Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Penny Palfrey & Bad Buzz: misreporting about killed sharks detracts from her accomplishment

News reports that the support crew, for ocean endurance swimmer Penny Palfrey, killed several curious oceanic whitetip sharks during the course of her swim from Little Cayman to Grand Cayman are now having to do an about-face. The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism looked into the reported killings and found there was no evidence of any sharks being harmed. Several were hooked and towed away to be released at a safe distance - and that's a far cry from saying they were killed.

A variety of information outlets ricocheted the story like a steel ball in a pinball game, from respectable news sources to the blogosphere where, unfortunately, attitudes can get nasty. I read many of the reports and chose not to report it in my blog until Monday, when I mentioned it in regards to Diana Nyad's upcoming swim. Based on what she was hearing in the press, Diana decided to do an 11th-hour revamping of her security protocols and, in the end, it was a wise move regardless of what did or did not take place during Penny's swim.

But there were many who took poor Penny to task in a big way and it illustrates the zealous passion that some people have regarding the preservation of sharks, how it is becoming a hot button news topic, and how dangerous the entire "social media" craze is to the tenants of accurate and balanced reporting.

According to The Daily News of Open Water Swimming, Penny Palfrey's man in charge of security may have used a poor choice in words which was misinterpreted by some news outlets, and so the bad buzz began. "
The findings were that The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism contacted the individual named in the original report, Charles Ebanks, who confirmed that he did not kill any sharks during the historic Bridging swim and states that reports to the contrary are inaccurate. He stated that he 'hooked the sharks and lead them away', he further added, 'I was there, I did not kill any sharks. They are assuming I did something which is not true and you can quote me on this.' Charles stated that the boat captain from the boat asked him what he did with the sharks and he replied, 'I got rid of them.' He said he thinks this could have been taken to mean that they were killed."

Hooking a shark (basically fishing for them with a baited line) is the last ditch approach to be taken with a shark that is proving to be intensely curious to the point of being a threat to the swimmer. There are several other steps that are taken to ward off the shark before one decides to catch it and then quickly motor a mile or so away and release it. It's a bit more involved than a straight forward catch-and-release because the shark needs to be transported out of the area.

Apparently, Penny Palfrey's crew felt compelled to take that step because a shark was reported to have bumped her during the night - and you can imagine how that could rattle a swimmer's concentration.With all the questionable reporting that has been swirling about for the past week, I have no reason to question the actions of Penny's staff. Is the loss of three sharks worth an ocean swim record? I think not. And it now appears that, for Penny, that dilemma does not have to be debated.

Hopefully, Penny will be able to regain some of the attention regarding her accomplishment that was lost due to the media storm. In my brief time so far with Diana Nyad, I have come to appreciate the dedication and commitment these ocean endurance swimmers invest into their sport. So, let me join the chorus of others who are saying, "Bravo, Penny! Bravo!"

In the meantime, I wait for the call to join up with the film crew as she prepares for her Cuba to Florida swim, a staggering 103 miles in 60 hours. One for the record books.

Read about the investigation in The Daily News of Open Water Swimming.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: getting the call to join the Xtreme Dream

This past April I had the opportunity to film long distance ocean swimmer Diana Nyad at the Pepperdine University pool in Malibu, California. My friend and photographer, Budd Riker, and I spent the day shooting Diana for CNN as she obligingly swam lap after lap. Diana was in serious training for a proposed open ocean swim from Havana, Cuba to Florida - a distance of just over 103 miles and one for the record books.

You can read my blog post about that day in Malibu when I first met Diana, a very dedicated and inspiring person to say the least. At the end of the day, we all wished her well and that was that.

Time marches on and now, as we approach July, I find myself again in the company of Diana and her support team as they are in the final stages of preparation for her momentous swim. Diana prefers to swim without the aid of a shark cage, as that is considered a crutch by many swimmers because the cage has a tendency to smooth out the water that the swimmer is moving through. It puts an asterisk next to your name in the record books and Diana would prefer not to have that diminish her feat.

Just a few weeks ago, another ocean swimmer, Penny Palfrey, did a similar swim (but not as far as Diana is planning) from Little Cayman to Grand Cayman Islands. But her accomplishment was completely overshadowed by the fact that her support crew killed three oceanic white tip sharks that apparently came close to her. Oceanic white tip sharks are both dangerous and intensely curious, but their numbers are, like many other sharks, in peril due to international commercial shark fishing.

Diana, wisely made the decision to re-think her shark safety protocols to both ensure her security and to avoid the bad publicity that would ensue if a shark was harmed during her attempt. So the call went out to find a crew who could look after Diana and deal with any curious sharks in a safe and humane manner - and have it documented. And that's where our paths crossed again.

I will be a member of the team, doing underwater filming of Diana and her accompanying flotilla of support vessels for a documentary produced by Tim Wheeler of Documenting Life Productions.

All of us constitute an experienced team dedicated to Diana's safety and the conservation and well-being of sharks - no cowboy shark killers here. In the next week or so, when the water temperature reaches the optimum level Diana requires and the weather reports point to calm seas, then we will all get the call, grab our bags that have been waiting by the front door, and head to the Florida Keys to board boats that will take us to the start of what will prove to be a marvelous adventure - the Xtreme Dream as Diana's website calls it.

Oh, and did I mention that Diana took a 30-year break from endurance swimming and came back to take on this challenge at age sixty-one? Makes one think twice about a lot of the things we whine about in our daily lives.

Check out Diana's website to learn more about her background and where she is today. CNN will be doing live coverage throughout her entire swim - which will last about 60 hours non-stop. If there's a lull in my regular posts, you'll know that I got the call and rushed out the door to be a small part of something very momentous, all due to one woman's determination to set goals that are just outside her reach . . . and reach them.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: when mother nature says no, you can't film here

This past weekend, my dive buddy, still photographer Bidd Riker, and I tried once again to dive on the wreck of the "ACE" off the coast of San Clemente, California. I say tried once again, because this was to be our 4th attempt at trying to reach the ship. Three previous attempts were met with poor visibility to the extant that it made for unsafe dive conditions. We were past the "third time is the charm" mental attitude and were now bordering on the "we better find this bloody #@!!% thing" philosophy.

The "ACE" is a 58-foot fishing boat - a drum seiner, to be exact - that sank in the fall of 2006 during rough seas with a full load of sardines and mackerel. With a measure of air trapped in its holds, the ACE drifted a bit across San Clemente's sandy bottom before finally settling down on its port (left) side at a depth of 114 feet. That drifting made it hard to locate for officials and salvagers, and so it remained out of sight until a year ago when a local dive boat charter set about to find the ACE based on rumors and speculation provided by local fishermen.

