The Coral Triangle & sea nomads

February 6, 2011

Coral_triangle_largeChanging times for the world’s center of marine biodiversity and the communities who depend on and harvest the sea’s resources.

“Photojournalist James Morgan is working with WWF, and spent eight months getting to know the Bajau Laut community – who for centuries have lived at sea, but are now being encouraged to settle on land and join the monetary economy. Hear from him – and see how the Bajau are having to adapt.”

An interesting short story in pictures with audio on how the sea-harvesting techniques of the Bajau Laut community are changing from traditional diving to the use of improvised explosives and potassium cyanide – devastating vast areas of coral reefs in *the* most pristine marine ecosystem on the planet…

Full report from BBC News HERE.

Photojournalism by James Morgan

The Coral Triangle

Spanning eastern Indonesia, parts of Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands (see the map), the Coral Triangle is the global center of marine biodiversity and one of the world’s top priorities for marine conservation.

coral_triangle_mapThis extraordinary expanse of ocean covers an area of 2.3 million square miles (5.7 million km2), the equivalent to half of the entire United States. It is home to over 600 reef-building coral species, or 75% of all species known to science, and more than 3,000 species of reef fish. Over 150 million people live within the Coral Triangle, of which an estimated 2.25 million fishers are dependant on marine resources for their livelihoods. Applying the latest science, The Nature Conservancy is working with a range of partners to protect the coastal and marine ecosystems of this vast area by addressing key threats, such as over-fishing, destructive fishing, and mass coral bleaching.

Source: Coral Triangle Center

Great White sharks in the Mediterranean

November 17, 2010

great_white_shark_wideIt is a little-known fact that Great White sharks can be found in the Mediterranean Sea, and perhaps even less-well known is that they arrived there some 450,000 years ago from Australia, according to new genetic studies.

According to a BBC article published today:

“Researchers writing in Proceedings of the Royal Society B believe the arrival may have been simply a migratory ‘wrong turn’ by a few pregnant females.

A tumultuous climate between ice ages may have been the cause.

The species – Carcharodon carcharias – would have remained in the Med because it returns to spawn where it was born.

It was previously assumed that the great whites in the Mediterranean were most closely related to their nearby cousins in the Atlantic Ocean.

But now, a team led by Les Noble of the University of Aberdeen has examined the several groups of sharks’ mitochondrial DNA – genetic material passed through the maternal line that is particularly suited to tracing lineages.

The team found that the Mediterranean sharks were very different to the Atlantic group and more like sharks from Australia and New Zealand.”

Great White shark attacks in the Mediterranean

The great white shark is most commonly associated with the coasts of Australia, California and South Africa, but there have been occasions when this increasingly rare animal has been spotted in the Mediterranean. Some experts believe that the Mediterranean is a nursery where great white sharks give birth and raise their young. The Sicilian channel, near the Italian island of Lampedusa, is the only location in the Atlantic region where both pregnant females and newly born great whites have been sighted.

A great white shark was caught in Malta by Alfredo Cutajar in April 16, 1987. This shark was also estimated to be around 7.13 m (24 ft).

The map below shows confirmed sightings of great white of great white sharks in the mediterranean sea since the early 20th century:

great_white_sightings_distribution_mediterranean

Hawaii bans shark fin soup – thank you Governor Linda Lingle

September 10, 2010

shark_finningFrom time to time a glimmer of hope appears as some honorable, committed individuals stand up for what is right, demand a change to human behaviour that, although it may be ‘traditional’, is just downright barbaric and damaging to the environment we live in – thank you Governer Linda Lingle of Hawaii!

Governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, has signed into law a ban on shark-fin soup, according to Reuters. The soup is currently served in a number of Chinese restaurants in Hawaii, but the trade has decimated certain shark species due to overfishing.

Between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed annually for their fins to produce the high-end delicacy in Asia. Sharks are brought aboard ships where their fins are cut off then they are thrown back into the water—often still alive—where they succumb to their injuries.

The trade is seen as the primary driver behind drastic declines in many shark species. The scalloped hammered population has dropped by 98 percent in some regions, while the oceanic whitetip shark has declined by 90 percent in the central Pacific Ocean and 99 percent in the Gulf of Mexico. The IUCN Red List has found that 32 percent of open ocean sharks and rays are currently threatened with extinction, a much higher percentage than mammals or birds.

Earlier in the year eight shark species failed to gain international protection at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Pressured by Japan, votes to protect sharks and other marine species failed time and again.

Read full article at Mongabay.com

If you’re interested you can contact Linda HERE to show your appreciation.

