18 November, 2008

Identity Crisis - Part II

This is the second part of a post kindly made available by Lene and Claus Topp (click on the link as their website is certainly worth a visit!!!) whom are representatives of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and whom have kindly provided this post which was previously published in Australasia ScubaDiver Magazine.

Click here to read Part I of the same.

Dots in Cyberspace

Using small, waterproof cameras, we’ve been in the water all morning taking photos of whale shark dots. Our BIO, Embet, has taken us around in his outrigger. He’s a good freediver and manages to take precise, useable photos. Later the same day we venture into an Internet cafĂ© in the small city of Pilar – which has broadband – about half an hour from Donsol. Youngsters occupy most of the computers, giggling as they search Web sites for photos of their favourite pop stars and beauty queens. We’re there to upload photos of shark dots to the ECOCEAN library. Hours later Brad looks up from the computer. “We have a match!”
he exclaims. The very first uploaded photo from the local trainees turns out to be a match with a shark seen last year. This is fantastic news, a smidgen of proof the same sharks return to Donsol every year.
The next day the yellow DHL box finally reaches Donsol. Our tags have arrived. There’s still a lot to do. The tags need to be activated and the spear gun needs to be adjusted. We’re finally on the water again but encounter new problems. The spear gun is too weak to penetrate the thick skin of the whale sharks, and the tag just floats back to the surface. A bigger gun is finally found and the tagging resumes without further problems. Seven tags are placed behind the dorsal fin of as many sharks. Then we wait.

Wising Up

After nearly two seasons of photo ID’ing sharks in Donsol we’re starting to get a picture (no pun intended) of the individuals that visit. There are now more than 1,350 photos of individual whale sharks from around the world in the ECOCEAN library. As of June 2008, 196 individual sharks have been confirmed in the Philippines with only a handful from outside Donsol, and there have been 50 sightings of specific sharks in Donsol. New sharks and more matches are added every week. Though we don’t know the number of sharks that visit Donsol yet, we do know that many sharks return to this area to feed. Jurgen Freund took the first shark photo uploaded to the ECOCEAN library in 2003. This shark, “P001,” was seen twice in Donsol in 2008. The second upload, “P002,” is even more interesting as it was a photo taken in 1999; this shark was seen three times in 2008. All these “resights” make it even more crucial that we determine where the
sharks go when they leave. This is where the satellite tags come in. Unfortunately, a couple of the tags from the initial group came off much too early. This isn’t a surprise, but frustrating nevertheless. Of the remaining sharks, a small group stayed in the Donsol area much longer than expected – perhaps indicating that some sharks aren’t just short-term visitors to these waters. And then there was one. One whale shark in particular took a longer journey, providing us with a wealth of information. After leaving Donsol’s shallow, 30°C waters it moved to deeper waters, diving all the way down to 800m at times where temperatures dropped to only 5°C. The shark’s voyage ended in Taiwan. There the tag was released from the shark and popped up to the surface, where all its valuable information was sent via satellite. Sadly, the whale shark might have met its end in Taiwan. The country has recently banned hunting whale sharks, but it may be a while before enforcement is in place – and it’s well known that whale sharks are hunted in many other parts of Chinese waters. The knowledge gained from tagged sharks might be an important piece of the puzzle when trying to convince other countries to end the hunt. Our work with the whale sharks of Donsol will continue over the next few years, and hopefully we’ll generate more knowledge about these enigmatic fish. We need this knowledge to be able to save these gentle sharks – for their own sake and for the sake of places like Donsol, a community where a symbiotic relationship between man and animal has resulted in a unique concern for a fish

All pictures appearing on this post have been taken by Lene and Claus Topp whom retain all copyrights

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