by members of Team 2
Days 1 to 3 - April 29, 2006
A gorgeous day in Exmouth for the Earthwatch volunteers. The smell of warm bread greets us as we wake to another perfect day at North West Cape. A few quick yoga stretches in front of the rising sun in an attempt to warm up for a day with swimming with the biggest of fish. Toast down, coffee on and we're all fired up. Three 'vollies' and one researcher off on Venturer III to beat yesterday's tally of 3 whale shark sightings. Packing and repacking to make sure we had the lot; we all manage to get onto the boat with everything we need - except the man who had bragged about his magic flippers (his were still on the bus). The skipper, deckie/herder, dive master and spotographer/videographer are keen to give their spiel on safety, procedures and the general having of a good time. Would this just be another one of those hyped-up boat tours?
With spotter plane doing the hard yard, we head out of the pass and travel South along the outer reef. No compensation for the early start, we're in for our first swim pretty quickly, but would have had to have been 'Thorpedos' to keep up with this guy. He was fast! Gone in a few seconds with a few flicks of that huge tail fin. One interesting thing about this swim is the variety of personal viewings. Some swimmers get an eyeful and others wonder what the fuss is about. Despite having the feeling of the Tokyo subway at rush hour as we prepare to swim, we appreciate the enormous amount of organisation that has taken place in order for this to eventuate.
When the next few come by a little more relaxed, we all manage to swim for some time along side - in awe and some - overcome by the spectacle. Although these tours are advertised as an adrenaline rush -something like bungee jumping - we all know that the excitement is about something bigger than that - the wonder of being close to nature's beauty and might. Believe me kids - no theme park in the world can match this experience.
Ahh what else? Manta Rays surfing the reef, dugongs cruising, dolphins teasing, Osprey circling, fish jumping, turtles surfacing, plankton being gathered for sampling....and a snorkel inside the reef to finish. Another hard day in the office the boat crew say as we wind down with a fruit cocktail. Few want to leave the boat and go ashore. Why is it that we so often miss what is really important in our lives and spend time on things that ultimately don't matter?
Back at base it's all smiles and animated recounts of the day's activities. A
PI wanders off mumbling something about going to play with something inflatable while today's lab workers prepare another great meal to share with other hungry expeditioners.
Day 4 - 30/04/06
The night before my first diving experience with the Ningaloo whale sharks, two days ago, was a sleepless one - awaking early with almost childlike anticipation in the pre-dawn darkness and unable to stay in my bunk any longer. Remember that Christmas morning feeling when you were a kid? OK, that's it, you're there!
A spectacular sunrise heralds the beginning of yet another sunny day in paradise up in Exmouth, WA. Today will be our second day diving with the Whale Sharks. I still awake early, but this time resist the temptation to check for Santa's presents at the end of the bed! Team 2 yesterday saw a total of 5 sharks, so the anticipation and excitement around the breakfast table is running high!
We're picked up outside the hotel by the "Ningaloo Blue" tour bus for the half hour ride out to the boat ramp. Our boat crew for the day - Neil, Helen, Hamish, Brad and cinematographer Leith, take the opportunity to explain what's going to be happening for the day, and generally enjoy hamming it up for the punters, getting everybody good and psyched!! By the looks from a bus load of people about to encounter the largest fish in the ocean for the first time - not much pumping required!
Once out on the boat, with the obligatory safety brief out of the way, we're motoring out to the reef. Within pretty short order we see turtles (by the dozen) dolphins, manta rays and the more elusive dugongs. We take the opportunity to jump into the water and try to get a glimpse of the manta rays. These magnificent and incredibly graceful animals will often put on an amazing underwater flying display; but today they're obviously grounded and keeping their distance.
The tour operators use a couple of spotter planes to locate whale sharks at or near the surface who then radio the information to the skippers down on the boats. On some days the first whale shark may be sighted soon after leaving the mooring - on others they may be a little harder to find. It's good to know that during the course of a full season, the number of 'no shark days' can be easily counted on one hand!
