By freedivinguae

Wondrous whale sharks! The magic of swimming alongside the world’s largest fish, which can grow up to 40ft, off a paradise island in the Maldives

Looming out of the turquoise blue a whale shark measuring around 26 feet long silently swam towards me.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel meeting the world’s largest fish – especially growing up with a fear of the sea – but I felt completely at ease as the gentle giant glided alongside me with its spotted skin shimmering in the sun.

Earlier that day I’d asked Richard Somerset, a territory director for the diver training organisation Padi, to sum up the whale shark in three words, and I could now see how his reply – ‘big, mysterious and beautiful’ – fits the bill perfectly.

MailOnline Travel's Sadie Whitelocks attended a diving festival on the island of Dhidhoofinolhu in the Maldives where she had a close encounter with a whale shark

MailOnline Travel’s Sadie Whitelocks attended a diving festival on the island of Dhidhoofinolhu in the Maldives where she had a close encounter with a whale shark

Sadie's home during the watery festival - the Lux South Ari Atoll resort. Whale sharks are seen in the waters here all year round

Sadie’s home during the watery festival – the Lux South Ari Atoll resort. Whale sharks are seen in the waters here all year round

I was diving with Somerset and a crew from Padi, including the firm’s CEO, Dr Drew Richardson, during an underwater festival in the Maldives, which has been running for the past ten years out at the luxury Lux resort on the southern island of Dhidhoofinolhu. This year it was run in collaboration with Padi.

During the week-long event, I’d learned how little we know about the whale shark and how the species is currently listed as ‘endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (Icun), due to human threat.

Abdul Basith Mohamed, a project co-ordinator at the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, told us how 54 per cent of whale sharks sport human-related injuries with many of them hit by fishing boats or by tourist vessels.

In some parts of the world, the large fish – which can grow up to 40 feet long – is also illegally hunted for its meat with the fins sold to restaurants in Asia for highly prized shark fin soup.

The whale shark is currently listed as 'endangered' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are sometimes injured by boats and many are illegally hunted. This is the whale shark that Sadie encountered

The whale shark is currently listed as ‘endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are sometimes injured by boats and many are illegally hunted. This is the whale shark that Sadie encountered

Sea-ing the sights: Sadie  during one of the excursions during the underwater festival

Sea-ing the sights: Sadie during one of the excursions during the underwater festival

Whale shark tourism is booming in the Maldives. Above, a diver next to the whale shark Sadie spotted

Whale shark tourism is booming in the Maldives. Above, a diver next to the whale shark Sadie spotted.


By freedivinguae

Celebrity sea turtle Red Rockette turns up dead on Nova Scotia beach

esearchers tracked globe-trotting sea turtle’s trips between Nova Scotia and South America

Red Rockette, first tagged in Nova Scotia in 2012, is shown in her nesting site in Colombia in April 2013. The sea turtle, whose travels deepened scientists’ understanding of leatherback biology, has died, say federal fisheries officials. (Canadian Press)

A distinguished sea turtle whose global travels deepened scientists’ understanding of leatherback biology has died, say federal fisheries officials.

Red Rockette was first tagged off Nova Scotia in 2012, and since then her travels to and from a Colombia beach have offered scientists in both countries a previously unseen look into her species’ movements and nesting patterns — a hefty scientific contribution that few individual animals can claim.

Researchers were “saddened to confirm” Tuesday that an adult female sea turtle found near Digby, N.S., in August was, in fact, Red Rockette, though the cause of death remains undetermined.

She was believed to be “a couple decades old,” with a shell length of approximately 1½ metres.

From Cape Breton to Columbia

In 2013, the Canadian research team watching Red Rockette’s movements contacted a group of Colombian researchers, who encountered the turtle when she came ashore to nest on Bobalito beach in 2013.

The data recovered from her satellite tag shed new light on the turtle’s diving patterns and habitat use.

The leatherback sea turtle is an endangered species. (John Dickinson/CBC)

Against all odds, she was discovered again by scientists in Canadian waters off Cape Breton Island in 2014 — then again on Bobalito beach in 2016.

Mike James, a federal sea turtle biologist, said while the end of Red Rockette’s “remarkable” story is a sad one, her frequent sightings made her a fan favourite with scientists and the public alike, in a field where many tagged animals are never seen again.

“She was kind of a star,” James recalled fondly.