On this fourth attempt, Budd and I once again found visibility to be very poor at around 5-foot - not dangerous diving but certainly not what you're hoping for when shooting video and hoping to capture images that show the size and overall condition of the wreck. The ship is nearly covered from bow to stern with white metridium anemones which are startling for their bright white color against the backdrop of rusting steel and dark water. In addition, the ship is littered with sculpin, a type of scorpionfish, that prefer resting on the bottom quietly waiting for small fish to pass by and inadvertently become today's meal.

Wrecks of just about any size are fascinating subjects to film. Their appeal works on several different levels: they are something out of place (its supposed to be floating on the surface, not resting here in the murky depths); man-made objects are a testament to our folly either to the ravages of war, as with the South Pacific wrecks from World War II, or to underestimating the power of nature; and they can be marvelous artificial reefs that attract a wide variety of marine life.

However, on this occasion, there were to be no sweeping panoramic shots of the ACE - not when you can only see a few feet in front of your face. And that points out one of the challenges faced by nature photographers and filmmakers. You may have phenomenal skills and all the equipment in the world at your disposal, but you are still a slave to the devilish whims of mother nature. Many times, the footage you see on television or in the theater, or the images you see in books, are the result of many, many repeated attempts. And the more unusual the subject matter, whether it be a particular animal or a certain animal behavior (or simply a capsized fishing boat), the more challenging it can become to find just the right conditions that will enable you to get what you had hoped for.

But when the dice roll in your favor, you can come away with some startling imagery. And this can raise another issue: are we doing the oceans a favor when we show it in all of its visual glory, when we show the best of the best of our photographs of video? Or are we presenting the general populace with a false impression of the actual health of the oceans? When I have had the opportunity to speak with renown underwater photographer David Doubilet, he often asks this same question. Can we effectively talk about, say, fragile coral reefs that are in decline when every book on the subject is full of glorious and stunning images of vibrant fish and reef communities? One would hope that the viewing audience would appreciate the diversity and color of underwater life as seen in photographs and film and, by extension, want to preserve it. But it's a thought that gnaws away in the back of the minds of some of the great craftsmen who so beautifully chronicle the world's marine ecosystems.

For Budd and me, such heady questions needed no pondering this weekend. Skunked again by mother nature and its millions of sand particles, plankton, and animal larvae that can make for a thick soup of poor visibility, we decided we would try again in the fall when changing temperatures and currents can make for a few more days of acceptable conditions.

Of course, we're bound to hear how great it was the very next day. "Oh, you should have been there. . ." Shoulda, coulda, woulda - words to live by for the underwater filmmaker.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tagging of Pacific Predators: a decade of data reveals important migration patterns

In California, many people involved in ocean conservation are familiar with the ground-breaking work of Dr. Barbara Block and the program she started, TOPP (Tagging of Pacific Predators). Using various types of telemetry and satellite tags, the TOPP crew has tagged a variety of ocean animals, from sharks to tuna, to turtles and more. Doing so has enabled them to determine many of the key migration routes these predators take - quite often of a seasonal nature, traveling great distances back and forth between key locations year after year.

After 10 years of tracking using over 4,000 tags and accumulating data from over 23 different species, TOPP has released a final report of its findings in conjunction with the Census for Marine Life, published online in Nature. The report shows that migration patterns play a very crucial role in the lives of many ocean predators. Writing in the Washington Post, Julie Eilperin repeated TOPP's description of the eastern Pacific Ocean as being akin to Africa’s Serengeti, teeming with wildlife and crisscrossed by migration corridors used by sharks and seabirds. Two currents play a key role in the migrations: the California Current - which stretches from western Canada all the way south to Mexico - and the North Pacific Transition Zone - which travels east and west between the sub-arctic and subtropical waters.

Because of my interests with great white sharks in California and Mexico, I have watched the TOPP data over the years and was fascinated by the migration patterns taken by the sharks, seeing the same sharks return to locations like Isla Guadalupe, Baja year after year after year. You could predict with near certainty when sharks would be reported along the California coast based solely on the time of year and where that coincided with their migrations.

“Just off the West Coast may be one of the greatest hot spots for open ocean predators in the world,” said Dr. Block. “They have their favorite haunts, they clearly have the places they keep going back to. The upwelling [of nutrients] is so intense there in the springtime it really sets the table for the whales, the tuna and the sharks. They come and lunch at that table, from everywhere in the entire Pacific realm.”

The data collected in the TOPP program consisted of more than just the whereabouts of an animal. Water conditions including temperature, salinity, chlorophyll, and more enable researchers to examine the environments that might help to explain the migration patterns more thoroughly.

“It’s precedent-setting. It’s a tremendous tool for conservation and management,” said Jesse Ausubel, vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and co-founder of the Census of Marine Life. “We were literally blind. We can now see. We know what’s underneath now.”

Read Julie Eilperins' article in the
Washington Post.
Learn more at the TOPP website.
Migration Maps: TOPP.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Oceans On the Edge of Extinction: international scientific panel issues report that demands our attention

A story is moving quickly through the news media like an Arizona wildfire - from England to India, from the New York Times to Al Jazeera. It's not the latest scandal by a self-indulgent politician or the embarrassment of a foul-mouthed entertainer. It's something that many of us who love and respect the oceans have been wrestling with for some time: multiple man-made stresses on the oceans are threatening marine life with inevitable extinction.

The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) has released a summary of a study undertaken by a group of world renown scientists who examined all of the solid data on the condition of the oceans. Presented at the United Nations on June 20th, the summary's conclusions have been picked up by hundreds of media outlets and for good reason: the prognosis does not look good if things continue as they currently are, with a
"high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history."

"The findings are shocking,"" said Alex Rogers, scientific director of IPSO. "As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the ocean, the implications became far worse than we had individually realised. This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level. We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime, and worse, our children's and generations beyond that."

The summary report concludes with four case studies that focus on several of the key issues. Climate change and acidification, loss of coral reefs, pollution, and overfishing are highlighted not only as activities that are threatening the oceans but also activities that mankind can actually do something about.

I could go on detailing the findings of the IPSO but, instead, I would suggest you read the report yourself - it's available in a long version and shorter version. And I would recommend you read through the IPSO website as it discusses the findings and includes several enlightening videos from many of the scientists involved in the study. These are not just names on a document, hiding behind pronouncements that were destined for oblivion on a library shelf; these are concerned individuals willing to be front and center in announcing that things must change for the better and they must change right now if we expect to have any kind of natural marine resource left for future generations. Visit the State of the Ocean.org website.
Dan Laffoley, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said, "The world's leading experts on oceans are surprised by the rate and magnitude of changes we are seeing. The challenges for the future of the oceans are vast, but unlike previous generations we know what now needs to happen. The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now, today and urgent."

Read about the report at State of the Ocean.org.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ocean Conservation and Culture: one does not have to look far to find conflict

Ocean conservation requires not only an understanding and appreciation of the various worldwide marine ecology and the species that contribute to their existence; an understanding of the specific environmental threats to ecosystems and specific sealife, whether directly man-made or occurring naturally through cyclical patterns. We also need to understand the cultural histories that formulate the attitudes of people regarding the ocean and its future.