Today however the sharks are proving frustratingly elusive; sightings are made throughout the morning, but the fish dive again before we can reach their location. The first we know a shark has been sighted is a brief crackle on the two-way radio up on the bridge, followed almost immediately by the boat leaping forward as the skipper pushes the throttles all the way to the stops! An excited, spontaneous cheer goes up from everybody on board and the chase is on. This happens on numerous occasions, only to be followed sometime later by anticlimax as the skipper backs off again, and we know the spotter plane has lost the contact.
By midday there is a palpable tension on the boat, still no shark. The crew now employ a sure-fire and completely dastardly way of bringing the sharks to the surface - it's simple but effective - just serve lunch!! It's almost guaranteed that as soon as everyone is settled with a plate full of food and chowing down on their first chicken salad sandwich, the shout will go up. WHALE SHARK!! That's how it happens today - but nobody is too concerned about the interrupted lunch.
From here, everything moves fast, and the excitement is infectious. The spotter plane directs the skipper onto the shark until he has a visual. This one's a big fish - 7/8m - and only a couple of minutes away! The first group about to go into the water, assemble on the aft deck - hurriedly donning masks and fins and making last minute checks on camera equipment. We know we're close as the skipper now slowly maneuvers the boat to drop us in on the shark - hopefully 30m or so directly in its path!
GO! GO! GO! It runs like something approximating a military operation - only lacking any semblance of order, precision or finesse! Maybe a more apt analogy would be lemmings leaping into the unknown! First group away, and group two now take their place on the 'marlin board' - (that's the swim platform bit at the back) - ready to take the plunge.
While on the surface, these magnificent animals move sedately forward with slow graceful sweeps of their hugely powerful tail fin - for them merely a stroll in the park. They seem unconcerned, and somehow almost disdainfully aloof from the mass of thrashing arms, legs and fins trying desperately to keep up just a few meters behind!
After 3-5 minutes swimming alongside the shark, the next group enter the water. Group one, on instruction from the "spotter" in the water - then drop back and wait for the skipper to swing the boat around for a pick up (dust off?). This process is then repeated until either the shark tires of the company, and dives to the relative quiet and tranquility of deeper water, or the lemmings are too exhausted to swim any more!
It's difficult, if not impossible to put the feeling of being in the presence of these incredible animals into words. Anything you say can only be wholly inadequate. The experience is nothing short of awesome! We swim with three different sharks during the afternoon, dropping in on each one a number of times. The whole boat, crew included, is psyched with the adrenalin rush and camaraderie of a magical experience shared.
I'm here as an Earthwatch volunteer - and I hope that in amongst all the controlled mayhem and excitement, we manage to achieve our objective and get some good photographs of the sharks for use in the computer recognition program being used by Brad Norman and his team for individual shark identification. This will hopefully go a long way to help us understand a little more about the lives of these enigmatic and wonderful creatures. For more info go to www.whaleshark.org
A huge thank you to Brad, George, Kathy and James for all your patience and un-bounding enthusiasm - it's truly infectious - and for giving us volunteers the amazing opportunity to contribute - even in the smallest way.
Oh, and by the way, Happy Christmas!!
Day 5 - 01/05/06
Ningaloo Marine Park located due west of Exmouth, Western Australia is not an easy place to get to, especially if you are travelling from Austin, Texas. I flew to Denpasar, Bali. Six different planes got me here and I'd have to say the food on the last segment, from Perth to Learmonth, was the worst -- some kind of ground animal parts, barbequed. Being from Texas, I ate it. No worries. The first time a wait-person at a restaurant in Exmouth, told me "no worries," I wondered if I was looking a little stressed out from all the travel.
Yesterday was my first day on the boat. Out to sea, just beyond the Ningaloo Reef, pitching, bobbing, racing about. Eventually, the winds settled and all was calm. About 15 tourists, 3 Earthwatch volunteers, an Earthwatch scientist and five crew members settled in to their quite specialized tasks. Us volunteers fell into the sea like all the tourists at our 1st whale shark spotting (How? a plane circles, spots, calls in GPS position, videographer and a dive leader leap in, followed by tourists, EW volunteers, rubber Zodiac races about like wild bronco.) I jumped in just behind the videographer and within moments saw a huge fish materialise before me. Having already worked in the lab for a day, selecting stills from past videos of whale sharks for uploading into the whaleshark image database, and viewing/identifying plankton samples, I knew this fish was definitely not of the Harpacticoid Copepod phylum. The 1st whale shark went by too quickly and too enshrouded in the rough wash of the wind-chopped sea. I only talk this way after swimming near six of these leviathans (did I say six? Well, maybe four) in about a 4 hour period. If I see many more of these spotted creatures, I'll be channeling Melville directly.
