At the start of 2016 I began writing online blogs for The Guardian. My thanks goes out to the science editor for allowing me access to this platform which has enabled me to reach a wide audience and to report on various aspects of shark science.
I will post the links to the blogs on here once they are live. Here is a link to my first blog about white shark diving in Guadalupe:
What does Hannibal Lecter, Ernest Hemmingway and I have in common? A taste for fava beans and a nice Chianti? (Chianti – yes), renowned literary skill? (pah! If only!). The answer is in fact the islands of Bimini, Bahamas situated 50 miles off the coast of Florida, North & South Bimini are the smallest habitable islands in the Bahamas with a total area of 9-square-miles and just over 2000 inhabitants.
Hemmingway began visiting the islands in 1935 and spent time fishing and writing, whilst angling he garnered knowledge which contributed to the creation of Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream. An Atlantic Blue Marlin caught off Bimini weighing in at 500lbs was allegedly the inspiration behind these novels.
The final scene of Silence of the Lambs see’s Dr Lecter calling Agent Starling from a payphone on a tropical island, that island being North Bimini.
So what is it about Bimini that resulted in my visit, or to be more precise – my return visit? I had first gone to Bimini when I was conducting research for my PhD in 2006, I was staying at the Bimini Biological field Station (Shark-Lab) founded by “Doc” Gruber and was tracking juvenile Lemon Sharks and investigating their depth utilization.
Bimini is a well known Lemon Shark nursery area first recorded by Doc in the 1980’s, however in addition to the Lemon Sharks the Bimini Islands are a marine biologists and even more so a shark biologists dream, in shallow, clear waters you can see Nurse, Blacknose, Blacktip, Caribbean Reef, Tiger & Bull Sharks as well as Rays, Sawfish and the reason for my trip this time, the Great Hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran).
There has been talk of Great Hammerheads visiting the waters around Bimini from January through to March for decades, and long is the legend of South Bimini Islands “Harbour Master” a huge Hammerhead patrolling the docks for fishermen’s scraps. However it has only been the last few years that the area has emerged into the main stream and has become recognised as the place to dive with aggregations of Great Hammerheads.
I was there with Dr Craig O’Connell founder of O’Seas Conservation foundation and his team (Guido Leurs founder of Oceaware, Marcella Uchoa and Rachel Jacobson), I had first met Craig on my initial visit to Bimini and having kept in touch and collaborated on a research paper together it was a fitting place to catch up in person! We has rented a boat and were observing and photographing animals in situ by freediving and SCUBA diving.
Put simply, my dives with the Hammerheads blew me away!! Once the bait had gone in the water we were inundated with nurse sharks typically after only a couple of minutes, on average we only had to wait around 20 minutes until the unmistakable outline and approach of the Hammers were spotted from the boat, a speedy kitting up and grabbing of camera equipment ensued (with a quick nod to the O’ring gods) and we descended down to the white sand with depths around 6m. Seeing these animals up close in the water was incredible, I certainly don’t possess the vocabulary or the literary skill to do them justice, they are truly humbling and awesome.
On each dive Hammers exhibited different behaviours and swimming patterns which allowed for some fantastic photography opportunities , unlike the more classic shark body shape the angles and form of the Great Hammerheads combined with the sunlight filtering through the water and the approach of the sharks created the potential for yet another different and interesting shot, the opportunities were endless!
Sphyrna mokarran is the largest species of hammerhead shark, capable of attaining a total length of just over 6m (20ft) with 4m being a more usual maximum length. They are unmistakable with the straightness of the front margin of their head combined with their enormous sickle shaped first dorsal fin, they are a coastal pelagic and semi-oceanic species, considered to be an opportunistic predator feeding on a variety of prey including; stingrays and other batoids, small shark species, groupers, toadfish, jacks, crabs and squid etc. Males reach maturity around 2.5m and females around 3m, females breed every 2 years and have an 11 month gestation period (they are viviparous – pups nourished with a yolk sac placenta), litter size ranges from 6-42.
S. mokarran is classified as endangered by the IUCN Red List with a declining population trend, animals are taken as by-catch and as a target species in longline, fixed bottom net, hook & line, and pelagic and bottom trawl fisheries. Their fins are highly prized for shark-fin soup. These fishing pressures coupled with the Great hammerheads size at maturity and low fecundity make it extremely vulnerable, global population declines range from 79-90% in the last 25 years. In 2014 S. mokarran was listed on CITES Appendix II, which includes a list of species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. International trade in specimens of Appendix II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES (although a permit is needed in some countries that have taken stricter measures than CITES requires). Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.
