Towing

Standard
DCIM100GOPROG0140957.

Seal Island

Most anyone who has seen Shark Week has most likely seen towing. Towing is where a seal decoy is dragged behind the boat in an attempt to study how sharks attack their prey. At Oceans Campus, most of the time we are unable to photograph anything while we are towing because we are researching something for an outside source; however, on this occasion, we were using our regular control decoys because a photographer from National Geographic was with us. He wanted to get pictures of a white shark breach (when they propel themselves out of the water).

White sharks’ main source of food this time of year is seals because the seal pups are about a year old and venturing out from the island more. There is actually a “nursery” of sorts at Seal Island where the seal pups play in the water, but are protected from open water by rocks. The decoy is a thick piece of foam cut in the outline of an average size seal. When we tow, we let out the decoy so that it is about 15 meters behind the boat. Then we drive slowly back and forth in front of seal island. Each pass to the other side and back counts as a single pass.

DCIM100GOPROG0010944.

Seal Decoys

Unfortunately, on this particular time, we did not see any breaches, but we did have a shark go for the decoy almost immediately after we placed it in the water. We had not even gotten it very far from the boat yet. The attempt was a little half-hearted by the shark, but it was still amazing to see.

DCIM100GOPROG0070950.

The decoy trailing behind the boat.

DCIM100GOPROG0160965.

Beginning to reel the decoy back in at the end of the day.

Advertisements

Bait Roping

Standard

5

This week I was psyched to be able to finally man the bait rope on a chumming trip. The bait roper mans the bait rope so that the sharks come close enough to the boat for the photographer and go pro operator to get the footage they need, while still keeping the sharks from eating the bait or being harmed. Although the bait does occasionally get taken, we try our hardest to keep it from happening. Unfortunately, my reflexes were not fast enough for when a 4.5 meter white shark rushed the bait from the deep in an ambush attack. He ended up biting clean through the rope as opposed to just ripping the bait off like in most unfortunate cases when the shark gets the better of us. The shark was so amazing and majestic that I honestly was just standing awestruck as it stole my tuna head from me.

Below are some pictures taken while I was bait roping. I was pretty proud at the fact that I could get the sharks to come close enough for the photos and that I could get them to come up and bring their dorsal fins out of the water. This is important for the photographer because they need photos of the fin above water because the details can be distorted underwater.

2

One of the sharks coming for the bait right before I pull it out of the way.

Untitled2

The shark trying to sneak in under the glare so that I don’t see it coming for the bait.

1

Turning away after I pulled the bait from him.

3

Turning quickly after missing the bait.

4

Such a gorgeous animal.

Untitled

Perfect dorsal fin shot.

Untitled1

Starting to dive back down after attempting to take the tuna head.

 The things that we look for in order to identify the sharks is black pigment, which looks like black freckles, on their dorsal, pectoral, and caudal fins, white pigment, which are more specifically placed and sometimes called “rosies”, and deformities on the fins, such as with Nubs, who has lost most of his dorsal fin. We also look at their length and if they have any type of tags.

DCIM100GOPROG0470853.

Nubs, who has lost a majority of his dorsal fin. He’s one of my favorite sharks because he is so curious. He routinely ignores the bait to instead explore other things such as shark cages.

DCIM100GOPROG1170592.

A “rosie” of white pigment on the dorsal fin. This particular shark is nicknamed Rosie at Oceans Campus and Sweetheart at White Shark Africa. The rosie on her dorsal looks like a heart.

In addition to the above information, we also record the number of baits consumed (with which shark and time, if possible), and how many boat contacts there are. A boat contact is when the shark bumps into a part of the boat due to us. This would not include if a shark just came up out of no where, with no bait in the water, and ran into the side of the boat. We recognize that accidents happen, and that our research occasionally will end up with a shark bumping the boat. That is why we do not hide how many boat contacts we have or when they happen. We record the time of contact, what shark, where on the shark’s body it contacted the boat, and where on the boat. I would like to reiterate that boat contacts are not a common occurrence and that the sharks are not at all harmed by them.