Saltwater Crocodiles surf Ocean Currents

September 6, 2010

Saltwater_esturine_crocodileWith the exception of a Great White, or possibly an Oceanic White-tip (on a bad day), nothing terrifies me more than the prospect of meeting a 20ft (6m) Saltwater ‘Estuarine’ Crocodile out in the open Ocean. And apparently that’s not as unlikely as I would have hoped for!

Despite being poor swimmers, researchers have discovered that the saltwater crocodile (also known as estuarine) commonly travels long distances over open oceans by riding ocean currents. The discovery, published in Journal of Animal Ecology, solves an unknown mystery of why saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) are found across vast distance in the Pacific, yet have not diverged into different species.

Researchers tracked 27 adult saltwater crocodiles for one year using tags and sonar transmitters. The tagging showed that crocodile individuals, both male and female, regularly traveled more than 50 kilometers from their local rivers into the open sea. One crocodile traveled 590 kilometers in 25 days; another traveled 411 kilometers in 20 days.

The saltwater crocodile’s range extends from India to Fiji and from southern China to northern Australia. They are the world’s largest crocodile species.

From Mongabay.com

Oh man, bring out the cello….

Having read this article I decided to read-up on where in the world precisely I might have a chance of bumping in to (or more like becoming a light snack of) one of these huge ocean-going beasts. Here’s what I found:

estuarine_crocodile_map

perhaps not so surprising that they frequent the region of the planet with the largest bio-diversity – and even less surprising that my number 1 must-see diving destination (planned for 2012) is PNG and is a veritable hot spot for the buggers! Great :(

The truth about the Sardine Run

September 29, 2009

Sardine_RunHaving just bought my new Sony EX1 video camera, Green Force HID 250 lights and corresponding Gates housing I made up my mind to “break it in” with one of the underwater world’s greatest and most challenging spectacles, the Sardine Run off the Wild Coast, South Africa.

The Sardine Run is billed as “the greatest shoal on earth”, “a unique experience” and “pure adrenaline from start to finish” a chance to follow the annual migration of millions of sardines along South Africa’s Wild Coast driven by a cold water current that heads north from the Agulhas Bank to Mozambique. Shoals can be over 7km long with isolated “bait balls” being decimated by a veritable plethora of predators including a variety of sharks, dolphins, cape gannets, seals and occasionally orcas, albatross and penguins. Although not connected to the sardine run feeding frenzy, this time of year (June & July) also coincides with the annual migration of humpback whales through the same body of water.

Man was I up for a bit of that!

After a few days of Internet research and great email feedback from all the operators I got in touch with, it transpires that Port St. Johns is the recognised epicentre of diver activity on the Wild Coast during the Sardine Run (incidentally, its the ass-end-of-nowhere for the rest of the year). My decision on which operator to go with came from a recommendation by Trevor Krull who pioneered shark diving trips on Protea Banks further north near Durban and who has many years experience diving and photographing the Sardine Run. Trevor recommends one operator, Scuba Addicts (www.scubaaddicts.co.za) which may be a personal preference of his or may, as he says, be the only responsible operator that he knows taking tourist divers down to the sardine run. In any case, for better or worse, I stuck with his advice and booked a week’s diving during late June.

Apart from the barn-stormingly nuts idea of deciding to do the Sardine Run in the first place, your next big decision once you’ve selected an operator is deciding on which week you want to go. This is not quite as complicated as it might sound since you have absolutely no chance whatsoever of second-guessing when the sardines are going to run or what the weather, visibility and other conditions will be like that far ahead. My advice (to myself anyway) was to choose one week as close to the middle of the June/July period and hope for the best. As it turned out this was the only week that was available anyway.

During the Sardine Run only, ScubaAddicts operates out of Cremorne (www.cremorne.co.za), a simple, no frills, idyllic, river-side fishing resort with easy access for the dive boats to get out onto the Umzimvubu River, past the sand banks and river mouth surf at Port St Johns and out into the open ocean. Five stars it was not but that’s not what you want from a place to rest up and swap diving stories at the bar in between your expensive Sardine Run dive outings. I would recommend Cremorne without hesitation as the place to stay. It’s clean, functional, warm and friendly but most importantly, its close to the action.

