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Announcing the Bird’s Head Seascape Whale Shark ID Database

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As part of our continuing efforts to make the Bird’s Head Seascape website as useful, interesting and interactive as possible, we are delighted to announce the launch of the BHS Whale Shark ID database! Created as a sister initiative to the BHS Manta ID database, this subroutine within birdsheadseascape.com is designed to allow visitors to browse the database and familiarize themselves with the known individual whale sharks of the Bird’s Head in Indonesia (including information on their size, sex, recognizeable scarring, and their known movements around the Bird’s Head), compare their own ID photos with the database, and help us learn more about BHS whale sharks by submitting photos and observational data directly to the database. This online database represents a fantastic opportunity for “citizen scientists” to contribute to our knowledge about the world’s largest fish – and we strongly encourage you all to get involved!

The whale shark Rhincodon typus is the world's largest fish (reaching up to 18m in length!) and is regularly encountered in both Cendrawasih and Triton Bays in the BHS.

The whale shark Rhincodon typus is the world’s largest fish (reaching up to 18m in length!) and is regularly encountered in both Cendrawasih and Triton Bays in the BHS.

The database is made possible by the fact that all whale sharks have a unique pattern of spots, blotches and streaks on their bodies, and we can use these patterns to identify and track individuals – much like a fingerprint is used to identify individual humans. While these spots and streaks cover the entire body of the whale shark, in order to standardize comparisons of photos, researchers worldwide have agreed to focus photo ID efforts on the left side of individual whale sharks, specifically on the area of the body just behind the gill slits and forward of the dorsal fin. Those wishing to perfect their whale shark photo ID skills should refer to the How it Works section of the database, which also explains in detail how to use the site to upload your photo IDs.

Those wishing to contribute their ID photos to the database should focus efforts on the left side of the animal in the region between the gills slits and the dorsal fin.

Those wishing to contribute their ID photos to the database should focus efforts on the left side of the animal in the region between the gills slits and the dorsal fin.

Whale shark-focused tourism in the Bird’s Head has been growing since 2009, with liveaboard and resort operators taking advantage of the fact that whale sharks in both Cendrawasih and Triton Bays routinely enjoy feasting on the small baitfish known locally as “ikan puri” – which means they can reliably be found each morning milling about the “bagan” lift net fishing vessels that target their favorite food. Bagan fishers will normally share a few buckets’ worth of their catch with the whale sharks, which ensures the sharks usually stick around the bagans for a few hours – allowing for prolonged tourism interactions with these behemoths.

Whale sharks in the BHS are frequently found aggregating around "bagans", lift net fishing vessels, which target the same small silverside baitfish (known locally as "ikan puri") that are one of the whale sharks preferred food sources.

Whale sharks in the BHS are frequently found aggregating around “bagans”, lift net fishing vessels, which target the same small silverside baitfish (known locally as “ikan puri”) that are one of the whale sharks preferred food sources.

Bird's Head whale sharks seem to enjoy interacting with snorkellers near the bagans...

Bird’s Head whale sharks seem to enjoy interacting with snorkellers near the bagans…

In order to better understand the whale sharks of the Bird’s Head, a number of research initiatives have been launched to study these sharks. Since 2009, the Cendrawasih Bay National Park Authority (BBTNTC), WWF-Indonesia and Dr. Brent Stewart of Hubbs Sea World Research Institute (HSWRI) have been compiling a photo ID database of Cendrawasih Bay whale sharks, as well as satellite tagging several individuals. More recently, Conservation International (CI) has been working with the BBTNTC and Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries to attach finmount satellite tags to Cendrawasih whale sharks, while also collaborating with Dr. Hawis Madduppa of the Bogor Agricultural Insitute (IPB) to examine genetic connectivity of whale sharks sampled in Cendrawasih and Triton Bays. CI has also been working with the Kaimana government and local dive operators including Triton Bay Divers to compile a photo ID database of Kaimana whale sharks, and has moreover done some limited satellite tagging in Triton Bay.

