I have spent all day at my computer applying for travel funding for the 2nd International Whale Shark conference to be held in Mexico this July. Here is an excerpt of my justification of attendance document in support of my application.
Background:The story goes that when God created the whale shark he was so pleased with his handiwork that he gave his angels handfuls of gold and silver coins to throw down from heaven into the sea. These coins landed on the whale shark’s back as it swam peacefully near the surface and that is why the whale shark is called “papa shillingi” which translates as “shark covered in shillings”. So it is that whale sharks swim near the surface as a way of saying thank you to their maker. Whale sharks have called Kenyan waters home for many years. Recently, there has been a significant increase which is perhaps related to the post El Nino mantis shrimp invasion. Based on Diani Beach the East African Whale Shark Trust was founded by Volker Bassen in response to the dramatic increase in sightings as well as increased interest from the tourist sector. The increase in whale sharks along the Kenyan coast has meant that they have become more of a target. Under international law, whale sharks are only given a secondary type of protection. They are listed under CITES Appendix II meaning that trade in whale sharks is allowed but must be monitored. Although relatively little is known about the biggest fish in the ocean, most specialists will agree that this level of protection is not enough. The overall aim of many whale shark projects is to raise awareness so that the level of protection afforded to whale shark is increased. The more we know about whale sharks the easier it will be to review the level of protection. The EAWST aims to provide a research centre for collecting and analyzing data on the local whale shark population, its habits and movements. The Trust will work closely with other regional organizations because whale sharks are migratory. About the whale shark:Seen as an indicator of a healthy marine eco-system, whale sharks are filter feeders. They eat plankton, sieving it from the water through their gills. They are often seen swimming slowly along with their mouths agape, feeding as they move through the water. They can grow up to 18m and weigh up to 20 tons. They give birth to live young. They are solitary creatures for the most part and live in temperate waters around the equator, both along coastlines and in the open seas. Recent studies have revealed that they can dive to depths of over 1000m and that they spend most of their time at great depths, coming to the surface mostly at night to feed when the plankton rises with the diminishing ambient light. Threats:The major threat the whale sharks in our waters face is being caught in the local fishermen’s large mesh nylon drift nets. Unfortunately this is getting increasingly common. Joint initiatives are underway between the EAWST and local fishermen to encourage more environmentally friendly fishing methods. EAWST:The EAWST has various projects underway, perhaps the most exciting being our tagging programmes. 2007 marked the first ever successful tagging expedition to be run off the coast of Africa. Over 50 whale sharks were spotted and 11 tagged in an 8 day period. Various tags were deployed including satellite tags and streamer tags; DNA samples were also taken. In 2008 we made history by tagging 17 whale sharks with satellite tags – the most ever to be tagged in one place at the same time with satellite tags. We spotted over 40 whale sharks in a 10 day period. April 2008 will see our first acoustic tagging expedition in conjunction with WCS. About the tags:The satellite tags can store data for up to one year after which the tag is released by a timer and the data is transmitted via satellite. These tags give data such as dive profile, ambient light, and salinity levels. From that it is possible to work out migration patterns. These tags cost around USD 5000 each. The archival tags are considerably cheaper at USD 600 a piece and whilst they store similar data they have to be removed from the whale shark in order to retrieve the data. Acoustic tags at USD 250 each very quickly give us an idea of our local population. Whenever a shark swims within a certain radius of the underwater receiver the data is stored and retrieved weekly. Finally the streamer tags are small numbered flags that are attached to the whale shark to allow visual identification. Mexico Conference:
The potential for conservation, education and tourism in Kenya is enormous as people travel all over the world to see whale sharks in remote places such as Mexico and Australia. Kenya is easily accessible to the European market in particular, as well as having other attractions such as our beautiful game parks. Attending the Mexico conference will promote our country by raising the profile of whale sharks in Kenya. Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea and whilst they belong to the shark family they are completely harmless and eat plankton. As a flagship species of our ocean they deserve the ultimate level of protection and respect. We still have so much to learn about the whale shark and international conferences are a crucial way of collaborating the work that is being done world-wide. It is important for Kenya to be represented at the conference so that we are given the opportunity of presenting our work in this field todate particularly the tagging research that we have started.
Wish me luck with my applications! You can help by telling all your friends about our blog so that they can follow our work and donate to help save whale sharks in Kenya!