In the case of endangered species, likes sharks, whales, tuna, or a wide range of commercially harvested animals, we often turn towards Asian or developing island nations and the long-standing culture steeped in the use of seafood. We wring our hands when considering how these societies can appear to be so singular in purpose and dedicated to consuming natural marine resources - both locally and in international waters.

To be sure, these nations have long cultural histories intertwined with the bounty of the sea and it is a challenge to get them to objectively look at what is happening to their treasured ocean resources before it is too late. But internal progress is being made, although it is a slow process. "Outsiders" can have only so much of an effect; much has to come from self-realization within the culture itself. We see this with anti-shark positions being taken by citizens in Taiwan while a healthy trade in shark fins continues. Japan's harvest of whales and dolphins continues while the consumption of their meat is declining. These conflicting positions represent the achingly slow process of transforming a society to a new way of thinking.

Often, one does not have to travel far to find these same dichotomies at work. In the United States, take the State of Florida for instance. Surrounded on all sides, except for its northern border, by ocean, the "Sunshine State" has a long history with the sea and, in light of today's environmental concerns, we see a culture that is in flux with wasteful attitudes or activities colliding with conservation.

Four recent news articles highlight how Florida can have one foot in the past and one in the future. Reported in Ocean City Today, the 31st Annual Ocean City shark tournament concludes today. This three-day event brings in sportfishermen hungry to catch the largest or heaviest shark in the hopes of winning trophy money that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Sportfishing is not only part of the societal fabric of Florida, it's also big business, so the likelihood that it's going to go away anytime soon in deference to overfished species like sharks, tuna, billfish, or other game fish is fairly remote.

As reported in Ocean City Today,
"The Ocean City Shark Tournament is the second of two fishing competitions that allow anglers to accumulate points toward the “Ocean City Sharker of the Year” title. The first event was Mako Mania, which took place June 3-5. Divisions for the event, which has become one of the largest shark tournaments on the East Coast, are: mako, open (threshers and blue shark only), release, bluefish, tuna and dolphin."

As much as shark advocates abhor these shark tournaments, within that listing of categories for the Ocean City Shark Tournament lies one ray of hope: the "release" category. The tournament directors are working to promote catch-and-release of sharks as opposed to bringing in dead ones. And they are trying to facilitate a change in attitude by using bait that is tantalizing to the human species; more trophy money is being diverted to catch-and-release prize categories based on species, size or number. Sure, I would be the first to say let's put an end to all shark sportfishing tournaments tomorrow, but that would be an easy pronouncement for me, coming from California where such events mostly don't exist. But to Florida and its long-standing history in sportfishing, baby steps are required.


However, it would appear that progress towards all catch-and-release is continuing. The Blacktip Shark Shootout, a two-day event which concludes today, has adopted an all catch-and-release format.

As reported in the St. Petersburg Times,
"Shark, like tarpon, could be the next great catch-and-release fishery. Every angler knows that if you catch a fish and kill it, you've got dinner. But if let it go, it can be caught again and again. 'And they are pretty hardy,' {charter captain and tournament co-founder, Joel] Brandenburg said. 'Sharks put up a great fight, and after you release them, they will swim off as if nothing ever happened.'" Now, there are plenty of shark researchers who might want to argue that last statement, but that's a fisherman talking - albeit one who is making an effort to change the way things have been done for years.

However, attitudes about sharks as a food source still persist, and not just overseas in Asian restaurants and marketplaces. NaplesNews.com ran an article on Friday titled "Locals attack shark, buffet style at CJ's on the Bay." It seems that a popular local eatery is heralding in the summer with Loco for the Locals Luau, a Hawaiian island-style barbecue, and rather than use the more traditional roasted pig as the main course, this year the restaurant decided on a whole shark.

“We wanted to do something for our local customers as well, customers that may or may not be members of the Chamber [of Commerce, which held a prior event using roasted pig],” Chef Laura Owens said. “We threw some ideas around and I said, ‘lets roast a shark.’ We might be setting some new ground.” Well, I sure hope not. In fact, it's a slap in the face to Hawaiian culture to use the concept of a luau and, at the same time, roast an animal that is revered throughout Hawaiian tribal history.

However, while there is not a widespread understanding as to the perilous conditions to which shark populations are faced, even in the waters off Florida, progress is being made by Florida regulatory agencies to better protect more species of sharks that have been the target of sport and commercial fishermen for decades. KeysNet.com reports that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Comission is considering protections for tiger sharks and hammerhead sharks - two species that have been popular with sportfishermen over the years and whose numbers have noticeably declined.

According to Neil Hammerschlag, shark expert from the University of Miami, "Tiger sharks and hammerheads do not reproduce often or quickly, and both are highly prized for their fins for use in shark-fin soup. The pregnant animals come into shallow water to give birth, where the pups can find food and protection from other predators. That tends to make them very vulnerable to fishing. Studies have shown that taking even a few large individuals can have a big effect on the population in a local area."

With already 22 shark species protected in Florida, ranging from great whites to smaller Caribbean reef sharks, a prohibition on landing tiger and hammerhead sharks would not necessarily impact the sportfishing industry, according to Christy Johnson of SeaSquared Charters.

"We do catch and release for big sharks," she said. "I don't know anybody who takes the bigger sharks, except maybe trying for a mako."

So, one does not have to travel far to find conflicting attitudes about sharks or other dwindling fish stocks and what needs to be done about it. Progress is being made but old habits and cultures die hard. It will take patience and persistence on the part of those who recognize the need for immediate steps to preserve our natural resources while accepting the fact that some will need to come kicking and screaming - or may never come around at all.

Read about the Ocean City shark tournament in Ocean City Today.
Read about the Blacktip Shark Shootout in the St. Petersburg Times.
Read about the roasted shark Luau at NaplesNews.com.
Read about tigher and hammerhead shark protections in KeysNet.com.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hawaiian Monk Seal: proposed protections need public support

When considering marine mammals, whales and dolphins are what come to mind for many. And that's understandable as these animals have been the subject of many conservation battles, from ongoing anti-whaling campaigns to inhumane treatment (as in my post on Wednesday of this week) to the tragedy of the Taji harvest as shown in the documentary, The Cove.

However, also included in the marine mammals group are seals and sea lions and while, perhaps, less severely threatened as whales and dolphins, they are not completely out of the woods. Once extensively hunted for their fur, hide, blubber (for making seal oil) and meat, the populations of many seals and sea lions declined rapidly. But large scale seal hunting has declined, much like whaling in the past, and the number of seals and sea lions have improved despite continued hunting by several countries - personified largely by the harp seal hunts that take place in Canada and Northern Europe and Scandinavia, although it does still take place worldwide.

