story / editorial
Photos by Mandy Croucher, Text by Mark Gibson
Shark Like No Other
the north side of Utila, a "boil" forms
as Bonita tuna swirl and send bubbles through the
sea in their corralling of a large school of bait
fish. Alongside them, several Utilian diving boats
sit in wait. Captains and tourists scan the frenzy
in hope that today they might strike it lucky with
an even more formidable sight. Suddenly, a large dorsal
fin appears, slicing through the melee, and the captains
shout, "It's here! You better get in quick!"
Tourists, fins and masks already in place, slide quietly
into the water without the slightest fear of what
lies below. Faces press downwards in silent exultation
and they see it, a young 15ft whale shark. The animal,
gliding through the water, takes caution of its visitors.
It begins to descend and its grey-blue body blends
into the depths, leaving its white spots to fade out
like smothered stars in the encroaching abyssal darkness.
Utila, like no more than a dozen other places in the
world, offers tourists a regular opportunity to see
whale sharks. The biggest fish and shark in the sea,
whale sharks can grow up to 60ft in length, and, as
they are timid filter feeders, swimming with them
is one of the most memorable experiences eco-tourists
hours after seeing his first whale shark, Luke Collier,
34, a tourist from England, was off the boat telling
friends, "it absolutely blew my mind. I'm just
sorry I'm not staying longer to do it again."
Unfortunately, Collier and other tourists may be
more than sorry they didn't get their fill when
they had a chance. In the past fifty years, populations
of shark species have, on average, declined by 80-90%
and the whale shark has been no exception. In fact,
although little is known about whale shark populations
or sexual maturity rates, marine biologists and
the World Conservation Union - the international
organization responsible for the endangered species
Red List - believe they have seen enough to declare
the species "vulnerable to extinction."
Further, they have succeeded in having the whale
shark protected internationally by CITES, the international
convention regulating trade of flora and fauna.
Nevertheless, many Asian countries, which perhaps
constitute the greatest threat to the whale shark,
continue to fish the animal for those prized fins
their peoples consume in massive amounts each year.
As a result, some fear that the whale shark should
be categorized as more seriously endangered. But
data necessary for more rigorous conservation efforts
just doesn't exist.
A diver accompanies a Whale shark
collect information on whale sharks, numerous research projects
have cropped up in places such as Mexico, Djibouti, and, most
famously, in western Australia's Ningaloo Reef Marine Preserve.
But with divided efforts and information, and marine biologists
sometimes relying on identifying techniques as rudimentary
as comparing old photos stored in shoe boxes, important findings
for conservation efforts are few. Whale sharks may annually
migrate more than 13,000km, they can dive down to at least
1500m, and the average size of whale sharks in Ningaloo Reef
has shrunk from 7m to 5m in the past decade. Vital information
such as their migratory routes, mating behavior, rates of
sexual maturity, and population numbers have, until now, been
largely a mystery.ECOCEAN, an NGO promoting marine conservation
awareness and research, aims to change that. In 2002 computer
programmer Jason Holmberg saw his first whale shark, sparking
an interest that would revolutionize whale shark research.
In the months after, he joined a research trip using the traditional
identification method of placing plastic tags on the animals'
dorsal fins with harpoon guns. As he explains, "I had
some ideas that I thought could make work regarding photo
identification and spot pattern recognition, that would allow
for a better version of tagging to be used for whale sharks."
this better version, computerized photo recognition, proved
daunting until one night when Holmberg was invited out for
a "casual beer with an optical astronomer." In this
chance encounter, Holmberg learned of an algorhythm used in
conjunction with the Hubble Telescope to map star patterns
and decided that this same algorhythm could be used to recognize
the unique, random patterns of spots on the backs of whale
sharks. Thereafter, he says, "It only took a small re-tuning
of things to adapt the program from astronomy to marine biology."
