Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What we will do for the love of the oceans...

(Hood mounted Landie Cam captures the moment)

Paul and I decided to head to Mozambique for a few weeks to accomplish two tasks: 1) see for ourselves the state of sharks and finning operations having received many reports that Southern Africa and in specific, Mozambique, is under attack, and 2) to see the whale sharks and manta rays that Tofu is famous for ourselves – craving a bit of live (rather than dead) elasmobranch action. So we packed up my new car with everything including the kitchen sink and the freezer and the table and the cupboard contents and the… well, you get the picture… and headed out. Note to self: do not travel to Mozambique with an old map and no GPS.

I have always been a two-seater, convertible, [German] sports car driver, but when I made the leap and bought a car in South Africa, I knew I needed something a little more practical. I seem to have spanned to the other end of the spectrum, perhaps remembering the childhood toy I cherished – a miniature camper caravan with a pop up tent, bunk beds, and a full kitchen. Everything you needed to go anywhere in the backyard. I now own that vehicle – in the form of a dark blue Land Rover Defender, complete with a tent on the roof, an ammunition safe, drawers and drawers of tools, a spare water tank, a solar shower, an ax, a spade and a bajillion other things that basically makes my vehicle a home on wheels. Second note to self: do not, under any circumstances, allow Paul to be responsible for deciding what is a necessity and what is not. The man would travel with only the clothes on his back, a machette and a bag of biltong for a week in the bush. Oh and a high-lift Jack which somehow we forgot this time and whose omission we nearly paid a very dear price for.

(My new "little girl" the day I bought her in Capetown.)

I quickly learned that in Africa, the journey is a large (VERY LARGE) part of the adventure. And, plans, routes, destinations, heck, even road signs are really not necessary parts of the equation – because anything can happen in Africa, and now I have been here long enough to say, and it usually does.

After we left the highways a few hours away from the border of Mozambique, the travel became slow-going due to the fact the road was literally just a series of potholes laced together with small patches of asphalt. But, the bigger problem was avoiding hitting anything. You see, the roads in South Africa attract a variety of life ranging from chickens, to cows to humans. We quickly engaged in our favorite game to pass the time: “goat, cow, dog, chicken or pig”. Basically, you chose which animal you are going to see next on the side of the road (WITHOUT a fence between you and it) and the winner gets a point if they call the animal correctly (pigs and chickens count for 5 and donkeys, 10.) Every few hundred meters you are sure to run into something. This time I stuck with goats and won – 28 to 12.

(Another game called "Dodge the potential Road Kill")

It wasn’t until we crossed the border though, that the true excitement began. It was getting late in the afternoon, and we were hours off of our schedule – mostly due to the slow roads we hadn’t predicted, a crisis that necessitated I send an email, and my last minute trip to acquire a new Malaria prevention drug as I was already growing tired of the Lariam induced spider nightmares – but that is a different story.

As soon as we passed border control, it was like we had entered some strange “Land of the Lost” set. Seriously, the roads and all forms of humanity simply disappeared. We were presented with a series of treacherous sand paths that snaked through valleys and dunes, precariously up steep inclines and around sharp bends, with no signs, only our instinct to determine which one might lead us to Maputo. Adding to the stress was the fact that the sun was starting to set, our car was so top heavy that we were ready to tip over at any moment, it was threatening rain…

Before leaving South Africa, Paul wanted to be sure to fill the two “Jerry Cans” on our roof full of diesel. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but only learned of it while the plan was in action, so couldn’t have too much of an opinion. However, when the car started to smell like diesel – Paul told me “no biggie”. It wasn’t until diesel was literally pouring into our open windows that he realized both of our fuel cans were leaking. Severely. Our only option was to take the precious water jugs I had purchased in South Africa not wanting to repeat a Burma incident (small boat with one bathroom and rancid water which caused violent illness amongst my whole family), and use all 6 of them, ugh, to wash the now looming fire hazard on wheels. There I was, middle of nowhere, standing on the car roof soaping it up with dish detergent by hand and then dribbling water down it trying to keep my solid footing as the car became increasingly slippery…

Stinking of diesel, we continued the journey driving for hours on random paths using random logic to indicate to ourselves we must be on the right path. “Well, I see an abandoned stump that might have been used to sell tourist trinkets. This must be the right path.” Suddenly, we were spit out on a dirt road that had potholes filled with water so deep, a few of them might have had their own names as lakes. And now it was dark. I would scream the location of the pit and Paul would attempt to slow down enough to not leave a wheel behind. We slipped and slid over the mud attempting to make progress. There was one enjoyable moment as we left a brand new Jeep Cherokee in our mud trail as the driver struggled to keep his pseudo-off road vehicle on the road. “Shoulda bought a Landie” Paul sang out with glee. Another note to self: never be too smug about someone else having problems with their car. Karma always has a way of sorting you out.

