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Marine Life & Conservation

The Amazing Grace of Sharks

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I feel as if I have been waiting atop the ocean in our boat for shark predation season to begin for such a long time and finally I can say it has arrived! For many a week now we have talked about the arrival of peak season (okay, make that many a month), and every time we have had a storm system pushing through the bay the crew have commented to one another that “this will be the storm, this is the one that will switch the sharks on to predatory mode.” And every time it hasn’t happened we have looked forward to the next storm and how that will be the one. It is fair to say I have been scanning the horizon every sunrise for signs that the sharks have begun hunting and, call me overenthusiastic, but I have been much like a child waiting for Christmas to begin.

KH seal in air shark fin

Simply put I find this part of the year absolutely fascinating, both in terms of witnessing the sharks and seals’ natural behaviours and also in terms of sharing this special time with our guests. It is a privilege to see the look upon a person’s face when they observe a great white shark fly out of the water at high speed without so much as any warning that it was going to do so, especially when it is upon our decoy seal and everyone was watching. Peoples’ mouths drop open, they laugh, they smile, they are left speechless or they simply shout for sheer joy. There are so many different reactions but each one certainly contains pure wonder at what just happened and a childlike excitement when they realise they have captured the moment on camera. A memory that will last a lifetime. Great white sharks are enormous, incredibly powerful and yet so graceful and elegant when they are air borne. People tend to think of whale species when they consider the words breach, dance, grace and beauty. But for me these sharks are equally as beautiful when they arch above the water with their white bellies on display as an orange sun rises overhead and bathes the shark in warm light. And every breach is different, unique somehow. The sharks have an incredible ability to bend and twist into different positions and fly out of the water horizontally, vertically, curving sideways and even somersaulting over themselves at times before they re-enter the dark water below. Whilst this variety is most often seen when the sharks are hunting seals it can also be seen during decoy seal tows and, that most magical of moments, natural breaches. A moment when the shark leaves the water not in pursuit of a seal, fake or real, but for reasons we don’t fully understand. This year we have seen a high number of natural breaches and they are always especially acrobatic.

KH shark breach misses seal

The difficult part of this time of year for me is when watching the sharks hunt the seals. Nature is stunning in her beauty and magnificence but yet where she gives, she also takes away and as the saying goes ‘nature can be cruel’. The seals upon the island are incredible predators in their own right and having spent months watching their social behaviours and seeing the youngsters grow and play within the shallows I find myself somewhat attached to and in awe of them. Not only do they live upon an exposed rock all year round but they have to travel through the waters of False Bay repeatedly in order to feed, which obviously involves learning how to survive in the event that they are pursued by a shark at any given time. I have watched on many occasions as a shark breached upon an unsuspecting seal and missed. When this happens the seal has the presence of mind to stop, look below the surface of the water, locate the shark and then swim to its tail or behind its jaws. The seal then twists and turns as the shark continues to pursue it from below and either the seal is eventually caught or the shark spends too much energy and loses interest. The seal can then continue onwards. Interestingly, the chances of a shark successfully hunting a seal drop dramatically if it misses the seal on the first breach and this dance between predator and prey begins. The younger seals have that presence of mind to behave in such a way when perhaps until that moment they have never even seen a shark and that makes them nothing short of exceptional in my opinion. Their clarity of mind, agility and ability to adapt to a situation that quickly is incredible and they deserve our utmost respect, which of course they have and we do everything possible to avoid interfering with their natural behaviour at such times.

KH shark breach gannetts

Equally I find myself in awe of the sharks when they are hunting and I bear witness to their predatory abilities and also how humane they are when hunting. They do not play with their prey or take their time when making a kill. Often we find an event is over seconds after it has begun and the suffering of the seal involved is thankfully minimal. Of course a predation event does occasionally go on for a longer period of time and I find myself rooting for the seal to escape yet also recognising that the sharks are hungry and trying to survive themselves. It is an impossible situation as a human and I have talked about this with guests on occasion when they also find themselves not quite knowing how to respond. There is no single answer and so inevitably we all watch quietly, respectfully, and take the moment in knowing that both of these species are truly wonders of our natural world. And then before we know it another shark has breached, the crew have shouted ‘hold on’ and we have moved onwards at high speed to witness another of nature’s moments.

KH seal baying

Whilst peak hunting season seems to have begun later this year, it has definitely been worth the wait. We still have the best to come as we move through July and into August with our sharks, which is also whale season in the bay. I am truly looking forward to welcoming back the southern right and humpback whales and enjoying their elegance and grace alongside that of our sharks.