On the subject of protection I worry about the future of Bimini and its marine wildlife, since I first visited the island 9 years a lot has changed. A Malaysian consortium (work originally began by “Bimini Bay Resort” but is now “Resorts World Bimini”) was granted approval to build a resort, casino, marina complex designed to attract 500,000 tourists a year, as a result mangrove habitats have been destroyed (essential shark nursery areas) and dredging of channels for cruise ships has taken place with the resulting repercussions on the coral reefs and critical habitats for other species such as lobster, grouper, and conch not to mention the natural storm protection for the island itself.
Bimini is a place with the power to turn dreams into a reality, my sincere hope is that people in positions of power will recognise the true beauty of Bimini and conserve it so that these Islands will never be referred to in the past tense, as a paradise lost….
References and Further Reading;
Hit the following dive sites over 2 days; El Puertito, Abades Micro Marine Reserve, San Miguel Ray’s and Poris. On the Underwater Camera Hunt for Green Turtles & Stingrays, all of the diving was with Amarilla Diver’s Tenerife.
The Green Turtle – Chelonia mydas, is one of the largest sea turtles reaching 78-119 cm in shell length and weighing in at between 68-181 kg. They migrate long distances between feeding grounds and the beaches from where they hatched.
Green Turtles are classified as “Endangered” by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), numbers are depleted in a variety of ways; their eggs are over-harvested, adults are hunted and also caught as by-catch, as well as their natural habitat being destroyed….
The long-snouted seahorse inhabits shallow inshore water s (down to 12m), in seaweed and algal stands. Not much is known about the numbers of this specific species although the entire Hippocampus genus is listed in Appendix II of CITES (Convention In Trade of Endangered Species).
Stumpy here is so called because he has lost the majority of his tail in an unknown accident… this makes him pretty recognizable though at this spot! Favourite foods tend to be comprised of bottom dwelling crustacea, small fish and worms!
The common octopus is the most studied of all the octopus species, it can grow up to 25cm in mantle length and it’s tentacles can reach 1m! Off the North West Coast of Africa it is harvested on a large scale.. more than 20,000 tonnes are taken annually! Crabs, crayfish and bivalve mollusks are its preferred prey choice. it relies heavily on it’s superb camouflage ability
The common cuttlefish can reach 49cm in mantle length and can weigh in at 4kg. It preys on a variety of species including; fish, copepods, crustaceans, octopods, polychaetes and more! interestingly a study in 2008 showed that when cuttlefish embryo’s are visually exposed to a specific prey type e.g. crabs they will hunt primarily for that in later life
Manta Ray post breach.
A major lesson from Palau
Palau is unlike many other countries in that it actually recognizes what it has i.e.: world class dive sites and instead of ruining and exploiting such a resource it embraces it and protects it.
I was particularly interested in how they were putting into practice their shark sanctuary policy (as unveiled to the world in September 2009) which banned the landing of sharks or shark fins by local or international vessels in Palauan waters. How is it policed? Does it work?
It is likely that to make such a bold statement as to declare your national waters a shark sanctuary you would have to be sure it would work, and of course it does.
Although in truth I believe if it was going to work anywhere it would be here due to a number of reasons; there was no existing international trade of shark meat or shark products, local fishermen avoid catching shark as they cannot sell it and Palauan’s do not eat it themselves.
Most of the islands are considered National Parks and so permits are required for visitors which are inspected by park rangers and finally the dive companies are savvy when it comes to issuing visitors with permits (it reflects badly on the company if their customers are not in possession of a valid permit and has consequences to boot) as well as their almost daily presence within their waters which must act as a strong deterrent to any international fishing vessels.
The ocean itself is also fundamental to the story of the creation of Palau (the country being born from a giant clam) as well as ocean practices such as fishing being featured in numerous folklore; being used to teach several morals and values.
For a country which only claimed independence in 1994 (having been owned/occupied by Spain, Germany, Japan and the United States). Palau stands in its own right as an example I wish we all could follow as a haven for sharks and other reef life. I must leave now, however I am keen to return especially during March time which is the Grey Reef Shark breeding season, which see’s specific dive sites teem with hundreds of shark’s (imagine that – perfection!).