After three hours, we came to a barricade and police officers. Relieved, I knew that we could at least ask directions. Paul went to get out of the car, and that is when I noticed the bugs. Millions and millions of flying ants on steroids. In a scene straight from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, the one spotlight shining on the road illuminated a gruesome site. The sky was alive with them. They began to stack up on the windshield – six ants deep. I could see Paul and the policeman were covered with them, both acting as non-chalant as possible as ants the size of Pez dispensers crawled down their backs. After ten minutes in the bugs, Paul came back to the car complete with directions and hundreds of stragglers. I had no choice but to let him in after he tried to brush them off as best he could.

He was full of information. Yes we are on the right path, but the policeman gave us a detour, as the roads we were traveling on got way worse past the barricade. Seriously, I thought? What is worse than this??? Oh, and the ants? They come out when it rains. We are about to get drenched, he said. I figured that would be a good thing. Um… no.

If we thought the roads were treacherous before, we were now traveling in a torrential downpour as thick mud coated our car. We had been driving for 12 hours now, and most of it a challenge. I was so happy to reach the outskirts of Maputo… until Paul asked me what the little red light on the dashboard meant. A quick check of the manual indicated the transmission was “wound up” due to the use of the differential lock system. The diff lock system was apparently stuck on (though after much arguing I realized Paul was not to blame as he hadn’t turned it on), and no matter how much reverse driving we did (seriously, the Land Rover manual TOLD us to), it wouldn’t come off. Here we were, in the middle of a dodgy town on the outskirts of Maputo, not a chance of a repairman, tow truck and certainly not a Land Rover dealer for miles – if not countries – and our car was essentially, according to the manual, undrive-able. I started seeing days and days spent in this dank, seedy port town – without a single hotel or restaurant - unfold in front of me waiting for some obscure part and spending thousands of dollars as the corrupt repair people held us hostage…

But, in a moment worthy of an iPhone commercial, I suddenly realized we had hope… thanks to Steven Jobs. Yes, I managed to procure my iPhone after removing it from bags deep within the mud-crusted bush vehicle, wedged in next to the ax and the spare coils. I brushed off the thick layer of dust and turned it on. IT WORKED! And what’s more, we found a 24 hour Land Rover help hotline to call. Here we were, literally in the middle of nowhere, a million miles away from any form of support, a few lights on generators the highest tech thing around us, on the phone with a cheery chap named Bill who helped us troubleshoot the car. His advice? Ignore it if the car still turns in a tight circle, which it did. And, then hope for the best. It is either a) nothing or b) a huge issue that will incapacitate the car possibly in an even more desolate location. Did I mention that Mozambique is infamous for its “gypsies” who are really land pirates looting unsuspecting tourists?

We gave ourselves the 30 minute ferry ride to Maputo to figure out our plan. Do we risk it or play it safe? It was now midnight and we were in a city that I imagine looks a lot like war-torn Beiruit complete with a self-mandated curfew (to ensure one’s safety) with few, if any, prospects. I was supposed to wake up in a hut on the beach ready for snorkeling with at least 10 whale sharks who were undoubtedly playing with 50 mantas, and now, instead, I had to chose whether I wanted to drive BACK to South Africa, camping out at the border until it was open, or just cross my fingers and hope for the best trying not to have a panic attack from all the stress of being absolutely certain the car was going to lose its drive train at the most inopportune time and place – like say, near a camp full of bandits. I mean, wasn’t this why I bought such a solid car? So this didn’t happen?!? And what about the drawers full of spare parts and tools? Why wouldn’t any of those help us now?

Though I dive with sharks on a regular basis, I am certainly not a risk taker. So Paul and I decided that we must turn around and head for the border so we could drive the 600 kms to the nearest Land Rover dealer to ensure our problem was not compounding. Crestfallen, we started heading out of the country only to have the light turn off, by itself, after going two hours in the opposite direction. Yes, that’s right. It was nothing.

