2016 Season – Sustainable Tourism & Tracking Sharks

November 27, 2016

Two months into the season already!

For those who haven’t been able to follow our project updates on Facebook, here is our latest news. A full summary will be published at the end of the season.

Whale shark at Nosy Be, Madagascar

Michel the whale shark

The last month has been highly productive, with the highlights being the start of a discussion about a code of conduct for Nosy Be, and deploying eight satellite tags.

At the end of October, project partner and expert whale shark scientist Dr Simon Pierce joined us in Nosy Be for two weeks with the aim of deploying satellite tags while also providing information to operators to assist with their development of an industry code of conduct for whale shark interactions.

We also have had the pleasure of welcoming Fadia Al Abbar as a long-term project assistant; Fadia is a friend of Stella’s who has previously worked with whale sharks in the Philipinnes and has just completed her MSc degree on European marine mammals.

Simon, Christian, Stella & Fadia

We also worked with conservation filmmaker Chris Scarffe, and his assistant Goff, who filmed an upcoming TV piece about our work. We also hosted Ralph Pannell from Aqua-Firma, an expedition company that regularly works with the Marine Megafauna Foundation elsewhere.

Sustainable whale shark tourism

Our on-site partner Les Baleines Rand’eau organised a presentation for all the whale watching and diving operators that could attend. Having a good code of conduct in place works to both minimise any possible impacts of tourism on whale sharks, while also improving client satisfaction.

Here’s a link to that presentation in French and in English.

Whale shark and swimmers at Nosy Be, Madagascar

All the operators present decided to trial these recommendations so they could assess their practicality in local conditions. From the following day onwards we could already see positive adoption of these recommendations, with each boat patiently waiting for their turn when another boat was swimming with a shark.

Further work on this process is ongoing, in particular encouraging the use of these guidelines in operators that did not attend the initial meeting.

Whale shark and swimmers at Nosy Be, Madagascar

Satellite tagging whale sharks

Fortunately, we had no problems finding eight different sharks to tag.

Tagged whale shark at Nosy Be, Madagascar

Unfortunately, they were all swimming really fast. Most of the sharks were swimming amongst feeding tunas, so we had to make a plan that allowed us to actually keep up with them.

We perfected a team effort whereby Stella would jump in with the shark first, identify the individual by photographing their unique individual spot patterns, and record the sharks sex and length.

Our boat captain Christian would then drop Simon about 10 m in front of the shark, so as it swam by he could easily deploy a SPOT5 tethered satellite tag.

Simon was using a tagging pole with an elastic band to implant a titanium dart just under the surface of the whale shark’s thick skin. The shark usually doesn’t even feel it. We were able to follow each shark post-tagging to confirm they all quickly resumed their normal behaviour.

Stella Diamant, whale shark researcher, with a tagged whale shark off Nosy Be, Madagascar.

Stella with one of our tagged sharks, Shanti

After tagging the shark, Stella and Christian explained to any tourist operators (in French and Malagasy, respectively) about the tags and what we are hoping to find out. Several of the sharks were seen for several days afterwards by tour operators, which was useful to confirm to everyone that tagging does not effect the sharks’ reaction towards people.

We prepared an information document about the tagging you can read online here.

We managed to tag a variety of individuals, six males and two females ranging from 5 to 7 m, including two of our favorite sharks Shanti and Michel. We’ve been posting a few updates on their movements over on Facebook, and we’ll do a separate blog post on here soon.

Looking forward to the last few weeks of sharking!