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WHALE SHARK TAGGING 2012

Diani Beach, Kenya February 19/02/2012

Our annual whale shark tagging expedition took off with a splendid start yesterday. We had 9 people onboard, all equally excited and hoping to see (and maybe swim) with the biggest fish in the world, the whale shark. We had been out about an hour waiting for the micro-light airplane radio to crackle with the words “whale shark!” Instead Volker Bassen, the expedition leader got a phone call from a fishing boat nearby, they had spotted a whale shark. It took us about 15 minutes to reach the spot (cruising at 35knm , an experience not to be missed!) but by the time we reached the fishing boat, the shark had dived! Volker contacted the plane to come and help us find it but just as he put down the radio, he shouted “whale shark, straight ahead of us!”

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It was an awesome sight; one of the biggest whale shark ever seen off Diani beach suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere and came straight towards the boat. There were a lot of sardines around the boat that seemed to attract the shark. Everyone put on their masks and fins in record time and jumped overboard while the whale shark decided to stick around, maybe to check out these strange creatures. We managed to swim with this gentle giant for about 15 minutes before it finally dived deeper and disappeared. By this time the micro-light airplane had reached us and it didn’t take more than 10 minutes before the boat radio started crackling “whale shark, 11 o’clock, 200 meters from you!”

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It was the same whale shark and once again it seemed as if the whale shark wanted to check out who these strange creatures were, this time it stayed with us even longer, at one point the shark even touched the boat! After about half an hour the shark left us again and disappeared into the deep blue.

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After a short time, the plane again spotted the shark and guided us directly towards it. This time Volker wanted to tag the shark with an identification tag (K009) but every time we approached it, it just dived deeper, making it impossible to tag. We did managed to get some great photos however, these photos will help us to identify this particular shark, because all whale sharks have different patterns and spots, just like the human fingerprint.

As we started cruising around, looking for the whale shark, Volker suddenly shouted “turtle, straight ahead!”. We came closer and saw that it was a dead hawk-bill turtle (probably drowned in one of the many fishing nets according to Volker) to our surprise we saw something sticking out from the top of the shell. “It’s an antenna from a tag! We need to get it!” said Volker.

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Michael, the expedition rescue diver, dove in and tried to get the tag off the turtle without success until one of the clients dove in as well. Together they managed to get the tag but as they climbed into the boat there was a very unpleasant pungent smell surrounding them, dead turtle doesn’t smell nice, let me assure you!

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So expedition 2012 is well underway!!

Papa Pata Pata!

My name is Dipesh Pabari and its great to be able to have the opportunity to be blogging on the WildlifeDirect platform having worked in the Nairobi office for several months. Over the last few months, my wife, Elodie and I have been assisting a little bit at the Colobus Trust  so being the blogaholic I am, I have been in full blog mode down the road from the East Africa Whale Shark Trust as well as at Camps International where I am now working on lots of different exciting projects.

Can’t tell you how happy my family and I are to be back on the Coast especially Diani. For small town people like us it’s perfect and finally I have learned where north and south are (only because Diani is a one street town going north or south! :)). More importantly, I am finally doing exactly what I have always wanted to be doing – working within a responsible business framework that cares for the people, the environment and the wildlife that it depends upon…

Enough of me…

Aside from all the other exciting projects that Camp Kenya is involved with this summer, one of the most exciting funky little projects we have initiated is building a life size whale shark out of recycled flipflops picked off the beaches here! Yup!

And here’s the proof…

First we had to do a lot of wiring to make the frame which an amazing local artist called Benson literally got his hands tied up all in for three days!

Once it was done we had not quite figured out how we were going to get it to our beach camp. Alas, the old landcruiser had to prove herself!

Alas, he arrived well and unharmed to his new mother, Fadhili who is an old friend and accomplice in creating funky marine art from recycled beach debris…

Fadhili and I met a few years ago when we did the first ever life size minke whale from recycled flipflops. It was quite ambitious but we had a lot of support from the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Camp Kenya, Global Vision International, Watamu Turtle Watch, UniquEco and hundreds of local school children across the Kenyan coast who helped pick over 15,000 flipflops and countless bags of rubbish in less than two months.  BBC and a number of other media houses loved the story. You can watch the first BBC feature by clicking HERE

Mfalme (above) was built as our contribution to a global campaign against whaling but stood for so much and really put us on the map as having people who genuinely care for our environment. We hope that Papa Pata Pata will make people from all over the world realize how precious and misunderstood whale sharks are…

Dipesh Pabari
Camps International

Another Humpback Whale In A Net

Yet another humpback whale has been caught in one of the donated nets. How many more have to suffer and die before something is done about this?

Here you can see the fishing boats and net with the buoy around the whale.

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Here is the poor whale all entangled.

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And still entangled. You can just about make out one diver on the far side of the whale and another diver’s yellow alternate air source on the near side of the whale. Look how badly caught in the net this whale is.