“It was just crazy to pull a turtle out of the ocean two years just randomly here, needle in a haystack and for this to be one that we’d had this whole story with.”

James said stories like Red Rockette’s are especially resonant with the public. People were able to follow her travels through blog posts by the Canadian Sea Turtle Network.

Most Canadians aren’t aware that the endangered animals spend a significant amount of time feeding on jellyfish in Canadian waters, a perception the online tracking of iconic individuals like Red Rockette is starting to change.

Kathleen Martin of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network said her heart sank when she learned the identity of the turtle found on a secluded Nova Scotia beach this summer.

The loss of an animal with so many connections around the world puts the decline of endangered species into stark perspective beyond just data and trends, Martin said.

‘Really sad ending’

James said a common cause of death for leatherbacks in Canadian waters is entanglement in fishing gear, and sometimes being struck by vessels. Red Rockette herself had a hook in her shoulder when James’s team encountered her in 2014.

Whatever the cause of Rockette’s death, Martin said it was “extraordinary” that her body was found, even if her death signifies a mysterious ending for the unlikely story of a creature who kept coming back to the same places and people.

“The Atlantic Ocean is so big that this chance is incredibly rare, so it was a really hard one,” Martin said.

“It’s hard not to feel like there’s something else we’re supposed to learn.”

Martin said her story is an example of successful international collaboration on environmental work that touches the lives of people across continents.

“We were strangers and we became instantly connected friends and co-workers and colleagues trying to solve something together,” said Martin.

“That’s an incredibly hopeful picture despite the really sad ending.”


By freedivinguae

The Trump Administration Just Agreed to Help Humpback Whales—Which It’s Legally Required to Do

In May 2016, a crab fisherman and his son spotted a humpback whale caught in crab fishing lines off the coast of Monterey, California. They called the authorities, and seven hours later the whale was freed. This whale survived, but it was lucky: It was one of at least 71 whales, 54 of which were humpbacks, reportedly entangled in fishing gear off the Pacific Coast in 2016—the highest in recorded history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The current predicament facing humpback whales is something of a reversal of fortunes (or, technically, a reversal of a reversal of fortunes). Humpback whales were once protected as an endangered species under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, but they had largely rebounded by September 2016—specifically, nine separate populations were de-listed because they had recovered—thanks primarily to a 1982 whale hunting ban. Five populations, though, remained threatened or endangered, which legally afforded them new protections as of 2016. The problem is that didn’t happen, and the situation has only gotten more dire for these groups of whales, due to fishing, boating, pollution, and other factors. In one population that migrates to the waters off the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington in spring and summer, for example, only 411 individuals remain. In other areas, healthy humpback populations can reach more than 20,000 individuals.

Now, finally some good news: The Trump administration, which had previously sat on its hands while the whales continued to decline, will have to do something about it.

After the National Marine Fisheries Service identified the five still-vulnerable humpback populations back in 2016, the government was required to designate, within about one year, which parts of the ocean could be classified “critical habitat” for the whale populations. But rather than nail down a conservation plan for the whales, the Trump administration instead proposed a plan to allow oil drilling in oceans bordering the United States and in areas where the humpbacks lived.

So in March 2018, environmental groups Turtle Island Restoration Network, Center for Biological Diversity, and Wishtoyo Foundation sued the Trump administration for violating its “mandatory duty” to designate critical habitat and depriving the whales of “vitally important protections.” On Friday, the Trump administration reached a settlement with those environmental groups and agreed to designate critical habitat in the Pacific Ocean for the whales by the summer of 2019, and finalize those boundaries within the following year. A critical habitat designation basically ensures no federally-permitted activities, like oil drilling, will harm the whale’s habitat, including whale migration routes.

The Trump administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Mother Jones.


Environmentalists celebrated the agreement late last week. “Today’s victory means Pacific humpback whales will be safer in their ocean home,” said Catherine Kilduff, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney, in a statement Friday. “This agreement ensures the whales will finally get the protections they need.”

But it’s just one win for animal advocates. The Trump administration has come under repeated fire for failing to protect various marine animals under the Endangered Species Act, including the North Atlantic right whale, which saw a record number of deaths in 2017, and the vaquita porpoise, which has as few as 15 individuals remaining in the wild.

