May 27

Everyone remembers their first encounter with a whale shark, just as we all remember that first kiss, but experience has taught me that each encounter is in some manner just as unique as the first time.

When I first began diving the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin in the late 1980´s, we really had no idea of the species that we were going to find. Already Darwin´s Arch had begun to get the reputation as being the best dive site in Galapagos. Within days of my arrival to these distant shores I heard rumours of schooling hammerheads, Galapagos sharks and the strangely named ¨Pez Gato¨ or ¨catfish¨ as the fishermen referred to whale sharks. I later learned that the white spots on a whale shark where likened to those of the jaguar. Perhaps some of the fishermen had spent some of their formative years in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle!

1 Whale Shark with Creole fish - Jonathan Green

Whale shark with creole fish © Jonathan Green

As time progressed we became aware that the whale sharks were aggregating on a seasonal basis, much more frequent during the cold garua season between June and November. The larger animals were thought to be males, although as with many shark species the female whale sharks are larger on average than males. It was only when we began actively checking for male claspers that it became apparent that most of the sightings were actually of females.

By the beginning of the new millennia I was already convinced that most of those whale sharks that passed by Darwin were not only adult females, but that they were also pregnant! Their distended abdomens appear to confirm this, but how could we get solid scientific evidence? It’s not so easy when they average over 10 m in length and weigh upwards of 20 tons. Researchers working with other large pelagic sharks such as tigers and great whites are able to capture the animal and carry out certain medical procedures in a controlled environment, much as we do with humans. The shark is winched onto the deck and immobilised and although there are strict time limitations, blood samples may be taken and an ultrasound test carried out.

1 Whale Shark - Jonahtan Green

Whale shark © Jonathan Green

This is simply not possible given the size and nature of the whale shark, so how do we propose to do this? Certainly a challenge as this has never been tried before. Blood samples have been taken from captive whale sharks, but never ¨on the fly¨. Picture a diver with no means of propulsion but his fins and leg muscles, chasing down an animal the size of a single decker bus with a 4 knot current in a thousand feet of water! Sound exciting?

Next season we hope to have members from the Georgia Aquarium join us in the field to attempt taking a blood sample from a whale shark in the wild, for the very first time. They already have extensive data of the blood chemistry of captive juvenile female whale sharks that are not pregnant. By comparing the blood chemistry of a female in the wild that we are 90% certain is pregnant, we may be able to determine how close to birthing she is. We also hope to try the worlds first underwater ultrasound using a waterproof prototype unit that is self contained and can record video and still images. Perhaps this will give us an indication of the stage of development of the embryos, as well as numbers of pups. Each encounter with a whale shark provides us with more information.

Alan Purton

Whale shark © Alan Purton

Developing new techniques in order to answer some of the many questions that still remain about their natural history has always held great appeal, for it is that voyage of discovery and the resulting data that may help protect whale sharks in the future, wherever in the world they roam.

If you would like to learn more about the project in Galapagos and how you can get involved, visit whalesharkappeal.co.uk.

May 14

1aOur oceans are critical to our very existence; it’s a simple matter of healthy oceans = healthy people.  Besides providing us with food (today almost one in six people in the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein), oceans provide us with many other important services that our survival depends on.  They maintain our renewable supply of fresh water through the water cycle, regulate our climate, and produce more oxygen than the world’s rainforests. With growing concern over climate change, we are turning more and more towards the oceans for clean, renewable energy.

In addition to being an important source of protein, many marine organisms have been found to provide therapeutic uses in antioxidant, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, or antibiotic medicines. Additionally, the marine and coastal ecosystems offer endless recreational opportunities such as sea kayaking, sport fishing, surfing, whale watching and scuba diving, activities which not only feed our souls, but also drive economic benefits through employment for local peoples.

2a

Today almost one in six people in the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein.

Although critical to our existence, our oceans are in desperate trouble.  Depleted fishery stocks, habitat destruction, pollution, coastal development, climate change and invasive species, are some of the major issues threatening the healthy existence of our oceans.  In the Pacific Ocean for example, there is an area 1000 kilometres from the US coast which is larger than the entire land mass of South Africa and which is covered in plastic. It contains six times more plastic than plankton, and is growing all the time as more than 10 million tonnes of plastic finds its way into the sea each year.

