Saturday, October 30, 2010

Shark Media: Love. Not Loss.

I actually wanted to blog about something completely different.

I wanted to write a post about the fabulous outcome of COP 10.
This is really a remarkable result, especially considering the current economical, and thus political circumstances. The decision to expand nature reserves to 17% of the world's land and 10% of the planet's waters and Japan's pledge of USD 2bn for biodiversity are great and need to be applauded - at least til tomorrow, then the professional whingers will undoubtedly start moaning about how it's not quite enough.

Sure beats the news out of the European union where the Mediterranean states (thank you Malta!) are already trying to torpedo Europe's stance at the upcoming ICCAT meeting, this against the stated intentions of their new and I believe, brilliant Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki! Thankfully, Maria isn't taking that laying down, so fingers crossed that the end result will be equally positive!
As to the meeting itself... some people may want to re-read this.

Anyway, that's what I wanted to post about.
But in researching the biodiversity topic, I literally stumbled upon this remarkable video.

Totally true!
I spare you the links, but I've been blogging quite a bit about my dislike of a specific brand of pro-Shark videos that I find overly melodramatic and gory. Looks like others with much more specific know how agree, especially with respect to the stupid and rather revolting "shock ads" and shock campaigns.

The correct way?
Look no further than the BBC whose iconic images remain the pretty much unequaled standard for excellent, moving and truthful animal documentaries. Or when it comes to written statements, check out this latest feature about Wolfgang (Shark whisperer huh... somebody aint gonna be amused...) where his love of the animals is all-pervasive.
That's how you do it!

So here's to more smart Shark media!

Friday, October 29, 2010

David Diley - dreaming of Sharks!

Want to live the dream?
Start out by having one!

For David, that dream is about making a movie about Sharks.
We've become pen pals shortly after I commented on his excellent opinion piece about the Shark diving industry, and I've been able to witness how a rather crazy idea has become increasingly tangible, first with a proper concept and film script, then a website and a blog and now, this teaser trailer.

"From the Office to the Ocean" - Official Teaser Trailer from David Diley on Vimeo.

I say, very well done indeed - and I love the music!
Thing is, David is doing this with very little funds, out of sheer passion and in the firm belief that things will happen if you want them hard enough - to the point that in order to be able to fully concentrate on his project, he has quit his job and is now tethering on the brink of homelessness and financial destitution. Talk about being one determined individual, and totally nuts on top of that!

Funny thing is: I can totally relate to it!
In fact, I am deeply impressed and also a little jealous: I did find myself in exactly the same situation at the age of 30 and did not have the guts to follow through and had to wait for another 15 years before being able to finally break out. Despite being well secured, that was probably the scariest and most traumatic event of my life (if you haven't done it, you probably wouldn't understand) and I can only imagine how David must feel as he ventures out over ever thinner ice.

Long story short: David needs sponsorship.
I truly believe that this would be money well spent - not only because everybody deserves a break, but because there's no doubt that the man is highly motivated, focused, tenacious and above all, highly talented (more videos here) and that any investment would likely yield a very satisfactory return.

Give it a thought please.
You can find David's e-mail address in his profile and I know that he will be highly thankful for any support you could extend, even if it were only some words of encouragement. It's rather cold out there and some human warmth may go a long way in keeping him going.
All the best buddy, and fingers crossed!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Erich Ritter – new spectacular eco-behavioral Insights!

I just love this pic!

Here’s Ritter on Swiss national television!
Otto C. Honegger is one of Switzerland’s most respected producers and documentary filmmakers and as it happens, an old dive buddy of mine

SF Spezial Fernweh vom 27.08.2010

Am I correct in assuming that you may be somewhat befuddled?
Worry not – I speak that stuff and can enlighten you about the long-awaited ultimate explanation of the ominous
attackaccident and above all, the spectacular deciphering of completely novel and hitherto completely (and I may add: criminally negligently) overlooked Shark behavior!

And lemme say this: once again, the visionary man who has singlehandedly devised the experiments that have erased many of the old theories of why Sharks attack, and proposed new ideas, proves that he remains at the very top of the crop!

Not that I'm surprised.
Coming from a world famous Shark researcher (weltberühmter Haiforscher), extremely popular fundraiser, the only professional applied shark-human interaction specialist and holder of a Ph.D. from Zurich University in “Behavioral Ecology”, investigator and Shark Behaviorist of the Global Shark Attack Incident File, Philantropist, Senior Scientist at the Green Marine Institute a leading marine conservation org,, Adjunct Assistant Professor at Hofstra University and possibly, even Shark shaman (!), this is obviously as good as it gets – and screw the blinded, cowardly, hateful and ignorant detractors !
Who’s that guy anyway?

First things first: a big Bravo! for re-broadcasting the fateful scene as, really, it cannot be seen often enough!
This feat alone will undoubtedly turn all Swiss school children into Shark protectors as, like a great thinker once said, you don't protect what you fear!

The accident (see, I’m learning!) was first described by Marie Levine and then, after rigorous analysis, by the great master himself.
Further meticulous and groundbreaking eco-behavioral research (immer schoen nach dem Motto: Wat kümmert mich ming Jeschwätz von jestern?) has led Ritter to the following ultimate analysis of events.

Oeppis isch total falschgloffe…
Mir haend natuerli e Situation usegfordered, saegemermal, fuer’s Ferseh, damit’s ae chli spektakulaer usgseht ond ich ha gwuesst, wo da die heikle Ecke sind a dem Projaekt..…ond natuerli e Person aagstellt…. ond leider haett die Person ebe noed uufpasst ond de job noed gmacht ond es isch zum Unfall cho.

