Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The same old Allegations

As so often, the Shark Divers have started a thread and I would like to pick it up as follows.

Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa is a respectable institution and their Trademark, a coveted distinction for Tourism operators of that country. Among many other things, it implies that the people whose land, natural resources, labour, knowledge and culture are used for Tourism activities, actually benefit from Tourism.
Sound familiar?
Look now further than the Shark Reef Marine Reserve Project with its holistic approach to Conservation.

FTTA have decided to look into Shark Tourism in South Africa and have published this important position paper on the matter.
Before I unleash, let me categorically state that it is a good one: balanced, fair, unbiased, pragmatic, it explores the full scope of the issues at hand and draws the right conclusions. FTTA are the first ones to admit that they are no experts in Shark Tourism and carefully avoid taking any positions with respect to the usual controversies.
This of course is the way it should be and they need to be commended for that approach.

And yet, the usual allegations raise their ugly head unchallenged.

Let me try and sum up the current state of affairs, at least how most of us in the Shark Diving Industry see it. Yes I've already blogged about it but if left unanswered, these allegations will, and have already developed into Urban Legends, and then, the "Truth".
It's all about memetic Evolution - check it out, fascinating.

But first, lets get rid of the question whether Shark diving increases the risk of Shark incidents.
Yes of course it does!
And so does swimming, surfing, spear fishing, whatever!
The simple reason for that is that Shark incidents have one precondition: Sharks and people have to be in the same place at the same time, that place being the Ocean. Equally obvious is the fact that there will be some correlation between the number of people frequenting the Sea and the number of incidents - thus, any increase in people implies an increase in risk.
This is so trivial, it is painful!

What to do?
Well, how about looking at the airline industry: aviation increases the risk of plane crashes (Hellooo.....). Confronted with such mind-boggling insights, do we run and close down the industry? Or, do we instead require that commercial airline operators conform to the strictest safety procedures possible?
This is precisely what has to be asked from us. And let me re-iterate that safety procedures will always remain species- and situation-specific and will always imply a judgment call by the operator.

Now, to the actual debate, this in order of increasing complexity.

Yes, many of us do use bait to attract the Sharks.
Although Shark diving in unbaited conditions is certainly possible, predictable encounters can only be expected where the species are resident (or maybe, territorial) - as in Grey Reefs and Silvertips; or, where the lay of the land, or special conditions aggregate the Sharks - as on the sea mounts in the eastern Pacific, during the yearly congregations of Whale Sharks in the Caribbean and Australia or at the cleaning stations of Thresher Sharks in the Philippines.
Other than that, one is left to the vagaries of chance encounters : great when conducting coral dives but just not quite good enough to justify mounting a commercial operation specifically targeting Sharks.

The issue this raises is that of Conditioning.
By that, one implies that luring in the Sharks will change their behavior - well, again, Yes........... Why otherwise would we bother doing it?
The natural behavior of most Sharks is not to approach divers unless specifically motivated to do so - and that's precisely what we are trying to achieve, to motivate them. Incidentally, in our specific case, we also try to condition our Sharks to follow a uniform and largely predictable routine and to stay away from the clients.

"Best practice" among cage diving operations apparently consists in just teasing, but never actually handing any bait to the Sharks.
Were I a Shark hugger, I would immediately object that letting the Sharks waste precious energy on fruitless "hunts" is to be rejected as it is likely harmful to the animals. But of course, that would be totally besides the point - the point being that common wisdom has it that this will prevent the Sharks from associating humans with food via so-called positive reinforcement. We shall come on to that later.

Apparently, according to the FTTA paper (and news to me), some quarters even contend that just teasing, but never feeding the Sharks could even be regarded as negative conditioning: the frustrated animals will learn to avoid those situations.
Sound plausible to you? Would the cage divers use that technique and bother to schlepp along all that bait if they believed it would eventually chase away the Sharks?

Leaves Conditioning via Positive Reinforcement, the big no-no.
Yes, I confess, this is precisely what we do!
We reward the Sharks whenever they approach, very much in the hopes that over time, more and more of them will turn up for a meal - which of course, being smart Apex Predators, they do!
We do so in order to show them to our clients - as opposed to, as I shall never tire to repeat, Fishermen who do exactly the same thing in order to catch and then kill them.
Get the hint? Who has the way biggest, and most negative impact on the animals? Are we going to abolish fishing as a consequence? I wish!

