Friday, June 27, 2008

Shark Studies in Fiji

Winter has finally arrived along with balmy breezes and fabulous visibility - and our junior staff have suddenly turned on their very best behavior and sharkiest smiles.

Yes, Academic Treks' yearly gaggle of junior Shark aficionados have descended upon Pacific Harbour and Andrew is bracing himself for the usual mixture of adventure, charm, chaos, giggles and broken hearts.
May the Fun begin!

But seriously, welcoming a group like that could not be more rewarding.

When James, our senior Staff and I decided to embark upon this wonderful adventure called BAD in 2004, we agreed that our Project was to hinge on: Conservation, via the establishment of several Marine Protected Areas like Shark Reef Marine Reserve, the Fiji Shark Corridor and very soon, Combe Marine Reserve; Sustainable Tourism, via the direct involvement of the local Community and direct village payments to the tune of more than 30,000.00 dollars each year; Shark Research, by providing for the logistics and access to an ideal location allowing for largely uniform, predictable and safe encounters.

And Education.
In that regard, nothing quite matches the satisfaction of being allowed to transmit our love and awe of the Marine Environment to the next generation.

Locally, we try to achieve this via our Village Project where we train up, and hopefully then employ, three young prospects each year. Our Watisoni, Tubi and Peni are of chiefly stock and will once become leaders in their villages; Lo and Sivo are the daughter and son of native fishermen. All of them have already had a huge impact in their villages, by changing perceptions and helping to convince their communities that sustaining our Conservation efforts is in their very own best interest.

On the client side, we believe that anybody experiencing our Shark Dive will already leave with a new understanding and respect for those magnificent animals, this completely without the need for overzealous brainwashing from our side. For the more motivated, we also run special Shark Weeks where a select few can interact with scientists and contribute to their research.

Academic Treks' Shark Studies however go well beyond that, and we're proud in having been able to play a role in the development of the curriculum. On top of the fantastic diving and active participation in our ongoing research and conservation projects, it encompasses lectures in Shark Biology, Ecology and Conservation, but also village visits, cultural immersion and a great deal of sightseeing, relaxation and pure and simple fun. After last year's successful pilot project, the current program is already off to a great start.

Curious? If so, you may want to vicariously follow the kids' latest adventures through their daily web journal (click here for SS21) and check out their Fiji video.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Shark Diving in the Med?

Whilst researching the previous post, I came across the above picture on, of all sites, Wikipedia's trusted Tiger Shark page, where it has replaced our very own Scarface.
A Tiger Shark in Antalya, Kaş - Turkey, as the caption implies? Maybe feeding on the rare Mediterranean Monk Seals, the World's rarest Pinniped, that frequent the area? But then, what about the small blue-and-yellow fish: Yellowtail Snappers? In the Med?
Yeah, right.......

That reminds me of this spectacular picture (click to enlarge), taken by my friends Pascal and Denis deep down in Tiputa Pass in Rangiroa. Remember the very similar cover shot on Michael Aw's Australasia Scuba Diver? Now, it hangs in a Fijian dive shop and clients are being assured that is was taken on a local dive. Not so.

But despite the obvious hoax above, Turkey is still well worth considering.
Every June, Boncuk Bay becomes a nursing area for Sandbar Sharks. No, Fatma, they don't "lay eggs" (they are viviparous), but they can be easily observed even on snorkel. And if you're really lucky, you may even stumble upon Eleonora de Sabata, Italy's own Shark Lady, and contribute to her ongoing research project, like you contribute to Shark Conservation when visiting our Shark Reef Marine Reserve.

And then, there's ........... Lebanon!
Lebanon, I hear you ask? Why on Earth would anybody want to go diving in THAT place???

Because of Odontaspis ferox.
Remember Malpelo's infamous Inzan Tiger and its "Tiger Ragged Tooth Shark", a "cross between a Raggie and a Great White"?
Well, it appears that you now have a choice: strap on your tech gear (or be outright stupid), brave Malpelo's treacherous currents and multiple thermoclines and dash down to 200 feet, only to spot nada de nada on El Bajo del Monstruo - or, strap on your bulletproof vest and head straight to equally infamous Beirut, where you may be able to spot some Smalltooth Sand Tigers at a place called Shark Point between July and September.
Decisions, Decisions...........

Anyway, plenty of links to check out!

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Rome: A new scientific study funded in part by the Lenfest Ocean Program has concluded that all shark species assessed in the Mediterranean Sea have declined by more than 97 percent in abundance and “catch weight” over the last 200 years.
The findings of the study, Loss of large predatory sharks from the Mediterranean Sea, published in the journal Conservation Biology, suggest several Mediterranean shark species are at risk of extinction, especially if current levels of fishing pressure continue. There used to be 47 species of Shark in the Mediterranean, of which 20 were considered "top predators". Now, some of the big Sharks are virtually extinct.

