Sunday, September 30, 2012

Post BLUE Film Festival News: new shark species in the Philippines

First off, my apologies to my readers for being a bit derelict in my duties as contributor to this blog.  I have spent the past week at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Event in Monterey, CA and there was so much taking place there - regarding ocean conservation, wildlife/ocean film making and, of course, a full slate of films - that keeping up with my posts became a challenge, to say the least.

However, meeting up with old and new colleagues provides me with a considerable amount of material to work with so you can expect some interesting posts over the next few weeks that include interviews with ocean conservation notables like Dr. Sylvia Earle (, Fabien Cousteau (, Dr. David Guggenheim (the "Ocean Doctor"), Christopher Chin ( Saver), and more.

One short item that caught my eye today was a news article that helps highlight the importance of protecting marine areas because we often do not know the full range of biodiversity that can exist in a specific area.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on a recently discovered new species of shark in a well-traveled area of the Philippines called the Verde Island Passage Marine Corridor (VIPMC).  It is a body of water that is well-traveled by both ships and migratory species and so responsible management of the VIPMC is important to ensure that human activity does not adversely impact what is proving to be a marine ecosystem rich in biodiversity.

The newly discovered shark is referred to locally as a "bubble shark" and appears to be a close relative of the swell shark.  As a California diver, I am very familiar with swell sharks.  They are smaller, bottom-dwelling sharks with the unusual ability in take in a large quantity of water and therefore "swell up" as a defensive mechanism (the swelling allows it to be lodged tightly on crevices or cavities in the reef, making it difficult to grab onto by any larger predator.

The shark was actually discovered in 2011 by scientists conducting a broad investigation of various sites in and around the Philippines as part of a California Academy of Sciences expedition.  Several new species were uncovered in the process and the results, which are now being released, show that the Philippines may be one of the richest areas in marine biodiversity.  New species allow researchers to better combat the argument of "so what" when it comes to the need to preserve and protect our aquatic natural resources.  We are still finding new species and the more we learn, the better we can understand the wide range of biodiversity inter-relationships and what can happen on a broad scale when human activities negatively impact those relationships. 

"[A new species is important] because when you sell conservation to people, especially people who are not really interested or who do not really care, they need something else, like, why is it important?" said Vera Horigue of Australia's James Cook University. "It's really helpful to get people to become interested, because you can show just how special the place is by the uniqueness of the species found in it. It promotes the area; thus, funds pour in." 

Source: AsiaOne News 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Shark's Sense of Smell: scientist sniffs out the subtleties of acute sense

We have long heard about a shark's acute sense of smell.  It's ability to detect the odors or scents given off by an injured fish was long considered one of a shark's primary tools in its predator tool kit. 

But just how sensitive is it?  With currents or water motion moving odors around, just how does a shark sense a smell and then begin tracking it to its source?  Dr. Jelle Atema has been studying sharks for some 20 years, working with the Boston University and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  He has spent considerable time investigating just how sharks utilize their sense of smell to their best advantage.

Reporting in BU Today, Susan Seligson writes of Dr. Atema's work with smooth dogfish, a small shark that is often found in the U.S. northeast (BTW: And one that has been severely hit by commercial shark fishing operations) Using controlled plumes of odors like squid scent in a long observation tank, he is unlocking many of the secret subtleties as to how a shark senses odor and tracks it to its source.

Often we think of sharks as sensing the smell given off by an injured animal.  That may be true but, when hunting, sharks are attracted to the odors of familiar prey, injured or otherwise. 

“All animals give off some kind of body odor,” says Atema. “The science here is to understand how odor is dispersed into the water, and how many molecules does a shark need in his nose to track that odor.” 

Dr. Atema's experiments have also provided new insight as to how a shark responds to odors and how they just where to go to get to the source.  As reported in BU Today, "Working along with Jayne Gardiner at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, Atema’s most recent discovery is that sharks are guided by the nostril that first detects the prey’s odor, rather than orienting themselves based on which nostril senses the greater odor concentration. The finding—that smell reaches one nostril before the other, signaling whether to veer left or right—means that sharks can decipher very quickly, a matter of seconds as opposed to minutes, where their next meal is, no matter how chaotic the dispersed odor plume. Before this discovery, published in Current Biology, scientists had long believed that sharks’ sense of smell was a function of the plume’s surface area—the bigger the plume, the easier it would be for sharks to smell it." 