“Once again, when we challenged the Trump administration’s attempt to illegally ignore environmental law in court, the Trump administration has been forced to change course,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, in a press release Friday. “We will continue to watchdog the process to ensure humpback whales are protected and have a fighting chance at survival and recovery.”



By freedivinguae

Metro and Crime Lagos rescues sea cow

Lagos rescues sea cow

Lagos State government has rescued a huge sea cow from a coastal community in Agboyi Ketu Local Council Development Area. The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Olayiwole Onasanya, who disclosed this, said that the aquatic herbivorous mammal was rescued when it was caught by the trap set by a fisherman in the area. Onasanya explained that the mammal was an endangered species which, according to him, breeds only a single calf once in two years and listed by World Conservation Union as a species vulnerable to extinction because of its meat, bones, and skin which can bring great wealth to poachers.

He noted that the mammals were in three species of West Indian, West Africa and Amazonia with highest population in Guinea-Bissau, the lagoon of Cote d’Ivoire, the southern portions of River Niwereger in Nigeria and the coastal lagoon of Gabon. According to Onasanya, the manatee measure up to 13 feet with as much weight as 590kg which graze on water plants in tropical seas and consume about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of its body weight in vegetation.

The permanent secretary restated the commitment of government to continuous formulation of policies geared towards the preservation of wild in the state, stressing that this would add up to tourism potential of Lagos. He added that government was also taking giant strides in ensuring that fishing activities in the state became more lucrative. Onasanya promised that fish famers would always be included in the agricultural value chain empowerment of the state. According to him, the manatee has been kept safely in the custody of Origin Zoo in Ikorodu area.

He said: “This animal can be a source of tourist attraction to the state if properly taken care of. To this end, government has already taken all necessary steps in providing a conducive and habitable environment for the sea cow.’’ The fisherman, who trapped the mammal, Mr. David Oyenuro, applauded government on its swift action in preserving the animal. He urged government to continue to support the fishermen with their fishing tools. According to Oyenuro, most of their fishing implements get damaged whenever they encounter huge aquatic animals such as the manatee.


By freedivinguae

Robot jellyfish could save the world’s coral reefs

The world’s coral reefs are in dire need of some love. Global warming and ocean temperature spikes have left massive stretches of vital coral reefs damaged, possibly beyond all repair and if we don’t do something to stop the continuing damage it’s going to cost mankind dearly. But studying coral is no easy task, so researchers from the US Office of Naval Research and Florida Atlantic University have come up with a solution.

The issue at hand is the fragility of coral itself. It’s incredibly hard to monitor reef habitats and the health of the reef ecosystem using human divers or bulky equipment which could cause damage. The solution? Soft-bodied robotic jellyfish.

Using the moon jellyfish as inspiration, the scientists built prototypes to test the feasibility of using a simple hydraulic movement system to allow their creation to move around in the water with very little effort. The work paid off and the result is a small robot that can move effortlessly along a coral reef without risking any damage. A research paper based on the work was published in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

“A main application of the robot is exploring and monitoring delicate ecosystems, so we chose soft hydraulic network actuators to prevent inadvertent damage,” Dr. Erik Engeberg of Florida Atlantic University said in a statement. “Additionally, live jellyfish have neutral buoyancy. To mimic this, we used water to inflate the hydraulic network actuators while swimming.”

The soft exterior of the robot, which is made of a rubbery silicon material, allows it to squeeze through tiny gaps. A future iteration of the robot could even incorporate a sonar sensor to gauge the size of openings before muscling through them, Dr. Engeberg noted.

In the future, robotic jellyfish like these could be outfitted with any number of sensors to monitor water temperature and quality or even relay images of various parts of the reef to scientists on shore. These eyes-in-the-sea, so to speak, could be vital to monitoring ongoing reef recovery efforts worldwide.

By freedivinguae

After 70,000 years, Oman’s unique whales face potential threat

Oman’s humpback whales are a genetically distinct group of whales, but being so distinct also makes them vulnerable

One of Oman’s unique humpback whale emerges from the Arabian Sea, off the southern coast of the country (Photo credit: Salalah Tours)

Every year from June through August, something magical happens in southern Oman that occurs almost nowhere else in the Arab world – it rains. It buckets down actually, in monsoon quantities.

