Friday, May 7, 2010

Belize: a very special trip diving and witnessing shark research

Hello Everyone!  This is a very special blog for me as I was offered a once in a lifetime trip to travel to Belize and to see and photograph shark research that has been and is being conducted there and at Glovers Atoll.

I travelled to Belize with Ellen Pikitch, PhD a world renowned marine scientist and one of  'my guyz', underwater photographer, Connie Z.  I was invited there as their guest and to be a dive buddy and backup underwater photographer.  The trip planning started many months ago and we left Miami on April 26th and returned on May 4th.  

w/Dr Ellen Pikitch and underwater photographer Connie Z.

Dr Pikitch runs the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science  and more about her and her work can be learned by following the link.  The New York Times ran an article about her shark research at Glovers Atoll coincidentally on the day of our departure.  Her shark research is the longest running research of sharks in the Caribbean. 

Our trip was multi-faceted and there was much on our plate and itineary.  We flew into Belize City on American Airlines and from there caught a Maya Air flight to Dangriga Town much further south.  Very exciting and the beginning of this wonderfull adventure.

From Dangriga we took a 40 minute shuttle van ride to Hamanasi resort where we spent 3 days getting acclimated and organized and did some diving and attempted to see and photograph whale sharks as this is a peak time of year for them to show up.  Hamanasi is a jewel of a resort with wonderfull staff, food and accomodations and a professional dive operation.  Our hostesses there were Jan and Stephanie and if ever we wanted anything their reaction was:  'no problem'.

                                                                  w/Jan and Stephanie
While at Hamanasi we did some tune-up dives and quested for the whale sharks.  Whales sharks are in these waters to feed on the spawn of Cubera Snapper.  The snapper collect at a location named Gladden Spit which is a bit of a hike by boat from either Hamanasi or later Glovers Atoll.  The snapper release their spawn and as it rises to the surface the whalesharks appear and filter feed upon it.  We could and did simulate the spawn by gathering in a circle and our exhalation bubbles provided the simulated spawning.  Cute trick but in our case it did not work!  However, we did see dolphins, Cubera Snapper, Trevally Jacks, Horse-eyed Jacks and Bull sharks all on the same dives and layered upon one another.  Oh, I almost forgot that we also saw Loggerhead, Green and Hawksbill turtles.  The corals in Belize are all dense and very much alive and splendid with color.  I had one of the best wall dives ever while there.  Later during the trip Dr Pikitch and Connie returned to Gladden Spit from Glovers Atoll and did see one whale shark!!
simulating spawn

From Hamanasi we travelled by open boat with luggage under a tarp to Glovers Atoll which was an adventure in itself!  We arrived at dive resort on an island located just a few minutes by boat from the Wildlife Conservation Society's research center, the Isla de Marisol, which is owned and operated by 'Eddie'.  Photo above, and Eddie and I in the photo below. 

Photos of the research center below
We used Marisol as a headquarters and from there travelled by boat to meet up with Dr Ellen's research crew who were housed at the research center.   In addition to Dr Pikitch's shark research there are other marine science related research programs being conducted at the center.  Alex Tilley (working toward his PhD) is conducting research on Southern Stingrays and there were two young marine scientists studying sponge growth.  One other project involved the study of algae and currents, and cages were made using PVC to cover small coral heads from the foraging of algae by parrotfish.  Cages were placed on heads of corals on both sides of the Atoll where currents fluctuated.

                                                              sponge study
PVC cages
This was all very fascinating to me.  I never dreamt I would be anywhere near any marine science studies much less be along during it all!  As mentioned the trip was multi-faceted with much to accomplish on our plate the main focus was Dr Ellen's shark research. 

Her research officially began in 2000.  Her shark studies and surveys are conducted in a protected 'no take' zone.  As we all know sharks, an apex predator and a key element in the oceans' food chain, are under increasing pressure from fishing.  My personal take on her research shows that while shark populations may not grow where they exist within protected areas, none the less, the population does not diminish in numbers either.   Sharks existing in protected areas have a chance to thrive or at least survive.  I witnessed this in Key Largo where we are now seeing small numbers of sharks in our Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs) which are also 'no take zones'.

Her and her research team would during the day and at night venture in an open boat and upon open ocean to set baited lines to catch sharks.  They employed long lines in shallower water with 50 hooks and employed deep water lines vertically to depths of 800 feet with 5 hooks on these.  They were very meticulous in not leaving these lines soaking too long.  This was to avoid injuring, due to fatigue, anything that they caught.  This aspect of the trip was a lot of physical work and long hours.  I was glad I was just there to photograph it all. 

Once a shark was caught the team would bring it to the surface and from there:  measure it, determine its sex, take a small slice of its dorsal fin for a DNA sample and tag the animal.  I want to stress that great effort was made to not harm the animal.  In one instance one gray reef shark appeared very tired so it was released immediately and no data was collected.  We caught two types of sharks on this trip.  Caribbean Reef Sharks (which I oftentimes just call 'gray reefs') and Nurse sharks.  The gray sharks were small 'pup's and my loose guess measured them at up to 3 feet in length.  The Nurse sharks caught were larger and one caught was at least 8 feet in length.   Dr Ellen put together a great team.  Captin Nolan a great boat handler pictured above and to the left and the 'team' to his right and heading out to haul up the long-line.  Just under are Connie and Dr Ellen prepping hooks.  Below that photo is a shark alongside the boat. 

The following photos hopefully tell the story better than I can in writing:

I could write thousands of words about the exhileration of this trip and experience.  It was a very wonderfull opportunity for me.  Hopefully pictures are indeed worth a thousand words.

Thank you very much Dr Ellen and Connie for the invitation and opportunity for me to have this marvelous experience!   lg

PS: I would also like to thank the following people for their help, support, kindnesses, generosity, and friendship:  Jan, Stephanie, Bert and Troy at Hamanasi.  Eddie, Darren, Chad and Kitty at Isla de Marisol.  Nolan, Damion, Alex and Buc at the WCS research center.

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