program ready for use, Holmberg teamed up with ECOCEAN to
create an award-winning international whale shark photo-identification
library. Now, after more than 1,600 encounters have been logged
in the library, encapuslating approximately 5,500 photographs
submitted by videographers, tourists, and many of those previously
independent researchers, ECOCEAN's photo-ID library is beginning
to yield some interesting results. With the majority of its
logged encounters from Ningaloo Reef, they saw there was a
healthy growth rate in the whale shark population in the park
from 1995 to 2000 and then a shift to a decline in the population
from 2001 to 2005. Holmberg adds, "Unfortunately the
data we collected fits the population models that have been
derived for this [population] quite closely, so we are very
confident in that the shark population is decreasing."
ECOCEAN now aims to expand its library and, hopefully, attain
another large set of logged encounters from other areas for
more comprehensive findings. To do this, they have teamed
up with the Deep Blue Resort and Dive Shop in Utila. What
ECOCEAN and Holmberg hope to learn is whether the decline
in the whale shark population seen at Ningaloo Reef is happening
elsewhere, and initial results look promising. In 2005 alone,
Deep Blue was able to load 53 unique encounters into ECOCEAN's
database, 21 of which were re-sightings from previous years.
What to do and not to do when encountering a Whale shark,
BELOW: A shark surfaces
addition to learning if whale shark populations are declining,
ECOCEAN's program also charts sighting locations, and thus
tries to learn not just whether whale sharks should be protected,
but also how they should be protected. As Steve Fox, the
owner of Deep Blue Resort and Dive Shop, explains, "We
need to know where they go and what they do. If we can find
out the migration routes, we can go to governments and say,
'Look, we know they go through this area, you must protect
this area.' " But however avid tourists, fishermen,
and dive professionals maybe in loading photos, other studies
are needed to attain detailed migratory routes and behavior
patterns. Unfortunately for the whale sharks of Utila and
elsewhere, these studies are not cheap. A satellite tag,
for instance, costs roughly $5,200 and almost as much to
download each tag's gathered information from the Argos
Satellite System, a satellite-based system, which collects
environmental data worldwide. And, to top it all off, the
tags have only been shown to provide results in 50% of cases
due to any number of problems such as being bitten off,
crushed by extreme pressures, or rubbed off by the animal.
For Fox, this problem of funding will be something solved
with time. Deep Blue Resort and Dive Shop, he explains,
raises money for research each year during the peak whale
shark months of February, March, and April. "We actually
put the prices up, we charge people a lot more money and
all the extra money we make we put towards doing whale shark
research, which gives us a kind of lump sum to do some things."
What's more, ECOCEAN has recently attained status as a non-profit
organization in the United States and received recognition
at the UN Convention on Migratory Species in November 2005.
All this has greatly improved the organization's ability
to raise funds for other projects.Given the success of ECOCEAN's
database and affiliated research efforts like those of Deep
Blue, it appears evidence supporting better conservation
of whale sharks may one day be in reach.
THAN A WHALE SHARK
for Suzy Quasnichka, head of the Shark Research Institute
field station in South Africa, conservation along with increased
eco-tourism of whale sharks offers hope for protecting other
marine life. "The whale shark is an ambassador for the
other species of sharks," she explains. "We find
that once people have an interaction with this animal, they
then leave wanting to learn more about fish, the reefs, and
the impact of pollution on the marine ecosystem." For
the survival of other species and for the continued amazement
of people like Luke Collier, let us hope the world could be
so civil as to not kill this messenger.
story / editorial
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A Cinderella story by Thomas Tomczyk
RAISING OF SHINE
Shine is a Cinderella story of a dog that from rags and famine
ends up in plentiful bliss of carelessness; the heaven of any
proper island dog.
Picked up wandering on the road in Brick Bay, he was put up
to limbo circumstance of living underneath a house. He was starved,
ridden with skin diseases and bleeding from wounds elicited
on him by machetes. After diving dumpsters for three weeks,
he was holding on to life despite the odds being against him.