Being based in Southern California as I am, I have had the opportunity to come in contact in the wild with California sea lions, harbor seals and, occasionally, northern elephant seals. Typically curious and playful, I have had them nipping on my dive fins for fun, sneaking up on my game bag (in my early days of diving when I would go for the occasional lobster or abalone), or I have been repeatedly dive bombed underwater, as many other local divers have experienced, either as playful exercise or as a means of shooing us away if we appeared to be a threat.

Unfortunately, even where hunting is not taking place or is even prohibited, seals and sea lions are still set upon with challenges: caught in fishing nets, tangled up and choked by plastic garbage, poisoned by pollution or naturally occurring substances like domoic acid from algal blooms, and even shot by the occasional fisherman who felt the animal was affecting his potential catch. Add to that, changes in their natural habitat from climate change, and we find seals and sea lions - animals that are important members of the ocean community and add to its natural balance - are in a perilous position not much different than whales and dolphins.

One species of seal I have not had the pleasure yet of seeing in the wild is the Hawaiian monk seal, unfortunately one of the most endangered of all marine mammals. Once heavily hunted, their numbers were reduced to a level that has had them continually at that tipping point of total population collapse. Designated as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the number of Hawaiian monk seals continues to slowly decline to just a little over one thousand in number. Further reductions would certainly put it on a slippery slope towards extinction.

Several conservation organizations have taken the U.S. government to task to ensure that all is being done to give these ocean mammals a fighting chance. Kahea - The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) are petitioning concerned citizens to be the voice of the Hawaiian monk seal in demanding the Obama administration to adhere to the Endangered Species Act and grant the seal protected habitat not only on the northwestern islands where it is currently protected but on the main islands as well. Just this month, such a proposal was made, expanding the seal’s habitat to 11,000 square miles, including beaches and coastal waters on all the main Hawaiian Islands and increasing its protected habitat in the Northwestern Islands.


But it is not yet a done deal and so both Kahea and CBD continue to exert legal and public pressure (there's even a Facebook page dedicated to saving the Hawaiian monk seal) through public petitions and filings in the courts to make sure that the National Marine Fisheries Service makes good on the expanded habitat proposal. There is still a chance that one of Hawaii's unique species can be saved from extinction.

Learn about Kahea - The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.
Learn more about
The Center for Biological Diversity and its Hawaiian monk seal campaign.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Captive Dolphins: 25 dolphins are held in waiting for a proposed Singapore resort

The plight of dolphins captured for aquariums or amusement parks has become a more visible issue ever since the academy award-winning film The Cove detailed the brutality involved in dolphin and whale captures in Japan. Orcas (killer whales) and the mental and physical impact of their living conditions in aquatic parks have become an issue following the unfortunate death of a Sea World orca trainer, drowned by a temperamental whale.

Now, Patrick Schmitt of Change.org is trying to focus attention on a group of dolphins that were recently captured for a proposed hotel in Singapore. Twenty-seven dolphins were taken near the Solomon Islands, but two have already died while waiting for the resort hotel to be completed. Even when completed, the arrangements for the dolphins will be less than ideal.

Here is Patrick's call to arms:

27 dolphins were captured from the waters off the Solomon Islands -- 2 have died so far. 25 remain in captivity, and the longer they stay there, the odds increase dramatically that they'll die before they can be freed.

These dolphins have been taken from their natural habitat and held captive, their lives endangered by a hotel chain. Tell Resorts World that these dolphins should be free -- not pent up in tanks to entertain guests.


The dolphin tank at the hotel in question (Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore) hasn't even been built yet. Since half of all captured dolphins die within their first two years of captivity, it would seem that Resorts World simply captured more dolphins than necessary to see how many of them would still be around by the time they were needed.


In the wild, dolphins have a life expectancy of 45 years, and they can swim 40-100 miles a day. They spend half their time hunting for food, which is important for their mental stimulation.

In tanks, dolphins swim around in circles. They can't hunt. They're exposed to bacteria that have been known to cause blindness and death. We need to tell Resorts World to free the "Sentosa 25."


Ric O'Barry used to train Flipper –– yes, that Flipper –– but he's now a staunch anti-captivity activist. O'Barry wrote an open letter to the CEO of Resorts World Sentosa which read, "We know the people of Singapore love dolphins. Most Singaporeans would object to keeping dolphins in captivity if they knew the dangers to the dolphins and the horrific capture practices of the Solomon Islands and other dolphin capture countries."


Here's the good news: Resorts World is sensitive to public pressure. Two years ago, the company abandoned plans for a whale shark exhibit after community outcry. 25 dolphins are depending on us to achieve the same result today.


Please sign the petition to tell Resorts World Sentosa to free the 25 dolphins being held captive in the Philippines.

Click here to learn more about Change.org.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Shark-Free Marinas: celebrities weigh in on shark sportfishing

It was just a couple of years ago that the Shark-Free Marina Initiative (SFMI) was launched as a way to contribute to shark conservation by getting marinas to prohibit the landing of sharks. A shark-free marina would not allow sport fishermen to bring in caught sharks for landing, weighing, trophy picture-taking - you name it; no sharks allowed. In addition, marinas were encouraged to promote catch-and-release techniques involving the use of specialized fishing tackle that was less injurious to the sharks.
While in its infancy, I was pleased and honored to produce their first promotional video featuring SFMI director Luke Tipple. SFMI has continue to grow, adding participating shark-free marinas from Florida to California, from the Caribbean to the South Pacific. For 2011, Florida - one of the biggest sportfishing capitols in the world - is the focus of a concerted campaign to register marinas as shark-free.

The Shark-Free Marina Initiative is now supported by both The Humane Society of the United States and The Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and is backed up by an impressive list of shark researchers and conservation advocates. Currently, there are two designations to which a marina may subscribe: a Shark-Free Marina - which abides by a strict, no-take policy, and a Shark-Friendly Marina or Business - which discourages the intentional killing of sharks and promotes protection and conservation. The second designation was in response to marinas and businesses who wished to participate but were restricted, by either corporate policy or state law, from denying fishermen the right to bring in a shark that was legally caught. (So, let's get to work on those laws!)

The Shark-Free Marina Initiative also has the support of celebrities, as can be seen in this new PSA.



Check out the Shark-Free Marina Initiative's website and if you have a local marina that you think should get involved, talk to the marina's management or contact SFMI directly and they will approach the marina with an opportunity to preserve an important ocean species without impinging on the sportfisherman's past time.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Japanese Whaling Renewed: fleet heads towards Northwest Pacific

The Japanese whaling fleet has once again set out to harvest whales under the abused "scientific research" provision of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This time, the three-vessel flotilla, led by the factory ship Nisshin Maru, are headed into the Northwest Pacific Ocean with the intention of catching 260 whales including 100 minke whales, ostensibly to examine stomach contents, take DNA samples, and conduct other research on the dead whales.

Last year, the fleet's whaling season in the southern oceans off of Antarctica was cut short, with a total of 172 whales taken, primarily due to the harassment by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessels. Many nations hoped that the curtailed season would spell an end to japan's whaling activities. The recall of the fleet was a major victory for the Society but, as of this writing, there has been no response from the anti-whaling organization in regards to this recent departure to the northwest Pacific. It is unknown as to whether it anticipated or was caught off guard by this new hunting expedition.