In some respects, the ocean is a very smelly place, full of scents or odors of hundreds of different organisms and at varying strengths or intensities.  Bombarded with all these stimuli, sharks can amazingly sort it all out and, along with its other senses, be the efficient predator that it is. 

Source: BU Today

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Orcas: living with Mom means a longer life

While humans bemoan the current lack of opportunities for young adults, leading to offspring living with their parents long past when it is thought they should be on their own, apparently that is not the case for orcas.

A recent study by scientists from the UK's University of Exeter showed that females can live as much as 50 years after the birth of their offspring and the reason for this extended period of menopause is that the presence of mothers ensured the survival of young adults to breeding age.

Reported in BBC Nature News, "In killer whale society, the young never leave their mothers, remaining in a single group. 'With this close association, older mothers have the opportunity to increase the transmission of their genes by helping their adult offspring survive and reproduce,' said Dr Croft [who lead the study]. Researchers theorized that living longer in order to protect their sons could represent the wisest investment for orca mothers."

The researchers analyzed over 36 years worth of records regarding various orca families or pods.  They determined that orcas who lost their mothers had a 3 to 14 times greater chance, depending on gender, to not survive beyond a year after the mother's death.  
However, the big question still remains: What is it that the mother orcas are doing that increases the survivability of their offspring?

"We simply don't know just how mothers are increasing the survival of their adult male offspring," said Dr Croft. "Anecdotal observations suggest that mothers may help adult sons with foraging or providing support during aggressive interactions. This is one of the things we hope to work on in the future."

So maybe that's why junior continues to bring his laundry home to Mom and raid the fridge.  Survivability.

Source: BBC Nature News


North Sea Shark Fishing: group funds new study for needed data

There are several "hot spots" throughout the planet's oceans when it comes to commercial shark fishing and the North Sea is one of them.  Off the British isles, sharks and even rays are taken, but there is a lack of scientific data to demonstrate what kind of impact the commercial boats are actually having on the shark and ray populations.

The European Fisheries Fund is now funding a new shark research program, Shark By-Watch UK, to the tune of nearly $325,000.  The purpose of the program is to use commercial fishing boats to gather data on shark and ray by-catch and participate in tagging and releasing sharks and rays back into the sea.

Shark By-Watch is to managed by scientists from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), which is dedicated to supporting sustainable fisheries.

Apparently, while arguments can take place regarding the decline of shark and ray populations in other parts of the world, there does not appear to be significant data that allows all interested parties - North Sea fishermen, conservationists, scientists - to effectively argue for sustainability except in the broadest of terms.  It is hoped this program will provide the data needed to successfully establish effective commercial shark and ray fishing policies. 

As reported in, Graeme High, European Fisheries Fund's England Deliver and Control Manager, said: "Such forward thinking measures are key to developing sustainable, economically viable fisheries and we were consequently keen to support this scheme. It is hoped this approach to research will promote greater industry involvement in future shark and ray assessments and will help determine practical ways forward for conserving local stocks. This work may also help fishermen to learn new skills – such as becoming competent tagging operatives.” 

I hope that their research will produce definitive data but I have come to be a bit skeptical of many efforts aimed at sustainability.  I often view it as a problem to which we are putting our finger in the dike, but the flood waters will continue to climb and ultimately breach the top.  When we catch fish, particularly slow reproducing species like sharks and rays, one fish taken from the wild is one fish too many.  Aquaculture - or aquafarming - for me, is the solution.

Perhaps that will be the final conclusion of the Shark By-Watch program, that shark and ray populations are too fragile to allow for any of viable commercial fishery.  Or perhaps science and commerce will strike a devil's bargain and commercial fishing will continue at some level, simply postponing the inevitable collapse of shark and ray populations in the North Sea.  Hard decisions need to be made, industries need to adapt and change, and it needs to be done now. 


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sharks Are Color Blind: new study shows they live in a world of contrast

According to a new study by scientists from Australia, sharks are color blind.  This puts them in the same category as whales and dolphins as sea creatures that may have had color vision at one time but evolved to a black and white world, perhaps as a more effective means of hunting.

Previous studies of several species of rays, part of the same general family as sharks, were found to have several types of ospins or light sensitive proteins in the photoreceptors of their retinas which provide them with the ability to see in color.  But studies of wobbegong sharks showed them to not have the necessary levels of ospins for color, only black and white.

