Wednesday, July 09, 2008

"Off-season" Sightings in June!

So, putting paid to the idea of an official whale shark season in Utila, there have been more whale sharks sighted in June this year, than in May. So far, while we have had some great sightings in 2008, there hasn't been quite as much whale shark activity this year as there has been last year around the same time. HOWEVER we have seen at least one whale shark every month. So, after repeated sighting of the fish we like to call Big Jim at the beginning of May, we looked patiently for the next shark. Eventually we went for seven weeks without seeing any other big visitors -- until the afternoon of June 18.

Two guests of the Utila Lodge were here in Utila to find whale sharks, and we not put off by the naysayers who told them they were too late to find any. They covered the expenses of the newly retooled Neptune (she's crazy fast now) and Cap'n Lil' Willie and away we went -- on Monday June 16th. We saw nothing, as it turns out. No birds, no dolphins, no turtles, barely any flying fish -- which usually entertain everybody while we're underway looking for the big guys -- It was feeling pretty empty. Our guests were undeterred, however, even turning down an opportunity for some fantastic north side snorkeling in favor of continuing the search for whale sharks.

They came back on Wednesday. We left the dock at our usual 1:15 departure time, setting out southeast of Utila. After not seeing anything, we headed north. And we kept going -- there was a massive container ship out about four mile north east of the island, and we figured to go check it out. Massive! Looking in the wake of the ship, I was certain I saw something though I wasn't sure what. Then I saw it again: Dolphins! They heard our engine and came on over for some bow riding and wake surfing off the Neptune. We counted 9 spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) including two calves. They played with the boat, and we even go in the water for a moment, but, typical of spinners, they lost interest in us once the engine started, and took off.

Feeling better about the abundance of life in the sea, we head out west along the north side of Utila, still crowing about the dolphins. A little bit more life, flying fish and all, but no boils. Eventually we were out past Sandy Key at 4 pm thinking that it was time to pack it in and wait till Friday, in fact, Lil' Willie was turning back to head round the north side for one more pass on the way back, when he pulled Neptune hard around almost 180 degrees, gunning her engine and yelling "birds!"

There was a flock of at least 40 terns flying around a boil, with 10 boobies flying and sitting in the water, and a handful of frigates circling overhead. Lil' Willie points out the big shadow beneath the boil THE WHALE SHARK! There was also another boil a few hundred meters off. Soon we were arranged on the transom of Neptune waiting for Willie to give us the go ahead to get in... "GO!"

And there he was, a smallish juvenile male; a little shy, but we didn't scare him, we kept very still and watched as he ate. Ritsert, my research assistant and I were able to get a couple of good looks at the shark’s pelvic region, and I go some left-side id shots to send in to the ecocean database. It wasn't a very long encounter, maybe 2 minutes, and when the shark dove, we swam back to the boat.

It turns out that while Ritsert and I had gotten some nice view of the shark, our guests only barely saw him. Sometimes, even when you're diving with a giant fish it takes practice to see him. Also, jumping off the back of a moving boat, and swimming through the white bubbles of the jet wash (Neptune is a jet drive boat -- no spinning propeller blades) it can be hard to know where to look. I must admit, my 3 foot long freediving fins help quite a bit for catching up with the sharks, though, so I often get a chance to see the animals before the guests do.

We got another opportunity to get in with this shark about 10 minutes later. It was really easy to get everyone into and out of the water, since there were only 4 of us. This time the animal was about 10 meters from the boat, but turned around and swam towards us after we got in. He checked us out while I took pictures, and this time everyone saw him, but after taking a look, the shark decided it was time to go and swam under us on the way down to the depths.

Back in the boat with big smiles all around, we agreed with Lil' Willie to go look at the other boil, which was now about a quater mile away. Once there, we quickly saw a shark -- the shadow, the tailfin, and we slipped into the water, with a slightly smaller shark than the first one we saw -- just coming down out from a vertical feeding position. This guy was cute and curious -- swimming around us with his mouth open, feeding and obviously not afraid as we hung out fro about 7 minutes -- with my camera stuck on continuous shot, I got a about 100 pictures, plenty of id shots for ecocean, too.