3a

The marine and coastal ecosystems offer endless recreational opportunities such as sea kayaking, sport fishing, surfing, whale watching and scuba diving.

This current state of affairs is largely as a result of the dilemma known as “The Tragedy of the Commons”, in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.

Plastic debris littered along the beachfront

Our oceans are in desperate trouble. Depleted fishery stocks, habitat destruction, pollution, coastal development, climate change and invasive species, are some of the major issues threatening the healthy existence of our oceans.

Overfishing, together with global climate change and habitat destruction, are considered as the three major risks facing our oceans. When looking at this, obviously the first thing that we have to do is to control our own levels of exploitation. That means fishing within the biological limits of a fish population and assuring that the gear that we use does not destroy habitats. Today, many stocks are just hanging on to survival because of regulations that were inadequately or not properly enforced in the past. We need to abide to these regulations and support good science that guides the future regulatory parameters around fishery off-take.

5a

Fishing is taking place across food chains and thereby breaking down the efficiency of the oceans.

Globally, as human populations continue to grow, along with the popularity of seafood, fish stocks are coming under increasing pressure and can no longer keep up with pressure of current commercial fishing operations. A recently published report on the state of the world’s fisheries by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), estimated that approximately 80% of the world’s fisheries were fished at (52%) or beyond (28%) their maximum sustainable limits.

A small-pelagic fishing trawler at dawn and surrounded by seagul

Overfishing, together with global climate change and habitat destruction, are considered as the three major risks facing our oceans.

Increased levels of fishing do not only result in the overexploitation of our marine resources, but also results in the destruction of marine habitats. More than 50% of the world’s total marine catch (81 million tons) is harvested using towed fishing gear. Studies have shown that fishing can damage the seabed by, for example, breaking deep-water coral reefs and other fragile habitats.

7

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), estimated that approximately 80% of the world’s fisheries were fished at (52%) or beyond (28%) their maximum sustainable limits.

Habitat destruction is not only about the physical loss that may come from the destruction of a reef or the damming of a river, but also from pollution, diverted stream flows, and even the introduction of invasive species. Through habitat destruction, biodiversity is negatively impacted which ultimately is the cornerstone of a productive ecosystem that in turn drives the fishery resource upon which we depend. We know that 85 % of all commercially valuable fish are dependent upon wetlands and estuaries during some part of their lifecycle. Two-thirds of our estuaries and bays are already severely degraded through torrents of chemical and other poisonous runoffs and irresponsible development and agricultural practises.

8

Pollution is negatively impacting on the biodiversity of our oceans.

Protecting our oceans and coast is more than stopping pollution and regulating fishing. It also means controlling our activities onshore and controlling unregulated coastal development. With all of these poisonous pollutants running into the oceans, “dead zones” have been created where only some of the smallest marine organisms can survive. These areas are created in significant part by synthetic nitrogen fertilizers flowing into the sea and nourishing massive algal blooms which then decay and cause oxygen- depletion, killing everything except the hardiest in its vicinity.

9

We know that 85 % of all commercially valuable fish are dependent upon wetlands and estuaries during some part of their lifecycle.

Although these kinds of reports on the state of our marine resources may be disheartening, it is important for us to realize that there are solutions, and that if we all work together, we can turn things around. Marine Protected Areas are globally recognised as an essential tool for marine conservation and for helping restore the health of our oceans. They allow for the protection of habitats and provide areas where fish species can grow and breed without disturbance. As habitats are able to re-establish back to their natural state, they help in preventing damage from severe storms, reducing the impacts of pollutants while also aiding in reducing the impacts of climate change.

Blouberg Strand and Table Mountain

Protecting our oceans and coast is also about controlling unregulated coastal development.

Where fishing is concerned, it is important that all stakeholders abide by set fishing regulations and laws- we need to build a culture of voluntary compliance and self-regulation. Fisheries need to start implementing what is known as an Ecosystem Approach to fisheries (EAF), which seeks to protect and enhance the health of our marine ecosystems as a whole, to ensure the long-term survival of marine life and the communities that depend on it.