But now, the saga continues: apparently, feeding the Sharks teaches them to associate humans with food.
It is never said expressis verbis, but the subliminal message is that the so conditioned Sharks will not only associate, no, they will learn to regard humans as food and then start devouring anybody chancing to enter the waters they live in.
All intuitively plausible - but is it really so?
I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Darwinist, so please allow me to cite the Great Man himself: "Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science."

Why "humans"?
If we disregard the bait which is clearly the primary attractant and conditioning factor, is it not fair to assume that the strongest conditioning factor may well be the engine noise? Is it not so that some operators have learned to rev up the boat engines to "ring the dinner bell", and this with great success?
And if so, So What?

The "what" apparently is this.
This kind of signal, or even the mere presence of humans, are supposed to trigger a Pavlovian reflex: the Sharks will become excited, motivated and hungry and this will precipitate the abovementioned nefarious consequences, especially when no food is being offered.

And this is precisely the very point where Intuition is leading to Conjecture and Myth.

Nothing whatsoever, not the objective data about Shark incidents on, or in the vicinity of Shark feeding locations, nor the collective subjective perceptions of all Shark Diving Operators I've ever talked to supports in any way those allegations. This despite the fact that one would expect precisely that to happen, as a result of an increase of potential encounters and thus, risk - remember the first trivial argument?

To make an example, what we experience on our Shark Dive is this.
When we get to Shark Reef, we start by baiting the surface where the Trevallies, Rainbow Runners and Bohars (but never any Shark!) will hit the bait and, we believe, attract the Sharks to the resulting commotion. Upon getting into the water, we may, or may not, see some of our non-resident (at least not at the depth and location where we feed) animals: Tiger Sharks, Bull Sharks, Lemon Sharks and Nurse Sharks.
Have they been attracted by the engine noise? By the action at the surface? By us entering the water? Or did they just happen to be there anyway? Frankly, we don't know - yet. But we're working on it.
During the dive, the numbers of Sharks will increase as we continue feeding the big fish and later, the Sharks themselves. But once we decide to stop the feeding, the Sharks will retreat and disappear within minutes - not get frustrated and attack us in retaliation. This after close to ten years of positive reinforcement.
And when we go to Shark Reef without food, some Sharks may turn up for a quick cursory flyby but then disappear, never to be seen again.

Mind you, the above is merely our perception.
Interestingly enough, having once taken along an anti-feeding advocate and scientist, these very same observations did not dispel, but instead reinforce her reservations. As always, perceptions turn out to be highly subjective.

This can only be resolved by proper scientific research.
Remember the Scientific Method?

To the readers in general: watch this space!

To the colleagues amongst you.
Guys, we're in this together. This nonsense threatens all of us and needs to be stopped. We have the resources, animals, locations and opportunities enabling us to collect the relevant data. This may cost us some time and money, and we may well end up with answers we don't like - but if so, we will learn something new, as we should always be willing , and eager to do.
And we will get even better and safer in the process.

Let's do it - it's the only way forward.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The proper Way

I've recently ranted about frivolous and heartless science and about Shark "experts" proffering ludicrous opinions instead of doing what is to be expected from proper scientists, and that is, to use the Scientific Method:
  • ask Questions
  • make Observations
  • develop a Hypothesis (that is, a theoretical Explanation)
  • make Predictions and then
  • collect, analyze and interpret the necessary Data (that is, the Evidence, often via Experiments) in order to verify or falsify (that is, to test) that Hypothesis.
  • only then, publish the results (as a Model or Theory) and have them re-tested, often by peers.
That is the only acceptable Technique to separate Truth from Belief, Science from Opinion, Superstition, Myth and Religion, fact from fiction, wheat from chaff. Worth keeping in mind when confronted with yet another piece of unproven conjecture.

Apart from "our" very own Juerg and his research on Shark Reef, here are some institutions and individuals who do serious research on the topics of the past rants:

Mexico: Dr Leonardo Castillo from Mexico's National Fisheries Institute has begun equipping thousands of Sharks with satellite, radio and plastic tags to better understand the cause for a recent spate of incidents on the Mexican Pacific Coast. I look forward to his explanations after the results have come in, as it should be. Much more tedious than taking a quick trip to Mexico in order to give a few interviews - but oh so much more credible!

Greenland Sharks: Canada's three Oceans are frequented by up to 41 species of Sharks.
GEERG, the Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group is currently conducting Research on 3 of them, the Greenland, Basking and Blue , and planning research on the four Lamnids Great White, Shortfin Mako, Porbeagle and Salmon Shark. As far as I can discern, no frivolous killing involved.
The Canadian Shark Research Laboratory conducts research on some of the same Sharks, mostly by examining catches by local fishermen.
Both websites are a treasure trove of information, along with a nifty interactive Shark identification key.