After that we were just stoked, and could have gone home content, but Willie prevailed upon us to try one more time, and it's hard to say no to swimming with a whale shark, especially one as friendly as this one. Plus, I had noticed a scar on this guy's tail, which I wanted to photograph -- I didn't know if I had gotten any good tail shots on the last jump. So we did. This time the shark probably circled us about 4 times, giving us inquisitive looks and sniffs while passing by feeding. There were fish everywhere! He was being followed by a school of blackfin tuna, and had little blue fish streaming by his mouth in rivers. It was fantastic. And we barely had to swim anywhere, as he kept coming back. Eventually I had all the photos I needed and was able o just relax and witness. This encounter lasted about 10 minutes.

When we returned to land, we rushed back to the WSORC office to look at the photos, and it was apparent even to the naked eye that the spot patterns on the two sharks were distinct -- Two different sharks! In the middle of June! It was fantastic. I crowed about it, well, not too much, all evening.

And people talk -- I heard that the next morning there were 5 or six dive boats out by Raggedy Cay, swimming with a whale shark. We planned to go out that afternoon, though unfortunately our guests for the afternoon never showed, thus preventing us from covering the costs of captain and fuel. Still, we felt somewhat reassured that that we saw the sharks the day before, and had the opportunity to id them and report them to ecocean, although there were also reports of an oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) swimming in the boil as well -- and I would LOVE to swim with one of them.

Interestingly enough, the following week, when we heard back from ecocean about the sharks we reported, not only did they confirm the two we saw on June 18th as two distinct and previously unidentified sharks, neither one of them was the shark reported on June 19th -- who had been previously spotted in Belize a month prior.

Fascinating animals, and so much we still don't know about what they're doing. Once thing we do know, though, is that they surprise and inspire us every time, and that they have been seen every month this year, so far. Just waiting for July's...

--Bryan Becker, Director of Research, WSORC, the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center,
Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

Friday, April 25, 2008

The show-off gorgeous whale shark is back again!

I have just seen that H-049 has just been seen again off of Utila. We saw him last year in mid April and he did a wonderful job of forcing the manta out of the way so that he could pose for us in the crystal-clear turquoise water. He certainly was not a very big shark but he made up for it in charm. We got some great photos, and our friend Rob Allen got some lovely shots of us tagging the shark. So, he was officially dubbed U625. Unfortunately, it seems he has a particularly well developed ability to shed foreign materials and he now has no sign that he ever carried a tag. Take a look at the photos on ecocean and tell me if you can see any sign of the tag (at the left base of the dorsal).

Happy sharking!
Dale Forbes

Monday, April 14, 2008

Manta Rays

So far, this year has not been the greatest when it comes to whale sharks visiting Utila. I wonder where they are. I presume it has something to do with ocean currents and their effect on ephemeral upwellings and plankton populations.

But, Simon Pierce, an Australian friend of ours working in Mozambique (and his associates there) are interested in manta rays. If you have any photos of manta rays from the Caribbean and would not mind sharing them with very interested scientists, then please please pretty please contact us!

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Tribute to Big Jim

It has been almost a year since we lost our founding father and source of inspiration. Jim Engel will always be remembered in our hearts and in how we live our lives.

Around the time of Jim's passing, there was a rather outstanding whale shark around Utila. It is hard to explain why this shark was so outstanding but every time I had the honour of seeing him, he made a dramatic impression on me. At the very end of March 2007, we had some incredible swims with him about 7 miles off to the south east of Utila. And it was his dramatic presence in the water that struck me most. Whale Sharks are all awe-inspiring. I have never seen one that was not incredible. But after hundreds of swims with sharks, it takes something special to make a shark really stand out. Excuse my waffling, but it is really hard to pin down exactly why this shark stood out. But, my pictures from the day tell of a beautiful, graceful creature that seemed to fill the water with a dramatic presence. And then he was gone.