Several key vessels of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been engaged in harassment of the Mediterranean tuna fishing fleet. With demand for tuna high worldwide, not just in Asian markets, the bluefin tuna stands perilously close on the brink of extinction. Demand has encouraged illegal fisheries and Sea Shepherd has dispatched the Steve Irwin and the newly acquired Brigette Bardot to the Mediterranean Sea to track down those fishing boats working outside the laws and regulations of ICCAT (International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna).

Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research, the organization that is fronting this new hunt, told the Japan Times that the whalers haven't encountered any obstruction from anti-whaling activities so far, but said they remain on high alert.

At the last meeting of the IWC, a proposal was made to allow Japan to hunt whales in its own coastal waters in exchange for reducing its annual catch quota for research whaling. However, as a testament to the Commission's inability to reach a binding consensus regarding Japan's whaling activities, the proposal was, ultimately, not acted upon. In the meantime, Australia continues to move forward with their legal action against Japan's whaling activities through the International Court of Justice.

Read about the launch of whaling fleet in the Japan Times.

Marine-Based Medicines: making ocean conservation personal

One of the ways that ocean conservation can resonate with a broad population of people is to, for better or worse, make it self-serving. In other words, show a direct link between the ocean and mankind. Those involved in ocean conservation know that there is a shopping list as long as your arm of benefits derived from conserving our marine resources, but many are the result of an inter-related domino effect and sometimes those multiple degrees of separation can, for many people, seem obscure, thereby diluting the urgency of the cause. It becomes a bit more remote when it is a series of "if this happens, then this happens..."

So let's bring it home: Alzheimer's, AIDS, coronary artery disease, arthritis, diabetes, obesity.

These are just a few of the health conditions that scientists are turning to the oceans for treatment in the form of pharmaceuticals (medicinal drugs), nutraceuticals (vitamins and food supplements), and functional foods. Pharmacologists are studying many of the organic compounds found in the sea and discovering direct benefits to mankind in the form of preventative treatments or treatments of active conditions.

One such subject of study is algae in its many forms - from seaweed to red tides. Seaweeds have various levels of antioxidants which can be isolated and used as food supplements or as part of medical treatments for several conditions including coronary heart disease and cancer. Antioxidants serve to protect cells from other elements that would damage or destroy them.

Algal blooms, like "red tides", can kill fish through neurotoxins, but it's those same toxins that can be used to develop anti-inflammatory or anti-neurodegenerative compounds. Much like how medicines have been developed from unlikely sources like spider or snake venom, there are strides being made with algal-based neurological agents to develop treatments for HIV (particularly in response to drug resistance to some of the current drug therapies), arthritis, Parkinson's disease and many other conditions where prevention or treatment of nerve cells would be beneficial.

In many cases, marine-based compounds are beneficial when incorporated or synthesized with other molecules or chemicals, constructing new molecules that can be used to control cancer or serum cholesterol and other conditions.

According to a study, "The Odyssey of Marine Pharmaceuticals: A Current Pipeline Perspective," published in Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, "
The global marine pharmaceutical pipeline consists of three Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs, one EU registered drug, 13 natural products (or derivatives thereof) in different phases of the clinical pipeline and a large number of marine chemicals in the preclinical pipeline. The preclinical pipeline continues to supply several hundred novel marine compounds every year and those continue to feed the clinical pipeline with potentially valuable compounds. From a global perspective the marine pharmaceutical pipeline remains very active, and now has sufficient momentum to deliver several additional compounds to the marketplace in the near future."

So, in a very direct way, the ocean saves lives. A healthy ocean means healthy humans. Ocean advocates know this to be true on a variety of levels, through a myriad of inter-related ecological systems or processes. But knowing that a healthy ocean could provide the treatment to perhaps save the life of a loved one from a debilitating or deadly disease - that can grab the attention of the uncommitted in a heartbeat.

Read more about algae's neuroprotective abilities.
Read more about potential marine-based anti-HIV agents.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Better Conservation Education: reaching children on the importance of the oceans

When we talk about preserving our marine resources for future generations, we need to ensure that younger people are engaged both actively and emotionally in ocean conservation. Lindsey Wright, who is passionate about education technology, supplies a guest post that reminds us all of how and when children can best learn to appreciate animals. Understanding their development cycle is key. And in the end, the result we hope for is that, as Jacques Cousteau once said, "People protect what they love."

Better Conservation Education

The best way to end up with adults that care about the future of the planet and the species that inhabit it is to start teaching basic ecological principles when children are young and eager to learn new things. Many children never fully understand the concepts of biodiversity and ecosystems until they start taking biology classes in high school or “go to” college at an online school. By that age, they may be too occupied with other things to care about the implications of the loss of biodiversity on our planet. However, it is never too early to start exposing children to information that engages and interests them. Young children may not be able to grasp complex ecological concepts early in life, but a foundation can be built that makes them interested in learning more about science.

The first step in engaging a child in conservation education is to teach them about animals. This is not difficult, because young children are naturally fascinated with animals. Very young children may learn words like "cat," "dog" and "fish" at an early age. However it is common for children to generalize these terms incorrectly for a period of time. For example, a child may say "cat" when they see a rabbit. To an adult, this mistake does not make sense, but the young child is referring to any small, fuzzy mammal as a "cat." That is, the word is more general in their mind than it is for an adult, who has narrowed the word "cat" down to mean domesticated cats and maybe other members of the feline family. In this stage of cognitive development it is too early for the child to be interested in learning the names of animals that they will probably not encounter outside of zoos, but they may still enjoy seeing these animals and looking at pictures of them.

Thus when a child starts to learn the names of animals that are more uncommon, they will probably be very interested in learning about animals that most people do not know about, including endangered species and creatures that inhabit the deep oceans. Children of this age may enjoy going to zoos or aquariums, looking at Web sites with pictures of interesting animals, going on field trips to local conservation centers or reading books with pictures of animals. Teachers and parents work together in educating a child; if a child seems particularly interested in something, their interest shouldn't be ignored.

The World Wildlife Fund website is a good resource for looking at pictures of endangered species, learning their names and reading more information about them. If a child has the attention span for it, watching a visually-stimulating series of nature documentaries, such as "Planet Earth," "Life," or "Blue Planet" may fascinate them. These television series highlight different ecosystems, from the deepest parts of the oceans to the highest mountaintops on Earth, and feature many lesser-known species. There are other resources on television, in libraries and on the Internet. If a child knows about the vast number of unique species on planet Earth, they are more likely to care about what happens to them in the future. Many people simply do not know the extent of the environmental problem because they do not know the extent of the environment!