Something went totally wrong.
Of course, in order to make it look a little (more) spectacular for the TV channel, we had created a challenging situation but I knew which were the problematic aspects… and of course, I had hired a person… and unfortunately, that person did not watch out and did not do the job, and (thus) the accident happened.

Not surprised – the more as the spotter has already been exposed as a total liar!

But now comes the spectacular revelation!

De erschti Biss isch au noed e so tragisch gsi – aber daenn isch das Tier noed wegcho ond Haie versuechet natuerli immer zerscht “ich muess weg ich muess weg” ond das isch noed gange, also haett es versuecht, dur mis Bei durezbisse.

The first bite was not so tragic – but then the animal could not get away and Sharks obviously always try “gotta get away gotta get away”, and that didn’t work, so it tried to bite itself through my leg.

What a stroke of pure eco-behavioral genius!
It had always been so obvious – but it took a true master of his craft to finally think outside of the petty confines of the oceanic box and to make the totally logical connection to the terrestrial predators: when constrained, like any self respecting trapped Coyote, Sharks will gnaw their way to freedom!
How could everybody else have been so blind!

And if they know how to gnaw their way out… cage diving operators: you have been warned!

Just in case...
Sarcasm from the ancient Greek σαρκάζω (sarkazo) meaning 'to tear flesh' (=Sharkasm?):
A mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual

Otto – saeg nume, Du bisch dem uuf de Lim gangge????

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Case in Point: Palau!

Great announcement by Palau today!

Palau Announces Massive Marine Sanctuary
NAGOYA, Japan, Oct 25, 2010 (IPS) - One of Japan's closest allies declared over the weekend that all of its oceans - more than 600,000 square kilometres - would be a sanctuary for whales, dolphins, dugongs, sharks and other species.

But then, I find this.
Palau's sanctuary may be in name only, with just one boat supplied by Australia but operated by the Palau government to patrol the vast region."We are thankful to Pew for a recent grant for fuel so they can go out more than twice a month,"
"Last August I received a report from the U.S. officials in Guam showing more than 850 vessels fishing illegally in Palau's waters," Fritz added.

You may want to scroll down to yesterday's blog post.

This is way cool!

Especially the part about the angler foregoing a possible world record!
As to Guy, the man sure has guts!


Monday, October 25, 2010

Shark Fin Soup – nothing but a Myth?

From the website of Wild Aid.
Demand for shark fin soup, an expensive delicacy in Chinese culture, has skyrocketed in the last twenty years due to growing Chinese economy.

Not so fast! says this article in the Guy Harvey Magazine.
Apparently, Shark Fin soup hasn’t got anything to do with centennial Chinese culture, nor is it some status symbol originally reserved for the Ming emperors, nor is it particularly expensive nor is the increasing consumption in any way linked to the advent of a wealthy middle class in China.
Instead, the article says, the load of bull surrounding the international regulation, historical legacy, and modern demand for shark fin soup got too big and smelly for me to ignore. It turns out that what you believe about shark fin soup is largely a matter of what lie you’re willing to swallow.

So, why do they eat the tasteless slimy stuff?
Because they can: because it’s there, because it’s actually cheap and because they couldn’t care less about its provenience:

…as Fuchsia Dunlop noted in Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, “The Chinese don’t generally divide the animal world into the separate realms of pets and edible creatures.” “When I was living in China, animal cruelty was just not an issue,” Dunlop told me. “There was no kind of emotional identification with animals at all.
“For most Chinese, there’s no difference between eating a wild animal or a domesticated one. A shark might as well be a cow, or a hamster. As travel writer Maarten Troost notes: “The Chinese have an expression: ‘We eat everything with four legs except the table, and everything with two legs except the person.’ They mean it, too.”
So, the Chinese are hungry, numerous, unsentimental, subject to the same insidious, aspirational marketing forces as everyone else.

And all those campaigns targeting the Asian consumers?
Frankly, dunno – meaning that I remain unconvinced: the article itself contains statements by the Mary and conflicting statements by a representative of the Pew. And when I interview our numerous Asian customers, most of which are of Chinese origin, the picture remains equally ambiguous and equally bleak: from what I’m being told, whereas consumption may be dropping among the younger urban generation in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and KL, it remains high elsewhere, especially in mainland China – and that would mean that tens, if not hundreds of millions would still need to be reformed before a single Shark would be spared!
And yes, I’m rather stubbornly repeating myself, check out the above link!

Plus, there’s this.
Assuming that the usual volunteer bleeding hearts are going to step up and stop the shark carnage simply isn’t realistic.
There are lots of volunteer bleeding hearts doing that already and their efforts have difficulty competing against commercial concerns that can spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying in order to protect hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.
Probably true!