In April 2007 we had a slew of encounters with whale sharks - we just seemed to be seeing them everywhere! One of our regulars was shark tagged U622 (ecocean H-047) who I swam with five days in a row. I was the only person in the water when I tagged this young shark, and after successfully placing the tag, he hung about me (often within 5m) for a good few minutes; circling me the going a little further away, coming back and slowing down. almost motionless, as he hung in the water beside me. calmly looking in to my eyes.

And on one particular day, we had swum with U622 a good number of times when we found a much bigger shark cruising the outer edges of a larger boil. The captain cut the engine and we drifted into the boil looking for him again. At the last minute we saw the shark coming towards the bow of the "Tiburon" and the group slid quickly in to the water at the stern. When I got in at the ship's starboard, I saw nothing so I ducked my head under the boat and looked forward. And suddenly he was there. He seemed like a giant as he came directly towards me. I froze. (and was admittedly a little concerned I may be squashed up against the boat). I was stunned by his presence. And almost forgot to take a photo. And didn't even realise that he was too close for the photo to be useful.

We saw this same shark a few times that day, and every time I was in the water with him, I was impressed. He had a huge presence and [self confidence]. And he inspired a sense of awe. But he was certainly hard to take photos of!

Looking back now, I feel a spiritual kinship between this lovely shark and Jim Engel. No wonder that we had named the one after the other. He became known as Big Jim. A fitting name, and a fitting tribute.

Big Jim (formally known as tag U629 and ecocean H-016) has been seen a number of time this year already. It seems the spirit of Jim Engel is still with us and we can continue to take hope and inspiration from his presence in the waters that he loved so dearly.

Please feel free to add your comments or insights, or if you have something that you would like us to write about, then pray tell.

Dale Forbes

Monday, January 21, 2008

Swimming with Whale Sharks

...a tribute to the gentle giants

To see a whale shark has got to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life. And every time I see one I am filled with a range of emotions: Awe, excitement, wonder. These are definitely some of the most obvious ones. But there are some others that surface; respect, humility. I believe that being in the presence of whale sharks has allowed me to feel a little bit of the whale shark’s spirit, and for a long time I grappled with words to try to describe what I was feeling inside. They don’t have the skittishness of a mako shark, nor do they have the exuberance of dolphins or the sheer grandeur and power of the baleen whales, but there is something there when you look deep into their eyes. A kind of intelligence, maybe? A deeper understanding of the world? And as I swam with more of these incredible beings, I was able to understand and appreciate them even more. Their gentleness and the soft look in their eyes remind me of a meditative monk walking along a forest path. Soothed by the sounds of the forest, but undistracted by the monkeys moving in the trees above. Heavenly thoughts fill the monk’s being. But every so often he comes across a group of loud party-lovers. So, he diverts his path back to the tranquility of the deep forest. The whale sharks may not always show their speed or power but it is an incredible experience to see them drift by in their quiet meditation. Unfortunately, every so often, a group of loud party-lovers splash into the water and charge off towards our gentle giant forcing him to take refuge.

And so I try to tell as many people as possible about my two golden rules for swimming with whale sharks. The first is don’t splash. People only get into the water off the swim platform (never the sides of the boat) and slide into the water. When we are in the water, I ask people to try keeping their fins in the water, especially when swimming quickly. I have also noticed that if even one person in the group uses their arms to swim (free-style), the shark will be scared away. The second golden rule is that if the shark can see you, freeze! (even if it is 60ft away). This may not be intuitively obvious because people want to get as close to these awesome creatures as possible. My behavioral studies have shown that if people are in front of or alongside the shark and are moving, the shark is more likely to flee. Instead, what we do is if the shark is facing us or swimming by, we all bob in the water motionless (okay, you can breathe and press the camera shutter release). We emphasize the idea of everyone being calm and moving slowly in the water.