So as I return to Manila for a final time, I can reflect on what an amazing time I have had both in the Philippines and Palau.
I would like to express my gratitude to Donsol Eco-Tour who enabled me to have some truly amazing encounters with Whale sharks which I will never forget, The TSRCP which gave me Thresher Sharks and so much more besides, Fish N’ Fins a super-duper dive experience in Palau and of course the guys at SSACN and SSTP who without which my computer illiterate self would never have been able to make this blog possible!
Finally thanks to all who kept up to date with this blog, I hope you found it informative and entertaining and I hope that in the future there will be plenty more like it!
Am I ready to go home for a while? Am I heck … bring on the next adventure!
Cheers to that!
End of the Rainbow
It would be fair to say I was in love with Palau before I had even left the Philippines, this had been born from various conversations I had had with diver’s around Malapascua Island who had previously been to Palau. As soon as you mention Palau you are greeted with a beaming smile and a glint in the eye, the sort of reaction anyone might give when they are remembering a place which not only met but exceeded their expectations and allowed them to fully indulge in their passion.
By the time I boarded the flight in Manila I was bordering on anxiety, had I put Palau up on an airy pedestal that just couldn’t be reached? During the flight I was put at ease somewhat when the immigration and customs declaration card was headed with the slogan “Welcome to Palau the end of the rainbow”, I mean as long as the pot of gold translated to bucket loads of sharks I would be happy! On arrival in Palau I was further reassured when the customs declaration guy waved me on telling me that I had come to the right place after reading that I was a Marine Biologist, and when I stepped outside of the airport there was an underwater mural complete with reef sharks adorning the walls of the airport.
But the point is I needn’t have worried, Palau is an incredible place; the people are so warm, friendly and helpful, the land is lush and the Sea’s, Oceans and Lagoons vary from turquoise to emerald green in colour and literally teem with life. For this reason alone the diving is sensational, but add to this the abundance of underground caves, channels, walls and wrecks and you have yourself a diving location which is phenomenal.
Big Drop Off
Gordon and I dived with Fish N’ Fins who I would recommend to anyone diving in Palau, during our stay we did 12 dives at the following sites; Big-Drop-Off (Ngemelis wall), Siaes Tunnel, Ulong Channel, Virgin Blue Hole, New-Drop-Off, Blue Holes, German Channel, Helmet Wreck, Chandelier Cave and of course the infamous Blue Corner (this we did 3 times). All dives were amazing and I could dive them all again for the rest of my life quite happily, but really we just scratched the surface as there are so many dive sites that you would need ideally a year or more to get a true feel for the diving available here.
The rumours are true !! – If you don’t want to see a shark while you dive here then you will have to dive with your eyes shut! My wishes came true with an abundance of grey reef sharks, white-tip reef sharks and black-tip reef sharks, however the pièce-de-résistance was a single mind blowing encounter at German Channel; best known for its Manta rays which come into the cleaning stations in the channel, shortly after decent we saw a manta ray cruise by and then we went to explore other areas of the site. I was about to turn away from one area when I felt an urgent prod from Gordon as I turned I could not believe my eyes – a lone female Great Hammerhead around 3m in length was passing by! Only 3 of us in the group saw her and I felt the need to confirm what I had seen continuously by making the hammer shape with my arms and head – I honestly thought at first that I was “Narked” or that I had finally succumbed to some sort of fantasy shark hallucinations! I later found out we were very lucky to see such a sight with large sharks such as the hammerheads or tiger sharks only seen about once every 6 months, so I thank my lucky shark stars!!!
Grey Reef sharks off Blue Corner
Whitetip reef sharks
Big fish freeway at Blue Corner
LOL – Lauren on Location – Calanggaman Island diving, a wedding, and the final dive at Monad Shoal.
On the 29th of May Gordon and I headed across to Calanggaman Island, a few hours South from Malapascua on a fun dive with Divelink. The first dive was an incredible wall dive, with huge soft corals and sponges, caves which pocket the wall and lots of reef fish as well as invertebrates to keep everyone happy.