  • If the trade is supply limited, one must target the supply side: you protect African Elephants and Rhinos in Africa, not by trying to curb the demand for ivory and Rhino horn in Asia – by the same token, you gotta protect Sharks (and e.g. Tuna) where they are being harvested! Conversely, as there really is no real demand for Whale meat in Japan and whaling is thus demand limited: you protect Whales by eliminating the remaining tiny demand in Japan, not by targeting the whalers in Antarctica: let go of the ideology so they can let go of their nationalistic phobia, give them a quota - and then let them try to justify whaling from a purely commercial POW!
  • We got to focus on sustainability, not on prohibition, meaning that we must be willing to compromise! Who are we anyway to tell anybody what to eat as long as that is being done sustainably! Granted, for most species of large Sharks, sustainable harvesting appears unrealistic – but at least in theory, some of the smaller species are adequately plentiful and fecund to warrant a quota.
  • Finning is wasteful and cruel and needs to be stopped.
  • Any strategy will only be successful if on top of legislation, it includes enforcement, mitigation and education. The latter require adequate resources that are generally lacking in third word countries, meaning that we must contribute with more than mere rhetoric. I have no doubt that every single fisheries official is acutely aware of the problems and of the need to fish sustainably, and that given the adequate support (including the eradication of corruption where necessary), he will be eager to implement forward looking policies. So, let’s not only lecture and petition, let’s be part of the solution and the implementation as well!
  • In order to be credible, we gotta be rational, goal oriented and smart – and fact based, see above!
It always boils down to the same rules, doesn’t it.
Let’s go do it!

PS bravo Patric for having written this. As to whether the Asian mafia controls the Shark fin trade: as the trade has greatly expanded and gone mainstream, they probably do not control it anymore - but they sure use it for money laundering!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Marc Montocchio - getting the Shot!

Winning image by Marc Montocchio

Just got the following e-mail.

If you don't know Marc Montocchio, you should.
He taught us most of what we know about underwater photography and remains our inspiration. Check out this footage of Marc going to shoot the Blue Marlin and getting chased out the water by the sharks! His underwater pics are incredible and he has been published in National Geographic.
Check out his website.

I did and all I can say is WOW!
The guy's got Talent - and one mighty pair of cojones!
As to how one manages to capture the shot, here's a great look behind the scenes - inclusive of a couple of feisty Sharks, possibly Silkies (could however be Galapagos, too). And I concur with Marc: had they managed to get him, it would not have been a case of mistaken identity!

Thanks to the wussy-man for the heads-up!

Swimming with Whale Sharks – Impact?

Manta Ray aggregation in Hanifaru - at risk!

Underwater Thrills alerts us to an interesting paper.


1. The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is a popular focal species within the global marine tourism industry. Although this has contributed to increased protection being granted to the species in several countries, tourism itself can be detrimental to the sharks in the absence of appropriate management. Potential impacts can be mitigated, at least in the short term, by adherence to well-designed interaction guidelines.

2. A burgeoning marine tourism industry based on swimming with whale sharks has developed at Tofo Beach in Mozambique. However, no formal management is currently in place at this site.

3. The behaviour of whale sharks during interactions with boats and swimmers were recorded during 137 commercial snorkelling trips run from Tofo Beach over a 20 month period. Whale sharks were encountered on 87% of trips, which operated year-round.

4. Boat proximity and shark size were significant predictors of avoidance behaviour. No avoidance responses were recorded at more than 20m boat distance.

5. The mean in-water interaction time between sharks and swimmers was 8 min 48 s overall. There was a significant decrease in interaction times during encounters where sharks expressed avoidance behaviours, and also in cases where sharks had expressed boat avoidance behaviour before swimmers entered the water.

6. It is suggested that mean encounter times can be extended through adherence to a basic Code of Conduct for operators and swimmers that enforces minimum distances between the sharks, boats and swimmers. Using encounter time as a measure of the ‘success’ of interactions holds promise, as longer encounters appear to be indicative of lower impacts on sharks while also providing higher customer satisfaction for swimmers.
Copyright r 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

From the paper


Whale sharks were sighted in every calendar month, confirming Tofo Beach as having one of the few known year-round aggregations of the species.
There was some observational evidence for seasonal variation in shark abundance, with a September/October peak. However, as trip distance and duration – and therefore the total number of whale sharks encountered – varied according to the length of tourist interactions with individual sharks, detailed analysis of seasonal abundance awaits a more standardized approach.

The overall success rate of tours, i.e. where one or more sharks were sighted, was 87.0% over the study period.
This figure is higher than the seasonal sighting rates at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia (81.6% between 1996 and 2004) (Mau and Wilson, 2007) and Gladden Spit in Belize (69% between 1998 and 2003) (Graham and Roberts, 2007). The mean number of whale sharks encountered per trip at Tofo (3.0) was higher than the mean number of interactions recorded per trip at Ningaloo between 1996 and 2004, which was 2.6 initially, declining to 1.2 during the period of that study (Mau and Wilson, 2007). This is a notable point, considering that snorkelling trips at Tofo utilize boat-based searches along a relatively small length of coast, whereas in Ningaloo spotter planes are employed to locate the sharks over a broader area (Mau and Wilson, 2007). The number of sharks encountered per trip during September and October at Tofo were similar to in-season rates at Donsol in the Philippines (6.6 and 8.15 interactions per trip in 2004 and 2005, respectively) (Quiros, 2007) and Gladden Spit (2 to 6 sharks per trip between 1998 and 2003) (Graham and Roberts, 2007).

The high trip success rate and mean number of interactions observed over the period of the present study suggest that Mozambique has considerable potential as a whale shark tourism destination, with a ‘product’ that rivals or exceeds more established whale shark tourism destinations. These results also support aerial survey data from the South African and southern Mozambican coasts that had previously recorded relatively high numbers of whale sharks close to Tofo (Cliff et al., 2007).