Now that we have learnt these simple lessons, our encounters with the whale sharks have become so much longer and infinitely more awe inspiring. I couldn’t even tell you how many times we have had nice, long, relaxed swims with whale sharks that came to investigate the strange group of [monkeys] in the water. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, anything is possible if everyone is calm, doesn’t splash, and remains motionless when the whale shark can see them. So these are some of the things that the quiet monks of the sea have taught me. It has been an honor and a privilege to have worked with them. And for all that which these incredible creatures give us, all that they ask for in return is respect, kindness, and tranquility. Let’s show them we can do it.

this is a copy of an article originally published in the Utila East Wind in July 2007

Monday, January 14, 2008

More news on the Curvier's Beaked Whale on Utila

I have just heard that the whale that was anchored on the Hallibourton was not there the following day. Nobody is quite sure if it was a creature from the deep or if it was a diver that cut the carcass free. I believe that there are still a lot of sharks in the deep waters around the island but because of massive fishing pressure, they are understandably weary. A little sad that we wont be able to monitor the whale's decomposition. Sadder still is the obvious, that the whales were found dead and not frolicking in the ocean. At the very least, a whole pile of people from the island got to learn a little more about the ocean and the creatures in it.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

When Death Brings Life

- by Dr Rob Davis (WSORC Director)
It is the first week of January 2008 and another beautiful day has begun on the Bay Island of Utila.

While working at the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center (WSORC), I get a call that a whale was found beached in East Harbor – this was the second whale found beached on the shores of Utila in three days, the first was discovered January 3, 2008. Both whales were examined by WSORC and were positively identified as “Cuvier’s Beaked Whales” (also known as “Goose Beaked Whales,” or Zifius cavirostris) by our colleague, Paula Mendez, of Vigo, Spain.

First Whale

On January 3, 2008, an adult female Cuvier’s Beaked Whale washed up on shore at Champas Beach. She was 17-feet long and approximately 3,000lb. Once the necropsy had been completed she was towed out to sea.

Second Whale

On January 5, 2008, a second beaked whale washed up on shore two days later and approximately one-half mile from where the first beaked whale was discovered.

The second whale was 11-feet long and approximately 1,000 pounds (460 kilos). Due to the close proximately and time frame from where both whales were discovered, it was determined this was the calf of the first whale.

Physical signs confirmed the calf was a male. His coloring was light gray on the ventral area with a darker gray on the dorsum; there were many large lacerations that developed post mortem. Like the female whale, the calf also had a small head and beak but no teeth were present. There was a depression located just behind the blowhole. There were small pectoral fins, a small dorsal fin approximately two-thirds down the body, and a large fluke with rounded tips that was similar to the female whale.


A necropsy was performed on both whales by Dr. Loretta Potts, assisted by Dr. Rob Davis, Rodger Mehrer and Bryan Becker of WSORC. Samples of tissues and organs were taken and processed at WSORC laboratory for shipment to other laboratories for further examination.

What was found in the stomachs of each whale was rather concerning. The adult female’s stomach had squid beaks; however, it also had wood and plastic objects. The calf had more normal food in the process of being digested; however, it too had plastic material in its second stomach.

Burial at Sea

Rather than towing the male calf out to sea, WSORC decided to anchor the calf at depth for observation. It was decided to bury the calf at sea, not only for observation, but to provide the natural cycle of life and death at sea. By allowing the calf to decompose at sea, it would provide nutrients and life to other sea life.

The wreck of the Halliburton was selected because it sits in 100 feet of water and is located just outside the harbor. A dive team organized to develop a plan to remove, transport and submerge the calf.

The dive team consisted of Dr. Rob Davis and Bryan Becker from WSORC and Adam Clarke from the Bay Island College of Diving (BICD). Utila Lodge provided a boat with crew (Willie Waterhouse Jr. served as boat captain and Jose Romoan crew. The boat used to pull the calf off the beach and tow it to the mooring site was a 30-foot doray with a 200-horsepower engine.

The dive plan was to tether the calf to the bow’s anchor chain at a depth of 95 feet. There were many concerns about the safety of the operation. The dive team would be working at depth and did not know how long it would take to haul the calf to the mooring site. It would also be an effort to get the calf in position at depth and would cause greater air consumption than normal, thus, a reduced amount of bottom time; it was determined that bottom time would be 15-minutes with single aluminum 80s with 3,000 pounds of compressed air.

There was also a concern not to get tangled in the ropes and lines. A short, nylon line was attached to the calf’s fluke and used to secure the calf to the anchor chain. A 120-foot rope was tied to the nylon line and used to haul the carcass to depth.