If you’re in the area for a while and are looking for something a bit more up-market, then the Umngazi River Bungalows (www.umngazi.co.za) is absolutely stunning and everything you’d want from an isolated top-rate Wild Coast retreat. I stayed there during my non-diving weeks and overdosed on their excellent bungalow accommodation, food, activities, spa, river trips, beautiful (deserted) beach, hill walks etc. Considering how much there is to do and see within a day-trip driving distance of Port St. Johns, you’re more than likely going to want to spend longer than a week in the area. Two out of three weeks were sight-seeing and beach chilling with the third devoted to the Sardine Run – or at least that was the plan until the weather had other ideas…

I have now been to South Africa on holiday twice, both times ostensibly on diving trips, once to Cape Town four years ago to do cage diving with great whites and this June to do the Sardine Run. I now understand fully that the weather is absolutely the key random factor that can make or break a diving trip to SA. It is complex, unpredictable, essential and can be a total bitch. Within days of being in-country every diver suddenly becomes a budding amateur meteorologist. You wake up and the first thing on your mind is wind indicators, cloud density/type, sunrise colour etc and try to divine its likely affect on the day’s diving conditions. Although weather is an essential consideration when choosing any diving destination it is even more so when talking about the Sardine Run which occurs in June, pretty much in the middle of the SA winter. A fact which is both necessary in order for the north-east-bound currents to drop below 21 degrees (C) and the sardines to run, but also means that your chances of experiencing good visibility, navigable surf, clear skies and smooth seas are lets say, less than optimal.

Unfortunately for me, the weather was on its worst behaviour during my booked diving week with a combination of rain, storms and huge surf, made worse by the high Spring tide – another complicating weather factor – and 3 out 5 of my diving days were a total bust. For some in the group, the surf didn’t seem to be “that bad”, the sea not “so rough” but all such naive thoughts were dispelled once we heard the stories that evening in the bar of the production film crews that braved the elements only to have to turn back with absolutely nothing to show for their sea-sickening efforts.

One sure sign that I was at least in the right place at the right time though, was the presence of some very well known videographer/film-makers in and around Port St Johns including Bob Cranston, the award-winning underwater cameraman for BBC and National Geographic Explorer. Having been there for 6 weeks with a full crew and some *very* expensive equipment it was of little satisfaction to hear that they too had very little to show for their efforts due to the “unusually poor weather”.

Not everything was a complete loss however, there were 3 days which we actually managed to get through the viciously-breaking incoming surf and venture out into the coastal waters of the Wild Coast. Never mind that at times the waves was 6m high from peak to trough and ignoring the seasick old French lady blowing chunks over the side. I even came to terms with the dull over-cast sky that wasn’t exactly going to flood my target subjects in bright, warm, detail-enhancing ambiance – it didn’t matter, we were out, I had my new equipment and I was going to try my damnedest to get that ultimate Sardine Run shot, you know, the one where the sharks/dolphins break through a swirling mass of sardines revealing sunlight on the water surface through the gap before being swallowed up once more by however many tons of bait-balling fish. If not then at least I was going to capture some cape gannets dive-bombing through the surface leaving a torpedo trail of bubbles on their way to claiming their fishy prize. Game on, lets go!

Yeah right, it didn’t take very long to put that little fantasy back in the bullsh*t box where it belongs.

On our first successful outing spirits were high and conditions looked just about as good as they were going to be: relatively calm waters, clear skies and all around us were thousands of cape gannets and hundreds of dolphins breaking the surface in twos and threes, circling around patches of water with the whole business spanning some 500m in width. At first sight the scene is pure chaos and we listened intently to our knowledgeable skipper (Anthony from African Ocean Charters: www.africanoceancharters.co.za) as he explained the behaviour of the birds, the differences between the dolphin and shark species and the probable areas of ‘action’ under the surface with bait-balls and sharks. We quickly learned where to look as it is only when the gannets are diving that they actually make any noise, a kind of hellish screeching appeared to me to be saying “mine, mine, mine” as the bird gracefully drops from the sky, tucks its wings, accelerates amazingly quickly and vanishes below the water surface.

To us tourist divers the action was all around us but to the experienced eye the bait-balls were few and far apart which meant being in the right spot at the right time was very difficult to manage. Heading over at top speed in our twin-outboard semi-rigid would most likely mean that action would be over and done by the time we got there – and we saw this happen on more than one occasion as we watched some of the less experienced (or more pressured) captains rushing about like complete lunatics.

