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International Team of Scientists Seek to Uncover the Mysteries of the World’s Whale Sharks by Tracking their Movements

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The Galapagos Islands are the only known location where large, female whale sharks that appear to be pregnant can be seen gathering from June to November each year. To date little is known about whale shark birthing habits or location, or their pups.

With the permission of the Galapagos National Park Directorate, experts from around the globe sailed to Darwin Island in the far northern region of the Galapagos Marine Reserve in Ecuador. The objective was to document the movements and behaviors of the world’s largest fish, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), in order to better understand its natural history and improve international conservation measures.

Although whale sharks are found in tropical and temperate waters around the globe, little is known about their ecology. Most studies have occurred at locations primarily visited briefly by juvenile males perhaps to feed (e.g., Western Australia, Mozambique, the Gulf of Mexico, Republic of Philippines).  Few adult whale sharks have been seen at these same locations.  The whereabouts, movements, and behaviors of adult whale sharks has long remained a mystery, and scientists have rarely had opportunities to get close to them until now in the Galapagos.

Jonathan Green, project leader and member of Fundacion Megafauna Marina Ecuador, has been observing whale sharks at Darwin Island for over 20 years. “It became clear to me that we are dealing here with a very specific portion of the population. Almost all whale sharks we observe are large females, with distended abdomens, suggestive of pregnancy.”

In 2011, together with the Galapagos National Park Directorate and other partners, Green created the Galapagos Whale Shark Project. The project began an ambitious study to attach satellite tags to sharks at Darwin Island to track their movements. The initial results were surprising. The team found that rather than a resident group of whale sharks, there was a steady stream of whale sharks moving past Darwin throughout the season.

Although there may be only three or four whale sharks present at any given time, the turnover rate is around two days, so over a season several hundred sharks may use the site.”

Dr. Alex Hearn of Turtle Island Restoration Network and Universidad San Francisco de Quito has worked on the project since its inception.

We found that the sharks were moving over a thousand kilometers offshore along the equatorial front, then back again past Darwin to the highly-productive waters off the shelf break of southern Ecuador and northern Peru. Could these movements be related to pupping grounds?”

Only a handful of neonate (newborn) whale sharks have ever been reported, some from the bellies of oceanic mako and blue sharks, others from deep-water fisheries. Almost nothing is known about the early life stages of whale sharks.

Thanks to support from the Galapagos Conservation Trust and a private trust, this year we were able to bring together whale shark experts from all over the globe, a unique collaboration for a unique location,” added Green.

Dr. Brent Stewart of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute was one of the pioneers of whale shark tracking and has been studying whale sharks in waters around Kenya, the Maldives, Western Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Gulf of California. During the research cruise he attached long-term satellite tags to four female whale sharks. These tags will now provide information on movements for up to eight months.

We hope to document where these adult females travel and spend their time, how they interact with local and regional marine ecosystems, and perhaps too where they give birth and mate,” he remarked. The scientists also attached a further six short-term satellite tags and a custom camera tag.

Dr. Simon Pierce and Dr. Chris Rohner of the Marine Megafauna Foundation have been working with whale sharks internationally and are part of a global effort to maintain a photo database of individual whale sharks.

Whale sharks can be identified by the pattern of spots behind their gills, the equivalent of a human fingerprint. By submitting photos to www.whaleshark.org, an online collaboration system for whale shark researchers, we are documenting global connectivity between feeding sites along with the residency of sharks at particular favored areas,” explained Dr. Pierce. “Citizen science plays a key role in this effort, and any divers that have visited Galapagos can also submit their encounters to the global database,” added Rohner.

By taking small skin samples from sharks, Galapagos-born biologist Leandro Vaca of Galapagos Science Center, Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Ph.D. candidate Clare Prebble from the Marine Megafauna Foundation hope to determine where the sharks are spending their time and what they eat.

The tissue samples can be analyzed for their stable isotope levels and fatty acid content, which can then be related back to plankton samples we took during the cruise at Darwin,” explained Vaca. “Unlike at other places where whale sharks are regularly seen, the sharks at Darwin have never been observed feeding. Using tiny pieces of skin, we can compare the sharks’ tissue composition with samples from Peru and other locations to reconstruct their movements between feeding and possible breeding or pupping areas,” added Prebble.

Dr. Alistair Dove of Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is leading the effort to take blood from the whale sharks in order to analyze their hormonal levels and carry out basic health assessments. “We have developed techniques to take blood under aquarium conditions, but applying them in the field presents huge challenges. After this trip however, I am confident that it can be done.” Dove was struck by the marine life at Darwin. “This is such a special location, not just because of the whale sharks. We encountered walls of hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks just off the reef on every dive, along with yellowfin tuna, bottlenose dolphins, silky and Galapagos sharks and green turtles. The Galapagos National Park Service have a jewel here, and we feel honored to be able to contribute to their work conserving the rich biodiversity of these islands.”