Dive Operation

Rob Davis and Adam Clarke were the primary divers with Bryan Becker serving as the safety officer and photographer. Rob proceeded to depth and Adam brought him the end of the rope. Rob secured the rope around the anchor chain by propping his fins on the chain for leverage; Adam would pull down on the rope as Rob took up the slack and hold the rope in place. Bryan monitored the progress four feet away and insured neither Rob or Adam got tangled in the ropes; Bryan also monitored bottom time and air consumption.

The seas had two-foot swells and the visibility was approximately 15 feet . The divers back rolled out of the boat and began their descent. The calf floated on the surface as the divers took the haul line down to depth (100 feet). Once on the bottom, both divers began to pull the calf down which took effort at first. Once the calf was at 30-feet, it became easier and the divers were able to bring it to the mooring location with relative ease as the depth compressed the calf’s body.

Once the calf was at depth, the divers attached the nylon line around the calf’s fluke and onto the anchor chain – the haul rope was then released and the secured calf was floating nose up. With the operation complete, the divers began their slow ascent to the surface careful not to get tangled to the rope. After their safety stop they surfaced and handed the nylon rope to the crew, then passed our gear up to the crew and scampered back onto the boat.

Due to each diver’s experience and developing the dive plan, the task to submerge and secure the calf to the anchor chain was completed in 22 minutes and did not require a second dive.

Future Observations

This operation will provide interesting dives over the next few days. Recreational divers will be able to observe the interaction of sea critters that will visit the submerged calf. The scientific community will also be able to observe, photograph and evaluate what transpires as the calf decomposes.

WSORC thanks all those who assisted in the necropsy, sample processing and evaluation, and the dive operation. I am sure that even though this may be rare to happen often in any one location, it may be a common event throughout the world.

Future Certifications – What do you think!

Consideration should be given to consider the development of a certification program for the transporting/submerging of marine cadavers and also for observing, documenting and evaluating the decomposition of such submerged whales.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Moving on

well, I suppose some of you might have been wondering why I suddenly stopped posting about the lovely creatures of Utila (my Utila diving video part 1, part 2). The truth is, my calling took me back to my homeland (they say you can take the monkey out of Africa but you can't take Africa out of the monkey). After four years in lovely Central America, it was time to return to my family and friends. And it was sooo amazing to be back! We saw tons of whales, got to dive with tiger sharks (see video), raggies, blacktips..., saw leopards up close, walked in the mountains, and saw the sun rise over the Indian Ocean.
But best of all, Barbara and I got married! A small ceremony in my university town, followed by a picnic in the botanical gardens, evening cocktails overlooking the ocean, and dinner not 1m from 10ft raggedtoothed sharks! The perfect day.

But, I will, hopefully, be getting regular updates from the WSORC guys on Utila so I can re-start the blog (and get to talk a little more about Caribbean diving, scuba, photography, mantas and most of all, the whale sharks!)

If you wanna keep abreast with what I am doing now, check out my new birding blog: Discovering alpine birds

Friday, April 27, 2007

Lots and lots of sharks about

It has been lovely to have lots of whale sharks about, it feels like everywhere we have looked, we've found tuna boils, mantas and whale sharks. One day that stands out was Friday 20th April. Within half an hour of going out, we found a small tuna boil. A quick flick of a tail fin meant that there was a shark there. Feverish anticipation.

But slowly, we slid in to the water and were greeted by a shark approaching us from 30m (100ft) away. Nice gentle swim-by - showing off his colours! But it soon became abundantly obvious that taking photos was going to be a massive challenge - there may not have been that many tuna about but the water was thick with plankton (not that common of a sight here). And even more incredible was the sheer numbers of small minnows: hectares and hectares of 2inch long fish! I had never seen anything like it here. Of course, this is what the whale sharks were feeding on.

