, he managed to link some Shark attacks in Mexico to the La Niña. Did anything useful eventuate from his subsequent fact-finding trip to the region, apart from free tickets and a vacation? Did anybody see a paper outlining his thus acquired insights?

This time, he's linking a drop in Shark attacks in 2008 to the economic downturn.
  • is that because historically, the majority of victims have been tourists and not local surfers, swimmers and spearos?
  • is that because the residents of, say, Florida, California, SA and Oz who couldn't afford a holiday didn't use their own beaches but locked themselves into their homes instead? In utter frustration?
  • and when, exactly, did the economic downturn explode? Maybe very much at the end of last year, i.e. kinda late for having a noticeable effect on the statistics? But before the recent events in recession-plagued Oz?
Well, to his credit, he then manages to observe that there might be a lot less Sharks around - but then, why predict an increase in attacks in the long term?
Because there will be more Sharks? I wish!

Collecting Shark attack data may be related to Ichthyology - or not.
But it certainly doesn't qualify anybody to go dabbling in Meteorology, Sociology and Economics - that is, unless interviewed in a Discovery Channel special where obviously anything goes and bloviating is being elevated to an Art.

Or is this the new direction of Academia, to reach out to the masses by postulating ludicrous Correlations based on completely inadequate Sample Sizes and nonexistent Hypotheses Tests?
Remember the Scientific Method?

As Gaius Plinius Secundus said nearly 2000 years ago: sutor ne supra crepidam!

And: did you notice the statistics from Florida? Where they did ban Fish feeding in 2002?
Will somebody please start asking the question what may be attracting the Sharks to the beaches?
Yes, I know, I'm repeating myself.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

John's Geek

Punion anyone?

Remember John the Renaissance Man?
When I blogged about him last year, I mentioned his very own first disciple Rob Whitton, "a young, smart, promising computer whiz".
As in "Computer Geek", a largely harmless and often endearing subspecies of Homo nerdicus, or Common Nerd.

But that was last year.
Before I found out that he hangs around with these guys!

Warning: absolutely shocking content!!!

You had been warned!
All I can say is that Tourette's is hardly conducive to ever attaining the required Gravitas of a "serious scientist doing serious science, seriously" - John (one of the above perpetrators) being the one notable exception.
So far
, that is - as long as he doesn't start rebreather diving in his speedos like that other dude!
Rob has just left after two weeks of Ichthyological rummaging and now I know better: far from being harmless, the man is lethal! And I'm not only referring to his deadly dabbling with (as in "rebooting of") my wireless router and aircon!

Turns out that before professional Geekdom, Rob used to be an Officer (but I bet: not a Gentleman!) in the Army Rangers!
Correct me if I'm wrong - but the way I understand it, those are NOT the surgical guys, as in Special Forces and the like! These are the guys who Rain down Punion, as in indiscriminate and wide-spread Punishment and destruction!
And an anonymous rewiever (yes this post has been subjected to peer review!) informs me that "Rob is also a combat Frisbee player! Whatever that means, and I’m not sure, it would seem to combine antithetical geek and ranger qualities into a sort of Ninja Nerd, no?"
As I said: Lethal!!!

Case in point, the Punion he and John have wreaked among the Eviota poplulation of Shark Reef and of the "Best Muck Dive in the South Pacific", i.e. a desolate piece of rubbly (or was it "rubbishy"?) aquatic real estate in front of Lalati!
Yes you guessed it, Jack is revising the Genus and needs specimen! Dunno who Jack is? Read this : if there ever was Da Man, this would be him! And he's the nicest, most generous and funniest guy on top of that!

Back to the serious stuff.
10 days of digging around have resulted in a whopping 53 additional species that are shortly going to populate the ever-expanding Shark Reef Fish List. Yes, that would be approx. 430 species on a small patch reef in Fiji! And counting!
And this despite the fact that precious time was regularly wasted on filming our Shark feeding spectacle (Chondrichthyans?? Anathema!! You just wait til I tell Jack...!!), and despite the fact that all planned Rotenone stations were quickly disposed of by our ever-greedy Giant Trevally who absconded with the plastic bags!

The Geek of course failed miserably.
He would regularly come back empty-handed, preferring to indulge in the collection of pretty (as opposed to "useful") images rather than bagging his daily quota of specimens. This on top of his ignominious failure to reach the boat when dropped on the corner of the reef that prompted a heroic rescue mission by his sensei.

But to his credit, whenever faced with the risk of terminal excomunication, he would miraculously throw a Hail Mary and come up with some spectacular result.
Like when he managed to use a jeweler's loupe and one of my spaghetti containers (hence gifted to science) in order to photograph the above, and possibly undescribed (ever seen an esca like this?) tiny fella. Yes that is sand and that's a dime - click on the pics and be amazed!
Or by coming up with some whopping range extension or in my case, by showing me how to save flash files to disk.

Meaning that I shall -grudgingly- welcome him back next year.

Because Shark Reef is far from having been exhausted.