Locals call the season khareef and it means “autumn” in Arabic, but that’s only because it coincides with the start of autumn on the nearby Indian subcontinent, with which the monsoon season is typically associated. On land, a dramatic greening takes place that is more Asia than Arabia, providing enough water to sustain the region’s abundant crops. But under the sea, something equally significant for the life cycle happens.

“In the summertime… the wind hits the mountains, goes back to the sea…and brings up the water from the depths, which is really cold and full of nutrients,” Salalah Tours director Ashraf El Weshahy tells Middle East Eye inside his office in the Dhofar region’s capital, Salalah.

This starts a feeding frenzy from the bottom of the food chain up, with fish like sardines exploding in numbers.

“You can see the water bubbling… the sea life is really blooming, prospering.”

The rest of the year, the water is warm and calm – perfect breeding conditions.

It is this happy coincidence that paved the way for an unusual discovery. Oman’s humpback whales are a genetically distinct group, atypical from every other population because they don’t migrate – they simply don’t need to.

El Weshahy has been taking tour groups to see the whales off and on for almost three years.

“Our advantage is that we sit on Al Hallaniyat Island. These whales need depths to hunt squid. We have drop-offs, shelves that would go to 3000 metres north-east of Al Hallinayat Island.”

The local man was just seven the first time he saw one of these gentle giants of the sea, which grow up to 16-metres long.

“When you are young you hear legends – they will swallow someone and bring him back again, these kinds of stories. But you see them and the elderly fishermen were really very gentle with them… they used nets and some would be caught in the nets, they would go very carefully, very quietly and [release them].”

It was clear to El Weshahy then that the whales were cognisant of other beings in the world.

His early experiences with whales have clearly left a deep impression on him, informing his staunchly protective approach to whale-watching.

“When you are young… you try to get contact to see [the whales] and they would really sometimes look [at you]… it’s a feeling you cannot describe by writing or through words, it’s a very powerful and personal moment.”

Back then, he wasn’t aware how special the local whales were. Being genetically distinct means there are differences in the behaviour and song of the Omani humpbacks. But it also means another thing – an increased vulnerability.

Her Highness Sayyida Tania Al Said is the president of the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), which has been leading research into the population, culminating in a study that was published last December.

She says the research suggests that while Omani whales originated from the southern population of whales, they have been isolated for the past 70,000 years.

The whales have never been spotted in adjacent bodies of waters, such as off Zanzibar or Madagascar.

“This population has been observed displaying both feeding and breeding behaviour within the same location, whereas for other populations the breeding is separated from feeding in distance and time.”

Other populations will breed in equatorial parts of the world and migrate to polar regions to feed. So it’s unclear whether the whales’ ancestors’ discovery of this all-in-one Garden of Eden will prove a blessing or a curse.

“Low genetic diversity could place this population at an increased vulnerability to being impacted by diseases, and also an increased risk of extinction [if] the population is unable to respond and adapt to changing environmental variables.”

The ESO estimates there are almost 20 different species of cetaceans (marine mamals including whales, dolphins and porpoises) in Oman’s milk-and-honey waters. Al Said certainly entertains the prospect that the blue whales that have been sighted in the same waters could have a similar provenance to the humpback population.

“It is quite possible that the blue whale population is also a unique subpopulation to the Arabian Sea region,” she says, noting more research needs to be done.

All the more reason, then, to protect the fecund sea from threats, which she says are “similar to those faced by other whales around the world.” They include entanglement in fishing gear, noise pollution, risk of ship strikes and habitat loss as a result of increasing development.

HH Sayyida: Environment Society of Oman president Her Highness Sayyida Tania Al Said

The Arabian Sea has a Sword of Damocles hanging over it, in the form of tourism.

The country is on an aggressive drive to attract tourists to the country and in so doing diversify its economy. But it runs the risk, like many other tropical idylls before it, that the very charms that attract the tourists could be imperiled by the rush to draw them in.

“Whale and dolphin-watching tourism is expected to increase in Oman… it is important to protect whales and dolphins from the potentially harmful impacts of tourism,” said Al Said.

The ESO has been working with international bodies like the International Whaling Commission, as well as the Omani government and tour operators to establish mutually beneficial guidelines for whale and dolphin-watching, she said.

International organisation Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) is urging the government to implement regulations on whale watching.

“Official guidelines, or better still, government regulations governing whale watching would be put in place before the industry takes off. All operators would be required to observe these and training would be given before they began taking passengers out,” said WDC’s responsible whale watch lead Vanessa Williams-Grey.