Customer satisfaction with in-water interactions with dwarf minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) in Australia was significantly associated with the duration of the encounter
(Valentine et al., 2004), and the same appears to be true for swimmers with whale sharks (Catlin and Jones, 2009).
In the present study, the expression of short-term avoidance behaviour by individual whale sharks was linked to a reduction in encounter time. Therefore, encounter time appears to have potential as a crude measure of the overall ‘success’ of interactions. For the purposes of the following discussion, it is explicitly assumed that the primary aim of any management intervention will be to maximize encounter times, which is most easily achievable through the minimization of avoidance behaviour.

A significant link was found between the expression of avoidance behaviour by sharks and the proximity at which swimmers entered the water from the vessel.
Boat avoidance behaviour was also associated with shorter encounter times during ensuing in-water interactions with individual sharks.

This suggests that disturbed sharks either have a heightened stress response, or in some cases dived before a close interaction with swimmers could take place. Martin (2007) suggested that boat avoidance behaviour in whale sharks may be related to either the low-frequency noise signature of the motors or to a perceived potential for boat strikes. Scars from small boat strikes have previously been recorded from Mozambican whale sharks (Speed et al., 2008), although the observed frequency of occurrence at Tofo was considerably lower than that reported from other aggregation sites (Cardenas-Torres et al., 2007; Rowat et al., 2007). The presence of scarring was not identified as a significant predictor of avoidance behaviour in the present study, although this analysis did not specifically examine injuries from boats.

Boat avoidance behaviour was not observed at (estimated) distances larger than 20m in the present study.
These data suggest that this distance represents a useful initial value for a boat exclusion radius around sharks. This recommended distance considerably exceeds the present mean swimmer discharge distance of slightly over 7m, suggesting that training programmes will need to be implemented for skippers and guides to ensure changes in current behaviour. Given that a reduction in boat avoidance behaviour is likely to significantly increase mean in-water encounter times overall, the application of this new exclusion distance should be emphasized in training.

There is no internationally-applied boat exclusion radius in use at present, as the situations and practical realities differ between sites.
Code of Conduct recommendations around the world vary from 5m in Bahia de los Angeles, Mexico (Cardenas-Torres et al., 2007), to 10m in Yum Balam, Mexico (Remolina et al., 2007) and 30m in Western Australia (DEH, 2005). Furthermore, the high frequency of avoidance behaviour exhibited by sharks when interacting with more than one boatload of swimmers clearly suggests that, as laid out in most national Codes of Conduct, only one boat should be ‘in contact’ with a shark at one time, whilst any others maintain a reasonable distance (i.e. outside the proposed 20m exclusion radius).

Swimmer interaction times recorded in the present study represent an intra-site baseline value for future adaptive management measures.
Inter-site interaction times are likely to be less useful to the formulation of Mozambican management procedures, as shark behaviour is likely to change according to feeding strategy and the specific characteristics of each location. For example, the average length of interactions in the Philippines, where a higher proportion of sharks were feeding while observed (in 2005), was only 3 min (Quiros, 2007). Conversely, mean interaction times at Ningaloo Reef declined from 27 min in 1996 to 7 min in 2004, although some interim years remained high, with the decline possibly influenced by changes in operator procedures (Mau and Wilson, 2007).

Although data on swimmer behaviours were not collected in the present study, other studies have shown that maintaining a distance of 3m from the body of the shark and 4m from the tail result in a reduction of avoidance by sharks.
These distances minimize the potential for accidental touching and also reduce swimmer perceptions of crowding, thereby improving the quality of the encounter. Underwater visibility is generally high enough at Tofo to make these distances practical, unlike in Mexico and the Philippines where visibility is often poor. In the current study, however, the physical number of swimmers in the water had no apparent effect on encounter length, although the mean number of swimmers was higher than that recommended by most Codes of Conduct (Quiros, 2007; Remolina et al., 2007; Catlin and Jones, 2009). It seems likely that, rather than the sheer presence of swimmers, their behaviour and proximity to the shark is the important factor to consider in future studies and management assessments.

Sea surface temperature was a significant predictor of avoidance response, with higher temperatures associated with decreased encounter times.
As the metabolic rate of ectothermic sharks are strongly affected by ambient water temperatures (Carlson et al., 2004), this result may suggest that whale sharks swim faster or are more responsive to swimmer approach under warmer conditions.

Although the results of the present study show that an unmanaged tourism industry in Mozambique could have the potential to cause short-term behavioural modification in whale sharks, basic mitigation measures should be relatively simple to implement.
The results as shown can reasonably be taken to approximate the natural behaviour of skippers and guides, as no formal interaction guidelines were in place during the study. An increased effort to educate front-line operators in appropriate interaction techniques is therefore integral to the success of any new management strategies. Experience from other countries has shown that instituting accountability procedures for these staff members is also an important element, as even relatively low levels of non-compliance can lead to negative short-term behavioural impacts (Quiros, 2007).

Recent studies from Ningaloo Reef in Australia (Meekan et al., 2006; Holmberg et al., 2008, 2009), Mahe in the Seychelles (Rowat et al., 2009) and Gladden Spit in Belize (Graham and Roberts, 2007) have demonstrated that whale sharks can be temporarily resident or show fidelity to feeding sites.
This suggests the potential for sharks to be repeatedly exposed to tourist operators, which could result in cumulative impacts. Quiros (2007) found that sharks sighted for the first time at Donsol were significantly more likely to exhibit avoidance behaviour when interacting with swimmers than sharks encountered repeatedly, which suggests that some degree of habituation may occur.