To find out more about the sharks of False Bay, visit www.apexpredators.com.

Photos: Nicholas Curzon

Main Photo: Chris Fallows

Kathryn has a Masters in Environmental Biology and is a PADI scuba diving instructor. Her passion lies with raising awareness of and conserving the sharks within our oceans and also writing about her experiences under and on the water. She is currently a wildlife guide and crew member for Apex Shark Expeditions in South Africa.

Marine Life & Conservation

Join Reef-World’s sustainability webinar at the first ever Scuba.Digital

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Join Reef-World and a panel of industry experts at the first ever Scuba.Digital for an open discussion on green tourism and how this might be shaped by a post-corona world.

 The Reef-World Foundation – the international coordinator of the UN Environment Programme’s Green Fins initiative – is pleased to invite its supporters to its Sustainable Diving event on the main stage of Scuba.Digital 2020 (3pm BST on Friday 23 October 2020). At this virtual Q&A, members of the public will hear from industry leaders about the steps they’re taking towards sustainability, particularly in light of the current pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed plans and caused uncertainty across the dive industry: not least when it comes to sustainability. It has also led to a surge in the volume of plastic waste – particularly from single-use and hard-to-recycle products – with masks and gloves being found washed up on beaches. So, what now for green tourism? In this session, attendees will discover the unexpected environmental challenges that have been caused by the pandemic, how sustainability leaders are overcoming those obstacles and the simple changes YOU can make to protect coral reefs for future generations.

Reef-World and the United Nations Environment Programme will host a lively virtual discussion with PADI, Explorer Ventures Liveaboard Fleet, Scuba.Digital, Paralenz, ZuBlu and Bubbles Dive Centre. Together, they will talk about how the sustainability of the diving industry has been impacted by Covid-19 and predictions for the future of green tourism. Attendees will learn:

  • Why is coral so important and how they can be protected through sustainable diving practices
  • What sustainability leaders across the industry are doing to protect coral reefs
  • And how they’ve adjusted their plans in light of the current pandemic
  • What the future of sustainable tourism might look like, according to the expert panel
  • & the simple changes YOU can make to protect coral reefs for future generations.

The panel discussion will be available to watch on the Scuba.Digital main stage at 3-3.30pm and 4-4.30pm BST (with a short break in between the two sessions) on Friday 23 October 2020. Attendees will be able to submit their own questions to the panel too.

Chloe Harvey, Director at The Reef-World Foundation, said: “Reef-World’s sustainable diving events have been gaining momentum in previous years so we’re delighted to be able to host this exciting panel event despite current travel restrictions. While the pandemic is causing challenges across the industry, it also offers the opportunity for us to pause, regroup and plan to build back better with a more sustainable tourism industry. We must act now to protect our coral reefs – the very asset upon which our industry depends – and we must work together. So, we’re thrilled to be shining a light on the future of sustainability and help both recreational and professional divers around the world understand how they can support the cause.”

Natalie Harms, Marine Litter Focal Point, COBSEA Secretariat, UNEP – who will be chairing the event – said: “This crisis is hitting marine tourism and the people who depend on it hard. It has showed us once more that our health and the health of our ecosystems are inextricably linked. There is no silver lining for nature – now more than ever the diving community can lead by example and join hands for a sound environmental response to the crisis.”

The 2020 panel represent a range of companies who are innovating when it comes to sustainability:

Reef-World – the leader in marine tourism sustainability – aims to make sustainable diving and snorkelling the social norm.

The UN Environment Programme – the leading authority setting the global environmental agenda, which provides technical advice, support and funding for Reef-World’s Green Fins programme

Scuba.Digital – run by the team at ScubaClick Ltd – was created to help the diving industry network, collaborate and innovate in a way that won’t be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

PADI – The world’s largest diving organisation made a proclamation for the planet in 2019: shifting its brand tagline to “Seek Adventure. Save the Ocean” in order to expand its mission to include a deeper commitment to taking action to protect people and planet.

Explorer Ventures Liveaboard Fleet – is enhancing environmental operations through a customised management strategy, starting with its Caribbean vessels. It is also helping The Reef-World Foundation establish targeted liveaboard protocols as part of the Green Fins initiative with the hope of improving dive operator and liveaboard policies worldwide.

ZuBlu – is a travel platform helping scuba divers and marine enthusiasts discover and book their next underwater adventure in Asia

Paralenz – has developed a camera that enable divers to capture and share the state and life of the Ocean as a seamless part of the dive

Bubbles Dive Centre – in Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia, is one of the global Top 10 Green Fins members.