Guidelines have already been developed but there is still scope for government regulations.

“In many parts of the world, whale watch operators must apply for a permit and in some regions, a cap is set on the number of permits or licences that can be given out. Other regions also set designated ‘rest periods’ for the whales (either daily or seasonally) during which time boats cannot operate,” Williams-Grey said.

“These efforts to reduce the impact of whale watching are recommended by WDC in order to prevent an over-proliferation of operators or repeated targeting of the same whale or dolphin populations.”

Protecting the whales is important for the entire tourism and marine eco-system, she said.

“In a nutshell, healthy, happy whales equal happy whale watchers [which equals] happy operators and local livelihoods, and a good whale watch reputation internationally. Equally, happy whales equals a healthy, balanced marine ecosystem [which equals] happy conservationists.”

But there are examples from recent history that make concerns for the whales’ safety well-founded.

The ESO’s best guess of the current population is about 82 – “give or take 10 or 20”, Al Said said. This estimate is based on a mark-recapture photo identification technique using photos from 2000 to 2004, so could turn out to be higher. Whatever the number, it should be higher still.

“The humpback whale population has been impacted as a result of commercial whaling operations which took place in the mid-1960s. The recovery of this population has been quite slow.”

Scientists suspect some of the low genetic diversity is also a result of periods of steep population declines. The study noted the most recent decline was from whaling, with Soviet whalers killing 242 humpback whales between 1965 and 1966 – including 39 pregnant females.

Luckily for conservationists, there are tour guides like El Wasahy, who take the duty to protect the sea life seriously.

‘One of Oman’s unique humpback whale emerges from the Arabian Sea, off the southern coast of the country’ (Photo credit: Salalah Tours)

He recalls the days when “Russian fleets” hunted the giant mammals for meat and blubber. As one of mankind’s modern representatives, he is determined not to intrude on the whales’ environment. The boats travel no closer than within 300 metres of the pod – though they often get much closer.

“We don’t go to them… we keep quiet. If they come to us, great, but we don’t follow.”

He is also not interested in publicising the tours widely – indeed it was hard to even track him down, and when we did he refused to take us whale-watching on numerous days because of the weather conditions.

He takes tours on average once every two weeks, he said.

“It’s not very popular, but still we are happy not to have this mass of people coming. We try to keep it on a low profile to make sure we don’t disturb the whales. It’s a business, but we have to respect the environment… we love the whales.”

Salalah Tours have been doing workshops with the ESO to learn more about the region’s cetaceans – something they have in turn shared with boat captains and members of the public.

The government, too, recognises the importance of eco-tourism, he said, putting limits on how close building can be done near the beach, for example.

“They appreciate very much eco–hotels and developments. There’s some conditions for hotels to build, and maybe recycling will happen in the future.”

It is for this reason he is optimistic about the fate of Oman’s unique whales.

“There is lots of respect from the people, the fisherman and the captains, they have all the conditions to breed and increase, and we hope this will be the case, of course.” Salalah Tours director Ashraf El Weshahy (MEE/Amanda Fisher)

By freedivinguae

This Amount of Plastic Kills Sea Turtles

The world is drowning in plastic. There are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans. Now a study has confirmed that sea turtle numbers are declining due to plastic consumption. A study, which analysed 1,000 dead turtles that washed up on Australian beaches, revealed that the more plastic a turtle consumes, the more likely it is to die.

“We knew that turtles were consuming a lot of plastic, but we didn’t know for certain whether that plastic actually caused the turtles’ deaths, or whether the turtles just happened to have plastic in them when they died,” Dr. Chris Wilcox, Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, said in a press release.

“In other words, we wanted to know ‘How much plastic is too much plastic?’ for sea turtles.”

Unfortunately, as soon as a turtle has around 14 pieces of plastic in its stomach, there is a 50 percent chance it will die, but that’s not to say a turtle won’t die after ingesting just one piece of plastic.

Image: Plastic removed from the large intestine of green sea turtle, Photograph by Kathy Townsend

The most common plastic found within the turtles’ stomachs tended to be soft, translucent film-like bits of plastic, which Britta Denise Hardesty, the Principal Research Scientist and Team Leader of the study, explains in an email is due to plastics’ likeness to jellyfish.

