“When I grow up, I want to be a marine biologist”… every parent’s nightmare! But that is what my whole class was saying after we came back from a marine biology fieldtrip, but unlike the others, I never deviated from the plan. Five years after graduating from a Masters in Applied Marine Science, I found myself swimming with the biggest fish in the sea. Every day. I’m the Principal Investigator of the Oslob Whale Shark Research project, for the Large Marine Vertebrates Project of a small NGO called Physalus, based on the island of Cebu, Philippines.
It is both my dream and nightmare job. No one can deny that whale sharks are mesmerizing, but the conservation situation I am dealing with on a daily basis fills me with sadness. These whale sharks, still juveniles, are hand-fed by fishermen for tourists, an industry that is benefiting the town, but potentially causing serious harm to the sharks.
My day, like many researchers, starts early. I’m up at 5am. Ok, 5.30am. My team and I leave the base at 6am, and head down to the village where the feeding occurs. The whole village knows us by now, and although they know we don’t support the feeding, as a conservation project, we try to work with the local community, rather than against them. This means there’s no shortage of good mornings and pleasantries to exchange. Ask anyone in Conservation and they’ll tell you that people skills are absolutely imperative to the success of a project. So much of the time it isn’t the project that is judged, but the people running it!
Throughout the morning the team does surveys in rotation, and the rest of the day is data input and analysis. My favourite is photo-identification. Whale sharks have unique spot-patterns, like our fingerprints, and if you take a photo of the left side of the body between the gills and the dorsal fin, perpendicular to the shark, you can upload it onto an online database, which compares the patterns and can match an individual. Anyone can take these photos and upload them, and the database can give us clues to the movements of this mysterious fish. For example, our project managed to get the first match of a whale shark from two different regions in the Philippines, demonstrating movement of whale sharks within the country.
The other benefit of photo identification is being able to track an individual over time. In other whale shark aggregation sites, researchers are able to identify individuals recurring over several seasons. In Oslob, where they are fed frozen shrimp, we are able to identify individuals that are returning every single day. Name association helps us researchers speed up the identification process. For example ‘Ripper’ is named so because the tip of his tail is half ripped off. It also means we can track scars, like the increase in propeller scars we’re seeing, which is likely due to the positive association the sharks are making between boats and food.
One shark, Fermin, approached the boat from the propeller end, and got cut 11-times across his eye. When I saw him, wounds still fresh, I felt like a friend had been attacked, and there was nothing I could do about it. He healed quickly but his left-eye is discoloured and non-reactive, likely blind.
This is just one of the issues when it comes to the subject of feeding wildlife, especially a highly migratory species, already listed as “Threatened” by the IUCN. There are so many more concerns about nutrition because they are fed one type of frozen food, concerns about metabolism because they spend all day vertically feeding beside a boat instead of swimming to feed. They’ve also lost their inhibitions towards people and boats. When I swim in the feeding area, I am constantly looking over my shoulder, making sure there isn’t a giant about to bump into me as if I was a boat. I’m not always successful, and impact from a fish that size is pretty painful.
Despite these issues being highlighted several times to the local, provincial and national government, and much international criticism, the feeding is still occurring. The local community is benefiting greatly from the practice. People are able to afford improvements to their homes, save for college for their children, buy better rice and more expensive beer. The true cost to the sharks, however, is not yet clear. The ideal situation would be turning the industry from hand feeding, to natural encounters thus keeping the flow of tourists (and money) coming in. But we’re not there yet.
I studied marine biology, but in conservation you have to be so much more than just a scientist. You have to be a good communicator, a patient diplomat, a project manager, a lawyer (well…. at least understand the laws!), a teacher and so much more. But you get to do the fun stuff too – like photo-identification, getting the perfect clasper shot, and collecting faeces samples (that’s science, folks!).