Exhausted and defeated, we crashed in a nearby gas station, terrified to pull off the road due to the gypsies. I slept perched on top of the scuba gear in the back piling my wetsuits on top of me to avoid being bitten by malaria-carrying mosquitos, Paul in his seat holding a Machette in one hand and a huge two foot maglight in the other (the perfect weapon he says… you bash a guy with one end of it, then turn it around in one elegant swoop to see if he is lying on the ground.) When we awoke bleary-eyed for another full day of driving on roads even worse than what we had experienced, I figured nothing could phase me now. That was until the brand-new rear shock literally broke in half and we drove 30 km off-road through sand dunes with craters that could consume trucks in them – with only three zip ties holding the car together.

You gotta love Land Rovers. And the adventure that is Africa.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The REAL Mermaids

I am not sure why, but in the four years my parents have lived within a few hours of the infamous Manatee spot, Crystal River, I have never headed up to see them. Not that I don’t absolutely love manatees. In fact, I kayak throughout the mangroves near my parents house every time I am there hoping to get a glimpse of one. And while on the jetski, I am constantly peering into the water desperate to see that telltale grey body just under the surface.
Funny, whenever you have out of town visitors, you take the time to explore the place you live in – seemingly taking for granted all it has to offer until a visit from a guest requires a deeper look.

So, with Paul in Florida, I decided we had to see the Manatees.

We got up at the crack of dawn to temperatures my South African friend considered frigid and my mom who I convinced to come with us (ok, I needed a hat and gloves too, but…) and drove three hours into seemingly, the middle of nowhere. We finally arrived at a rather un-inspiring place, ready to rent our pontoon boat and see some “mermaids”. The pontoon boat was a luxury I am not often afforded – my own boat and a TON of room to spread out all the gear. Oh, and not to mention, perfectly CALM seas. This alone was heaven.

So, we loaded up and headed to the place on the map that the marina assured us Manatees would be. A few weeks later, the area would be off limits to boaters and swimmers, allowing us a unique opportunity to see the Manatees in their protected habitat.

We were worried that we would not see any Manatees – given that we were early in the cycle and the water was a bit murky. My decision to rent my own boat was also a bit questionable – as boat operators probably knew right where there were. When I told Paul about my plan, there were definitely a few eyebrows raised, but he knows when to challenge me. so there we were, Paul getting ready to tell me “I told you so”, freezing, and surrounded by muddy water.

We dropped the anchor and began lack-lusterly setting up, when I looked down on the anchor line to see a Manatee had swum up to greet us and rub herself on the anchor line. The Manatee was so playful and relaxed – and seemingly, just as curious of us as we were of her.

I couldn’t wait to get in the water, and the Manatee was beckoning me in by swimming under the ladder.

Finally it was time to get in. I began swimming towards the marshy shore, and it wasn’t long before I had my first visitors.

At first, they startled me, the large apparitions appearing out of no where, suddenly right next to me, with tiny eyes and a huge, huge body covered with long, sparsely spread hairs. I couldn’t believe how interactive they were. And how much some of them seemed to crave touch.

And how huge they are. They average 900 - 1200 lb and are 9-10 feet in length. I think they were as wide as they were long.

I have always refrained from interaction with an animal unless the animal seeks it out. And in this case, many of the manatees were tucking their noses up under my arms, brushing my legs as they swam next to me, and nudging my hands. Some of the manatees would come and check me out – others were looking for some quality time together. Each had its own very distinct personality. One was particularly smitten with Paul and everytime I turned around, she was holding on to his leg while he desperately tried to film me and carry around a one-ton Manatee on his thigh.

The West Indian manatee was discovered in the 1500s by Spanish explorers that hunted them for their meat, hide, and oils. Hunted almost to extinction, Florida banned the hunting of manatees in 1893. The official "season" for Florida Manatee is October 15th to March 31st. But there are Manatee that stay in certain areas all year.

Fossil remains of manatee ancestors show they have inhabited Florida for about 45 million years. The West Indian Manatee is one of four species of Manatees and Dugongs.

In warmer months manatees spend most of their time at sea and out of harm's way, but from October they 15th to March 31st, the colder weather drives them inland to places where can find warm water. Florida's Crystal River supports the largest concentration. Indeed, we saw over 25 different manatees – and at least 15 boats full of tourists looking to experience them.

Manatees are gentle, slow-moving graceful swimmers. Most of their time is spent eating, resting and in travel at depths of 3 – 7 feet. We happened upon many eating and also sleeping. And, they spend a lot of time eating, as they consume 10-15% of their body weight daily eating the sea grass below and other aquatic plants.