However, results from long-term studies on bottlenose dolphins suggest that in some cases, rather than becoming habituated, sensitive individuals may simply leave the area (Bejder et al., 2006a,b).
This can lead to long-term population declines even in the absence of obvious short-term behavioural modification (Bejder et al., 2006a,b). Given that the length of coast where tours are conducted in Mozambique is relatively small, a large proportion of sharks utilizing this area are likely to be exposed to tourism. This could exacerbate the potential for negative impacts on Mozambican sharks and highlights the importance of ongoing monitoring to assess the medium- to long-term impacts of tourism on whale sharks in this area.

Mozambique plans to attract 4 million tourists annually by 2020 (Ministerio do Turismo, 2004).
Such increasing tourist numbers make it vital to introduce active management for Mozambique’s whale shark tourism industry to ensure high quality experiences for swimmers while minimizing detrimental impacts on the sharks. The Mozambican government is presently focused on poverty reduction rather than environmental sustainability. Consequently, realizing the potential non-consumptive economic value of whale sharks is likely to be an important management consideration.

However, if this vision of sustainable growth is to be achieved, iconic tourist species such as whale sharks require enhanced protection and a dedicated management strategy.

Simon needs to be commended.
I’ve mentioned him and the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna here and it’s great to see how he is directly applying his research to the challenge of developing a long-term sustainable ecotourism industry in Mozambique. Let's hope that the powers that be get to read the paper and follow the recommendations!

And if not?
A while ago I blogged about the Athropogenic Allee Effect in ecotourism, i.e. the risk of contributing to the demise of charismatic endangered animals by showcasing them to the public at large, and it just so happens that David over at Southern Fried Science is exploring a specific facet of this issue in his latest ethical debate .

It really is a difficult one.
Predictable encounters with Sharks have undoubtedly contributed enormously to changing perceptions and to creating a legion of Shark lovers and a plethora of pro-Shark initiatives. But it has come at a price: over the years, I’ve witnessed the demise of several iconic Shark hotspots– and when it comes to some of them, I harbor the strong suspicion that the main cause for the disappearance of the Sharks was not the Shark fishermen, but the divers themselves!

Take for instance Ras Mohammed : still a terrific, and highly challenging dive – but the hundreds of Reef Sharks one used to encounter on every dive have moved away as the cattle diving boats have moved in.
Having said that: interesting video!

Or, closer to the topic at hand: take Richelieu Rock .
When it was discovered by two of the local liveaboards, Whale Shark sightings were so predictable that the day boats out of Phuket had a money-back guarantee. Then, the number of cattle boats exploded, the site became swamped and although the rock continues to be a world class macro dive, the Whale Sharks are largely gone.

To me, the interesting aspect is this.
These were not the much maligned baited dives with predatory Sharks: these were so-called natural encounters, much like what people experience in Cocos and in the Galapagos. And yet, it appears, the problems were very much the same : multi-user sites, lack of uniform and animal-friendly protocols, and competitive pressure all the way to outright greed on the side of the operators who are often unable or unwilling to cooperate and self-regulate for the common good, coupled with lack of rules and enforcement by the regulator.
Sound familiar ?

Whale Shark swimming shares many aspects with Whale watching, to the point that much of the research into the implications of the relevant ecotourism industries can be cross-referenced.
One of the generally accepted tenets in both activities is that SCUBA diving is being frowned upon as the bubbles are supposed to spook the animals. That may be true but the flipside is that chances for encounters are really only limited to those incidences where the animals tolerate, or even welcome the presence of divers – much to the contrary of snorkelers who being way more agile, can much more easily be driven to, approach and keep pace with the animals - and thus harass them!
Add that to the above-mentioned problems, and you have the recipe for certain disaster!

Case in point: look no further than Vava’u, Tonga.
To this day and after seventeen years of Whale watching, the industry remains the poster child of how NOT to do it, and of everybody loosing out as a consequence. No, I won’t dwell – though having lived there, I certainly could! Suffice to say that I will only recommend my good friends Paul and Karen of Dive Vava’u , the friendly ladies of Endangered Encounters and very grudgingly as I really neither like nor respect the owners, Whale Watch Vava’u.

Whale Sharks and Mantas?
Read this: simply shocking, especially considering that Hanifaru could so easily be the very best site in the world - the more as everybody knows the solutions!
Should you really have the patience to labor through it: check out this remarkable piece about Whale Shark swimming in Mexico. It is thankfully open access and a great case study of two adjacent but different sites and starting on plate 167, it contains a whole list of recommendations that could easily be adapted to other situations – and guess what, it ain’t rocket science but nothing but good old fashioned common sense instead!

In essence, the only viable solution is this.
If the industry cannot self regulate - and it rarely can, especially when it comes to multi user sites: then government as the resource owner has to step in and regulate it, by defining protocols and penalties for breaching them (!), by monitoring and enforcing compliance, and by regulating growth via a licensing system. All of this has to happen based on the best available research data. And of course: whenever possible, full protection and a user fee to compensate and also, to re-train the stakeholders, foremost of which the fishermen!
This is why Cocos and the Galapagos work, albeit in a sub-optimal way, and other places are at risk!

So, here’s to Mozambique implementing the right procedures.
But when I read that The Mozambican government is presently focused on poverty reduction rather than environmental sustainability, I am highly alarmed. Such policies are of course laudable but at the same time, without a focus on sustainability, they are doomed to fail in the long term. Look at the over-harvesting, the associated cost (!) and the subsequent collapse of fisheries, especially in the lesser developed nations and you can see where I’m coming from.