Fifteen of Cendrawasih's whale sharks now sport finmount satellite tags, allowing conservation scientists to track their movements and learn more about their diving behaviours.

Fifteen of Cendrawasih’s whale sharks now sport finmount satellite tags, allowing conservation scientists to track their movements and learn more about their diving behaviours.

Of all these initiatives, the photo ID database is truly the foundation of all research on Bird’s Head whale sharks. By compiling and continuously updating this photo ID database, we can get an estimate of total population size, better understand seasonal patterns of movement, and determine if there is any “connectivity” between the known populations in Cendrawasih and Triton Bays. And best of all – you can be part of this important research!

A screenshot from the database showing ID photos of 8 of Kaimana's 14 known whale sharks (Cendrawasih now has well over 100 documented individuals). Submit your photos and grow the database!

A screenshot from the database showing ID photos of 8 of Kaimana’s 14 known whale sharks (Cendrawasih now has well over 100 documented individuals). Submit your photos and grow the database!

If you’re keen to help, please explore the database and all its features to learn how to take the best possible whale shark identification photos, and submit as many photo IDs as possible! You’ll note we are now launching the Bird’s Head Seascape Whale Shark ID database with the known individuals from the Kaimana/Triton Bay region, though we intend to soon add in individuals from Cendrawasih as well. We encourage viewers to submit photo ID’s from ANYWHERE in the Bird’s Head – as we are particularly keen to investigate if there is movement of individuals around the Bird’s Head, and one of the best ways to do this is to compare photos of individuals taken in different areas. To date, the vast majority of whale shark sightings in the Bird’s Head are from Cendrawasih and Triton Bays, but they are also rarely reported from Raja Ampat, and we also have reports from the northern Bird’s Head (off the leatherback turtle nesting beaches of Abun) and off the FakFak coast. Send in your images and help us “connect the dots” on whale shark movement and behaviour in the Bird’s Head!

For more information about Bird’s head Seascape’s various projects visit www.birdsheadseascape.com.

Dr. Mark Erdmann's work largely focuses on the management of marine protected areas, as well as research on reef fish and mantis shrimp biodiversity, satellite tracking of endangered sharks and rays, and genetic connectivity in MPA networks. Mark is the Vice President of CI’s Asia-Pacific marine programs, tasked with providing strategic guidance and technical and fundraising support to focal marine programs in CI's Asia Pacific Field Division, including especially the Bird's Head Seascape and Pacific Oceanscape initiatives, as well as marine programs in China, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Samoa and the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI). Mark is a coral reef ecologist (Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley) who has recently moved to New Zealand, and previously lived and worked in Indonesia for 23 years. During his time there he launched and directed the Bird’s Head Seascape initiative for over a decade, developing it into one of CI's flagship marine programs globally. Mark is an avid diver and has logged over 10,000 scuba dives while surveying marine biodiversity throughout the region, discovering and describing over 150 new species of reef fish and mantis shrimp in the process. He has published over 140 scientific articles and four books, including most recently the three-volume set "Reef Fishes of the East Indies" with colleague Dr. Gerald Allen, and has been a scientific advisor to numerous natural history documentary films for the BBC, National Geographic and NHK. Erdmann was awarded a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation in 2004 for his work in marine conservation education and training for Indonesian schoolchildren, members of the press, and the law enforcement community. Though his work is now largely focused on the management of marine protected areas, his continuing research interests include reef fish and mantis shrimp biodiversity, satellite and acoustic telemetry of endangered elasmobranch species, and genetic connectivity in MPA networks. In recent years Mark has devoted significant time to supporting the Indonesian government in its efforts to improve conservation and management of its sharks and rays, including the designation of the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary in 2014. Mark maintains a research associate position with the California Academy of Sciences, supervises several Master's and PhD students at the University of Auckland, and is active on the boards of a number of NGOs working in the Coral Triangle, including Yayasan Kalabia, Reef Check Indonesia, and Manta Trust. Mark and his wife Arnaz and three children (Mica, Brahm and Cruz) live in Auckland, where he maintains a deep personal commitment to do whatever is necessary to ensure his children will be able to enjoy the same high-quality underwater experiences that continue to provide the inspiration for his dedication to the marine environment.