Marine Protected Area signage overlooking an estuary mouth

Marine Protected Areas are globally recognised as an essential tool for marine conservation and for helping restore the health of our oceans.

It is also important that we promote a sustainable seafood trade. By simply asking questions about our seafood and making more informed choices about the fish that we trade, buy and eat, we could make a huge impact in influencing positive change in the seafood chain of custody.  But this requires urgent and concerted effort from all parties involved- from the fishing industry all the way to the consumer.

12

It is important that all stakeholders abide by set fishing regulations and laws.

Our oceans are a common heritage, and we all have the responsibility and the ability to help conserve and protect them- if not for our sake, then for the sake of future generations- our children.

13

Support the South African Seafood Initiative (SASSI) and only eat and buy the healthiest and most well managed fish populations.

More tips on what you can do to help save the oceans:

1. Support South Africa’s Marine Protected Areas
2. Eat sustainable seafood: Support the South African Seafood Initiative (SASSI) and only eat and buy the healthiest and most well managed fish populations. For further information visit: www.wwf.org.za/sassi
3. Don’t dispose of trash or toilet waste in the ocean.
4. When enjoying recreational fishing, obey regulations and try to enjoy only catch-and-release fishing and use care when releasing fish back into the ocean. Take photos, not fish
5. Keep beaches clean. Plastics and other debris harm sea life and pollute the ocean. Clean up after yourself. Get involved! Participate in beach cleanups if you live in a coastal area.
6. Don’t purchase items that exploit marine resources unnecessarily such as shell and coral jewellery and sharks teeth.
7. Spread the word: Tell people what’s going on with the world’s oceans and what they can do to make a difference.

14

Peter Chadwick
http://www.peterchadwick.co.za

May 1

As the first light of day spills over the sea like lava, we set off in a small boat to explore the waters around Goat Islands. Paulette, the only registered fisherwoman in the community, tells me when I ask about local opinion about the development, “The government claims it will bring jobs and opportunity to the area, but we are not qualified, and we are not being trained, for the jobs that will need to be done. They tell us what they want us to hear, but the reality is that we will be worse off”. I recently read a comment that said the government is, “selling straw baskets to the poor to carry water”, and could not think of a better analogy.

Herman and Paulette Coley rely on the fish they catch in the waters around Goat Islands to earn their livelihood.

Herman and Paulette Coley rely on the fish they catch in the waters around Goat Islands to earn their livelihood

As we circle Goat Islands, Herman points out two fish sanctuaries fringing the mangroves and asks, “How can they say this won’t impact our livelihoods?” Despite being protected under four laws and containing two forest reserves, six game sanctuaries, and three fish sanctuaries, and despite the fact that the Jamaican Constitution states that all Jamaicans have “the right to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from the threat of injury or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage,” the government appears to believe it can sell off a living, breathing ecosystem for the right price. The reasons that other sites, such as Kingston Harbour, have not been considered have not been fully explained.

Owen Blake, a fisher from Old Harbour Bay in Portland Bight Protected Area whose livelihood will be jeopardized by plans to dredge the sea, containing three fish sanctuaries, around Goat Islands

Owen Blake, a fisher from Old Harbour Bay in Portland Bight Protected Area whose livelihood will be jeopardized by plans to dredge the sea, containing three fish sanctuaries, around Goat Islands

The old adage says that we will conserve only that which we love. I cannot claim to love Goat Islands, and my relationship with Portland Bight Protected Area has been fleeting. After experiencing it first hand, I do feel more of a personal affinity to the place and to the people fighting to protect it, and can claim to appreciate its unique beauty.

Brilliant hues of turquoise, azure and white dance under a tropical sun

Brilliant hues of turquoise, azure and white dance under a tropical sun

As a photographer, my job is to translate my personal experiences of being there into something universal; to move others to feel as I did. But as I try to decipher what made me care enough to hop on a plane to Kingston, I keep returning to the feeling that was stirred in me before I had set foot on Jamaican soil; before I had sat in dappled limestone forest overlooking the Hellshire Hills, or stared into a star-filled sky over the Caribbean while sand cooled my feet. I keep returning to how I felt when I first learned of the loss of somewhere I had never been. What I felt was outrage that something as sacrosanct as a protected area – a natural treasure – could be sold off for a quick profit. I felt empathy toward those that had devoted their lives to recovering the Jamaican iguana, and angry that all their hard work could go up in smoke. I felt as if I had just learned that the government of Italy was chipping away at the ceiling of the Sistine chapel to sell piece by piece. This was not the world that I wanted my son to know; and so, I had to play my part to try to protect Goat Islands.