As always, we shall see.
Both sites, Mozambique and Hanifaru, have excellent potential to become iconic tourism hot spots and if properly managed, to provide for sustainable incomes and poverty alleviation for countless generations to come.
Fingers crossed that the authorities will take the right decisions.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Please vote for Blue Ventures!

Having been a finalist, we remain keenly interested in the BBC Challenge.

This year, one of the finalists is Blue Ventures’ project in Madagascar.
Along with harboring a plethora of endemic species, that country is one of the most biodiverse on the planet – and at the same time, it is a poster child for catastrophic habitat degradation (especially soil erosion due to the unchecked destruction of its forests) leading to rampant extinction and needs all the assistance it can possibly get.

Mind you, Blue Ventures comes across as just one of those volunteer travel orgs.
Too often, I believe, they are mere capitalistic ventures aimed at having kids pay a lot of money for traveling to remote destinations and do bullshit pseudo-research. But here, I get the impression that the volunteer program is genuine and that the cash flow does really go into conservation. What Alisdair Harris has put in place is truly impressive and actually very much reminds me of what we’re doing here.

In fact, it turns out that BV are actively trying to protect Sharks!
Watch this video – excellent stuff! Once again, this is to the point, highly informative and never strays into counter productive melodrama.
Way to go!

Shark Monitoring Madagascar from Jon Slayer on Vimeo.

Please go and vote for Blue Ventures at the BBC World Challenge!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Shark Free Marinas – Takeoff!

Great news!
It really looks like the whole SFMI concept is coming together and having continued to heckle Luke about the apparent lack of proactive action in the USA, all I can say is finally and well done!

You can read it all on the great, completely re-vamped website.
There a brand new logo and they have produced brand new brochures that feature beautiful artwork by Guy Harvey and that will be distributed to a whopping 1,500 marinas during the upcoming US membership drive.
All very impressive indeed!

Although, having said that…
If Tonga, population 100,000 can sign up 3 marinas (=one for every 33,300 Tongans) and Fiji, population 850,000 can sign up 24 (=one for every 35,400), what should we expect from the USA, population 310.5m?

So, Luke: there’ your challenge! :)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

And here's to...

Felix and Lemon - By Wolfgang Leander

Wolfgang , for always speaking up for the Sharks he loves!
Recently, he did so in this stellar article in the Nassau Guardian (Patric is right: I sure hope that the Bahamian Shark diving operators are fully behind this initiative!) and very courageously, in a post about some harmful Shark feeding procedures in SA - and I see that there’s progress!
Wolf’s only motive is the welfare of Sharks and I commend him for always being true to his feelings and totally incorruptible.
Gut gebrüllt Löwe!

Lawrence , for embarking on his 150th expedition to Guadalupe!
Lawrence is the original pioneer of commercial GW diving along the Pacific coast of the Americas and as such, he has really seen it all - and considering the dangers this involves (and I’m not talking about the Sharks!), his is a mighty achievement indeed! Way to go!
Safe sailing hombre – and may Dakuwaqa always be with you!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

He's baaaaaaaaack!!!

Guadalupe GW with permanent bling - click for detail.

Domeier wants to go and fish for more Great Whites – story here.

Before commenting, let me try and put things into perspective.
Generally speaking, we are very much in favor of research as we deem it essential for providing the data enabling us to devise effective conservation measures. Consequently, as you know, we have always always sponsored research on our Bull Sharks that are the principal attraction of the Fiji Shark Dive. But research is expensive as we devote a lot of resources to this undertaking and depending on what we do, it may also be disruptive to our business as some happens during our regular Shark dives with paying customers. We consequently don’t just blindly embark into new ventures, but have instead developed the following process whereby every project gets thoroughly screened before being implemented – and incidentally, we do something very similar when deciding about the countless film productions that get proposed to us.

The lead researcher is Dr. Juerg Brunnschweiler.
Juerg is one of, if not the foremost expert on this species and everything we do and every request by any other researcher is subject to his vetting and approval. We will also consult with Gary Adkison who brings to the table a lifetime of experience in diving with Sharks, and with Rusi whose understanding of the individual Sharks on Shark Reef is simply unparalleled, and define the framework for a research project. From the very beginning, we have had the understanding that all projects need to be checked against the following two prerequisites:

  • There must be a direct link between the project and Shark conservation. Like I’ve said many times before, funding for research (and conservation) is scarce and the inevitable consequence is that it must be prioritized. We believe that the most urgent biological challenges that need to be tackled are habitat degradation and species extinction, and that “nice to know”, let alone blatantly frivolous queries must wait, respectively have no place in our research.
  • The method we use must be the least invasive possible, this in order to conform to what we deem ethical (no lethal sampling, ever!), to safeguard the animals but also, to ensure that the Sharks we have worked so hard to attract and befriend are not being spooked by unnecessary rough handling.
With that in mind, here is what has happened lately.
After completing the satellite tagging project that was aimed at identifying the nursery areas but was fraught with technical challenges, we started a new project aimed at exploring the short-range movement patterns of the Sharks with the aim of better defining the area required to ensure their effective protection. For that, we positioned a multitude of receivers on the adjacent reefs and proceeded to equip the Sharks with acoustic transmitters. In line with our beliefs about having to use non-invasive methods, all tags were fed rather than attached, meaning that they would be expelled within only 3 to 7 days. Despite of this impediment, we were able to indentify the likely scope of their range and this has resulted in the establishment of a Shark protected Shark Corridor in 2006.