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We cannot believe that this is still happening. Not much came of our meeting with the organisation responsible for donating these nets. A representative sailed down here to meet us in his USD120,000 car (yes, you read right!!) and promised to do all sorts to help us but in the same breath was very quick to disclaim all responsibility and nothing has been done and no contact has been made. We have everything, literally everything, in place to put a stop to these nets and our fishermen are more than happy to give our alternative fishing methods a go. We can’t do it without funding. It would take a tiny percentage of the price of the abovementioned car for us to get going and really make a difference. The way these big organisations work makes me sick. How do they live with themselves or sleep at night? I expect they can sleep soundly because they are so far removed from the problem. They don’t have to rescue humpback whales or turtles or whale sharks. It makes me MAD.

The problem is that there is no proper canvassing of the real problem at grass roots level before assistance is given – just an overwhelming but misguided desire to help without thinking the options through. On top of that, once assistance is given, there is no management whatsoever so in the case of the fishermen they are just left to get on with using illegal nets and all marine life be damned. Instead of helping they have made everything ten times worse. The situation here is grim.

And it’s a crying shame – especially when there are small projects like ours ready and willing to help on the ground with all the necessary contacts, expertise and good community spirit to put long term solutions into play. We live here, alongside our fishermen, so we have a genuine and vested interest in them making a living and educating their children.

Happy new year guys, but not so happy for this poor whale.

MEXICO FINALLY

Greetings after a long time!

 Volker and I are finally here on Holbox Island 4 hours north of Cancun, Mexico. It was a lot of work but we managed to raise the funds to get here and as you can imagine it was a monster trip all the way from Diani Beach, Kenya. The conference starts next week and we are looking forward to it hugely. We will get a chance to present our work and show how much we have done since the last conference 3 years ago. It is exciting because we really have done an enormous amount! We also get a chance to meet up with all our whale shark friends and learn about what they have been doing in their parts of the world. It will be a fascinating global showcase of whale sharks research and conservation efforts.

I promise to upload some photos to keep you all posted on this the 2nd International Whale Shark Conference in history.

Thanks and do keep reading our blog!

TAG TREASURE HUNT

There is good news and bad news this morning.

The good news is that the last tag we deployed last year has come off  after one year on a whale shark. It was scheduled to pop off about 2 weeks ago when we started this year’s expedition. We heard nothing and were beginning to fear for the worst but it came off late last week and has been transmitting data ever since. This is really exciting because there is never any guarantee that you will get any data back. Sometimes you never hear from a tag again which is why the more you can put out there the better. We already have the other 2 from last year back – but they came off early after 6 months or so (also better than never coming off or getting lost etc) but with tag 3 from 2007 we will get the full year’s data which is brilliant.

However, we believe it came off somewhere near Pemba Island and was transported to a location just north of Mombasa in an area called Shanzu. Again this is more good news because if they come off in the big blue sea you never find them but here we have a chance because the tag is on land. We have been searching there every day since Saturday, handing out posters, talking to people and generally trying to track the tag down! We know it’s there because Brent is sending us GPS coordinates using the ARGOS satellite system but so far we can’t find it. We are dependent on the goodwill of the fishing villages up there to help us. If we got this tag back it would mean we could get to the minute data of that shark’s life for 365 days. It would be Christmas for Brent! It is really very unusual to recover tags – if they pop off we get a summary of the data which is not at all bad. If you get them back you get ALL the data plus you can reuse the tag again. It is the best possible outcome. So the bad news is that so far we have not tracked down the tag. It’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.

We have a film crew following our search today and we are hoping that whoever has it will hear about the search and return it to us.

Another tag has also come off – one of this years tags. This happens sometimes and although it is a bit disappointing because obviously we would have liked to get 17 tags worth of data in 9 months – 12 months time we must be prepared for these little hiccups. This tag came off further north of Mombasa, actually near Kilifi. Again we have been up there to search and that area is more remote so we are hoping that our posters and constant presence up there will yield results. If we were to get this tag back we could use it again next year and Brent would be delighted!

The tags only transmit for about 2 weeks maximum because then the battery life dies so we don’t have much time left.

Here is a picture of what a satellite tag looks like. They are about as long as from the tips of your fingers to your elbow more or less. If you find one please make our day and send it back to us!! Ours all have Brent’s name and contact details on them. If you can help us with our search in any way please let me know.

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Wish us luck with our search!

DAY 5

Rough weather really impeded us yesterday and reminded us sharply of how the elements have a direct bearing on our work. We went out on 2 trips, morning and afternoon and spotted a total of 3 sharks. We were able to tag just one. Nobody but Volker got to swim with the shark and everyone had to brave very choppy waves and high winds.

Our kite surfer friends were delighted with the wind, skipping around with glee, doing all manner of down winders!

On board we had KWS officials and researchers, students from Lulu High School, a representative from Pollmans TUI and a collection of hardcore divers.

We continue to tag today before driving up to Watamu later this afternoon to continue up there until Friday.

Total tags deployed now at 9. We are all but half way through the 19 tags so that is at least something.

Will post later on today’s tagging efforts.

Pray for calm.