Magnificent frigatebirds rest in the trees fringing the Hellshire Hills

Magnificent frigatebirds rest in the trees fringing the Hellshire Hills

Find out more about the #savegoatislands campaign

Find out more about the Jamaican iguana on ARKive

Find out more about the American crocodile on ARKive

Discover more Jamaican species on ARKive

Find out more about Robin Moore and his photography

Read Guest Blog: Darkness in Hellshire – part one

Read Guest blog: Darkness in Hellshire – part two

Apr 30

The recovery of the Jamaican iguana is hard work, as introduced predators like the Asian Mongoose are continually captured to relieve predator pressure. “We catch them and kill them. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is. The way it has to be”, says Booms, whose real name is Kenroy Williams, with a bashful smile. Booms is a handsome young Jamaican who grew up in southern Kingston before moving seven years ago to work on the Jamaican iguana recovery project.

The Jamaican iguana is considered to be one of the greatest conservation success stories

The Jamaican iguana is considered to be one of the greatest  success stories in conservation science

I ask Booms what his friends and family think of his career choice. “Some think I am crazy when they hear that I am touching the iguanas and the crocodiles. But if they were here like me, they would understand, and they would do everything that I am doing”, he says. As he cradles a young American crocodile, a Vulnerable species, found at night in one of the lagoons fringing the Hellshire Hills, he adds, “You’ve got to respect another life, so that the other life can respect yours. It’s all about respect”.

“Booms” cradles a young American crocodile, a threatened animal found during a nighttime search with flashlights in a mangrove lagoon in Portland Bight Protected Area

“Booms” cradles a young American crocodile, a threatened animal found during a nighttime search with flashlights in a mangrove lagoon in Portland Bight Protected Area

In order for the iguana to survive without the life support system provided by Booms and team, the Jamaican Iguana Species Recovery Plan outlines steps to establish Goat Islands as a predator-free haven for the large lizard. That was the dream – until now.

“I just returned from Jamaica, and it’s bad”, began an email I received last month from Rick Hudson at Fort Worth Zoo. Hudson has devoted more than twenty years to recovering the iguana, and was distraught. The Jamaican government had announced that it was going to sell Goat Islands to a Chinese conglomerate that had been disbarred by the World Bank for fraud, to build a massive trans shipment port. The development would involve bulldozing the islands, dredging the sea around them, and building a coal-burning plant – in addition to razing forest and concreting over wetland on the mainland for an associated logistics hub. With opposition from local groups led by the Jamaica Environmental Trust falling on deaf ears, Jamaicans were crying out for some international intervention.

The Portland Bight Protected Area contains the largest intact mangrove forest in Jamaica

The Portland Bight Protected Area contains the largest intact mangrove forest in Jamaica

Tourism brings in half of all foreign revenue and provides one quarter of all jobs in Jamaica; most tourists who visit the country do so to enjoy pristine beaches, clear waters, ample wildlife and a landscape free from the scars of industrial development. The proposed development is akin to the UK government selling off the Lake District for a quick profit, and could hurt tourism if potential tourism outfits are outraged by the destruction of a natural national treasure. And so, in the humble hope that I could do something to shine a spotlight on what was happening in the international press – to alert potential tourists to Jamaica what the government has planned in the hopes that the government may listen – I boarded a plane to Kingston.

A coal burning plant, as seen on Old Harbour Bay, could be built on Goat Islands

A coal burning plant, as seen on Old Harbour Bay, could be built on Goat Islands

Diana McCaulay, co-founder and CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, meets me at the airport and we drive an hour south to the Portland Bight Protected Area, a 187,515-hectare area mosaic consisting of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country. This, the largest Protected Area in Jamaica, contains the Hellshire Hills and Portland Ridge Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), defined by IUCN as “places of international importance for the conservation of biodiversity through protected areas and other governance mechanisms”. The area was deemed so special that it was under consideration as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, until last year when the government backtracked on the proposal.