You probably won’t believe it, but the manatees closest relatives are elephants, aardvarks and hyraxes. You can see their large prehensile upper lip is a bit like a trunk – and they use it like an elephant would for gathering food and also social interactions & communications. One manatee kept taking my hand and placing it on its lips – trying to communicate in some way for sure.

We had a chance to see a baby as well, which was very exciting. You could tell the baby was quite curious, but mom didn’t want us near her. We kept our distance and respected mom’s wishes. The reproductive rate for the manatee is slow. Female manatees are not sexually mature till they are about four years old, and males, nine years old. One calf is born every 2-3 years and the gestation period is about 13 months. Manatees breed year round in Florida, however most of the calves are born in the spring and summer months. At birth the calf measures about 4 to 4.5ft and weighs about 60-70 pounds. They can even swim at the surface of the water by themselves!

Florida Manatees have been known to live up to 60 years, and they can move freely between fresh and salt water. You could see that some of them had much algae and growth on their skin and others did not. I wonder if that had to do with age, activity level or even the type of waters they lived in.

Manatees are also believed to have the ability to see in color, and though their eyes were quite small, I could see such intelligence in them. It was as if they could look into your soul.

And they are indeed very intelligent. Manatees are capable of understanding discrimination tasks, and show signs of complex associated learning and advanced long term memory. Similar to dolphins and seals.

The population of manatees in Florida is thought to be between 1,000 and 3,000, yet population estimates are very difficult.

Their slow-moving, curious nature, coupled with dense coastal development, has led to a number of violent collisions with boat propellers, leading frequently to maiming, disfigurement, and even death. As a result, a large portion of manatees have many propeller scars on their backs and they are now even recognized uniquely by their scar patterns.

Even the babies we saw all had propeller marks on them.

You can see the postings everywhere, warning boaters that manatee zones are no wake zones. Though, you frequently see boaters speeding through these zones. And Manatees don’t limit themselves to the zones. We happened upon one Manatee in a 35 mph zone swimming slowly and carelessly through it.

Until I saw the manatees, I didn’t realize I was looking for the wrong thing… A tell tale “hmpphff” sound and a glimpse at their large snout when they come up for a breath – that is what you look for. We stopped on the jetski in the MIDDLE of a busy boating lane and quickly

In 2007, a University of Florida study found that more than half of boat drivers in Volusia County, Florida sped through marked conservation zones despite their professed support for the endangered animals. The police boats are constantly on patrol looking for violaters.

There are other threats too…

Manatees occasionally ingest fishing gear (hooks, metal weights, etc.) while feeding which clog the animal's digestive system and slowly kill the animal.

Manatees are also vulnerable to red tides—blooms of algae which leach oxygen from the water.

And manatees are losing habitat. You can see how the areas they chose to inhabit make for prime real estate developments.

The manatee is protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Specials Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal. The manatee is also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which states: "It is unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass or disturb any manatee."

While we are allowed to swim with manatees in Crystal River, there is much controversy surrounding this. Manatees are the only endangered animal you can get in the water with – dolphins and whales are protected from us. There have been numerous charges of people harassing and disturbing the manatees in addition to the concern about repeated motorboat strikes causing the maiming, disfiguring, and death of manatees all across the Florida coast, and this privilege of swimming with wild manatees may be soon repealed.

In 2003, a population model was released by the U.S. Geological Survey predicted an extremely grave situation for manatees – if extreme measures were not taken to protect them, they would be extinct in less than 100 years.

So sad that a magnificent animal may not be around for our children’s children to enjoy. My day with the manatees was so magical, I could barely drag myself out of the water. If not for the requirement to return the boat by 4:30 pm, I would have been there all evening.

It is my hope that we work together so generations to come can enjoy these magnificent creatures. I know that from now on, whenever I am in Florida, I am heading out to see my new best friends. Oh, and Paul’s new (rather large) girlfriend.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Spotting Sharks Through the Mess of Nets and Drumlines

I was absolutely gutted to hear from my dear friends Mark and Gail Addison that three tiger sharks were caught and killed in the nets off the coast of Aliwal Shoal. I spend my life fighting to save these creatures and their thoughtless and completely purposeless deaths are incredibly disheartening – especially in a country known for shark conservation.

South Africa is a country of extremes. While they have led the world in the protection of white sharks and it is illegal to harm a white shark, they also allow white sharks to be killed every year under the guise that it is required for the safety of its water users. The same is true for Tiger sharks who are a significantly threatened species and are even protected in Aliwal. And while South Africa has one coast protected by barbaric shark nets and drumlines (whose sole purpose is to kill sharks), they have also pioneered a program on another coast that allows sharks and people to peacefully coexist – in the exact same water.