During the surface interval we pulled alongside the impressive sandspit at Calanggaman Island which gets exposed at low tide, and joined a wedding reception! Perhaps not the usual surface interval – but I wish it was! Nick & Flor Martorano were the perfect hosts and didn’t mind one bit that a bunch of diver’s some in wetsuits some in bikini’s had effectively crashed their wedding! To be fair it wasn’t as random as it sounds, Nick is good friends with Gary Cases (owner of Divelink) who was the best man and Nick & Flor had spent several days on Malapascua in the run up to the wedding where we were all introduced. By happy coincidence they live in Palau (where I am headed on the 9th of June) where Nick works as a dive instructor and underwater photographer/videographer (see www.oceanwonders.org) so hopefully we can catch up there.
The Bride and myself (probably the strangest wedding outfit I will ever wear!)
Following great food and a cheeky beer we completed a second dive (which the newly wedded couple joined us on) and then headed back to Malapascua, we had barely left Calanggaman when we were fortunate enough to see a whale (which is believed to be a sperm whale) at the surface then diving down raising its tail fluke in the air! Incredible!
A Sperm Whale
This week was my last diving Monad Shoal, and I was treated to a fantastic final display of Thresher sharks, Manta Rays, banded Sea Craite (Sea Snake) and spotted dolphins. Also a particular highlight for me was a Grey reef shark which came on to the cleaning station when I was conducting a fish census, I wouldn’t perhaps get so excited over a grey reef shark under normal circumstances, but although the grey reefs have been captured on an unmanned video camera no-one has seen them in person at Monad Shoal, so I was delighted with that unique sighting!
Well ‘Tempus fugit’ as they say… I can hardly believe that this weekend marks my last few days on Malapascua Island working for the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project, I will be going to Palau shortly and will continue the blog from there, from what I have learnt so far I cannot wait to dive there and hope for some more amazing experiences!
I would just like to thank everyone – staff and volunteers of the TSRCP for my time here which has been incredible, but of course the real star’s of the show, that have literally taken my breath away are all the inhabitants of Monad Shoal, with special mention to the Thresher Sharks and Manta Rays!
Can I pick a favourite? Staying true to form I would have to pick the Thresher Sharks…..
Whatever it takes ….. the 1 fin wonder!
I tried pulling on my wetsuit, but there was no way my ankle could bend in that direction so instead I was kitted out in Helen’s rash vest and Gordon’s board shorts, to keep the shorts up, I tucked the rash vest in the boardie’s, which came half way up my chest and the pull cord was doubled up and tied around my back, to top it all off I wore one bootie and one fin for all the dives !!! After providing everyone with a good laugh at my expense I was pleasantly surprised with my 1 fining ability, however there are some amusing videos in existence with my foot kicking out at about 100 times of the finned one!! Turns out my effort was worth it as I got the best Thresher Shark sighting I have ever had and was able to get some pretty good shots!
Today I remain on land willing the infection not to get out of control and to let me get back in the water with both fins as soon as possible!
Best Thresher sighting yet.
Manta Ray eclipsing the sun as it passed overhead (the next few shots I couldn’t get the whole animal in view as it dropped even lower!)
LOL – Lauren on Location – Lauren makes her way to Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project (TSRCP), based on Malapascua Island, off the North East tip of Cebu, gets some on site dive training, explores a wreck and catches her first sight of a thresher shark.
After flying back from Legaspi to Manila and then from Manila to Cebu, I then boarded a Ceres Liner bus to Maya, the bus was fantastic (apart from the heat!), most people on the bus had cockerels in their bags which led to a chorus of crowing as we whizzed along the track, I had a lovely lady sit next to who must have thought I needed fattening up as she kept pulling out all sorts of food from her bag to give to me!
Leaving Cebu on route to Maya
The bus took 3 & 1/2 hrs which considering it can take 6hrs was pretty good going, at Maya I was picked up by the TSRCP crew and we headed over to Malapascua Island (this took around 30 mins).
At Maya ferry port, with Malapascua Island in the far distance.
On arrival on Malapascua I got settled in and loved my room and the artwork at the guesthouse!
The following day I had an island tour (courtesy of Nick – Science Officer and Helen – Education officer) and then I began dive training G.U.E. style, G.U.E. Global Underwater Explorers emerged out of a shared desire to safely explore and protect the underwater world and to improve the quality of education and research in all things aquatic. They utilize different diving techniques and styles than those taught conventionally, hence when used to diving in a certain way the training can be quite challenging.
LOL – Lauren on Location