Dr. Susan Theiss, University of Queensland (yes, we're related - she is my niece), and her colleagues studied two different species of wobbegong sharks; each of which prefer different levels of depth in the sea as their normal habitat.  Because of those differences in depth, the vision of the two species is more sensitive to different wavelengths of light.  Each species is better attuned to the type of light that predominantly penetrates their environment.  One wobbegong shark species preferred deeper water where it is penetrated by shorter wavelengths - a bluish kind of light.  Sharks in shallower water can be more sensitive to red or green spectrums of light.

Color blind as they are then, sharks live in a world of contrast.  Their other senses of sound and scent can aid them in their search for prey then, at some point, contrasting visual stimuli kicks in, and at close range sensing electrical impulses can come into play.

Sometimes color can be a distraction and can prevent the shark from staying focused on a potential target.  Color exists in nature for a variety of reasons and in some environments it can actually act as a kind of camouflage.  Oddly enough, as a filmmaker, I typically use a black and white viewfinder with my camera as it can often provide a sharper image for focusing purposes.

Playing off that sense of visual contrast, it might be possible to help keep sharks from becoming accidental bycatch by camouflaging or making hooks less visually interesting.  And the same could possibly be said for surfers who provide considerable contrast (as does a seal) in their black wetsuits. 

"If we can use this knowledge to design longline fishing lures that are less visible to sharks then we will be able to reduce the amount of shark bycatch. We may also be able to make wetsuits less attractive, and make the water safer for surfers and divers," says co-author Associate professor Nathan Hart of the University of Western Australia and reported in Australia's ABC Science. 

Source: ABC Science

Thursday, September 13, 2012

BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Event: see, learn, and appreciate the marine world

Across the globe there are a variety of underwater film festivals and ocean conservation events - all worth attending if we had the time and the airfare.  But very few bring together films, conservation, and the big names within both the ocean movement and the documentary industry quite like the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Event does.

Based now in Monterey, California, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Event (September 24-30) began just a few years ago, in 2009, in Savannah, Georgia, and in very short order BOFF has established itself as a major player in bringing together the great names and works of leading ocean filmmakers for the general public to enjoy.  When not planning for the next bi-annual event, the festival takes its work on the road with BLUE On Tour, providing educational mini-festivals for communities and academic institutions around the world.

This year, there will be a wide range of films for the public to see, from spectacular new works from major studios and networks to the films of emerging, next-generation filmmakers - no home movies or what-I-did-on-my-vacation videos here, but real first-class productions; films with a message that our oceans are amazing and need to be protected and preserved.

Along with the films, BOFF offers an industry conference complete with panel discussions, master classes, and seminars that include some of the biggest names in the nature documentary field.  If you are an aspiring filmmaker or simply someone who would like to meet and pick the brains of such great talent, it's a wonderful opportunity to do so in a relaxed, congenial atmosphere.  This year, James Cameron, Capt. Don Walsh, and members of the Cousteau clan will be on hand and that's just scratching the surface of what's planned.

And finally, there are the ocean conservation events planned, with keynote addresses from such notables as Drs. Sylvia Earle (SEAlliance), Greg Stone (Conservation International) and David Guggenheim (the "Ocean Doctor") and other experts in the field who will be tackling the tough issues and discussing solutions to the many threats to our marine ecosystems.  Frankly, there is so much going on at BOFF, the greatest challenge is how to take it all in.

I have been fortunate and honored to have been a participant in the festival from it's beginning, moderating shark conservation panels or conducting underwater video workshops.  I will be there again this year and I always look forward to catching up with colleagues I haven't seen in a while or meeting new people, new ocean advocates.  It helps recharge the batteries of enthusiasm and commitment.

There are various types of ticket passes available depending on your interests and schedule, from one-day passes to the whole enchilada.  Monterey is a lovely destination all by itself, so if you are looking for a pleasurable and informative few days along the Central California coast, check out the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Event website. 

Visit the BOFF website.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ron Taylor: adventurous filmmaker who fascinated us with the world of sharks

This past Sunday in Australia, the film and conservation communities lost a well-respected member.  Ron Taylor passed away at age 78, after a two-year battle with leukemia.  With his wife, Valerie, the two were internationally renown for their work over the years with sharks. 