A Moment Of Grace.

Day 3.

Volker left home very early, around 7am to go up in the gyrocopter to do a survey and shoot some footage from the air. I left later with David and Simon our volunteers and David the KWS spotter. We collected jerri cans of fuel for the gyro. I ate my breakfast as we drove.

We had representatives from the Kenya Tourist Board, Nation Media, Kenya News Agency and the well-known columnist Rupi Mangat as well as several members of the public and some students from Waa Girls School.

They team spotted 5 whale sharks today and Volker tagged 2. Our volunteer from Geneva, David, went down with his super smart camera on scuba and found himself under the shark. He said he just hung there midwater, completely awestruck. In his words, “a moment of grace”. Suspended in time, under the planet’s biggest fish. He has pictures which I hope to upload later for you but the conditions aren’t the best for underwater photography or videography. Volker is determined to get some footage tomorrow and Brent will film while Volker tags.

Part of me can’t believe this is all really happening and that we have tagged 5 sharks in 3 days.

A moment of grace.

Whale Shark Action!

Brent and Volker yesterday, getting their gear ready on the boat. Volker tagged the 2 sharks yesterday. His first ever tagging, and a real success!

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This is Mike the gyrocopter pilot and David the KWS spotter with Volker, just about to take off on day 2 of the expedition. I have just heard from the team and although they have spotted a shark, no tagging so far on day 2.

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More updates for you later!

Ready, Steady, GO TAG!

I met today with the KWS Kisite Marine Park Warden, Yussuf. This was the first time we met and it was nice to put a face to a name. We resolved to push for an MOU between the EAWST and the KWS. Our ultimate goals are to illegalise the whale shark trade in Kenya, carry out an aerial survey and put in place a proper system for whale shark eco-tourism in our waters. Lots to do!

I also met our super star local pilot Peter Zanetti, who has so selflessly helped with us with our whale shark tagging. He flies up and down tireless, spotting sharks and guiding the boats to the hot spots, keeping everyone happy both researchers and tourists alike!

And BIG news! Our researcher, Brent Stewart, has just arrived all the way from San Diego, California. It was wonderful to see each other again after a year of planning, emailing and hoping. He endured a 30 hour plus flight to get here and arrive in one piece, amazingly. Our gyrocopter pilot, Mike Cheffings, also arrived in one piece, perhaps more amazingly (!!), all the way from Langata in Nairobi. It took him 5 hours to fly down to Diani and he landed on the beach in front of Aqualand with style. We were all agog at this little green helicopter circling for a bit and then landing right in front of us. Brent arrived with all manner of goodies – high tech radios, tags, chocolate! We toasted Expedition 2008 – Ronnie the manager of Pinewoood Village, providing the accomodation to the team; Volker Bassen our founder and local expert; Simon Englefield, director of Southern Cross Scuba and Camp Kenya, providing the boat and other logistical support; Simon and Ruth our volunteers.

It is the beginning of something special – we could all feel that.

Ready, steady, TAG!!

No Rest For The Whale Sharks.

The political situation in Kenya (much as we all try to keep positive and put our best foot forward) has affected the country from top to bottom. I can’t speak for everyone but I can tell you that although things have more or less returned to normal in Diani and there is food on the shelves and petrol in the petrol stations (I can’t believe that things ever got to the stage where I can write that last line) there are effectively no tourists. The hotels should be packed, the boats should be full, this quiet beach should be heaving. I would be the first to admit that mid-December I couldn’t wait for the low season, couldn’t wait for the beach to return to normal but no-one ever thought for a second things would turn out the way they have. The hotels are empty; hundreds of people have lost their jobs; the boats lie idle; dive schools are completely still; many people are moving their operation to Tanzania. There is no-one here.

I think I speak for most people when I say that we are all trying to be positive and go on as normal but when you rely on the tourist trade (an so many of us do, directly or indirectly) it is a real slap in the face. Our scientist team coming in February is considering postponing and although we are trying to persuade them that everything is ok, I couldn’t blame them if they did postpone. Who would actively choose to go to a country suffering political unrest? I remember landing in Yemen (yes, Yemen!) on September 11. Enough said.

You read about Zimbabwe and other torn apart places but until it happens to you I think you have no idea. I was talking to someone who told me that their neighbour’s house was completely looted – everything was taken. Purely on the basis of tribe. She witnessed the whole thing. There are no words.

So I say that there is no rest for whale sharks because our work is severely hampered by the political situation. There is so much we want to do for whale shark conservation in Kenya but while things are the way they are our hands are somewhat tied, no doubt about that. Don’t forget we wanted this to be the year that the whale shark trade was banned completely in Kenya. We wanted Kenya to set a shinning example. (Ha ha – such irony.)

No rest for whale sharks because we will keep on doing the little we can on the ground here in Diani. We will deploy satellite tags. We will set up our first ever accoustic array. We will continue our work in the community.

And no rest for whale sharks because no matter what goes on here on Kenyan soil, the whale sharks will keep swimming along our shores. And there must be some comfort in that.