Day 6 - 02/05/06
Yet another clear blue sky in Exmouth and another day diving with the world's largest fish. A moderate offshore breeze in the morning pointed towards a mid day glass off and our spirits were high as we were ferried out to the waiting "Venture 3". We had barely made it outside the reef when the skipper spotted Mantas. A quick warm up dive gave us a good look and it was pleasing to see that the visibility had improved since the last few days.
By 9.30am the spotter plane could be seen above searching for some sharks while we nosed up to some cruising dugongs. The seemed quite shy and quick glimpses could be seen of these unusual animals.
As hoped, the wind dropped out during the day and the flat swell less ocean looked a treat. A call over the radio had the engine cranking and all onboard preparing for the first drop on a whale shark. When the call came to go it was a frenzy of bubbles fins as we scanned the deep blue in eager anticipation. Out of the gloom appeared the first shark - a good sized fish of around 7.5m in length. I moved towards the left flank for that all important identification photo. A few quick snaps and then it was all go to keep up and look for any obvious scars and identifying marks.
It was only a short time later and we were in again on a second shark. Once again I sought out that important photo that would be down loaded to a computer and added to a fast increasing library. Hopefully this photo would then be matched to another showing that this particular shark had returned to Ningaloo reef. Then again, no match could also be a good sign as this could indicate a new shark to the reef.
This process was continued with 3 other sharks. Two smaller fish that circled us in a nice casual arc and another big male instantly recognised as "stumpy" due to missing section to his tail fin.
Once we were back on the boat various details were recorded and checked such as direction of travel, latitude and longitude, depth of water and various other important pieces of information. All that swimming builds up a good appetite and the lunch the crew put on went down well. The action wasn't finished yet, however, as we stumble across a sixth shark on the way back. This shark was the biggest I had seen at around 10m in length. A truly impressive sight.
Back at the ramp we were met by other members of the team and helped distribute surveys and information to those who swam with whale sharks that day. The surveys are designed to give an idea just how much in tourist dollars a whale shark is worth. This information could then be passed on to countries who still hunt the whale shark as a source of food in a bid to help convince them to stop the hunt and turn to tourism. Information and stickers relating to the website www.whaleshark.org were also handed out to show the public that they can contribute to the photo identification library.
All in all a great day with perfect weather and lots of sharks.
Day 7 - 03/05/06
Seaman's Blog, Sharkdate 3 May 2006.
Yesterday was another perfecting day for whalesharking. Seas were fairly calm; plenty of blue sky and warm sun and steady cooling breezes from the NE. Spotter plane directed us to large whale shark before noon, maybe around 11 am (are scientists supposed to lose all track of time?). This particular shark turned out to be enjoying a long and casual surface swim, back and forth in front ot the South Passage into the Ningaloo Reef. We were able to swim alongside and take many photos, some of them hopefully good enough to make a positive ID. Since the shark was so close to the opening into the reef, we were able to see clear to the bottom. We had a tremendous view of an approximately 7 meter shark framed by reef and sand underneath. The huge school of travelly swimming near the fish were captivating in their own right. In the course of the next hour and a half, we were in and out of the water swimming at least 5 times with this shark. The waters were teeming with every sort of life. With my snorkel sometimes being on the same side I was tilting toward in order to have a good view of the shark, I'm sure I took in my quota of planktonic mysid shrimp for the day.
Day 8 - 04/05/06
Seaman's Blog, Sharkdate 4 May 2006
Last day of the expedition. We went for a great swim over the reef from shore. Saw a great line-up of reef dwellers, just a few feet underwater. We saw rays, large and small, some with brilliant blue markings. We saw a 4 foot reef shark under a ledge, snoozing. We saw 3 foot Grouper (Groper), anemones, Clown Fish, etc.
Before I leave this extraordinary chunk of down under, it needs to be said the scientists here truly break a sweat. Good thing they are so often in and under water. Their dedication to this work is remarkable and it's been a pleasure to assist however feebly over these past 8 days. G'day.