Hammerhead Sharks have declined the fastest, with no recorded sightings in the Mediterranean since 1995. Hammerheads are estimated to have declined by 99.99%
Blue Sharks have declined by 96.53% in abundance and by by 99.83% in biomass in the last 50 years, with the steepest decline in the waters around Spain
The two Mackerel Sharks (Porbeagle and Shortfin Mako) have declined by more than 99.99% in both abundance and biomass over the last 100 years.
Thresher Sharks are the only species detected in coastal waters in recent times. Threshers have nonetheless declined by more than 99.99% over the last 100 years.
"Usually at the apex of trophic chains, large sharks are expected to play an important role in the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems .
Thus, the decline of large sharks may have marked ecological consequences. In the Gulf of Mexico predator and competitor release effects have been evident after the depletion of large sharks . In the northwestern Atlantic the decline of great sharks from coastal ecosystems has triggered a trophic cascade that collapsed a century-old fishery for bay scallops. Moreover, food-web models from the Caribbean suggest that large predatory sharks are among the most strongly interacting species, and that their overfishing may have caused trophic cascades that contributed to the degradation of Caribbean ecosystems ."

"Our analysis, combined with previously published information, indicates that the Mediterranean Sea is losing a wide range of its predator species. In addition to large predatory sharks, cetaceans, pinnipeds, turtles, and large bony fishes have declined similarly.
The wider ecosystem consequences remain to be investigated. Nevertheless, in various other systems, it has been demonstrated that predators can play an important role in structuring communities by controlling prey populations and preventing ecological dominance. Losing top predators can induce strong increases in midlevel consumers, shifts in species interactions, and trophic cascades."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bon Appetit?

Commercial Shark Diving is quickly morphing into a global industry and as always in such cases, the transition doesn't come easy.

Whereas the anti-Shark-diving lobby, scientific and not, continues to successfully pester us with their allegations, we just seem to be unable to get our act together, circle the wagons and mount a credible common defense.

Granted, selling Sharks to the public at large will always be a challenge.
The opposition's arguments feed on our primeval fears and convey the illusion of intuitive plausibility. Very hard to refute as in order to do so, we would need hard and unequivocal scientific data. And those are so far lacking. Having said this, I know of at least two papers, one from South Africa and one from Australia, that postulate that what we do has no discernible behavioral consequences. Actually, make it three, as Juerg's recent research on Shark Reef may well come to the same conclusions.

I'm thus highly confident that in the end, people will come to realize that our large predatory Sharks are just as fascinating and worth protecting as any other alpha predator. It has taken decades of dedicated research and marketing to dispel the myth that wolves, grizzly bears, lions and tigers are nothing more than man-hunting vermin that needs to be eradicated, so I guess we must be patient and persevere.
Let's just hope that by then, it won't be too late.

The real challenge right now however seems to be our incapacity to work together.
Keep in mind that until quite recently, diving was considered a dangerous sport reserved for the passionate few. The Shark Diving pioneers were regarded as, and probably were, a special breed of entirely self-taught, adventuresome, thrill-seeking and death-defying macho warriors and equally intrepid amazons and were consequently accorded Hero status.
Talk about an eclectic collection of unique and charismatic individuals with strong opinions and huge egos!

But now, Shark Diving has gone mainstream and is firmly nested within the entertainment industry. As in: I shall pay for a trip to Guadalupe Island and I shall see Great White Sharks - or else!
In the process, the original Heroes are gradually being replaced by media-savvy, nimble and business-minded service providers. Personality cult is being replaced by client service. Adventure and discovery, by interactive and notabene, guaranteed ecological encounters. Roughing it out on the High Seas, by aircon, en suite bathrooms and warm towels. Individuality, by the need for a uniform global product. And alas, sometimes, excitement by bored indifference.

On top of the historical and ever-present personal animosity between the original silverbacks, this has created substantial resentment against what is perceived as a territorial invasion by parasitic upstarts. Having been at the receiving end, but also, having had to dish out my fair share of aggro myself, I know what I'm talking about.

Thus, to finally make my point, getting everybody to sit at the same table, to share our passion, experiences, visions and research in order to devise a common approach supported by unified procedures remains a gargantuan challenge. Once again, we will have to be patient and persevere.

Plus, there is the cultural gap - we may all be one species but sometimes, one has to wonder.

I didn't quite think about that particular aspect until presented with the shocking document below.
It depicts my European friends Juerg and charming Marlen desperately trying to wean Gary Adkison, one of our Heroes, off his addiction to Kraft cheese spread and other all-American junk delicacies. To witness, Juerg is displaying a beautifully ripened original Brie de Meaux and Marlen has obviously contributed a lovingly arranged and simply delicious Assiette de Fromages.

As to Gary - well, what can I say.

Anyway, a belated Bon Appetit - or whatever.
We shall be patient and persevere........

Monday, June 09, 2008

Great Whites: Socially Sophisticated and Smart

Have you ever looked at the Shark pages of Underwater Times?

Quite an experience!

I was expecting the usual assortment of gore, sensationalism, stupidity (culminating in "Shark attacks boy in his bedroom") and half-baked punditry - so imagine my joy and surprise at finding this fabulous article about Great Whites!

Well written and well researched, it finally depicts this iconic animal as what it really is: an awesome apex predator, exquisitely adapted to its environment and featuring the very same traits that we've finally learned to admire in our big cats and bears.
Among many other things, we learn that the Great White's "reputation as a ruthless, mindless man-eater is undeserved. In the past decade, ..... Shark experts have come to realize that Sharks rarely hunt humans—and that the beasts are sociable and curious. Unlike most fish, White Sharks are intelligent, highly inquisitive creatures."

These findings dovetail perfectly with what we're learning from interacting with our big Bull Sharks and Tigers on The Shark Dive here in Fiji - all very intriguing and exciting indeed!

Great journalism and required reading - and kudos to Paul Raffaele for a job very well done!