Once plastic is ingested the turtle has a 50 percent chance of survival. Hardesty explains in an email that when plastic enters a turtle’s body, it can kill the turtle in mostly two ways.

“[The most common cause of death in turtles when ingesting plastic is] through blocking the gut (often with a piece of thin, film-like plastic) so no food and nutrients can pass through and be absorbed, or by puncturing or cutting their gut (such as by a hard, sharp piece of plastic).”

So, is it too late to save Earth’s sea turtles?

Hardesty remains optimistic.

“No, it is not too late. Though it is disheartening to know that more than 50 percent of sea turtles have likely eaten plastic and that even a small amount can kill them, I’d like to think that we humans can do better,” Hardesty explains in an email.
“So I would say, let’s turn off the tap, let’s keep plastic out of our oceans, and let’s work with industry and the fishing community to reduce plastic inputs to the ocean.”

Lead Image: Green Sea Turtle, Photograph by Kathy Townsend


By freedivinguae

A Pulsating, Alien-Looking Sea Creature Has Been Found on a Beach in New Zealand

On Monday, a New Zealand family were just walking along a Northern Auckland beach when they stumbled across a bizarre, pink-colour blob that resembled a volcano shape.

The creature, which turned out to be a species of huge jellyfish, has a white segmented outer body, with a colourful red inside, and looks just a bit like a really squishy alien.

“[Jellyfish] were everywhere and we were pretty amazed. Then we saw this massive one that seemed different from all of the others,” Eve Dickinson explained to Auckland Now.

“We spent ages looking at it because of its beautiful colours and shape. My boy said it reminded him of a volcano.”

What the Dickinsons had come across on the Pakiri Beach was a lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata).

Lion’s mane jellyfish, also known as the giant jellyfish or hair jelly, looks much more recognisable when it’s floating underwater:

Lions mane jellyfish or hair jelly Cyanea capillata the largest know jellyfish in Newfoundland Canada. 21390221575(Derek Keats/Wikimedia/CC-BY-2.0)

Underneath its mushroom top, there’s a number of thin strands making up the jelly’s tentacles. But when it’s washed up on a beach, the flattened shape makes it look rather like some alien creature from a low budget sci-fi series.

And the family saw it make pulsating movements, too.

“It almost looked like a load of muscles contracting,” Eve’s husband Adam told Yahoo7.

Lion’s mane is actually the largest known species of jellyfish, and has been found all over the world, from the Arctic to Australia and New Zealand.

They are normally around 50 centimetres (20 inches) wide, but the largest ever discovered is thought to have washed up on Massachusetts Bay in 1870. It had a massive 2.3 metre (7.5 foot) diameter.

Marine biology technician Diana Macpherson from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, says that these guys are pretty common around the islands, but not so close to the end of winter.

“They’re usually around during the spring and summer because the plankton starts to bloom, so as a result they come around too,” Macpherson said.

lions mane jelly new zealand september sideshot(Eve Dickinson)

“They’ve got all of these fishing lures out there at the same time,” says Lisa-Ann Gershwin, a marine biologist with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, in an interview with Wired back in 2014.

“Every single tentacle is out there to catch something. They can find so much food simply by multitasking, really.”

Amongst the things lion’s mane jellyfish enjoy eating are plankton and other jellyfish; as they float around the ocean, reeling in food with their stinging tentacles, they also act as an oasis for small fish and shrimp immune to its toxins. These creatures feed off the jellyfish’s leftovers.

In turn, the lion’s mane jellyfish is eaten by other large fish and sea turtles; for example, leatherback turtles subsist only on jellyfish.

As the temperatures change due to climate change, these enigmatic creatures might start showing up in weird times of the year more regularly.

But if you do see any lion’s mane jellyfish on your local beach, we recommend not touching them. Although their stingers are not going to cause serious damage, they can still cause some pain.

“They have a toxin in their tentacles which can hurt you if you get too close to them,” says Macpherson.

“Treat them with caution.”

By freedivinguae


Whale shark viewing at Oslob, a popular tourism site in the Philippines, is facilitated by hand-feeding the animals with shrimp. The long-term impacts of this provisioning are not well understood.

Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic

In the Philippines, whale shark tourism is a booming business. But questions have arisen about how this activity could harm the animals.

Welcome to Oslob, home of the whale shark selfie.