Our next query was to try and pinpoint the mating areas.
As the Bulls do not feed during the mating period, we had no choice but to attach the acoustic tags externally – and back came the old technical challenges. Our first choice of pole spears proved inadequate as most of the time, the anchors would not penetrate properly and the tags would detach in no time. Using a spear gun was more successful but resulted in veritable hunting expeditions where some of us got the impression that the Sharks quickly caught on to the activity and would split as soon as the hunter would ascend in the water column, to the point that after a few days of spearing, Shark numbers would be noticeably diminished and only recover after several weeks of normal diving.
Long story short – despite of obtaining several stellar results, we have realized that our protocols are sub-optimal and need urgent improvement.

As a consequence, we have not tagged a single Shark in 2010.
Instead, we have sent back all surplus tags that are now being deployed elsewhere and after the last tag had detached itself, we have retrieved all receivers and have instead concentrated on obtaining as many tissue samples as possible for Mahmood’s research on genetic fingerprinting. At the same time, we are scouting the rivers in order to set up a series of research projects there in 2011 where we will re-deploy the receivers.

And what about the tagging?
The current problem we are facing is threefold:
  • We know the range of the Bulls and have expanded the protected area accordingly, and we also know where the mating areas are (up to Juerg to explain that in an upcoming paper): thus, in order to invest more resources, we will need to come up with a new, conservation-oriented query. As I said, mere nice to know does not cut it.
  • Tagging the Bulls externally is invasive and changes their behavior, albeit only temporarily. On a personal note, it is also profoundly disturbing for both me and Rusi to witness somebody shooting animals to whom we have developed a personal attachment.
  • The gizmos are faulty and continuing with the present techniques is going to lead to more frustration.
With that in mind, we will resume tagging only once we have a new, worthwhile conservation-oriented project and above all, only once we have developed a new, secure and non invasive technique for deploying them.
But fear not: we have already agreed upon such a project and have also already successfully deployed a completely new prototype gizmo! Preliminary results look highly promising and we may soon be able to reveal it to the public – after securing it against moochers like the always industrious and formidable BB!

Which brings me straight over to Domeier.
He wants to fish and then tag 13 more GWs, a highly endangered and strictly protected species, and that within a protected marine sanctuary. That fact alone requires a very much heightened level of vigilance and due diligence when determining whether he should be allowed to do so.
It may not surprise you that I believe he should not, and here is why.

I’ve read the draft proposal.
Quite frankly, it is a great piece – in fact, it is so exhaustive and compelling that being my usual skeptical self, I already harbor the suspicion that this is already a done deal and that the public consultation is merely a ploy aimed at preempting any subsequent critique once things will again go pear shaped.
But as I said, it is extremely well written and addresses many grievances head on and with plausible explanations – so good that in fact, I’m stumped that Domeier never deigned to use the same compelling arguments and deflect much of the criticism when the proverbial hit the fan!

What it however does not address are the two prerequisites we postulate here in Fiji.

Cui bono?
Is there really a need to tag more Pacific Great Whites?
I sure hope this is not again a fishing show for Nat Geo! And if not: thanks to TOPP and others, Pacific GWs are without a doubt the most researched and best documented local population of this species: we basically already know where they give birth, where the juveniles migrate, where the adults roam. Also, those GWs are already protected in the USA and in Mexico, however with the caveat that quite a few juveniles perish as they are caught accidentally by small Mexican fishermen when they migrate south to Baja.
What possible new data will Domeier’s project gather for better preserving the species?

And with that in mind, would those resources not be better invested elsewhere?
Just as some examples: could those funds not be better invested in trying to stop the accidental catches by the small Mexican fishermen? Could those tags not be deployed to study the little documented GW in the Mediterranean, or the newly found population in Vietnam?

But much more importantly, those SPOT tags suck!
First, there are notorious connectivity problems that need not be addressed here.
But secondly, the present attachment technique is just simply unacceptable. The tag is supposed to uplink to a satellite and transmit is position whenever the Shark comes to the surface and for that, in its present configuration, it needs to be rigidly attached to the first dorsal fin. This implies catching and immobilizing the Shark in order to drill some holes and attach the tag with bolts and nuts, a fact that condemns the Shark to henceforth carry around some ugly bling that will never ever fall off anymore. Check out the above picture from Lawrence’s blog, and I can only agree with his comment : WTF?

The whole procedure is highly invasive, if not outright cruel.
That alone should be grounds enough for not giving the permit.
In fact, the procedure is so bad that Domeier himself has recognized the problem and apparently (and unsuccessfully) tried to develop a clamp very much in line with what is already being deployed on Whale Sharks. Having failed, he now wants to resort to the old, “proven” (and granted, slightly improved) technique of catching the Sharks with rod and reel, subduing them by having them fight against some buoys and then hoisting them onto a vessel.
That’s just not good enough!

I say: wait til the gizmo is fixed!
Collecting those data is probably neither really necessary, nor urgent. Why not take the time to develop a better tag with a better attachment instead of having the Sharks pay the price for his incapacity to devise a better attachment.
Solutions? Surely, if one can produce a space-age satellite tag, one can also devise something equally sophisticated instead of continuing to resort to those jury-rigged implements? Maybe indeed a clamp that snaps shut and can be applied on the fly? Maybe re-design the tag so that it can be attached anywhere (and thus, on the fly) and equip it with a short line to just a small floating and self-righting antenna? And if everything fails: how about a cool contest among the students of some technical university!