His chances at a happier life were even made worse by the fact
that he lacked a passport into the life of humans: a name. Most
people in the neighborhood were afraid to give the dog a name
as giving a name would signal the growth of a bond between them
and the barely living creature. A name defines and cements a
relationship between a dog and human.
Enter Lloyd Davidson. Owner of Flying Fish, Lloyd first saw
the dog at a dinner party, just a dozen meters from the dog's
corner of refuge. Between salad and the main course, Lloyd already
made up his mind about attempting a rescue operation for the
Unlike most of us who can only fall in love with cuddly, healthy
and overfed puppies, Lloyd has the great ability of seeing past
the current condition and envision the true potential of an
On February 18 Shine walked into the life of people at Flying
Fish. Shivering and unresponsive for several days, Shine is
lucky to have survived the medicine that meant to fight his
skin affliction and open wounds. "He had a few close days
in the beginning where we thought he might die, but he pulled
through," said Russ, manager of Flying Fish. Over the course
of four months, Shine's weight has more than doubled, his coat
shines and the last of the machete lesions are scarring.
After around Lps. 450 in shots and medications, Shine's life
was turned around. Most importantly he received a name, Shine.
He is named after a rough, eccentric, survivor of a boat captain
who worked at the Flying Fish plant a decade earlier.
At three times a day, Purina and a wet food diet have done the
trick, and now Shine is a recovering "trashaholic."
With the best dog food money can buy, Shine has found a way
to kick the trash habit and just kick back. He spends most of
his days looking for the best place to take a nap. "He's
just catching-up with the bad times he had," explains Lloyd.
Lloyd and Jose, the Flying Fish watchman, are the two people
Shine trusts. Jose, a guard, bathes Shine every other day, feeds
him and built him a wood house. There is even talk of putting
a light inside, that would reduce the number of mosquitoes bothering
A perpetual urinator" trying to mark off his heavenly
posting at a fish plant, Shine guards his territory by urinating
on all car tires that are not in motion. Shine is a survivor
and well on his way to joining the elite of content island
dogs. Shine still has to find a way of dealing with the first
part of his life, abuse and hardship. Some bad memories occasionally
will sneak-up on Shine, who will wake-up from a nightmare
shivering and barking in his own wooden house. When he is
happy he will howl and as time goes by, Shine's howls should
outnumber the barks.
story / editorial
/ local news
NEWCOMER TO ROATAN BRINGS A FRESH PERSPECTIVE TO SEEING THE ISLAND.
early August Dr. Kevin Cleaver and his stepson Matthew Hernandez,
19, undertook a three day voyage of circumnavigating Roatan on
a 16 foot Hobie Cat catamaran. Dr. Kevin Cleaver is an adventurer.
In his 50's, he possesses the enthusiasm and curiosity of boy
and experience of a veteran mariner.
Kevin built his first boat at 15 at Long Island Sound and taught
himself how to sail. In 1970s he bought one of the first windsurfers
and has been windsurfing ever since. Kevin also has a charter
boat license and has sailed everywhere from the Mediterranean
to the Indian Ocean.
His $6,500 polyethurane HobiecCat with wing elevated seats, was
powered by main sail and a jib. The supplies for the adventure:
food, water, snorkeling gear, extra clothes and a cell phone were
placed in watertight storage bags. Hobie
is famous for its catamarans and only recently the company introduced
a polyethurane material, a bit heavier than fiberglass and tough
material is perfect for sailing within reefs, as the hull just bounces
off the coral without being damaged.Fiberglass boats would be torn
Traveling as fast as 15 knots, the HobieCat displaces barely 6 inches.
Its two rudders sit deeper, but when they encounter an underwater
obstacle a safety mechanism kicks them up.
Kevin and Matthew departed to see what Roatan was like from the
sea and discovered what many people living on Roatan have forgotten,
the islands pristine beauty.