Getting back on the boat, we suddenly heard the water explode! More splashes. Not little plops like the tuna, but much larger eruptions. MANTAS!!!
Swimming out we found one. Gently cruising along, sieving the water. Oh, but wait, isn't that another one? And another? ... Five beautiful mantas swimming together! And every now and again - just to show off - they would rise rapidly to the surface and 'porpoise', leaping from the water. They appeared to be feeding on the minnows right at the surface (along with the hungry tuna and terns). I still think they were just showing off.

A little later...
With our group hanging motionless in the water...
The inquisitive whale shark came to investigate these strange creatures in the water. Approaching the group directly, this gentle giant slowly swam around the group - looking each an everyone of these strange creatures in the eye.

I wonder if he thought there was intelligent life there?

Lots of happy people and another lovely day on the water!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Photographing this elusive creature of the deep

And suddenly the sharks were back. We have had a stunning week with sharks seen every day.

I took this photo on Friday afternoon. It was a windy, rainy and choppy afternoon but we stuck through it only to be teased by numerous 'simmers' - little boils that come up quickly and disappear just as quickly. Nevertheless, lady luck shone down on us and we saw three whale sharks. I love this image:

It really gives an impression of how impressive their huge tails are. 2 metres high!!! Wow. Formidable.

Taking photographs of the whale sharks has proved to be surprisingly challenging. Rather hit and miss actually. Alot depends on the amount of plankton in the water - the more plankton, the more food for the sharks, but also, the more backscatter and disturbance in the image.
One trick that has worked well for me is to hold the camera at least a foot below the surface of the water. Just below the surface is generally where the plankton is at its most dense and photos taken from just a little deeper will often produce great rewards. In the image to the left, you can see the effects of plankton backscatter. You can also see how dense the plankton is near the surface alongside the shark. Hold the camera just a little lower and the photo comes out like this:

There is no need to dive down to take great images of whale sharks. In fact, most of my favorite images were taken at the surface. Being at the surface, the lighting is always great - so your photos come out with more brilliance and I find that snorkelers at the surface disturb the sharks alot less than breath-hold divers.

In our next post, I'll talk a little more about whale shark photography. Any questions? Send me a comment. Happy Sharking!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

They're Back!!!

After way too long without sharks, they have finally come back in force!
And have been seen every morning and afternoon for the past four days.

Whenever we go out looking for sharks, I always tell the people on the boat that there are two golden rules for interacting with whale sharks. For such a large creature, they are remarkably skittish. A whole group of snorkelers jumping into the water is often plenty to send the shark off into deeper waters.

Golden rule number one: Don't splash.
We slide into the water, keep our fin strokes in the water, and never, never, use our arms to swim (the last point is a sure way to get the sharks to dive).

Golden rule number two: If the shark can see you: FREEZE
We always try to stay at least 10ft from the shark (13ft from the tail) but what we have found is that if the shark can see people then it is much more disturbed by movement than by proximity. So when we are in the water, the whole group freezes whenever there is a shark nearby.It is remarkable how well these encounter guidelines work. On Monday we had a seies of incredible encounters with whale sharks where, after a couple of swims, the shark got accustomed to us and started to approach us and investigate us. WOW. This type of encounter minimises our disturbance of the shark and certainly makes for life-changing encounters.

Having said all of this, it is important that I emphasise just how special such encounters are. We never harass the whale sharks and we never let people swim up close to the sharks. If you have the honour of having one of these beautiful animals approach you, please remember to respect it and treat it like a wild animal: don't reach out to touch it and allow it to swim away when it moves off.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

3 long weeks...

Yup, it has been three very long weeks since we've seen whale sharks. But we keep on heading out there to try our luck. One great thing is that there is always something to see in the oceans (the eternal optimist). A few days ago we were on our way out to go look for some sharks with the Shark Research Institute and we came across a lovely pod of Roughtooth Dolphins! They were really interested in us and hung around our group for a good hour: darting in and out of the snorkelers. One individual was particularly inquisitive and spent a long while within arms reach of the snorkelers. Credit to the group, no one actually touched the dolphins but the experience was incredible.

If you have an interest in the environment of Utila, check out our local newspaper, either in print or on line

or check out the website of the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center:

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The sun is shining...