Marine Life & Conservation Blogs

The world’s 12 best places to snorkel with whales

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Whales have captivated our imagination for centuries and snorkeling with whales is one of life’s best experiences. Whether you want to meet them in the tropics or under the Arctic sun, there is a whale adventure for you. Here is our guide to the world’s best places to snorkel with whales.

HUMPBACK WHALES

Humpback whales are found at destinations worldwide, making them easy to spend time with. These huge whales are known for their spectacular breaches and complex song and are just as rewarding whether you watch them from a boat or get in the water.

  1. Tonga

If you want to snorkel in clear blue waters with humpback mothers and their calves, visit Tonga. It is one of the most popular places to swim with humpbacks, where you can choose from day safaris or longer trips. Just make sure you book early so you don’t miss out.

When to go: July to September.

  1. Moorea, French Polynesia

French Polynesia is the perfect place to combine a luxurious getaway with a humpback whale swim safari and world-class snorkeling. There are endless snorkeling spots, beautiful beachside resorts and numerous whales. If you want to try scuba diving for the first time, the diving in Moorea is ideal for beginners. The reefs are pristine, the waters are sheltered, and you can swim with Moorea’s famously friendly stingrays whilst you’re there.

When to go: July to November.

  1. Silver Bank, Dominican Republic

The Silver Bank marine reserve provides a safe winter haven for the North Atlantic humpback whale population whilst they gather to mate, calve and raise their young. There are various liveaboard operators that offer multi-day safaris dedicated solely to learning about and swimming with these charming whales. This is a great option if you want to immerse yourself fully in the world of whales.

When to go: January to April.

4. Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

UNESCO-listed Ningaloo Reef hosts tens of thousands of humpback whales each year and is also a migratory route for dolphins, dugongs and manta rays. Lacking the crowds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, it is the most peaceful place to swim with humpback whales in Australia.

When to go: July to November.

  1. Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Hervey Bay – the world’s first World Whale Heritage Site – has been called the whale watching capital of the world, thanks to its abundant humpbacks. This conservation-focused destination is just a 3.5-hour drive north of Brisbane and offers day trips to swim with the whales.

Time your trip right and you can also enjoy the annual Hervey Bay Whale Festival and Paddle Out for Whales.

When to go: July to November.

  1. Reunion Island

Réunion lies 550 km east of Madagascar and is a lesser-known humpback whale hotspot. With only a handful of people allowed in the water at any one time, it is a great destination for more intimate whale encounters.

When to go: August to September.

  1. Iceland

Iceland’s rich waters are a prime feeding ground for humpbacks and offer a unique whale swim experience. Wearing a cozy dry suit, you can spend hours admiring these whales in Iceland’s incredible gin-clear waters.

When to go: June to August.

 DWARF MINKE WHALES

These pint-sized whales grow up to 8 meters long and were only discovered in the 1980s. They might be relatively new to the whale watching scene, but they are wonderful to swim with.

  1. Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Known for being exceptionally friendly, dwarf minke whales create truly memorable encounters as they swim around you, under you and sometimes even between your fins.

Hop on a minke whale safari at Cairns and enjoy. Go snorkeling or try Great Barrier Reef diving whilst you’re there to experience the incredible wonders of this enormous reef system.

When to go: June to July.

SPERM WHALES

Weighing up to 50 tons and reaching 15 – 20 meters long, sperm whales are one of the most sought-after and impressive whale species to swim with.

  1. Dominica

The sheer drop-offs and deep sheltered bays around Dominica are perfect for sperm whales, and the females and calves stay there all year. After just a short boat ride from the coast, you will be swimming with these amazing animals in calm azure waters.

When to go: Year-round, though November to March is peak season.

BLUE WHALES

Weighing up to a staggering 200 tonnes, blue whales are enormous, and there are two great places you can swim with them.