Islands VOICE: Did you get support from local people for your
Kevin Cleaver: Everyone I talked to said not to do it. That
there are too many bugs, no telephones and that was a final straw-
I had to do it. You don't see too many sailboats here. In West End
there are some big sailboats, but they don't sail inside the reef.
Having sailed 80 miles around the island, I recall seeing only two
B.I.V.: What were your most memorable experiences of the
K.C.: The island of Roatan seen from the sea is beautiful
and you don't get that sense driving on the main road. On the coast
you have some very nice houses, the vegetation, the art of the skyline,
the back hump ridges. It's all very beautiful. (
) The reef
and the heads on the east side of the island between Morat and Barbarat
are great. On [Port Royal's] Fort Island you can see the old pirate
fortifications. Even a part of the wall has been preserved. There
is a well that the pirates built.
B.I.V.: How fast were you able to sail?
K.C.: On the sail from Barefoot Cay to the west end of the
island, we were absolutely roaring.
On the third day we had big waves, a very strong wind and we were
just hauling down. With the crest of the wave six inches from my
ear it was almost like surfing.
B.I.V.: Did you flip the catamaran before?
K.C.: We flipped our Hobie, before our trip, three times.
On one occasion we had some trouble. It was windy and we were outside
the reef and the waves were big. With the very strong wind it was
very hard for the two of us to flip. Luckily somebody came along,
threw us a line and with just a tug, my son and I pulling, we were
able to get upright.
B.I.V.: Any negative experiences?
K.C.: The bugs. In the middle of Morat there is a big swamp
and it's just bug city, just a stew of bugs that descended on us
in a cloud. You could hear them crunching on us. On a plus side,
it was a learning experience.
Honduras September is the loudest month of the year. Two hours a day,
for an entire month, Bay Islands school children prepare for the 15th
of September Honduran independence day. Boys practice drumming and
girls, some as young as five, practice the pon-pon dance rutine. In
the Miguel Alvarez Brick Bay school, 98 students are getting ready
for the celebrations. School director Estefi Romero and four teachers
are helping with the marching practice and to catch-up on some of
the lost classes during the five weeks protests. The classes in the
island department have been expanded to include every other Saturday
until the November 15 school graduation. Practicing for the march:
Vanessa Welcome, Lisy Duarte, Nicole Ramirez, Jaenin Rodriguez, Chery
Nixon, Jennifer Valeska.
story / editorial
/ local news
Surfing 101 by
on its way to becoming a Caribbean windsurfing destination.
Some people are lucky enough to turn their
passion into a business. One of them is Miguel Carbajal, an energetic
Chilean who in February opened Roatan and Honduras' first windsurfing
Now, next to Cozumel, Cancun, and Cuba's Varadero, Roatan has become
one of few Caribbean destinations for people who want to learn how
to windsurf. "This island has a magnificent wind for beginners;
shallow waters and beaches," says Carbajal, a windsurfing instructor
for 28 years who has been running his own windsurfing schools for
20 years. In February with his girlfriend Lorena Medel, 24, Carbajal
opened Wind & Sun Windsurfing School in Sandy Bay.
Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and Isla Margarita are all great windsurfing
operations, they are destinations mainly for expert windsurfers.
"You can just learn to survive there," explains Carbajal,
who scouted the entire Caribbean before deciding to open his business
on Roatan. Carbajal looked at starting a similar school in Cayman
Islands, but five years ago Miguel received a phone call from a
Chilean friend visiting Roatan who told him of the islands great
The 350,000 strong US windsurfing community is always looking for
new destinations and with Continental offering a direct flight to
Roatan from New York in December, the island will have four US gateways
offering direct service here.
Guy Hubbard, 50, a business consultant from New York City is likely
to be one of the first windsurfing enthusiasts to take advantage
of the new connection. "Here I am learning how to do it right,"
he says about the Sandy Bay school. Hubbard who is building his
home on Roatan, has taught himself how to windsurf over 20 years
ago, but it is only now that he has the opportunity to correct his
technique and get rid of 'bad habits."