Eventually, the idea that there are even more species on planet Earth than we know about, and new species are discovered every day can be introduced to school-aged children. Another important concept is that ecosystems, or all of the living things and the environment in a certain area, are in balance, and it is possible for this balance to be disrupted by the actions of human beings. Species are going extinct due to overpopulation, habitat destruction, depletion of natural resources, overhunting and overfishing, pollution and agriculture.

A good way to teach children about extinction, of course, is by teaching them about dinosaurs and fossils. Extinction is not always cataclysmic, however; some ecologists consider the current ongoing loss of biodiversity to be the sixth major extinction in the history of the planet. It is important to teach children that not all species go extinct because of a natural disaster such as a meteor hitting the earth, but that species can and do go extinct silently. Some species that we don't even know about, such as those in the deep oceans, may go extinct before they are ever known to science. Not all types of creatures leave fossils, so there are many species, several that are much older than humans, that we will never know about.

To drive this point home, all that is needed is to do a quick image search for "deep sea creatures" in your Web browser. The oceans cover most of our planet, and we know very little about them. Scientists know more about the surface of the moon than we do the deepest parts of our oceans. As such, it's likely that the pictures that come up in the image search will seem alien, bizarre and even scary, with their odd body forms, large teeth and bioluminescence. If you have never seen these creatures before, you may very well forget which planet you live on. These species are all relatively newly discovered, and there are many more species that have never been seen by human eyes or photographed. This is just one ecosystem. Granted, it is devoid of sunlight and very hard to explore, but there are also many undiscovered species in every ecosystem on Earth.

The best way to get children involved in conservation in our oceans and other ecosystems is simply showing children why it's important to take care of our oceans. A person can not care about a cause that is not real to them. If your conception of planet Earth is a handful of cities, a suburb or a small town, you are unaware of how big planet Earth really is. If you are unaware that there is a problem, you are unaware of how small and vulnerable planet Earth really is.

About Lindsey Wright: Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Madagascar: Africa's isolated and unique island neighbor is at risk

Madagascar, that large island you see off the east coast of Africa, is a remarkably unique and, conversely, typical place. What is special about Madagascar is the good news. And what is not so special is the bad news. First the good news.

Being somewhat isolated, Madagascar can act as a gigantic evolutionary petri dish, bringing forth a variety of animals that are found nowhere else. According to MSNBC, since 1999 scientists have discovered as many 615 new species, ranging from Berthe's mouse lemur - the world's smallest primate weighing in at one ounce - to lizards with tree bark-like camouflage to a whole host of plants.


"All the species are so special, and many are unique to Madagascar," said Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, conservation director for World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Madagascar. "They don't exist anywhere else in the world."

With something new being discovered almost on a weekly basis, this island - the fourth largest island in the world - has, in little over a decade, provided scientists with 17 new species of fish, 41 mammals, 61 reptiles, 69 amphibians, 42 invertebrates, and 385 plants.

I have a niece, Kathryn Theiss, who is a botanist and has spent a considerable amount of time in Madagascar studying species of orchids. She must be in heaven every time she's there in the field. But heaven can be fleeting and this is what makes Madagascar typical. Now, the bad news.

Like many other developing nations, many of Madagascar's plant and animal species are at risk or out right endangered because of the subsistence-level needs of the people - from farming to
poaching for exotic animals. For most of the Malagasy people, wood is their primary source of energy. And a growing population demands farmland. So, deforestation is a major problem. From 1950 to 1990, the forests were cleared at a rate of 2 percent a year. While the level of deforestation has decreased by as much as half since then, the damage had been done and the island's total forest acreage has been reduced by as much as 90 percent.

"The sad part is that there could be many species that will disappear before they are discovered," Ratsifandrihamanana said.

So there is a race taking place in Madagascar, with continuing advances in scientific study methods allowing for ever-increasing numbers of new species to be identified, while the accelerating degradation of the forests threaten more and more species with extinction. The WWF continues to work in Madagascar to both assist the scientists and bring the issue of deforestation to the people on a local level.

"We're really trying to empower local communities so they are better managers of the resources, because they are the ones who make the daily decisions for how they will use the forest," observed Ratsifandrihamanana.

WWF has its work cut out for itself. To educate the populace to better conserve their isolated and precious resources, the overall economic situation must improve, and Madagascar is considered one of the poorest nations on the planet with an unsettled government (a coup occurred in 2009). But whatever progress is achieved would be worth the effort.

OurAmazingPlanet recently listed eight of the world's most endangered places - and Madagascar made the list. A dubious distinction for an evolutionary jewel that can provide scientists with knowledge about the development of species that could be transferred to how we can best preserve plants and animals worldwide. What a tragedy it would be if Madagascar's only legacy was to serve as a lasting reminder of what can happen when mankind takes without giving back.

World Ocean Day: today is the day - what you can do

It's Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - World Ocean Day. And while I'm laying about , nursing a sore throat and cold, I'll still do my part to commemorate this international recognition of the world's oceans. And you can too.

World Ocean Day began in 1992 by Canada, following an ocean summit held in Brazil. It was recognized by the United Nations in 2008 and has since been coordinated by The Ocean Project and the World Ocean Network. There are many activities taking place worldwide today on behalf of the oceans, but if it's a little late in the game for you to personally participate, never fear. You can still do your part.

Sustainable Seafood - If going to a restaurant or supermarket with seafood on your mind, make sure it is considered part of the sustainable seafood group that provides as little of an impact as possible to depleted fish stocks. Don't know what to choose? Then check out the sustainable seafood listings from the Blue Ocean Institute or the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Or better still, no seafood consumed today.

No Plastic Bags - The infamous, single-use disposable plastic bag has, rightfully, become a target of municipal legislation as these throwaway items do considerable harm when they end up in the sea and are biodegradable if only disposed of in the right set of circumstances (a delicate combination of heat, light, and microbes - and still it takes many years). If you're doing any shopping then insist on a paper bag made from recycled paper or, better still, carry your own bag or bags. There are bags now available in many stores, made of recycled material and at a very reasonable cost.

Don't Spew the Fossil Fuel - Carbon dioxide that makes its way into the oceans can generate acidification - what is being recognized as one of the greatest threats the world's oceans face. Minimize your carbon footprint today by driving as little as possible - whether you are driving a gas hog, hybrid, or even an all-electric (there's carbon produced in the making of those batteries). If possible, hit the road on a bicycle or by foot. A little exercise - your heart will thank you for it.

Support Your Ocean Organizations - Even in these difficult economic times, today would be a great day to donate to the ocean conservation organization of your choice, whether it be a local group or a major international effort. But be sure to look into what the organization has accomplished. It's results that you are looking for to ensure that your donation will be well-spent. So, take that $10 you might have spent on a Big Mac Meal with fries - following your arduous bike ride around town - and put it where it will do some good on behalf of the oceans.

Simple. Just a few steps in the right direction that can have an impact, particularly if multiplied by millions across the globe. And, hey, I've got a crazy idea: after doing your part to help the oceans today - let's do it tomorrow! And the day after. And the day after that. And so on.