Overall, bait roping is truly a skill that is important to the sharks’ and researchers’ safety. Bait roping should not be taken lightly as a responsibility; however, it is one of the most surreal and awesome feelings in the world. To have a 4.5 meter white shark propel itself toward you and your bait, knowing that you need to keep the shark and the crew safe, is one of the most amazing feelings ever.

I Love the Smell of Chum in the Morning…

Standard

When it was finally my first day of chumming, I couldn’t be more excited. We headed out in the morning and headed to Seal Island, where there are sure to be sharks since it was all of our first time chumming. Oceans Campus goes on chumming trips in order to record the shark population in Mossel Bay.

There are many jobs associated with chumming, including the chummer, the bait line handler, go pro operator, photographer, spotter, and data recorder. I was the chummer for my first trips, which entails mixing and spreading the chum for the entire time we are there. If you’re unsure about what exactly chumming is, or would like more details about it, feel free to read my blog post: Chumming 101

https://imgoingtoneedabiggerboat.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/chumming-101/

DCIM100GOPROG0100750.

The chum being thrown over the water with the ladle.

DCIM100GOPROG0110754.

The chum.

The bait rope handler maneuvers the rope with the bait (usually a tuna head), and keeps the sharks from eating the bait while still getting it close enough to collect the data needed. The go pro operator videos the sharks by placing a go pro attached to a pole over the side of the boat when a shark is within range. The photographer stands right beside the bait rope and takes pictures of the dorsal fins above the water for later identification. The spotter stays in the crow’s nest and keeps the crew (especially the bait rope) aware of where the sharks are and which sharks are which. The data recorder records all the data such as the number of sharks, environmentals (water visibility, water/air temperature, swell height, etc.), any deformities on any of the fins, the size of the shark, gender, presence/absence of pigments, etc.

We were chumming at Mossel Bay’s Seal Island, where we were able to see 14 different white sharks over the span of around 2 hours. It was by far, one of the coolest experiences of my life. To see those majestic animals gliding effortless through the water, it made me wonder how anyone could ever not see their beauty.

DCIM100GOPROG0190780.

Justin, our skipper, doing an awesome job bait roping.

DCIM100GOPROG0410839.

One of the larger sharks gliding by my side of the boat.

DCIM100GOPROG0460851.

Another graceful shark swimming by.

DCIM100GOPROG0490859.

And another. They tend to circle the boat, going between the chum side and the bait side.

DCIM100GOPROG0530873.

The shark showing off its dorsal fin perfectly for the photographer.

DCIM100GOPROG0450848.

Nubs, one of my favorite sharks, getting a little close while I was scooping seawater for the chum.

However, on a separate chum trip in a different location, but still in Mossel Bay, we chummed for over 2 hours and did not see a single white shark. This proves that people who claim that white sharks seek out boats to attack people or that they will track down a single drop of blood for miles are wrong. We were avidly trying to attract sharks and could not.

Just a fun side note: chum and bait obviously do not smell the best, so we had “chum pants” since we were wiping our chummy hands on our pants repeatedly. We plan to just throw away the pants at the end of the internship. Also, since the smell gets so set in on your clothes and hands, I found that toothpaste, peeling an orange, and multiple washes almost completely get rid of the smell (and I mean doing everything listed, not just one or the other).

White Shark Cage Diving

Standard
A White Shark showing off for the cameras

A White Shark showing off for the cameras

Sunday morning I was psyched to go white shark cage diving with White Shark Africa. I especially was happy to be going with WSA because they truly care about the animals and want to raise awareness for their beauty and majesty instead of people being afraid of them.

 Unfortunately, the visibility was not very good, so while in the cage, you could only see about 1.5 meters in front of the cage. I was in the second group of divers in the cage, so during the first round, I got to see the sharks from the boat deck. Because of the visibility, the view from the deck was actually better than that in the cage sometimes.

DCIM100GOPROG1020548.

A white shark going after the bait in front of the cage.

DCIM100GOPROG1090570.

DCIM100GOPROG1100573.

DCIM100GOPROG1080567.

