Monthly news magazine for Roatan,
Utila & Guanaja
October 2006 Vol.4 No.10
Calendar Style
Bay Islands Voice Updates:
feature story / editorial / local news / business

Photos by Mandy Croucher, Text by Mark Gibson

A Shark Like No Other

On 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 can find.

Several 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.

ABOVE: A diver accompanies a Whale shark

To 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." Creating 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."

His 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.

LEFT: What to do and not to do when encountering a Whale shark, BELOW: A shark surfaces


In 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.


And 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.

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A Cinderella story by Thomas Tomczyk
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 nameless dog.
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 animal.
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 Shine.

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.

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Circumnavigating Roatan by Thomas Tomczyk


In 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 as nails.

The material is perfect for sailing within reefs, as the hull just bounces off the coral without being damaged.Fiberglass boats would be torn to shreds.
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.

Bay Islands VOICE: Did you get support from local people for your venture?
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 small sailboats.
B.I.V.: What were your most memorable experiences of the trip?
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.

Practice makes Perfect
In 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.
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Wind Surfing 101 by Thomas Tomczyk

Roatan 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 school.
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.

While 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 windsurfing potential.
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."
With 60 boards and 40 sails the school has the right equipment for anyone, regardless of their skills or body type. "I love teaching and in two hours I can teach anyone how to windsurf," says Carbajal. He has two, four and six hour courses that are meant to teach fundamentals of windsurfing in the calm waters and gentle winds of Sandy Bay. The beginner's courses, starting at $30, are affordable and meant to counter the sport's elite and unaffordable image. "It's a sport that's good for your head," says Carbajal.
Wind & Fun Windsurfing School is located in Sandy Bay, next to the baseball field and has already built a small following. The bay just west of Anthony's Key is now often filled with colorful neoprene sails. "It's a perfect complimentary sport to diving," says Carbajal.
Within the next two years Carbajal is thinking of organizing a freestyle windsurfing championship on Roatan that would become part of the Caribbean windsurfing pre-tour. "Maybe we could do it at night, with lights," he says.
Unlike in the Western Caribbean, windsurfing is only lightly offered as a sport in Central American tourism. Roatan is just beginning its adventure with windsurfing. Big Bight, Paya Bay and Port Royal offer ample space and stronger winds for more advanced windsurfers and now Marble Hill Farms has purchased several windsurf boards for rentals. Through the Bay Islands Honduras is joining Belize and Costa Rica as the only Caribbean destination to offer windsurfing to its tourist visitors.

No. 4
May 8

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Vol4 No. 10