News of dead sharks never comes at a good time, but coincidentally, this news was delivered as I was finishing my latest report for the Underwater Channel – exploring how people and sharks (in this case white sharks) can, and should, share the exact same water.

You see, while whites and tiger sharks are seriously threatened and are protected by many countries, including South Africa, many of these sharks are still killed each year by shark nets and drumlines.

What are shark nets?

Throughout the Eastern Coast of South Africa shark nets and drumlines are installed by Natal Sharks Board. Natal Sharks Board actually has a fishing license, and the purpose of these nets and drumlines are to kill sharks. Years ago, the nets were installed to appease beach users, who were panicked by a string of incidents on the beaches of Durban. Tourism was big money for the folks of KZN, and many lobbied to install nets to keep the sharks away from the beaches to keep the tourists happy. Surely the private organization installing the nets lobbied the hardest. And, ironically, most of these incidents were occurring where whaling stations were located as well (Hmm… dead whales near where people swim. Um, can we really blame the sharks?)

Until I saw them, like most people I think, I assumed shark nets were much like underwater mosquito nets, creating a harmless, and far-reaching barrier between the beach users and the sharks. This could not be further from the truth.

Shark nets are gill nets installed in tiered patterns – not fully extending to either the top or the bottom, and not fully enclosing the beach areas. While tiered, their installation often times seems quite random – and certainly does not enclose a beach. Many sharks are caught on the reverse side of the nets, meaning they have avoided them on the way in. Most are smaller sharks – as the larger ones have learned to avoid the nets. These smaller sharks don’t pose any risk at all – as they are not large enough to consume large fish, let alone humans (as if we were even on their menus.) And, the sharks that are caught tend to be those that are desperately threatened. Not incredibly effective, right?

You have got to hand it to the sharks who avoid the nets… When I swam next to the nets, it was only a few minutes before I managed to get completely entangled. Thankfully I had help nearby, but for a few desperate moments, I understood what it would be like to drown like a panicked shark, snarled in a mess of suffocating netting. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

For years, Natal Sharks Boards also finned the sharks they caught, turning a profit while keeping the beaches “safe”. Makes you wonder what the motivations truly are… To date, no one I have spoken to has confirmed this no longer occurs. Believe it or not, you can still attend weekly dissections of sharks – an attempt to show the public their work contributes to science and conservation. And indeed, many leading shark scientists in South Africa reportedly work for Natal Sharks Board.

As if killing the sharks weren’t enough, these nets catch a significant amount of bycatch. Dolphins, turtles, and even baby whales have been caught and killed by these nets. What’s the solution? Well, in Australia … Drumlines. Baited hooks complete with tasty tuna heads sure to draw the attention of the supposedly blood-thirsty and human hunting sharks, right? Sadly, the first part is true and the sharks are often drawn into the bait to meet their untimely and brutal end.

Now Natal Sharks Board has installed drumlines similar to those installed in Australia. These drumlines are targeting even more sharks – particularly protected species, like the White Sharks. And, they are resulting in more shark deaths. One may also wonder why you would attract sharks to the beaches with tuna heads. Yes, it seems odd… Rather than let them be than attract the sharks INTO the beaches with people swimming nearby, no?

In all the madness, there is a solution. A solution called “Shark Spotters”, an NGO that has been operating successfully in Capetown for several years.

Amazingly, in Capetown, THERE ARE NO NETS and NO DRUMLINES! Yes, there is a viable alternative to nets – without killing a single endangered animal. False Bay on the Western Cape of South Africa, is the largest bay in Southern Africa. And, we all know, thanks to several Seal Island/Shark Week episodes (as well as thanks to scientists like Shark Angel Alison) that the white sharks are present in strong numbers. But not only does this bay have one of the highest concentrations of white sharks in the world, it also has the highest concentration of water users.

Shark Spotters is an ingenious program that allows the white sharks and the water users to live in peaceful coexistence – without harm to anyone, including the sharks. Shark Spotters was actually started by a local surfer and shop owner, who wanted to increase the local surf traffic here at Muizenberg beach. These days it is run as a non-profit with sponsorship from many organizations including surf manufacturers, local groups, and international NGOs. And, Shark Angel Alison has just been appointed as the Director of Research for Shark Spotters.