  1. Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of the only places where you can swim with blue whales, watch them from a boat, or go whale spotting in small airplanes – which is arguably the best way to get an idea of their sheer size.

When to go: March to April.

  1. San Diego, California

Baja California hosts the largest population of blue whales in the world every summer and there are a small number of operators that offer blue whale swimming safaris from San Diego. With small group sizes and week-long programs, they are perfect for maximizing your time with these huge whales.

When to go: June to October.

BELUGA WHALES

Beluga whales are easy to recognize thanks to their bright white coloring and rounded heads. These highly social animals are one of the most vocal whales and gather in large groups in Canada.

  1. Churchill, Canada

Tens of thousands of beluga whales gather each year in Hudson Bay and the small town of Churchill offers unique trips to swim with them. You can enjoy close-up encounters with hundreds of belugas in the water, plus spot polar bears, moose, Arctic foxes and more whilst you’re there.

When to go: June to September.

If you can’t get enough of whales, read the SSI guide to diving with whales to discover even more destinations where you can meet these giants of the ocean.


Kathryn Curzon, a shark conservationist and dive travel writer for Scuba Schools International (SSI), wrote this article.

 

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Gear Reviews

Tried & Tested: Typhoon International’s Totland Dog Vest

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Typhoon say about their pet flotation aid: “Our Totland Dog Vest is bound to be a hit with canine crew members whose safety is just as important as that of the rest of the family.  The Totland Dog Vest offers the all-important buoyancy in an easy-to-spot bright orange tough coated nylon. 

It is easy to buckle up and has a handy haul out handle and lead loop attachment point, making it easy to help your dog on and off the boat.”

Test Conditions

  • Location: Trefor, UK
  • Temperature: 20 degrees C
  • No of Swims: 4
  • Equipment Used: Gucci the Golden Retriever
  • Test Equipment: Typhoon Totland Dog Vest
  • RRP: £20.95

Review

The Totland Dog Vest is available in four sizes, and having consulted the size chart we went for the XL to fit our big Golden Retriever, Gucci. He is a good swimmer, so for a day at the beach does not need an aid to help him stay afloat whilst chasing his favourite ball, but if we were taking him on a boat we would certainly be using one.

The vest was easy to fit and the neck fitting was padded and looked really comfortable. Gucci certainly put up no complaints at wearing it and was happy to charge up and down the beach with it on. It did not impede his movement (both running and swimming) at all. The handle is really useful for close control, as well as being essential if we were to have to assist him back onto a boat or river bank. There is an attachment for a lead too, so for those who are training their dogs to swim or worry about their recall, a long lead can be attached to let them swim and have fun and still be able to get them back!

The bright orange colour is great to being able to keep track of your dog if they swim further away from you than you would like too. The float kept Gucci nice and high in the water and he was keen to try it out over and over again! It is a tough vest with secure clips giving you confidence that your best buddy would be safe if caught out in a current. We will certainly be using this to give our nervous puppy some confidence as he ventures into the water in the future.

Visit www.typhoon-int.co.uk to see the full range and to find details of your nearest stockist.

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Explore the amazing triangle of Red Sea Reefs - The Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on board the brand new liveaboard Big Blue.  With an option to add on a week at Roots Red Sea before or after. 

Strong currents and deep blue water are the catalysts that bring the pelagic species flocking to these reefs. The reefs themselves provide exquisite homes for a multitude of marine life.  The wafting soft corals are adorned with thousands of colourful fish. The gorgonian fans and hard corals provide magnificent back drops, all being patrolled by the reef’s predatory species.

£1475 per person based on double occupancy.  Soft all inclusive board basis, buffet meals with snacks, tea and coffee always available.  Add a week on at Roots Red Sea Resort before or after the liveaboard for just £725pp.  Flights and transfers are included.  See our brochure linked above for the full itinerary.

This trip will be hosted by The Scuba Place.  Come Dive with Us!

Call 020 3515 9955 or email john@thescubaplace.co.uk

www.thescubaplace.co.uk

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