Ron first came to prominence with his work on the early shark film, Blue Water, White Death - one of the first films to focus on the great white shark at a time when those magnificent predators were shrouded in mystery.  Ron was a still photographer and cast member in that classic documentary. 

What really propelled Ron and Valerie's collective careers was the work they did for Steven Spielberg's Jaws.  Having seen some of their work, Spielberg enlisted their aid and expertise in filming an actual great white in close proximity to a small 3/4-size shark cage (thereby increasing the apparent size of the shark to match the monster shark of the movie).  It's documentary film legend that the shark they filmed became caught up in the lines holding the cage and the thrashing of the shark to free itself became an unexpected bonus to what was already a very dramatic scene.  

However, in some circles Ron was criticized for providing that footage, accused that it helped to demonize the shark and add to the myths and misconceptions people had at the time regarding sharks.  Ah, but that's the point.  In the early 70's, sharks were not being intensely studied.  They were considered to be mindless, vicious predators even by respected ocean experts.  Jacques-Yves Cousteau is seen in one of his own television programs shooting sharks with a rifle from the deck of the Calypso, declaring them to be devilish creatures up to no good.  Nobody understood or appreciated sharks then the way many of us do today, but their viewpoint was simply based on the available information at the time. 

The interesting benefit that Peter Benchley's book, Spielberg's film, and Ron Taylor's camera work on Jaws did for the species was that, besides scaring us, it pricked our imagination and our fascination.  And from there, both scientists and laymen set about wanting to learn more.  And ironically, in the aggregate, sharks have been the better for it. 

Many of you who read this blog know of Ron's work and may even call him a good friend.  I only had one brief opportunity to meet Ron Taylor so I cannot say I actually knew him, but it was clear that he and Valerie were an adventurous, dedicated and enthusiastic team.  Ron worked tirelessly on behalf of shark conservation, partnering with groups like Rodney Fox's shark conservation research group, and he continued to be involved in a variety of first rate ocean and shark documentaries.  

Ron Taylor's was a career built on adventure and unlocking secrets so that people around the world could be mesmerized by life under the sea.  Knowledge is the first step towards appreciation and conservation.  We have lost another filmmaker and teacher.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Filmmaker's Journal: shooting the reality series, Lifeguard!

I have just completed principal photography for the second season of the Weather Channel's reality series, Lifeguard!  The work entailed multiple small crews working up and down the Southern California coast, from Long Beach to San Diego, waiting to catch real-life rescues and incidents that make up a lifeguard's busy day.

Well, sometimes busy.  And sometimes not so much.  If the weather was gloomy - keeping the crowds away or at least out of the water - or if the surf was not too great, then much of the lifeguard's time was spent simply watching the beachgoers, keeping an eye out for something that may or may not happen.

Filming for this series often would follow a similar path.  The modus operandi for this series was quick, light, and always at the ready.  The emphasis was on small lightweight cameras - everything from GoPros to 10-pound handheld camcorders.  A standard 2/3-inch shoulder mount camcorder would have been a heavy hindrance, because when the lifeguards would spring into action, you would be in a dead run - in the sand.  I discovered muscles I didn't even know I had.  (I usually would discover them lying in bed after a long day, the soreness now settling in.)

Part of your shoot day would be spent on B-roll: various shots of the crowds, little kids playing in the sand, shots of the surf.  Often times you would film things that most people would think, "Why?"  That's the beauty of B-roll; it often fills the many little visual voids in the storyline and it can consist of what would seem to be shots totally unrelated to the production.

But as I looked for artsy images to pass the time, I also kept one eye on the lifeguard tower.  I watched for subtle signs - a couple of extra gazes through the binoculars, a brief conversation on the walkie-talkie, the unzipping of a windbreaker - and then it happens.  The lifeguard bolts down the tower ramp and heads along the beach, perhaps 75 to 100 yards, then straight into the waves.  I need to get that establishing wide shot of the lifeguard heading out, then chase after him or her, and eventually wade into the surf up to my knees, zooming in to try to catch all the action, all the while trying to keep the camera steady with my heart thumping away.

While lifeguards in Southern California are a multi-skilled agency that can include dive teams, rock climbers, boat rescue teams, and even armed peace officers, a major part of their efforts are devoted to dealing with the consequences of rip currents.