DCIM100GOPROG1050558.From in the cage, I was able to see the gracefulness of the sharks gliding by. The cage was designed with two sets of bars, as our guide described: one for the sharks and one for the divers. The inside bars were for the divers to hold onto without having their hands and/or feet exposed to the outside.

One of the common misconceptions, especially if you look at cage diving videos online, is that anytime a sharks runs into or mouths the bars of the cage, they are trying to eat the divers inside. This is very false. Especially in low visibility, the sharks may misjudge the distance to the cage or be focused on the bait rather than where the cage is. This could result in the sharks bumping into the cage, but that does not mean they are after those inside. Also, when sharks put their jaws on the bars, most people panic and picture scenes from Jaws; however, when a shark does that, they are not trying to get inside the cage, they are simply investigating the cage to see what it is and what it is made of. They don’t have hands like us to feel things, so they have to use their mouths, which is commonly called mouthing.While chumming, sharks will do the same with other items in the water such as the engines. If you just tap the top of the engine, they let go easily. Sharks are incredibly curious creatures.

DCIM100GOPROG1450699.

A white shark swimming effortlessly in front of the cage.

DCIM100GOPROG1290651.

The shark got pretty close, but was too fast for my GoPro.

DCIM100GOPROG1420689.

Gorgeous white shark smiling for the camera.

There is also a pecking order with sharks when there is food where they allow the largest sharks to feed first, rather than having a feeding frenzy. It was amazing to watch two sharks go for the same bait and seeing the smaller of the two sharks dive down to allow the larger to eat first. Our guide explained to us that the smaller sharks usually see the cage as a larger shark. They do not look at the cage and see individual people in a cage, they see a single creature in the water that could be larger than they are. Because of this, the smaller sharks would sometimes come up to the bait and cage and hold off on pursuing the bait because they think that the cage has the right to the bait first. It was amazing to see and realize how complex and polite these animals are.

 This was definitely a wonderful experience, and I am so ecstatic that I was able to cage dive with these amazing animals. I am actually hoping to do another cage dive later in the month, if there is better visibility. Fingers crossed!

Celebrate World Oceans Day!

Standard
Mossel Bay, South Africa

Mossel Bay, South Africa

Tomorrow, June 8th is World Oceans Day (officially recognized by the United Nations), where people are encouraged to celebrate and take action to protect the oceans. Many people organize events or just spread the word further.

World Oceans Day is every June 8th, but the theme this year is “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet” with a special emphasis on reducing plastic pollution in our oceans. Here’s the official website for it where you can find ways to help the ocean and see what others are doing to help too! Some aquariums even have discounts or special opportunities, so check it out!

http://www.worldoceansday.org/

They also list different ways that you can put together last minute events to help make a positive difference on World Oceans Day. It isn’t too late! My favorite is the “Wear Blue, Tell Two” idea. They encourage you to wear a blue shirt or something else oceans related and ask people if they know why you’re wearing it. This gives you the opportunity to tell them about World Oceans Day, tell them two facts about the ocean, two ways they can help save the ocean, and then ask them to spread the word. Here is the link to the last-minute event ideas.

http://www.worldoceansday.org/its-not-too-late-easy-last-minute-celebration-ideas/

Help to save the oceans by doing whatever you can. A single person can make a huge difference, if they try. Do small things like tell your friends, spread the word, use a reusable bag, or even post your favorite picture of the ocean on social media and explain World Oceans Day. If you’re being more ambitious, you can plan an event like a clean-up or environmental film screening.

Mossel Bay, South Africa

Mossel Bay, South Africa

I hope that you can help to spread the word and make a difference. Feel free to share this, if you would like.

Happy World Oceans Day, everyone!

Mossel Bay, South Africa

Mossel Bay, South Africa

Chumming 101

Standard

There is a lot of misunderstanding and myths surrounding the method of chumming. This post is to help educate you about how important chumming is to collecting the information that we do, and how it is not increasing the likelihood of injuries to humans.

 For those who may not know, chumming is when oily chopped fish are spread in the water to attract animals to the boat, most commonly sharks. Oceans Campus uses mainly sardines because they are such an oily fish to start.