The Eastern side is largely unexplored and being more exposed to the current, it constitutes a different habitat featuring different corals and thus very possibly more of the species that are frequent in current-swept Beqa Lagoon but that we have so far failed to see in the Reserve.
Also, the deeper reaches have likely so far produced below their potential due to a combination of short bottom times and inquisitive macro Elasmobranchs. We shall address that by using rebreathers and an escort of fearless indigenous bodyguards.

And lastly, we shall try to finally collect the Holotypes of those likely new shrimp Gobies that we failed to bag last year, by devising a new, Trevally-proof technique - as in deploying cutting-edge implements like empty jars of Vlasic's Original kosher Pickles, at least as groundbreaking an approach to Taxonomic Research as the aforementioned spaghetti containers!

All-in-all, much to look forward to!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Year of the Shark Fiji - MaiLife!

Shark Diver is in Playboy and I'm green with envy!

But, we're getting there: the latest issue of Mai Life, one of Fiji's most popular magazines is featuring a multi-page article about the Year of the Shark and MaiTV will run a feature about Shark Conservation for which they have already interviewed Ron and Valerie along with Juerg.

Here's an excerpt from the magazine.
Click to read and admire the (Shark) pics, courtesy of Sasha!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

International Year of the Shark - Fiji. Apparel!

Check this out.

This is the brand-new line for the YoS-Fiji and as a registered Supporter, you can now order it from Sean at Windward Apparel!
Obviously, you can then add your own logo instead of ours.

Sean has announced that 10% of the proceeds will go toward the YoS and namely, the printing of further materials, as in the upcoming Poster.

Sean - well done and Vinaka!

Saturday, February 07, 2009


Rusi and Scarface. Pic: Michael Aw

That would be Samuel "Doc" Gruber.

In a letter published on Oceanic Dreams, he writes,

Hi ................. :

I am a proponent of shark diving. While it does affect a few
sharks, when compared to the approximately 100 million killed annually for fin and flesh the minimal impact of this human activity pales in comparison.
I feel that shark dives produce several very beneficial outcomes for humans and sharks. First exposing divers to sharks, safely and professionally - and in a beautiful environment will inevitably turn fear into fascination. Quickly these people become ambassadors for shark conservation. Further it produces jobs and income for areas and folks that need the work - especially in an economy such as the Bahamian one. Tourism in the Bahamas is the country's life blood, and sharks are a draw!!
As for hazard - tens of thousands of divers worldwide have safely enjoyed professional shark encounters ever since they were established in the Bahamas nearly 40 years ago. It is true that some people have been injured and there was even one fatality, but compared to other water sports this is a pittance.
Nearly a decade ago the World Health Organization estimated that over 400,000 people drowned in year 2000 making this the second leading cause of unintentional death after highway accidents. So shark dives turn out to be a very SAFE form of water activity when conducted in a professional way.
What I have written is controversial. Animal lovers think that humans have no right to interfere with non-human creatures. This is their opinion, not mine. Biologists always say "don't feed the animals." But I have been feeding sharks at my field station for over 20 years, and have observed their behavior carefully (my degree is in marine animal behavior and sensory physiology). I know for a fact that our shark encounters do not greatly affect the Caribbean reef sharks we feed.
- They do not become habituated to humans such that they completely lose their natural fear.
- They do not begin to consider us as food.
- They are very focused on what we do and learn almost instantly what the feeding situation means.
- They do not depend on us for food but hunt normally and supplement this ordinary behavior with our feedings.
- New individuals join the colony all the time, learn what we do and do not pose a danger. These reef sharks leave the area during breeding season in August and go about their normal reproductive activities. They return about three months later.
I cannot even begin to tell you how utterly rewarding (and surprising) it is to have a scientist of Doc's caliber make the above unequivocal statements.
This is exactly our own perception and we're currently spending quite a bit of time collecting the data that will eventually lead to a paper dispelling the old tired "association" myth.

Thank you Doc, you're a shining beacon in an Ocean of ignorance and prejudice!


International Year of the Shark - Fiji: Lecture!

Pic: Alexander Safonov

Remember Juerg?

He's currently here in Fiji where we're busy Radio and Satellite tagging, plus DNA sampling!
Plus, John the Renaissance Man is adding more species every day: 412 and counting, and this without ichtyocides - yet! To the Butterflyfish counters among you: every species known from Fiji is right there on Shark Reef!
Talk about fast and furious action!

Juerg has kindly agreed to give this public lecture about his latest findings:
  • Venue: USP Marine Studies lecture theater, Lower Campus
  • Date: February 9, 2009
  • Time: 5pm
  • Subject: An integrated Approach to studying Bull Shark Behavior and Ecology in the South Pacific: The Bull Shark Tagging Programme

Bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) are widespread along the continental coasts of all tropical and subtropical seas but also occur around remote island states far away from continental waters. They are often found close inshore in shallow water which makes them readily accessible for scientific study.

The Bull Shark Tagging Programme started in 2003 with a pilot study in the Bahamas to test the feasibility of studying movement patterns and habitat use of bull sharks with state-of-the-art pop-up satellite archival tags. Since 2004 the project's main field site is located in Shark Reef Marine Reserve off the southern coast of Viti Levu, Fiji, where the behaviour and ecology of bull sharks is investigated using direct and indirect observational and monitoring techniques and tools.

