Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ecotourism and White Sharks-Sea Stewards

From our friends over at the Sea Stewards Blog this week. Always an excellent source of shark conservation news:

Shark Ecotourism and Cage operations are often controversial, but may be our only hope for protecting white sharks and other shark populations from poaching, overfishing and shark finning.

I had the opportunity to dive with white sharks in Isla Guadalupe on the Horizon thanks to Shark Diver. As someone who generally avoids crowds, organized activities, and prefers diving with sharks in the wild, I admit I was skeptical. This operation was professional, respectful of the sharks and a great and lasting experience for all aboard. The shark afficianados ranged from a chain smoking construction worker from New York who had never been diving to professional divers to house moms to pro divers and photgraphers. All were deeply affected, not by the adrenaline, but by the beauty of these amazing animals.

As soon as The City of the Shark is completed (a film on San Francisco Sharks in two weeks!), my editing and writing will turn to this incredible experience.

Ecotourism has become the unlikely protector of the unexpectedly
endangered great white sharks

By Jim Cornfield

A windless dawn rises over Isla Guadalupe, 150 miles west of the Baja
California coast. Rolling slightly in a gentle Pacific swell, our 80-
foot trawler Horizon motors toward the island’s north end. The
skipper, Greg Grivetto, is standing the final watch of a 20-hour
passage from San Diego. He glances down through the bridge windows at
the dozen or so passengers gathered on Horizon’s foredeck. We’re
shaking off sleep, gabbing, sipping coffee, eager to catch sight of
our first landfall on this remote volcanic rock. In the distance,
sunlight outlines the arc of Guadalupe’s northeast inlet. There, deep
in flat, dark water, something is also stirring, and everyone onboard
is thinking about it.

It is Carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark.

The inshore waters of Guadalupe make up one of the few known habitats for this formidable migrating creature. It is the world’s largest predatory fish, typically 13 to 16 feet long, weighing 1,500 to 2,500 pounds. The great white is the undisputed king of the cartilage-skeletoned vertebrates that have been swimming through the seas for 400 million years and the supreme iteration of an “apex predator”—top dog—in its watery world. To scientists and shark devotees, great whites are a feast of complex behaviors—maddeningly coy in their breeding habits and wary but stunningly accomplished killers. Remarkably, they also are now listed as endangered, and when an apex species is in trouble the threat can cascade down through the entire food chain.

For years close encounters were pretty much out of the question.
Swimmers and scuba divers ardently avoid the sharks, and useful
observation in study tanks or aquariums is impossible because the
animals do not survive prolonged captivity. But recent growth in the
popularity of shark-cage diving has opened new opportunities. On this
August morning Horizon’s crew, scientists and ecotourists are arriving
under the aegis of Shark Diver, a leading operator of “sharking” excursions to Guadalupe. The mission, as always: to watch at close hand this impressive animal in its natural surroundings.

Shark Diver, in conjunction with the Marine Conservation Science
Institute, has identified, recorded and named more than 85 individual
great whites that regularly return to the area, now a reserve
protected by the Mexican government. A compilation of photographs
(including contributions from amateur cage divers) plus tagging and
satellite tracking is steadily producing a detailed profile of the
Guadalupe community of great whites. A thick ring binder, the “family
album,” circulates in Horizon’s wood-paneled saloon. Among the pictured sharks are Fat Tony (the charter member of Shark Diver’s roster), Nacho, Belt Strap, Bruce, Captain Hook, Harvey, the Russian. And the truly massive 18-foot females that migrate here late in the fall—Tlazolteotl (named for an Aztec goddess), Chicka, Dorri, Snow White, Lady Notch—many of them pregnant and voraciously hungry.

Even though the great whites are a protected species, relentless
poaching has put them on the international “threatened” list. Shark
Diver CEO Patric Douglas reports that one set of jaws alone can fetch
$5,000 in Ensenada. His Guadalupe Island Conservation Fund
( has documented the sale of whole carcasses of
the great white for $20,000 on the black market. Mexico’s national park service lacks the resources to station patrol boats at Guadalupe during the great whites’ season. But Shark Diver expedition vessels, along with those from several other adventure operators, have become
an unofficial police presence against illegal sportfishing.

More at: Scientific American