This online panel event is relevant to representatives from all segments of the diving industry: recreational divers, dive professionals, dive operators, liveaboards, resorts, travel providers, diver training organisations, manufacturers, photographers, the media and more.

Jason Haiselden, Marketing & Sales Director at ScubaClick Ltd and Scuba.Digital, said: “It is great that Reef-World has grabbed the opportunity that Scuba.Digital presents to tell the industry and the diving and snorkelling public how they can make what we do more sustainable. Covid is forcing change upon us so why not take the opportunity to make sustainable changes.”

For more information, please visit www.reef-world.org / www.greenfins.net or come and meet The Reef-World Foundation team at Scuba.Digital.

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Marine Life & Conservation

Egg-laying site of critically endangered skate discovered by Scottish divers

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Over a hundred eggs belonging to the critically endangered flapper skate – previously known as the common skate – have been discovered on the rocky seabed off the north west coast of Scotland.  This is the biggest and most important egg-laying site discovered to date, but it is vulnerable to trawling and dredging.

Capable of reaching over 2.5 metres (8.2ft) in length, the flapper skate is one of the largest skate species in the world.  Once common in British waters, including areas like the North Sea’s Dogger Bank, it is now extinct in most of its former range.  The west coast of Scotland is one of the last places it can be found, and the skate is one of 81 Priority Marine Features the Scottish Government is committed to protecting.  However, despite being made aware of the site in 2019, no action has been taken by Marine Scotland to protect the charismatic species.

The discovery comes almost a year after divers recorded egg-cases at the same site in November 2019 and reported the findings to Marine Scotland.  Since 2009, it has been illegal for fishermen to commercially target flapper skates, but the giant, slow-growing species is still at risk of capture and has been devastated by hundreds of years of bottom-trawling.

Flapper skate egg-cages can be over 25cm long and take almost 18 months to hatch, making them vulnerable to incidental capture or damage by fishing gears.  The details of their life cycle are unclear because they are now so rare.

Volunteer divers, with the help of local fishermen, found the eggs known as mermaid’s purses nestled between small rocks.  Over one hundred eggs of different sizes and ages were found, indicating that the site is home to a resident population of skate.

Chris Rickard, Underwater photographer and Conservationist said: “Having observed well over 100 purses at this site, I believe the area is being used by multiple females over many years.  Unfortunately, both the purses themselves and the newly hatched young are so large that they can be caught in bottom towed gear and destroyed – a single pass with a dredge could obliterate the site.”

Divers, local fishermen and experts are now calling on the Scottish Government to take immediate action by designating a marine protected area and bring in an emergency conservation order to close it to bottom towed fishing gears.

Ailsa McLellan, Coalition Coordinator at Our Seas, said: “The Scottish Government continues to fail to step up to its duties and deliver the protection that is needed.  Less than 5 per cent of our inshore waters are permanently protected from bottom towed fishing gear and even these Marine ‘Protected’ Areas are still fished illegally.  We are living through a biodiversity crisis and we need to act quickly to protect what is left.”

The Scottish Government is duty bound to protect and recover the seas.  It designated the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura Marine Protected Area to look after this species in 2014 but still has an obligation to protect an additional site.  There are also obligations under the Scottish Government’s own national marine plan to ensure that priority species, such as this, are not harmed, and that nursery grounds are looked after.

Bally Philip from the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation said: “As a local fisherman and representative of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, this has been a great opportunity to showcase what can be achieved when fishing communities and conservationists work together.  We have already written to our MSP and Environment Minister to inform them that the creel fishermen fully support restorations on some fishing in this area to ensure this critically endangered species is afforded the protection it requires.”

These calls for action join the voices of communities around Scotland’s coast calling on the Scottish Government to protect its seas.  Marine protected areas currently cover around 30 per cent of Scotland’s territorial waters, yet about 95 per cent of Scotland’s inshore waters remain unprotected from trawling and dredging, two of the most damaging methods of fishing.

Charles Clover, Executive Director of Blue Marine Foundation, said: “The level of protection that a critically endangered animal such as the common or flapper skate currently receives in UK waters is utterly inadequate to the needs of the species.  There are too few protected areas – particularly in Scotland – and other designated areas in UK waters, such as the Dogger Bank, receive far too little protection.  We need to change the way our seas are managed or give up completely trying to conserve endangered species.”

For more information about the Blue Marine Foundation visit their website by clicking here.

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