The Galapagos National Park Directorate is currently reviewing the zonation of the marine and terrestrial areas. The information gathered on habitat use for whale sharks and other key marine species is extremely important for this process,” said biologist Harry Reyes, Head of Marine Ecosystem Use and Conservation at the Galapagos National Park Directorate. His colleague Eduardo Espinoza, Coordinator of Marine Ecosystem Monitoring, explained that the Galapagos National Park Directorate carries out conservation actions for protected species in accordance with the international agreements and treaties to which Ecuador is party. Whale sharks are listed on the Convention of Migratory Species and are categorized as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Galapagos Whale Shark Project Partners

Turtle Island Restoration Network works to mobilize people and communities around the world to protect marine wildlife, the oceans and the inland waterways that sustain them. www.SeaTurtles.Org

Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute’s mission is “To return to the sea some measure of the benefits derived from it” by conducting research on marine fauna to support conservation and maintenance of vital populations on in healthy oceans.

Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that contains more than 10 million gallons of water and has the largest collection of aquatic animals. Georgia Aquarium’s mission is to be a scientific institution that entertains and educates, features exhibits and programs of the highest standards, and offers engaging and exciting guest experiences that promote the conservation of aquatic biodiversity throughout the world. Georgia Aquarium is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. For additional information, visit www.georgiaaquarium.org.

CONTACTS

Jonathan R. Green

Director of Whale Shark Investigation

Fundación Megafauna Marina, Ecuador

jonathangwsp@gmail.com

Dr. Alex Hearn

Marine Science Advisor, Turtle Island Restoration Network

Professor/Researcher, Universidad San Francisco de Quito

Ahearn@usfq.edu.ec, alex@tirn.net

Brent S. Stewart, Ph.D., J.D.

Senior Research Scientist

Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute

bstewart@hswri.org

Sara Flores

Coordinadora de prensa

Universidad San Francisco de Quito

sflores@usfq.edu.ec

 

 

 

Marine Life & Conservation

Jeff chats to… Ana Filipa Sobral, Founder of The Manta Catalog Project in the Azores (Watch Video)

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In this exclusive Zoom interview, Jeff Goodman, Scubaverse Editor-at-Large, chats to Ana Filipa Sobral, Founder and Project Leader of The Manta Catalog Project in the Azores.

Ana Filipa Sobral is a marine biologist and conservationist based in the Azores Islands. She moved to the Azores in 2011 and once there, realised that this was one of the few places in the world where Sicklefin Devil Rays (Mobula tarapacana) gather in large groups, making it a strategic place to study them. She started the The Manta Catalog Project and through this project, collects photo ID and occurrence data on Mobulid Rays, with the precious help of divers and dive operators as citizen scientists.

Ana is also finishing her PhD which focuses on population genetics and connectivity of migratory elasmobranchs in oceanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean. The main goal fueling my research has been to help fill the knowledge gaps on elasmobranch biology and ecology to ultimately assist in the design of effective conservation and management plans aimed at protecting their populations in this remote region of the North Atlantic Ocean.

You can find out more about Ana’s important work at: https://mantacatalogazores.wixsite.com/mobulaid/project.


Rather listen to a podcast? Listen to the audio HERE on the Scubaverse podcast channel at Anchor FM.

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Dive Holiday Deals from Diverse Travel

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Planning your next dive holiday? Check out the latest special offers from UK-based Tour Operator Diverse Travel and get yourself a great dive holiday deal!

INDONESIA | MY Emperor Harmoni | Bali, Sumbawa & Komodo | 15 – 23 September 2022

Save up to 1/3 off a trip to Indonesia!

Your chance to dive Bali, Komodo and Raja Ampat aboard the NEW luxury MY Emperor Harmoni for less!

Launching in September 2022. Emperor Harmoni is Emperor Divers Indonesia’s brand new liveaboard.

Built of Sulawesi Ironwood and offering a truly new experience to liveaboard holidays, experience a true sense of sailing the Indonesian seas in freedom, style, comfort and confidence with her two engines. Enjoy spacious diving and relaxation areas or relax with a massage on deck.

Example price based on Bali departure to Komodo

WAS £2900 / NOW from just £1995* per person based on sharing a twin luxury cabin including:

  • 1 night in Bali before the boat departure with airport transfers
  • One way flight from Labuan Bajo to Bali after the liveaboard with 20kgs baggage
  • 7 nights onboard MY Emperor Harmoni with 3 meals a day, afternoon snacks, unlimited drinking water, tea & coffee
  • All diving with guide, cylinders & weights, Marine Park & Port Fees
  • Free Nitrox
  • 1 cocktail party on a local island (weather allowing)
  • Return airport transfers

* Price excludes international flights, these can be quoted at the time of reservation

Booking deadline: Subject to availability.