You and your friends are cordially invited to attend.
Looking forward to meeting you there!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Shark Porn

Picture this.

A Production Company who know nothing about the subject proposes a documentary about Big Cats to a big Television Channel.

So far, they have produced "Lion Hunters" and "Lion Hunters II" where teams of big game hunters compete for bringing down the biggest lions.
The new show will feature the "Mountain Man", an extreme solo mountain climber and absolute ignoramus of felines. He will be safely sitting on the roof of a Land Rover from where he will throw a) a wheel of Emmenthal cheese b) a Yellowfin Tuna and c) a Black Forest Cake at the World's "deadliest Cats", i.e. a pride of African Lions, a Bengal Tiger and a Jaguar. Obviously, these groundbreaking experiments require that the team travel to the most iconic Wildlife Parks of Africa, India and South America, all expenses paid.

The Television Channel enthusiastically accepts and airs the piece during their "Safari Weeks". The Big Cat lovers are outraged but the Television Channel couldn't care less.
Business is Business.

Sound preposterous and stupid?
Look no further than Discovery Channel's "Shark Feeding Frenzy" where "Survivorman" Les Stroud throws Turkeys, Beef and Hams at some unsuspecting and undoubtedly surprised Sharks in the Bahamas and in South Africa!
Did the idiotic diet harm the animals? Probably not. Did the "experiments" lead to any insights, scientific or otherwise? Yeah, Right!

But, and this is important: did the show demean the Sharks and once again reduce them to nothing but dangerous and brainless eating machines? Very much so!

And what about the treatment of Sharks in "Shark Hunters" and "Shark Hunters II", the same Production Company's previous Shark "documentaries"?
You be the judge of that.

With the Shark Week 2009 shooting season in full swing, here come those very same guys with the following proposal for yet another Pro-Shark "documentary-entertainment show".

Titled "Deadly Waters", the plan is to travel to the five "most dangerous beaches for Shark attacks" where the waters are "infested with Sharks" and conduct a series of "experiments" to determine what causes the attacks. The locations they have chosen are the Bahamas, South Africa, Oz, Florida and... Fiji!
A list of questions includes
- what makes these specific locations so deadly?
- do you have any documented Shark attack case studies....?

Well, we sent them packing - and I herewith formally apologize to those well-meaning friends who sent them our way thinking that they were doing us a favor.

Thing is, we were not only outraged by their unacceptable portrayal of Sharks and the stupidity of their new "experiments" - but also and foremost, because of the damage they were intending to inflict to the reputation of Fiji. Talk of "deadly beaches"and "Shark infested waters" is simply toxic for the Tourism Industry, the principal income earner of most Island Countries. Yes, also for the Bahamas whose image has already been tarnished by past and equally stupid programs.

With that in mind, we took it onto ourselves to go talk to the local Authorities and to the Tourism Association. As a consequence, not only will those guys be denied any filming license, but anybody enabling this shoot will have to face serious consequences. Having spread the word, we understand that similar initiatives are being undertaken in the Bahamas.
Enough is enough.

At the same time, Shark Divers have turned down another idiotic request for yet another idiotic Discovery show.

Does that mean that we hate Discovery or that we want to harm those Production Companies?

Certainly not!
Discovery has recently aired some wonderful Shark programs, like Mike deGruys wonderful piece on the research conducted at Osprey Reef, or "Sharkman" where Mike Rutzen experiments with Tonic Immobility. Truly epic programming and they must be commended for it!

So why the garbage?
Wolf's insightful post and the ensuing discussion thread clearly point to the fact that those guys are merely trying to do Business, and that they are merely satisfying the market's demands for ever bigger sensations and ever dumber programs.
And I might add: for ever dumber show hosts! Is absolute ignorance and zero experience a precondition for getting the job? And what is it with those herp guys (one already deceased) that are being unleashed on the Marine environment? Is being bitten in the arse by giant snakes not good enough anymore?

But I'm digressing.
Thing is, what we do is not Entertainment, it is Shark Conservation.
Following the obvious utter failure of the 2007 open Letter to Discovery and their equally obvious disregard for the welfare of Sharks, those who care will have to find other ways of getting their voice heard.

One strategy may be to convince everybody in the Industry to simply follow our example.
After all, it is us the operators who control the locations, opportunities and animals. If we refuse to partake in this stupidity, the buck stops right here and now.
Yes it is cool to be on Discovery and it might also be good money - but in the long term, we not only harm our own reputation, we also contribute to harming the reputation and the well-being of our host Country.

Is that really what we want?
Is that what our clients want?
How does it dovetail with the image of Sharks we are trying to portray?

At the same time, some serious talk with the Authorities of the Countries most affected by this nonsense could well lead to better scrutiny and especially, to stiff sanctions vis-a-vis those operators that enable those shoots.
And finally, the clients should be alerted to shun those operators who obviously put money and short-lived fame ahead of long-term sustainability and Conservation.

Food for Thought.