So, there you have it.
It is once again about what’s ethical and whether the need for data warrants mistreating the animals. We believe it does not and consequently, we don’t do it in Fiji - and neither is it OK to do so anywhere else! Yes, improving faulty protocols may be tedious and even expensive - but it needs to be done.

Mind you, just my 2 ¢ - and as I said, I fear that in practical terms, nobody cares anyway.
As always, we shall watch how this venture unfolds.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Rangiroa: Grey Reefs mating!

Check this out, fantastic!

I’ve done quite a few dives in Tiputa Pass on Rangiroa but never witnessed this, the more as I usually dive there in January when the Great Hammerheads stalk the mating Eagle Rays. Very deep diving, but extremely exciting and rewarding, too – check out the end of the video, those are real submarines!
If I remember correctly, this usually happens in March/April – but Tiputa is a very serious dive in up to 4 knots of current and in order to capture those spectacular images of mating Grey Reefs, one really needs to sit down with a rebreather and have lots of time at one’s disposal. If you are a tech guy, talk to veteran and still gung-ho (and you’ve been warned!) pioneer Yves Lefèvre of Raie Manta Club and possibly, if he buys it, to Denis of Blue Dolphins who has been using rebreathers there forever, and they may be able to help you out.

Tourist SCUBA divers are advised to rather try their luck in Tetamanu, or Fakarava South at the same time of the year.
Tetamanu is, by far, my favorite pass in the Tuamotus as the current is always manageable and there is a profusion of coral and fishes as a consequence – plus, there’s a resident group of Grey Reefs that are easy to approach and can number in the hundreds. And if you stay with Sané and the formidable Annabelle you can get out right out in front of the restaurant and play games with Calin Calin, the giant and very tame Napoleon Wrasse!
And talking of pets: take along heaps of DEET!

As to the subsequent natural predation by the Great Hammerhead, hmmm.
Anyway, great footage!

Hat Tip: Pete Thomas Outdoors

Sunday, October 03, 2010

International Year of Biodiversity – Fiji!

Papa and one of the Whitetips - great pic by Sasha, click for detail.

Bravo Emma !
After her epic Coral Gardening sequence for the BBC, she has just finished The Last Blue Wilderness, a production for the United Nations’ International Year of Biodiversity .
It’s a great piece that for once does not feature any of the usual supercilious Caucasian talking heads but instead, only indigenous people that tell their stories in their own unmistakable way.

We are honored to be included with a short sequence about Shark conservation.
The teller is of course none other than our own lucky man Manasa Papa Bulivou and I must say that, bias or no bias, I’m deeply impressed by his narrative. Papa of course hails from a Spokesperson’s Clan and is thus very much endowed with the gift of the gab – still, experiencing his genuine pride and enthusiasm makes me real proud, and once again highlights how personally rewarding this whole conservation project is for all of us here.
Were you as moved as I was?
Very well done indeed!


The Last Blue Wilderness / Save the Sharks from Emma Robens on Vimeo.

Friday, October 01, 2010

About killing Sharks in Mozambique

Watch these two videos.
Hat tip: The Dorsal Fin and Underwater Thrills.

First comment: very well done!
Very diverse in their approach, both are thankfully lacking the usual melodrama and depict the huge temptation for the fishermen who are not the proverbial bad guys but are just trying to eke out a living.

Second thought, may we again be preaching to the converted – and how do we translate this into Shark conservation?

That, I guess, will very much depend on where these clips will be aired, and to whom.
Shark conservation is extremely complicated and in this specific case, the Shark fin trade in Mozambique, it is likely to involve the following participants:
- the fishermen who catch the Sharks
- the government of Mozambique who should regulate, monitor and enforce both the fishing and the trade
- any foreign government or NGO who could assist them in that task
- the traders who buy the fins
- the end consumers, likely of Asian origin

For reasons I’ve explained in extenso elsewhere, I believe that effective Shark conservation has to happen locally as opposed to trying to re-educate the consumers, and that it should generally advocate sustainable fishing as opposed to bans.

With that in mind, it's great to see the involvement of Andrea Marshall of global Manta Ray fame.
She and two fellow researchers have established the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna that is based in Mozambique and is thus an ideal conduit for effecting change in situ, the more as they already have excellent contacts to the always smart and generous SOSF and other sponsors. Bravo Vodacom Mozambique, way to go!

Philippe Cousteau Jr?
Frankly, dunno. If it’s about parachuting in for a BBC shoot to proffer some pro-Shark sound bites, well, gee, thanks. If his involvement is more than that, meaning that he is contributing money, proposing realistic solutions or personally engaging in the incredibly tedious and always highly frustrating work of effecting change, all the power to him!

Mozambique is piss poor and without help from outside, Shark fishing is likely to continue unabated, videos or no videos.
Judging from where I sit, possible solutions could be dive tourism where income filters down to the grassroots level; well monitored funding and technical aid to government aimed at enacting pro-Shark legislation and then, at helping enforcement and mitigating the effects for the fishermen; and the ultimate solution which however requires time: education, especially of the young generation.

But Andrea, Simon and Chris are right there and certainly know best.
If you care and want to help, you may want to start by going and asking them.