...the weather is sweet.

it makes me want to move

my dancing feet

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Making hay while the sun shines

Yup, we are definately in rainy season. Clouds and rains blows through most every day. But when the sun does come out, we really try to take advantage of it!
A brief respite in the weather was met with the Neptune (the 41ft jet-drive boat) heading off into the wide blue oceans.
And the ocean's response: two whale sharks!

And a whole pile of hyperactive spinner dolphins that came in to join the festivities.

Visit us at the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center, Utila

(our offices are next to the fire station - the big building with the whale shark picture out front)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Whale Sharks around…still

Everybody knows that Utila is famous for Whale Sharks and those that have been around for a while will tell you that they are mainly seen February – April, and September with a few sticking around into October. This year has been a little different. These elusive giants of the ocean were nowhere to be seen in September and we were starting to get a little nervous as to where they were.

October rolled around and suddenly there were Whale Sharks everywhere! Every time we went out looking for them we found them and there were boils forming all over the place. That really got my researcher’s excitement piqued so we took full advantage of it. One particular afternoon stands out. We repeatedly came across a seven meter Whale Shark with a shiny yellow tag from Mexico. The shark was not shy at all and when I was hovering in the water by myself (collecting feeding data) the shark approached me and appeared to be ‘checking me out’.

It turns out that the shark was tagged in North Cabo Catoche, Mexico, in August this year and had evidently just made the migration down to Utila after the Mexican plankton season. The other interesting thing about this shark was that his right pectoral fin appeared to have been bitten off: instead of a 60-70cm long fin, his fin was only about 25cm long! And the scar was in the shape of a great big bite. It seems that somewhere on his long journeys he must have run in to some pretty hungry mouths.

On the same day, we also had the good fortune of seeing a Whale Shark tagged right here in Utila in February 2005. By the end of the trip, we had collected data on four different Whale Sharks and had more than a dozen swims with them.

Early November I left the island for a couple of weeks to attend an international biologists’ congress and I thought that by the time I returned, most of the Whale Sharks would already have left. However, much to our surprise, there were still lots of sharks about. This provided the perfect platform for extending and developing our research initiatives.

In mid-November, a group of seven experienced biologists from Florida joined us to learn more about Whale Sharks and to help brainstorm ideas for research methodology and approaches. Consequently, we were able to improve on our research design and have a whole pile of fun whilst doing it!

Something that concerns everyone on our research team is that a large number of the Whale Sharks we see in the waters around Utila have propeller damage and one of the sharks even had a completely missing dorsal fin. It is critically important to our sharks that boats travel slowly when near tuna boils. If they don’t, we will be threatening one of Utila’s greatest resources.
I leave you with a photo taken from San Marcos de Atitlan, in the volcanic highlands of Guatemala. A world of meditation, silence and beauty.

Friday, September 29, 2006

A week of whale sharks (and other great stuff)

So, I finally got around to creating a blog...

And what a great week to start. Bottlenose Dolphins, Spinner Dolphins, Manta Rays, Blue Marlins, millions of Common Terns, and, best of all, a good few Whale Sharks. I thought that the slow season would mean that there would be more time to relax and chill out but, so far, it has been packed with incredible happenings, and I am beginning to suspect that no-one ever told the ocean that it was supposed to be quieter and less interesting at this time of year.

Well, lucky for us, the ocean has refused to become boring. And stuff is happening everywhere!

I came to the island 5 months ago, specifically to study the Whale Shark and now, with more and more of these lovely creatures making their appearance, our research is really starting to step up a notch. With the support of Kelly (a fellow scientist), Oscar (design) & Barbara (education), the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center is determined to establish Utila as a major center for marine research and education.

Besides my research interests, I also get to share my passion for corals, fish and other marine life in PADI specialty courses. These include Fish & Coral ID, Coral Reef Conservation, Digital Underwater Naturalist and Underwater Naturalist. All these over and above the Whale Shark Awareness and Whale Shark Research courses!

Well, there is tons of fun to have here in Utila, so if you have never been here before, now is a great time to visit!

To all of my friends from home, here is a photo of the mountains I love so dearly. They remind me of you all!