Crazy radicalism, but the oceans will thank you for it.

Learn more about World Ocean Day at:
The Ocean Project
World Ocean Network

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Brimming Pools: latest Nat Geo issue looks at the vibrant diversity of tidepools

Near neon-like green anemones with tentacles waving in the swirling water; colorful nudibranchs crawling over the substrate; waves of sea grass hiding a myriad collection of shells, crabs, and mollusks. A tropical reef, right? No. A coldwater rocky shoreline? Closer. Try a tidepool.

Or more specifically an intertidal zone along the northern California coast. Due to the movement of ocean currents that churn nutrient-rich waters from deeper depths, certain temperate-zone coastlines benefit from having vibrant and diversified intertidal zones.

National Geographic magazine details the complexity of tidepools in the June issue, on newstands now. "Brimming Pools" is a featured article written by Mel White, with photography by David Liittschwager. White spent time crawling about the rocky shorelines of northern California with marine biologists to learn about the many inhabitants of the intertidal zone and how the zone can be a microcosm of other marine ecosystems and a means to study both sealife growth and the impacts of environmental change - which can be extended to the oceans at large as well.

I had the opportunity to interview the article's author and he touched on some of the issues detailed in the article, from tidepool biodiversity to its precarious future.

RTSea: What attracted you to northern California and the tidepools of Bodega Bay?

MW: My main interest is natural history; recently I’ve covered subjects including Borneo deforestation, crocodiles, and a scientific expedition to New Guinea. I was excited to get the [National Geographic] assignment, because I’ve been fascinated by the intertidal world since I first experienced and wrote about it many years ago at Acadia National Park in Maine.

For various geographic and ecological reasons, the temperate-zone western coasts of continents have the best intertidal life: the western coast of South Africa, the western coast of Chile, and of course the northwestern coast of North America, which harbors some of the most diverse and interesting intertidal life on earth. Since [lead photographer] David Liittschwager is based in San Francisco, and since there’s a long history of research at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, which is in a marine reserve, it was a natural focus for the story.

RTSea: In the National Geographic magazine article, you describe the intertidal zone as “. . . sea grass at the bottom up through strata of sea anemones and mussels and barnacles to the limpets at the top . . .” Do marine biologists define or identify these various strata? And what are the ecological or environmental factors that form or delineate the different strata?

MW: One of the attractions for marine biologists in the intertidal zone is the ability to study life zones and ecological succession in a relatively small area and in a relatively short period of time.

The most obvious factor creating intertidal zonation is the amount of time areas are under water. At the top of the intertidal, organisms may spend only a few minutes each day under water. Even above that is the splash zone, almost never submerged but continually dampened by wave splash, where limpets live. The bottom of the intertidal is exposed to the drying effects of air and direct sunlight less than an hour a day. Then there are countless niches within these zones, such as mini-caves or rock overhangs. The organisms themselves create ecological niches, such as dense sea grass or extensive mussel beds, which are an ecosystem unto themselves. A biologist once pulled up an area of mussel bed less than a square foot, and the number of porcelain crabs and other tiny creatures that scurried away was astounding. Multiply that by many thousands along one stretch of coast and the image is truly awesome.

This ecological stratification promotes diversity. As an example, mussels can out-compete certain barnacles at one level, but just a couple of feet higher the barnacles dominate. A couple of feet lower, the big ochraceous sea stars are a major mussel predator and keep them in check. Certain large snails are important herbivores, but they can live only in sheltered areas because they’re vulnerable to being knocked off the rocks by waves.


RTSea: When thinking of a marine community, most people typically think of coral reefs because of all the various corals, colorful fish, and marine life that live together. But coldwater environments like northern California can be equally diverse, abundant, and colorful. Are these coldwater ecosystems just as fragile as their warm water cousins?

MW: Coldwater systems could be highly vulnerable to changes in ocean temperatures and pH [acidification]—in the former case probably more so than tropical systems.

It’s impossible to spend time studying the coldwater intertidal zone without being continually amazed by the intricate interactions among plants and animals: the symbioses and commensalisms, the camouflage and predator-prey relationships. Nature is resilient, but you understand how quickly the web of life could break down if only a few components are altered or destroyed. And speaking of colorful: There’s nothing on earth more colorful than some of the nudibranchs and even chitons of the northern California coast.

RTSea: With scientists studying the effects of climate change, acidification, pollution and other man-made impacts, have the researchers you spoke with at the Farallon Institute or Bodega Marine laboratory been able to document changes in the local intertidal zones? If so, what are they seeing?

MW: Marine biology is still a relatively new science, and when you combine that with the difficulty of studying many types of marine life, there are a lot more questions than answers, especially when it comes to long-term trends and their significance. Some creatures leave the intertidal zone as larvae and are gone out to sea for weeks or months and nobody know what happens to them or where they go. In only a few places, such as Bodega Bay, have studies been going on long enough to make observations about some of these environmental effects. So right now the attitude is something like cautious observation.

The biologists I talked to were actually more concerned at the moment about certain local anthropogenic influences on intertidal life. Increased runoff from rivers resulting from upstream deforestation can essentially smother nearshore life. The natural-foods movement has meant vastly increased harvesting of certain seaweeds along the northern California coast. One marine biologist has worked with the state to develop seasonal guidelines to try to allow harvest without depleting seaweed populations. Of course, abalones are a key species in nearshore areas, and in places where people can easily access the intertidal zone their populations have dropped and you rarely find large individuals.

RTSea: In the article, you wrote of marine biologist Eric Sanford picking up one rock from a tide pool and finding on it representatives of “more than one-fourth of all animal life on Earth.” Do you think that people are beginning to realize more and more, the vital life connection between the seas and our own future existence? What do you think ocean conservationists need to do more of to reach people, getting more people to support ocean conservation?

MW: As a pessimist, I’m afraid too many people are more interested in the latest pop song or having a fancy cell phone than in trying to understand complicated environmental issues. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico held people’s interest for a while, and it’s probably a sad but true fact of human nature that we don’t pay attention until something slaps us in the face: no shrimp in the grocery store, favorite beaches closed, marine-dependent jobs lost. I suppose it helps when celebrities such as Ted Danson and Sigourney Weaver speak out on environmental issues, but I’m depressed that educational budget cutbacks mean less time for non-core subjects such as environmental studies.

On the other hand, Facebook and similar Internet networks allow people to communicate and organize quickly around issues, which offers hope for effective activism. On the other other hand, conservationists are still going up against the huge budgets and political power of oil companies, automakers, and business interests, which care more about the next quarter’s profits than the long-term health of the planet. There’s absolutely no reason why vehicles in the United States shouldn’t be averaging well over 30 miles per gallon, which would eliminate the need for more ocean oil drilling—except that politicians beholden to oil and car companies keep vetoing higher fuel-economy standards.