And then, there's of course TOPP, the herculean effort of trying to tag, and thus record the movements of the Pacific Predators, be it cetaceans, fish, Sharks, birds or reptiles. It never ceases to intrigue and amaze me, be it by its sheer scope or by the wealth of information it regularly unveils.

Plenty to discover, plenty to learn.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Readers of The Song of the Dodo know that Islands are often homes to very large (as in the Dodo, the largest pigeon, on Mauritius or Dragons on Komodo) or very small animals.

Case in point: the latest herpetological discoveries from the Caribbean.

A small island off the coast of Dominica harbors the World's smallest lizard whilst Barbados, the smallest snake.
So far, that is - as always in science, new discoveries are bound to loom.

Like this one: researchers report the discovery of more than 100,000, hitherto unknown Western Lowland Gorillas (the kind mostly kept in Zoos) from two areas in the northern part of the Congo. Yes, they remain threatened by habitat degradation, the hunt for bush meat and Ebola, but it triplicates the estimates for the species nevertheless.

Alas, no such good news for Sharks.
But still, a good day for anybody interested in Nature.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A good Man

When one is marooned in the Friendly Islands that are currently suffering from acute Coronation Fever, CNN remains the lifeline to what's happening in the world at large.

Imagine my surprise, and delight, when this special report popped up in the middle of a news program.
Well written, filmed and narrated, it features SOSF scientist Alison Kock and her groundbreaking research about Great Whites.
A further episode on Sharks, this time for Planet in Peril and featuring Mark Rutzen, has been announced for December.

Great to see such a piece on mainstream TV - Shark Conservation has sure come a long way! And: he may be CNN's prettyboy, but Anderson Cooper is obviously a good Man.

You can watch the special episode here and a video about the upcoming program here.
And then, there's this slide show by staff photographer Jeff Hutchens - and check out his blog for more amazing images!


I hate Sharks!

This op ed from the Los Angeles Times is a must-read.

As so often, first spotted by the guys over there at Shark Diver.
Not because they're smarter - it's a matter of time zones. At least, that's what I believe.

Nothing to add: just kudos to Joe Queenan for an excellent piece!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

To swim, or not to swim?

That is the Question!

As an aquarist, the following clip never ceases to amaze me.
At first glance, it's just an ordinary scene of a fish tank during feeding time, with some fish skimming the food from the surface and a frenzy of smaller critters scrambling for the sinking leftovers.
But upon closer observation, the surface skimmers turn out to be Whale Sharks and the frantic minnows below, Manta and Eagle Rays, Giant Trevallies and there are even several Giant Groupers like our Ratu Rua and Ratu Tolu!

I have to confess that my knee-jerk reaction upon seeing it for the first time was that of any old-timer elitist. That is, righteous indignation.
How DARE they imprison these wonderful animals, many of which necessitate habitats spanning whole oceans! How DARE they trivialize the magic of encounters for which yours truly had to travel the High Seas and brave the elements for years!

But then, did I raise the same ethical objections upon seeing my first Big Cats and Bears in the Zoo? Many of which equally face extinction or require equally large territories? And how about the Apes, many of which were intelligent enough to grasp, and were clearly unhappy about their captive status?
Of course, I didn't.
I had been, rightfully, sold on the notion that modern Zoos make a valuable contribution by raising the public's awareness of the need for Conservation and often act as repositories, or even breeding stations for the last individuals of particular species.

Could it be the same for such Aquaria?
The answer is unequivocally: Yes it is!
Like most Zoo visitors who will never join a safari, most Aquarium visitors will never learn to dive and this is their only chance to ever witness those animals in person and acquire a special affinity and appreciation for them in the process.

This particular institution, the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan, has been successfully keeping Whale Sharks and Manta Rays since the late 80ies. One of their Whale Sharks has been on display for more than 10 years and recently, they were even able to announce the first-ever captive birth of a Manta Ray. All very convincing, and very impressive indeed!
And let's face it: any contribution to changing the perceptions of the ocean-pillaging Japanese in particular, and Asians in general can only be applauded!

Churaumi's pendant in the western hemisphere, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, houses Whale Sharks, Goliath Groupers and even Great Hammerheads , along with a plethora of smaller fishes. They appear to be very active in Whale Shark Conservation and despite the indignant opposition of the tree-(or is it: algae-?) hugging faction of the scientific community, I must confess that I'm rather impressed by what they do.