Rip currents occur when the mass of water being pushed up onto the shore by the oncoming swells needs to recede.  Fluctuating changes in the sandy bottom can cause water to seek the path of least resistance and when it finds it, you have a rip current - a river heading out to sea that could extend for hundreds of yards.  Strong storm waves or tidal changes (particularly from high tide to low tide) can produce rip currents.  Some beaches have underwater topographies that produce predictable "permanent rips," but "flash rips" can also pop up at any time and catch unsuspecting swimmers off guard.

As I stood in the surf, zoomed out and trying to hold the image as rock-steady as possible, I could feel the sand eroding underneath my feet as the surf would claw away at me.  Getting knocked down, even in water whose depth is only mid-calf, is a distinct possibility, particularly for small children.  But the usual rip current victim is one who was touching the bottom one moment and then, with a rising swell, loses touch with the bottom and off they go, out to sea.  This is not something which I had any intention of doing with camera in hand, so I would slowly move my feet and reposition myself to more solid sand, however momentary that might be, all the while still continuing to shoot.  By the end of the day, you're longing for a simple stage shoot with the camera locked off on a secure dolly or jib arm, shooting with prime lenses.

The classic remedy for when a swimmer is caught in a rip current is to swim parallel to shore, thereby ultimately swimming out of the rip current.  You may find yourself several hundred yards offshore but you are now at least able to swim back in.  However, many people who find themselves in a rip current try to swim against the rip current or have been in the water for a while, expending energy, and they tire quickly.  The lifeguards are trained to spot the swimmers who seem the least comfortable or experienced in the water.  It's those people that will garner their attention and often the lifeguard will swim out to them and direct them to a safer area as a precaution, thereby preventing a rescue.

On the last day, we shot a dramatic "mass rescue" where seven people were caught in rip currents all at once.  It required great coordination between lifeguards from several towers and the assistance of a rescue boat, which cruises beyond the surf zone, to round up all of the victims and get them safely aboard the boat.  After first making sure that everyone was all right, the boat then proceeded to back up through the surf into very shallow water (a tricky maneuver for a 25-foot boat) and the lifeguards shepherded everyone back to the safety of the beach.

Throughout the shoot day, we would get interviews with the lifeguards involved in particular rescues and I was impressed with the camaraderie and support that all the lifeguards provide for each other.  For some, lifeguarding is a seasonal passion but there are many who are full-time employees with decades of experience.  And everyone - young or old, rookie or veteran - is covering each others' back. The Lifeguard! series makes a concerted effort to show how hard working these public servants are.  No rescues are staged - a strong mandate from the executive producer - and, in the end, there's really no need to fabricate anything.  The ocean attracts people from far and wide.  It's seen as an aquatic playground but it is also an untamed wilderness.  When it wants to, it will remind people of that in no uncertain terms.

I finished the final shoot day nearly up to my waist in the surf, capturing a sunset streaming through the nearby pier.  Golden sparkles danced over the wet sand as the water would recede, and when the sun dropped below the horizon (and the incoming tide was about to swallow me up with the next wave) we wrapped and called it a day.  But for many of Southern California's lifeguards, it was simply the start of their week. 

My thanks to the various producers, sound mixers, and production assistants I worked with over the past few months. Top flight professionals who helped to make a tough job easier. Now if I can just get all the sand out of my cameras.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Conservation Successes: zoologist talks and writes of progress

I'm wrapping up my work on the Weather Channel series Lifeguard! (more on that later this week) and am finally turning my attention to a lengthy laundry list of projects that need some attention, from project pitches to my involvement with this month's BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Event.  But I wanted to take a quick moment to point out an interesting podcast from the UK's Guardian Science Weekly.

Posted on Monday, the podcast features zoologist Andrew Balmford, author of Wild Hope: On the Front Line of Conservation Success.  In his new book, Balmford examines many of the success made in conservation - not to simply, in some Pollyanna fashion, contradict the negative outlook that can manifest itself when you spend any considerable time contemplating the issues of ecosystem decay, endangered species, and global environmental change, but rather to bolster the will and determination to correct them.  

The threats are real, they are on our doorstep, and now is the time to do something about it.  Balmford and his book offer proof that progress is being made.  Give a listen (click here to listen to the podcast) and check out Wild Hope: On the Front Line of Conservation Success if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed.  I plan to.  

Source: Guardian Science Weekly