I’d like to think that the general trend in human consciousness is toward a better understanding of environmental issues, and I think that’s probably true. Can that overcome basic human inertia and short-term selfishness in time to avoid catastrophe? I send my money to environmental organizations and I encourage my friends to do the same.


As the June issue of National Geographic once again shows, there is something very special about stunning photographs, beautifully printed, with informative text - it's a tactile experience that, in this digital world, I still cannot shake. That's why I have been a subscriber to the magazine since 1976.

Take a look at the "Brimming Pools" in the June, 2011 issue of National Geographic, on newstands now.

Click here to view the photography of David Liittschwager.
Click here to watch a time-lapse video of changing tides covering tidepools.

Filmmaker's Journal: SCUBA Show indicates renewed life in ocean sport

Yesterday, I spent the day and evening at the SCUBA Show in Long Beach, California. This is one of the, if not the, largest recreational scuba diving show open to the public. For me, as a diver and filmmaker, it's an opportunity to see the latest toys, bells, and whistles to carry under water. It's also an opportunity to meet up with many of the friends and leaders in the scuba diving industry, from manufacturers to island resorts.

Judging by what I saw yesterday (the show runs for the entire June 4-5 weekend), business is beginning to pick up. The dive travel industry, like so many other disposable income activities, took a severe hit with the economic downturn. But with the slight (albeit very slight) improvement that has occurred with the economy - and, probably more importantly, with consumers finally saying enough is enough with all this doom and gloom - there appeared to be more people willing to get back in the water, whether it's locally or via some exotic destination.

It could be an advantageous time for the consumer as we are not out of the woods yet, economically speaking, so retailers and resorts are offering some pretty amazing deals. Not to get totally off-subject, but it seems that while many look to Wall Street or the government or industry to turn things around, we must not forget the mindset of the consumer. Throughout this entire financial crisis, everyone pulled back on spending as well they should. And as much as Wall Street's ups and downs are often motivated by attitude, so it is with the general public. So there is some evidence that we are beginning to peek out of our shells and show some willingness toward prudent consumption that will hopefully stimulate the economy. What I saw at the SCUBA Show was, perhaps, a small indication.

However, back to scuba diving. Two noticeable trends I saw was a greater proliferation of simple, easy-to-use underwater camera systems that deliver some terrific results. Many of the cameras provide both still and video (although they're a long ways from broadcast-quality video, so I don't think my skills will be put out to pasture just yet). But there are some amazing systems that can provide divers with wonderful digital memories of their dive travel experiences.

Also, technical diving is making more inroads into the general diver populace, particularly in the area of closed circuit rebreathers. These are diving systems that recirculate and clean the carbon dioxide from your exhalation, adding in the required amount of pure oxygen to replenish what you consumed. What this provides then is extended depth and bottom time - and no
bubbles. For photographers and vidoeographers, the advantage to having no bubbles can be very significant. With surrounding sealife, the standard scuba system is quite a disturbing noise-maker, with bubbles being exhaled into the water with each breath. Rebreathers often allow divers to get much closer to fish and other sealife, with provides for better photo and video opportunities.

Closed circuit rebreathers are much more technically advanced than the standard scuba unit (and if not properly maintained or operated, can be quite dangerous), but as with any technology, advances have been made to make them safe enough that they are now making more inroads into the general diving community and not just restricted to advance technical divers or professional photographers and filmmakers.

The SCUBA Show in Long Beach will be concluding today, just in time for a change to summer weather - which will bring out the local California divers. If you are a certified scuba diver anywhere in the world, I would suggest dusting off your gear, checking in with your local scuba dive store retailer, and getting back in the water. If you are a non-diver considering the sport, now may be a great time to get started. It's a great way to remind yourself as to what makes the oceans so special and why we need to dedicate our energies to preserving them for generations of divers to come.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Africa's Masai Mara Reserve: study shows alarming decline in wildlife

Ocean conservationists often talk of how commercial activities impact marine environments to where species populations are brought to a tipping point, when the steady decline in numbers can reach a point of sudden collapse. From sharks to coral reefs, species after species are being impacted by commercial fishing, urban development, or other human activities and, left unchecked, could lead to dire and irreversible consequences.

This is not a scenario exclusive or unique to the oceans. In Kenya, within the Masai Mara reserve, a similar situation is taking place which has brought about a crash in the wild animal populations over the past 30 years. According to a study recently published in Journal of Zoology, researchers have determined that the number of impala, warthog, giraffe, topi, and hartebeest have declined by over 70%. Where huge herds of wildebeest would migrate from the Serengeti through the Mara region, their numbers have now dropped by 64% and the reserve's resident wildebeest population during the wet season has effectively disappeared, declining by as much as 97%.


"We were very surprised by what we found," said Dr. Joseph Ogutu from the University of Hohenheim, Germany and who headed up the study. "The Mara has lost more than two thirds of its wildlife."

In reaching their conclusions, the researchers combed through aerial photographs and monitoring data of animal herds and populations dating back to 1977. Over this 33-year period, they saw, among the 12 species of large animals, ostriches, and livestock studied, a drastic, relentless, and unexpected decline. Only a few species either within the reserve or just outside of its boundaries managed to maintain their numbers or show slight improvement. Since a major conservation effort was begun at the start of 2000, the researchers anticipated much greater improvement in the animal populations. But such was not the case.

To be sure, poaching has played a significant role in the decline, as it has in many developing nations. According to the BBC news,
over 1500 poachers have been arrested within the Mara conservancy between 2001 and 2010, with more than 17,300 snares collected by rangers in the same period.

However, in addition to poaching, cattle grazing has played as great, if not greater, a role. The expansion of land used by ranchers for grazing, both within the reserve and outside its borders, has diminished the size and quality of wild animal habitat.


"Not only have numbers of cattle, sheep and goats increased but their distribution has widened, with the density of cattle increasing more than three-fold and that of sheep and goats more than seven fold up to 5km inside the reserve," Dr. Ogutu noted. "Sadly though, wildlife distribution has contracted throughout the entire Mara region in the same period."

Overgrazing impacts the natural fauna which can spill over into the remaining open land. The wild animal populations of the Mara region and, indeed, of all of Kenya, have evolved based on available area, quality of grazing land and food sources, and the animals' reproductive rates - all combine to make for a stable population. So, to put it simply, if you take away half the land, the animal population does not simply adjust and reduce itself by half. Instead, the once balanced system begins to collapse.


Just as industrial overfishing and degradation of marine habitat from development and population, when left unchecked or unregulated, can threaten marine ecosystems, so it is on the dry savannas of Kenya that poaching and expanding ranch land can threaten the rich animal diversity and expansive herds we have always come to associate with Africa.


The BBC News noted, "The expansion of settlements, fences and livestock numbers need to be regulated if these declines in wildlife are to be arrested, the researchers proposed, as well as bringing down poaching levels."

"Otherwise, the status of Masai Mara as a prime conservation area and premier tourist draw card in Kenya may soon be in jeopardy," said Dr Ogutu.