One of the first misconceptions is that chumming attracts sharks to the area where surfers and other water recreationists are. This is false when the people chumming are responsible. The chum can only reach around 160 meters from where it is dumped, and Oceans Campus is always about 800 or more meters from where common surf and recreation spots are. This means that the chumming would only attract the sharks within the 160m and bring them even further from the shore in most cases.

Another common misconception is that chumming conditions the sharks to associate humans with being fed. Although this can be true in some extreme cases where shark feedings are a common occurrence, chumming rarely, if ever, conditions the sharks. In order for animals to be conditioned, they must be rewarded for doing something, thus reenforcing the behavior. This is not the case with chumming. The sharks (white sharks) are not interested in eating the chum; it only attracts them. They are interested in the bait line that is tossed out and used to maneuver the shark into a position where photo identification can be used to identify the shark and assess the white shark population. Even with the bait line, sharks rarely consume the bait, so they are not being rewarded for showing up to the boat. We actually work very hard to try and keep the sharks from eating the bait.

There is actually a resident shark here in Mossel Bay nicknamed BlackGill, and she breaches (comes out of the water) almost every time she goes for the bait. Although she does consume the bait almost every time because she takes the bait handler by surprise, the fact that she still pursues the bait with just rigor and speed shows that she does not expect to receive the food in return for showing up. She still sees the bait as a food source that she still has a chance of losing, and therefore, needs to work for.

Another misconception is that chumming is done with pigs or human blood. This is false for Oceans Campus and many other responsible organizations who use only fish products. This also reenforces that sharks are not craving or conditioned to want humans for food. Chumming most commonly uses fish that would normally be part of their diet in the wild.

Overall, know that chumming is an important tool used by researchers to better understand and study sharks and their populations, and that, when done responsibly, it poses no threat to humans.

First Impressions

Standard

As all people probably know, first impressions are rarely the most accurate. My first couple days in South Africa proved this to be true, at least to me.

When I first arrived in South Africa, the temperature was in the 50’s (Fahrenheit), and there was a dense fog covering everything. This made the visibility around 50 feet in any direction, unfortunately. Far from the beautiful pictures I had seen and imagined of Africa: warm weather, beautiful mountains, endless ocean, and the sun shining bright. The only time I got to see the ocean on my first day was when I was literally driving right beside the shore on our way back to Oceans Campus. People were constantly commenting that this was the wettest they had seen Mossel Bay in years and that it would surely not last for long.

Luckily for me, today I awoke to a beautiful sunrise and the fog being completely cleared. Because of the weather when I first arrived, I had not realized that my campus was so close to the ocean or that the mountain ranges were so beautiful as the ocean’s backdrop in the bay.

The sunrise from our back porch this morning

The sunrise from our back porch this morning

Some things that surprised me were the fact that they drive on the opposite side of the road, as in England and France. I know I (and probably the other new interns in the car) had a mini heart attack when the driver pulled out of the airport parking lot and onto the left side of the road! Another thing that surprised me, although I’m not entirely sure why, is that we passed pastures of cows. For some reason I had not expected to see such a common animal back home all the way in South Africa; however, I have been able to see some new animals such as Dassies.

Fun Fact: Dassies’ closest living relative is the elephant!

Dassies

Dassies

In addition to Dassies, we have also seen springboks and today I was lucky enough to go out on the boat for a couple hours even though it was a bit choppy. We took a trip around Seal Island (you smell it before you see it), watched a dive boat use a bait line to get a white shark to break the surface in pursuit of it (we’ll be doing this as well when the weather is better), and finally anchored to go fishing. Unfortunately, the only fish we caught was a sea catfish, which has poisonous spines, so they are obviously not a popular catch. Other than the sea catfish, the only action we got were small nibbles that would result in your bait being reduced to only a fish head, rather than the whole fish. Unfortunately, the seagulls loved hanging around the boat due to this because we would throw what was left of the bait into the water in order to hook on fresh bait. A group of seagulls floating mere feet behind the boat squawking at you gets old pretty fast.

Overall, I’m learning that my first impressions are by no means the usual in South Africa, which is only making me more excited. I can’t wait to see what is ahead for me!