A curious pelican in Old Harbour Bay, a community that fish in the waters of Portland Bight Protected Area

A curious pelican in Old Harbour Bay, a community that fish in the waters of Portland Bight Protected Area

Diana introduces me to residents of a fishing community in the heart of Portland Bight Protected Area, Paulette and Herman Coley, who invite me to join them on the water the following morning. I return the next day a little before 4:30 am to join them and their six-year old son Jabari, who seems less than thrilled about being hauled out of his bed at 4am and dressed in a bright yellow lifejacket and facemask.

Jabari does his best to stay awake after being rudely awoken at 4am to join us on our boat trip around Goat Islands

Jabari does his best to stay awake after being rudely awoken at 4am to join us on our boat trip around Goat Islands

Find out more about the Save Goat Islands campaign

Find out more about the Jamaican iguana on ARKive

Find out more about the American crocodile on ARKive

Discover more Jamaican species on ARKive

Find out more about Robin Moore and his photography

Read Guest Blog: Darkness in Hellshire – part one

Apr 29

Wildlife photographer Robin Moore is an award-winning photographer, author and conservationist who recently visited the Goat Islands in Jamaica after hearing about plans to convert the area into a shipment port. Over the next few days we will be posting the story of his visit and detailing his campaign to prevent the loss of this vital habitat and the species found within it.

As I find shade in a small field station in the Hellshire Hills of Jamaica, a leather-brown lizard with bluish thighs lumbers towards me through forest sprouting from jagged limestone. Its tail scatters red dust as it moves in rhythm with a large flap of scaly skin that swings like a metronome underneath its thick jaws. It stops two bodies length from my feet, tilts its head to inspect me with blood-red eyes and, deciding that I probably don’t pose a threat, collapses onto its stomach to take a well-deserved rest. As we sit in silence, I feel privileged to be in the presence of such a beautiful and iconic creature.

The Critically Endangered Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collie, was described as the “rarest lizard in the world” after its rediscovery in 1990. It has become a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the subject of an international recovery program.

The Critically Endangered Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collie, was described as the “rarest lizard in the world” after its rediscovery in 1990. It has become a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the subject of an international recovery program

The Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collei, is a Critically Endangered species that has achieved iconic status through a story of chance, perseverance, collaboration and resurgence. At the start of the 20th century the lizard – the largest native land animal in Jamaica – was thought to survive only on Goat Islands, two small islets close to the Hellshire Hills just south of Kingston. After this population disappeared in 1948, the iguana was believed to be extinct. And then, in 1990, a hog hunter chanced upon an iguana in the limestone forests of Hellshire Hills, triggering exploration that revealed around 50 of the “rarest lizards in the world”.

A view from the Hellshire Hills of the Portland Bight Protected Area, containing one of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country, over to Goat Islands.

A view from the Hellshire Hills of the Portland Bight Protected Area, containing one of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country, over to Goat Islands

The iguana promptly became a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the focus of an international recovery program, and inspired the formation of the IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group. A consortium of twelve zoos, spearheaded by the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas, built a facility at Hope Zoo in Kingston to rear eggs and hatchlings brought from the wild. This process of “headstarting” involves rearing hatchling iguanas in the safety of a cage to release them back into the wild once they are big enough to ward off predators – a technique that has worked. Since 1991, the number of recorded nesting females and annual hatchlings has increased over six-fold, with at least 200 individuals in the wild today. The recovery of the Jamaican iguana is, according to the IUCN, “considered one of the greatest success stories in conservation science”.

Jamaican iguana

Young Jamaican iguanas are raised in a facility in Kingston to see them through the most vulnerable months before being released back into the wild – a process known as “headstarting”

Find out more about the Save Goat Islands campaign

Find out more about the Jamaican iguana on ARKive

Find out more about the American crocodile on ARKive

Discover more Jamaican species on ARKive

Find out more about Robin Moore and his photography

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