In this town, near the southern tip of Cebu Island in the Philippines, whale sharks are a big draw. Tourism is booming for people who want to watch, swim with, and take photographs next to the world’s biggest fish.

Since it began in 2011, Oslob’s whale shark-watching operation has become the largest such venture in the world. But the operation is controversial, because whale sharks don’t naturally gather here, unlike other such sites in the country. The Oslob sharks are hand-fed, and this essentially guarantees they will show up to thrill guests, who can snap close-range photos.

The situation raises thorny questions, for example about the impact of feeding and human interaction on the animals, the sustainability of such an operation, and the conservation value. Do the benefits outweigh potential downsides?

These questions are not merely academic, considering whale sharks are globally endangered and their numbers in the Philippines region are in steep decline. Prior to 1998, when whale sharks gained national legal protection, hundreds of whale sharks were killed in the Philippines each year for their meat and fins.

But poaching still happens here and elsewhere, since demand and markets for whale sharks remain, a primary destination being China—and a single animal can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. Their meat, fins, and oil are sold for food, and their skin for bags. (Related: The world’s largest whale sharks are disappearing.)

Sunrise in Oslob

Oslob’s day begins at six in the morning, when the first tourist arrivals listen to a short briefing—no touching, no riding, no flash photography, and keep at least six feet away from the sharks at all times. Visitors don masks, snorkels, and life jackets and board outrigger boats to see the sharks. In the “interaction area,” about 150 feet from shore, the boats line up and the show begins. Feeders in small, one-person outrigger canoes dish out handfuls of thawed shrimp to the waiting sharks, many of which time their arrival to within a few minutes of feeding.

It’s called “watching,” but there’s just as much “posing.” It’s a strange sight: A line of tourists in the water hold on to the boat’s outrigger. Their backs face the sharks while they mug for the cellphones being clicked by the boat operator. The beasts are the backdrop.

Guests are told they can go to jail if they touch or get too close to the sharks, but researchers have found that more than 95 percent of swimmers break the rules—often inadvertently. It’s a melee out there, and contact happens.

Almost all whale sharks which visit Oslob are juvenile males. Most are only temporary visitors, but a few become year-round residents.

Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic

Some of the sharks swim languidly at a 45-degree angle, as though their tails were weighted. Others stay almost motionless, entirely vertical, slurping the shrimp with muscular gulps—a whirlpool of water and food disappearing into their postbox-slot mouths.

Feeding ceases at midday. The sharks dissipate and the boatmen disperse. Show’s over, until tomorrow.

Who Benefits?

Shark viewing is a growing sector of the tourism industry, and other operations (in other countries, for example) use baiting or provisioning to attract animals. It’s often billed as ecotourism, but that can sometimes seem a stretch. Ecotourism, at its best, draws humans into the world of the creatures they encounter. It has low impact on ecosystems and a demonstrable conservation value. But many argue that’s not exactly what’s happening here.

There are some benefits to the enterprise. For one, the whale sharks in Oslob are still around. “The scene at Oslob is chaotic, and the controversy is real,” says my colleague David Doubilet, who has been photographing in the Philippines for a forthcoming National Geographic feature. “But the sharks are alive and not lying dead, fins removed, in cold storage somewhere in Asia.”

Another likely upside: A reduction in fishing pressure around Oslob. The 170 or so members of the local fishermen’s association, who feed the sharks and ferry the guests, no longer need to catch fish for food from increasingly depleted reefs. Likewise, fishers nearby can earn a living supplying the several hundred pounds of shrimp needed for each day’s shark food, thus placing less pressure on declining fish stocks.

The giant beasts also benefit the local economy. At night, the Oslob coastline twinkles with the lights of more than 50 hostels, resorts and guesthouses, as well as local homes. “The whale sharks brought the lights,” one resident told me. Who would imagine that prosperity could come to Oslob by something as simple as throwing handfuls of shrimp into the mouths of passing sharks?

Enthusiasm, Concern

Mark Rendon, a 26-year-old boatman, has been part of the Oslob operation for three years. He used to work away from home in Cebu City as a government clerk. Now he earns more, travels less, has fewer expenses and lives at home with his family.

Sixty percent of the tourism revenue goes to the fishermen, according to Rendon. Thirty percent goes to the municipality and 10 percent to the local village.