But now, here comes my dilemma:
In their wisdom, the Aquarium has started a program allowing a dozen swimmers and divers a day to go swimming with the gentle giants. To put it in perspective, this compares with approx. 5,000 maintenance dives by the aquarium's staff each year. Obviously, the latter are necessary - but are the former?

Check it out:

The customers are obviously extatic and bubble with superlatives about their unique experience.
But the great Jean-Michel Custeau himself is not amused. Nor is the token Shark expert, supreme Shark attack, meteorological and now obviously, fish-keeping multi-guru George Burgess.

Normally, the latter fact alone would be ample justification for me to join the faction in favor of the swimming - but I remain skeptical.

Is there really any upside in throwing in a bunch of "divers" (check again...) at the risk , real or perceived, of harassing, or even infecting or otherwise hurting the already stressed captive animals?
Apart from satisfying the customers' curiosity, and egos - and obviously, generating additional income?
Is there anything to be learned from such an experience (thank you Jean-Michel)?
Will Conservation profit from it?
I mean, additionally?

Not a chance.
Let's be honest: it quacks like a duck and swims like a duck. To witness: "A diver named Kevin Chung broke into a flailing aquatic break-dance. " Indeed.
It's just cheap and gratuitous entertainment, a silly and frivolous circus, a stupid afterthought.
And demeaning on top of that.
I ask: where is the Respect?

Others of course disagree.
But then, upon closer inspection, all those arguments in favor just don't hold up. Those aims can be equally achieved by keeping the public where it belongs.

And that is, on the outside of the tank, to watch and not touch.
In total Awe and Amazement.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Absolutely Amazing Photography!

Have you ever dived the Pacific coast of the Americas?
As in Baja, Cocos, Malpelo, Galapagos, even the Marquesas?

If so, you may agree that diving there has a very special "feel" to its own.
The water is often black, the landscape is monumental but barren, there are ferocious currents and totally weird, and equally frigid multiple thermoclines, the weather is often challenging, the visibility often dismal. One would be tempted to argue that it's the very last place one would ever want to get back to, and yet I find myself going back time after time again.
Not only because of its absolutely fabulous wildlife comprising some of the most iconic animals like Sharks, big Rays, Sea Turtles and Billfish - but very much also because of the unique challenges it poses.

But despite squillions of dives and despite the fact that I've been an underwater photographer for decades before switching over to video, I've never quite been able to capture the eerie essence of those places. Yes, I have great silhouettes of schooling hammerheads and closeups of cleaning stations - but the reality is that most schooling hammerheads I've seen were not silhouetted, they were wandering along somewhere below in an spooky procession of tan bodies against a misty background, all much too difficult to be adequately captured I thought.

So far, that is - until I discovered this absolutely fabulous website.

Record free diver Frederic Buyle takes his images on a single breath of surface air, on available light and down to a depth of up to a whopping 55 meters.

Take for instance this picture of the Smalltooth Raggie from Malpelo: if you're very very lucky, you may see them at 200ft on the Bajo del Monstruo, a huge challenge for any diver - and yet Fred did obviously succeed in doing so whilst free diving!

I'm quite frankly blown away.
I've taken the liberty of copy/pasting a few of my favorite images which you can click in order to see them in better magnification. Hopefully, they will result in some incremental business for Frederic.


Shark Diving - some interesting Thoughts

From Shark Diving - "Vocation" or Sustainable Business? , a recent post by Patric Douglas, CEO of Shark Diver and Shark Diving:

"Shark diving is a study, a long term study of animal behavior.
Those in the industry who come to it looking to create a business quickly realize they are little more than wide eyed students-learning intricacies of shark behavior on a day by day basis. The teachers can be ruthless, but more often they reveal to us moments of grace and power based in lesson plans that were created over 100 million years ago. It's study that never ceases, school's never out for us, we learn from these animals each and every time we encounter them.

This is the nature of the business of commercial shark diving.

To make the bold statement that one is a "professional shark diver" is to infer that you have reached the peak of your career, that you know more about these animals than anyone else, that you have attained the level of "professional". It's a fools bet. Sharks always have something to teach us and while commercial shark diving operators have come to "understand" the animals they seek - to call us professionals would be incorrect. To be self styled even worse.

Do Buddhist monks ever call themselves professionals and carry business cards that boldly claim the same? No, they are monks, they continually grow and learn to become better monks, it's a lifetime understanding.

I submit to you that commercial shark diving is a similar lifetime understanding.
We are lucky to encounter these animals more than most folks, but we can never stop learning. If we do, if we declare a "shark vocation", then we divorce ourselves from what these animals have to teach us - and in the end will make critical mistakes that will lead to the darker teachings these animals are capable of."