Anthony patiently waited and watched and then successfully manoeuvred us into the path of a few small oncoming patches of action. I noticed a look of concern passed between the captain and our dive guide as they gauged the clarity of the water which to be honest did not look too good. In fact, I’ve seen clearer soup. Nevertheless we were given the go-ahead to dive but since everything was moving so fast underwater, scuba as not really an option. Whilst I’d known this was a probability it was only when faced with dropping into the ocean with 15kg+ dead weight of camera gear and lights and weight belt that I wished I’d been more thorough in my fitness prep for the ‘holiday’ and hadn’t smoked quite as much this year. OK, the gear is practically neutral buoyant in the water but I challenge you not to be a little nervous on our first time out with such a rig and no BCD! With both hands managing the camera gear I had to forgo the 1m long ‘shark-stick’ which my fellow divers held on to for dear life with instructions only to use it as a prod if a shark gets too close into your ‘personal space’. My plan was to keep my back to the group, thus protecting that avenue of approach and use the camera gear for defense of the frontal zone – after all I wouldn’t be too gutted with a shot of a shark biting the housing!

Bobbing about on the surface like a group of nervous first-timers (which really we were despite being a very respectable collection of dive-masters and instructors…) we gradually gained some confidence and snorkelled out following the direction of the captains’ extended finger and saw… well, not a lot really.

With head above the surface the scene was filled with diving gannets, dolphins breaking the surface etc but the moment you put your head under the water the only thing to be seen was a murky green emptiness – apart from the occasional shadow of dolphin or shark almost imperceptible at distance of only 5m, the closest we came to a bait-ball was 20 or so bait fish hiding under the shadow of the boat, not enough really to get the attention of any passing predators that’s for sure.

It dawned on me the captain’s warning to stick together as a group and not to be tempted to break off and dive down on your own and be mindful of the fact that there are literally hundreds of sharks sharing the same immediate body of water. In these conditions I realised that the sharks could sense us but not see us and we had absolutely no idea where they were, what mood they were in or how much like prey we did or did not appear to them. To a certain extend we were all there for the element of danger but this was getting close to foolishness.

There was another couple of dive attempts on scuba over a couple of days which were generally met with the same degree of success, poor visibility and fast-moving small packets of action that were so fleeting and unpredictable that there was no chance to get within visible range (5 to 10m) unless the bait-ball shifted towards you and literally surrounded you. An situation that I was reliably informed by very experienced guides that you do not want to find yourself in under any circumstances. Allegedly the best course of action if you should find yourself in the middle of a bait-ball is to drop down below the shoal, yes into the shark zone, and let the shoal pass over before returning to the surface. Yeah, sounds easy when you put it like that…

The story is told around the bar in Cremorne of the Japanese film crew who came to film a reconstruction of a tourist that got bitten by a shark on the Sardine Run in exactly that scenario – the shoal shifted, surrounded him and a shark came through and mistook his arm for a juicy fish. After insisting that he be deposited in the center of a bait-ball, as a condition for the guide team getting their full bonus, the cameraman was duly introduced to what must be one of the most panic-inducing experiences of the ocean realm – and held there firmly by his first stage at arms length of an obliging dive guide for the couple of minutes it took to reflect carefully on the phrase “be careful what you wish for, you might just get it!”. Needless to say his bowels didn’t share is mind’s initial confidence in his ability to handle the situation…

On my long trip back home I had plenty of time to reflect on the holiday and the Sardine Run experience. Many of my fellow divers on the trip would have described it as a non-experience and there was certainly plenty of money-back demands directed at the dive operators.

Personally I have a different view. For me its comforting to know that in this fast-moving, on-demand, consumer-driven world we live in, some things cannot be commanded or arranged to suit. This is nature at its wildest, totally unpredictable and the rewards are huge for those who are extremely lucky (very occasionally) and those who have simply earned the right through patience, perseverance and hard work. Operators cannot be held responsible to nature for delivering on their marketing material, they have a business to run and the risk is quite rightly on us drop-in, part-time, thrill-seeking divers.

This year we were particularly unlucky as the Run didn’t really get going and the weather was really unseasonably poor. Everyone suffered, divers and operators alike. I’m pretty sure that the tips were pretty thin on the ground and perhaps damaged reputations will be harder to overcome next year. But I don’t really see that its fair to play the blame-game, we all went for the experience and we have to take away what we can from it. For me personally it was a different experience to the one expected but nonetheless, South Africa has an amazing array of experience on offer and as usual I enjoyed every minute of it.

I know now that this Sardine Run trip was just a taster/introduction for me to really see what’s involved and what it will take from me to have the experience I’m looking for. It was far from a waste of time or money and is something that I will be repeating every 3-4 years for as long as I am an able-bodied diver. I’m hooked.

I know now that I must be fitter, more experienced and more patient and if its going to be done properly then I need to be there for longer and to start further south and follow the shoal up the coast. Sure it will involve much more time and money and I’m not a rich guy by any means – but as they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

I want that shot more than ever!

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