It is not just the fishers who have benefited. “Housewives have become entrepreneurs,” Rendon said—selling leis, souvenirs, fruit smoothies, snacks.

As far the sharks go, most visit for a few days or weeks and move on. But some—four percent of the total—become year-round residents. Scientists worry that sharks that take advantage of the free feed for prolonged periods may suffer ill effects, both physiologically and behaviorally.

Whale sharks have been nationally protected in the Philippines since 1998, but poaching persists in this area and elsewhere in the animal’s huge ranges.

Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic

While research has begun, conducted for example by the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines, basic questions about the influence of this feeding remain unanswered. The shrimp they’re fed is a less diverse mix of planktonic creatures than what they would consume naturally. It’s not junk food, but neither is it necessarily a healthy diet.

Whale sharks associate boats with free food, and that connection could lead them into danger elsewhere. Almost half of the whale sharks studied at Oslob have propeller cuts on their bodies, which must have happened elsewhere, since the operation uses only hand-paddled vessels. These animals may also be more likely to one day approach a shark-fishing vessel. Whale sharks have been nationally protected in the Philippines since 1998, but poaching persists here, and elsewhere in the animal’s huge ranges, where they may not necessarily be legally protected.

Guilty Pleasure?

It’s also unclear what happens when these migratory animals are conditioned to remain in one place for an extended period of time, and what effect that might have on their patterns of social interactions and movement. Of the 650 individual whale sharks that have been identified in the Philippines, a quarter have been seen at Oslob. That’s a significant portion of the population being exposed to unknown survival risks.

Some would argue that whale sharks—like whales, pandas, polar bears, tigers, and elephants—are ambassadors for the natural world: charismatic creatures that move us to care for Earth and its multitudinous life. And perhaps that benefit might offset a small degree of disturbance to these creatures.

For every grinning Oslob tourist snapping a photo with a shark, could there be another who looks into the eye of that great spotted giant and sees something of immense intrinsic worth, whose existence must be protected? Or are these sharks primarily narcissistic props?

A recent study of how tourists perceive the Oslob whale shark operation found that many visitors recognize that feeding an endangered species for tourism purposes is ethically problematic—if not morally wrong—but participate anyway. Some researchers describe this type of justification as a “guilty pleasure.”

Fishers I spoke to feared that the government might decide the conservation risks outweighed the economic benefits and ban shark-feeding. That would, in effect, end their business. They hope the benefits will be seen to offset the risks to the sharks.

For Rendon, it’s simple. “I want to do this forever,” he says.

For advocates of the creatures, it’s equally plain: Wildlife should not be fed.

Meanwhile, whale shark tourism—with its unknown effects on the animals—shows no signs of slowing down.



By freedivinguae

Mexico stops hotel project at Playa Xcacel, large sea turtle nesting beach

Playa Xcacel sea turtle

Environmental authorities in Mexico say they have denied permits for a proposed hotel near one of Mexico’s most important sea turtle nesting beaches on the Caribbean.

The 520-room hotel project would have erected 23 buildings and an artificial lake on property just inland from the Xcacel beach, north of the resort of Tulum.

The federal Environment Department said in statement late Monday the project could threaten Xcacel, and called it “the site with the largest observed nesting of sea turtles on the entire Yucatan Peninsula.”

The beach is a nesting site for loggerhead, hawksbill and green sea turtles, and part of the land is considered a protected area.

But parts of the property behind the beach have been the target of real estate development plans since the late 1990s. Environmental authorities have turned down at least one previous proposed “eco hotel” project there.

On Mexico’s western coast, President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced he has blocked another conservation proposal. Lopez Obrador will take office Dec. 1, but outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto has made it clear he won’t cross Lopez Obrador.

Some environmental groups had been pushing Pena Nieto for a near-total ban on almost all fishing in the upper Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.

Some activists had proposed the ban to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise, of which fewer than 30 remain.

Vaquitas have been decimated by nets set for the totoaba fish, whose swim bladder is considered a delicacy in China and commands high prices. Poachers often hide among legitimate boats to catch totoaba and sell the bladders. The government has struggled to enforce a ban on gill-net fishing in the area.

But Lopez Obrador said over the weekend that “we have gotten visits from fishermen who were worried that the federal government would decree a fishing ban in the Gulf of California,” Lopez Obrador said. “We talked with Pena Nieto and that decree has been blocked.”