Other Dates available – book before 30 September!


MALTA | Dolmen Hotel | 28 September – 05 October 2022

With easily accessible dive sites offering great visibility, caves, overhangs and swim-throughs, with few currents, Malta is an ideal diving holiday location.

A modern hotel, with spacious, comfortable guest rooms and a choice of restaurants with delicious international and national cuisine. Several wonderfully relaxing bars, outdoor and indoor pools, plus a casino and several function rooms.

Price from just £975 per person and includes:

  • Flights from Gatwick to Malta with 23kgs baggage
  • 7 nights in twin room
  • Bed & Breakfast meal plan
  • 5 day / 10 dives diving with guide, tanks & weights

Booking deadline: Subject to availability – alternative dates available


MALDIVES | Emperor Atoll | Best of Maldives | 10 – 18 September  2022

This popular liveaboard and her crew give a personalised welcome to small groups of no more than 12 guests.

Built to high, comfortable standards she measures 26 metres and accommodates guests in 6 twin-berth cabins, all with air-conditioning and private bathrooms.

From just £1925 per person based on sharing a twin cabin including:

  • Flights from London to Male with 30kgs baggage
  • 7 nights in shared cabin
  • 3 meals a day, afternoon snacks, unlimited drinking water, tea & coffee
  • 6 days’ diving – total of 17 dives (incl. 1 night dive), guide, cylinders & weights
  • Free Nitrox
  • 1 BBQ dinner on uninhabited island (weather allowing)
  • Malé city tour (on request)
  • Return airport transfers

Booking deadline: Subject to availability.


EGYPT | Emperor Superior | Reefs & Wrecks | 11 – 18 November 2022

A very popular liveaboard, Emperor Superior offers fantastic diving in comfortable surroundings. Her experienced crew make this one of the best for divers in the Red Sea.

NOW from just £1255 per person based on sharing a twin cabin including:

  • Flights from Gatwick to Hurghada with 23kgs baggage
  • 7 nights in shared cabin
  • 3 meals a day, soft drinks, red wine with dinner
  • 6 days’ diving, guide, 12ltr tank & weights, Marine Park fees and port departure fees
  • Free Nitrox
  • Airport transfers

Booking deadline: Subject to availability. Limited spaces available.


EGYPT | Emperor Echo | South & St Johns Itinerary | 05 – 12 January 2023

Jump on board the latest addition to the Emperor fleet and enjoy diving the famous sites of the Red Sea with this fantastic special offer. Great value for money and perfect for small groups of buddies with a ‘Book 5 and 1 dives for FREE’ offer all year round.

Price NOW from just £1035 per person based on sharing a twin cabin/room including:

  • Flights from Gatwick to Hurghada with 23kgs baggage
  • 7 nights in shared cabin
  • 3 meals a day, soft drinks, red wine with dinner
  • 6 days’ diving, guide, 12ltr tank & weights, Marine Park fees and port departure fees
  • Free Nitrox

Booking deadline: Subject to availability – limited flight seats at this price.

Alternative departure airports available at a supplement.


All offers are subject to availability. Call Diverse Travel on 01473 852002, email the team at  info@diversetravel.co.uk or click HERE to see the latest special offers on their website.

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Save up to 1/3 off a trip to Indonesia! Your chance to dive Bali, Komodo and Raja Ampat aboard the NEW luxury MY Emperor Harmoni for less! Launching in September 2022. Emperor Harmoni is Emperor Divers Indonesia’s brand new liveaboard. Built of Sulawesi Ironwood and offering a truly new experience to liveaboard holidays, experience a true sense of sailing the Indonesian seas in freedom, style, comfort and confidence with her two engines. Enjoy spacious diving and relaxation areas or relax with a massage on deck. Example price based on Bali departure to Komodo WAS £2900 / NOW from just £1995* per person based on sharing a twin luxury cabin including: 1 night in Bali before the boat departure with airport transfers One way flight from Labuan Bajo to Bali after the liveaboard with 20kgs baggage 7 nights onboard MY Emperor Harmoni with 3 meals a day, afternoon snacks, unlimited drinking water, tea & coffee All diving with guide, cylinders & weights, Marine Park & Port Fees Free Nitrox 1 cocktail party on a local island (weather allowing) Return airport transfers * Price excludes international flights, these can be quoted at the time of reservation Booking deadline: Subject to availability. Other Dates available - book before 30 September! Call Diverse Travel on 01473 852002 or email info@diversetravel.co.uk. More Less

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