Citizen Science with Marine Megafauna Foundation

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The Marine Megafauna Foundation Ray of Hope Expedition 2015 included a marine biologist (USA), a geneticist (Japan, living and working in the US), a biologist from the Maldives (a Scot by birth), a scuba instructor from the Maldives (a Kiwi), a Penn biology major (from Mexico), a videographer (South Africa), and those of us, scuba divers and/or photographers, who care deeply about our watery world, both Canadian and US. Our mission was to photograph animals (Whale Sharks and Manta Rays) for Identification, upload to Whaleshark.org and MantaMatcher.org, and to take genetic samples from the Manta Rays of the Yucatan. We were not entirely successful with the Mantas…the elusive creatures… well, they eluded us! We did manage to get 7 or so, but we fell far short of the desired 30 samples.

Whale Sharks, on the other hand, were in abundance. The Yucatan is one of the world’s largest aggregations of whale sharks, if not the largest. We headed out in the mornings for a 90 minute boat ride to the shark area, typically just before sunrise, and seeing the dawn out on the calm Caribbean Sea was a serenely beautiful experience. Once out to the shark area (wherever the whale sharks are gathering and feeding that particular day) it became disheartening to see all the tourist boats. There must have been 50 boats on some days.

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I took this photo of the vertical, pregnant whale shark and our Kiwi!

Please do not get me wrong. We are trying to conserve and preserve these animals by showing how valuable they are to tourism, and valuable they certainly are. Tourists are out in droves to see and to swim with them. 40 or 50 boats at a time can seem pretty excessive, though. The first day we hung out on the edges, swimming with the sharks who were on the periphery of the tourists. We were on a scientific vessel and had a permit to be in the water with them for study. The first day was very shark rich, and I was able to get several ID shots, as did other members of the group. The best day was ahead, however.

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A lot of boats in there!

On the third day of the expedition we headed out looking for mantas, and skipped the whale sharks until around noon. By that time, the boats were gone. We had 30 or so whale sharks to ourselves, and one other boat. It had to have been one of the best animal encounters I have ever had. Without the hoard of boats, one could be patient, waiting for feeding whale sharks to swim by. We didn’t have to chase them, or even swim that hard to stay up with them (they may look as though they are moving slow, but they are really going much faster than you think) because they were lazily filtering the surface of the water, knowing they were pretty much alone and in no hurry. With several boats, it gets confusing, and the sharks often have to change course to avoid snorkelers, but on this day, they were content and feeding happily on tuna spawn. Every time we got out of the water we had to brush off tuna eggs from our wetsuits and hair.

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Passing the boat

I have not been happy with the whale shot photographs I have taken over the years. On this glorious day, alone with whale sharks, I took the best photographs I have ever taken of these spotted, gentle giants. Just incredible!

My dream has always been to watch a whale shark vertically feeding in the water, and to capture photos of it.  My dream came true with a huge, pregnant Whale Shark who had to be 40 feet long. She was immense, and it was amazing to watch her, vertical and still, while she filtered tuna spawn. Ah, she was such a beauty! And lucky for me, Dr Andrea Marshall (the Director of Marine Megafauna Foundation and Ray of Hope) was in the water and captured an incredible, once in a lifetime photo of me with the whale shark. Yes, I will be framing it! I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to have a photo of this quality! Thank you, Andrea!

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Andrea’s photo of me with a whale shark

I took several ID photos and uploaded them to www.whaleshark.org. It was exciting to receive a few matches, telling me that I had photographed a shark who had been photographed several times over the past 5 years. It’s also exciting NOT to receive matches, meaning I uploaded photos of sharks who were new to the system. I am thrilled to be able to assist conservation science by being a Citizen Scientist.

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Whale Shark ID shot: these spot patterns are unique to each individual.

“In today’s world, it’s clear that our natural environment cannot be preserved and protected by the few people officially designated with this task. It will take all of us, in all parts of the world. We all need to find ways to help in this monumental task.

Citizen Science offers each of us a path to find special ways in which we can each help protect our part of the world. It’s an elegant, efficient, and engaging solution to the huge environmental problems we face in the 21st century.” www.citizenscientists.com

I cannot begin to express the wonder and the thrill of being near to these ocean pelagics. It is truly awe-inspiring… and I am so grateful I can help in their conservation. Check out http://www.citizenscientists.com/ and check out how many ways there are to help!

For more from Tam, visit www.travelswithtam.com.

Tam Warner Minton

Tam Warner Minton

Tam Warner Minton is an avid scuba diver, amateur underwater photographer, and adventurer. She encourages "citizen science" diving, whether volunteering with a group or by one's self. For Tam, the unexpected is usually the norm!

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