Throughout the Western Cape, Shark Spotters sit high atop the hills flanking the beaches armed with binoculars and radios. Everything they need to “do battle” with the sharks. All day long, the Shark Spotters watch the shoreline looking for white sharks – who are known to frequent the inshore waters especially in the summer time.

When a shark is spotted, which is relatively easy to do given their size and their proximity to the surface, the Shark Spotter in the booth on the hill notifies the Shark Spotter on the beach. Then, the beach Shark Spotter sounds an alarm announcing the shark’s presence and also hoists a black flag with a white shark on it.

It is astounding to see the surfers and swimmers, quite accustomed to the alarms and the sharks, non-chalantly exit the water and await the “all clear” sign. No panic or pandemonium. Just a patient acknowledgement it is us human beings that the sharks are generously sharing their environment with, not the other way around.

Although I dive with them, I decided to put my money where my mouth is, prove I believe in alternatives to Nets and Drumlines, and learn to surf in the same spot that the white sharks are known to patrol. Yes, I often choose to surf in the waters that the white sharks hunt in. And never once have I felt threatened – without the existence of nets or drumlines. The only thing I am worried about is the temperature of the water – a FREEZING ten degrees celcius!

When it comes to sharks, the media feeds the frenzy, convincing the public they need to demand things like nets and drumlines to protect themselves. Not true. Just look at the statistics. During the past 47years, there have been a total of 4 deaths on the Western Cape attributed to White Sharks. That is one person every 12 years. Compare that to the 49 people that died last year due to lightening strikes, the 79 people that died due to hunting accidents and the 20 people that died due to dog bites. Seems like we ought be putting our energy into protecting ourselves from hunters, dogs and lightening – not killing sharks.

I am not by any means claiming to be an expert. Nor would I simply suggest the Capetown model would work in other places, with different types of sharks and topography. But, what I know is that there ARE viable alternatives to shark nets and drumlines and that we cannot keep unnecessarily destroying the very animals that keep our oceans – and us – healthy.

Many people, due to their irrational fears of sharks, think the world would be a better place without them. Sadly, that could not be further from the truth. Sharks sit a top the food chain, keeping our oceans healthy. Removing them would cause severe knock-on effects and would jeopardize our world’s largest and most important ecosystem – an ecosystem that gives us much of the air we breathe and food we eat.

The population of sharks around the world is plummeting, and their outlook is significantly threatened – particularly those targeted by the nets, including Tigers, Bulls and Whites.

Learning how to live with sharks and share THEIR home is so critical to their long-term existence. There is no reason to kill sharks under the guise that it is for our own good – or our own safety.

Instead of fearing these creatures, we should develop a healthy respect and manage the infinitesimal risk getting into the same water with these sharks is – through education, awareness and programs like the Shark Spotters. We cannot afford to kill one more shark unnecessarily – our long term existence depends on them.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Dolphins in… Chicago?

I know it seems this way, but I don’t just love sharks. I cherish all creatures that live in water – after all it all started for me in the lakes and streams of Wisconsin with turtles, salamanders, frogs and blue gills.

I have run into some pretty strange animals and fish in some pretty strange places. But, who would have guessed I would meet a pod of Dolphins in Chicago of all places?

I have always loved dolphins. And this month on the Underwater Channel, I got another good dose of these charismatic mammals. After swimming with the Indian Ocean version of Common Bottlenose dolphins in Aliwal, I was able to reconnect with some friends in the states to examine a real controversy: marine animals in captivity.

It was a bi-coastal episode, as I headed to Brookfield Zoo, one of the nation’s oldest Oceanariums to learn more about their dolphins and their research program. Then, I headed to Sarasota to meet with Dr. Randall Wells, who is leading the world’s longest dolphin research program – now in its 38th year.

I grew up in Chicago, coming to Brookfield Zoo, one of the nation’s largest and oldest zoos. And, while I loved all the animals big and small, the dolphins were my favorite. (Please don’t tell the sharks.)

But, I have always been torn on animals in captivity – especially large marine apex predators like dolphins, whales, turtles, sharks, and rays. I love seeing them in their own environment and wish they could all be free in the oceans. Unfortunately, people only care about what they see and experience – and most people do not see what dwells within our seas. Out of site out of mind. So, for the educational and awareness purposes, I support their captivity as long as it is responsible, the animals are well cared for and not at risk, and it is for purpose.

Having certain animals in captivity as long as they can remain healthy (I am in strong opposition to keeping animals like whale sharks or white sharks) provides the public with the ability to experience the sea. Having dolphins in places like Brookfield allows people who would not otherwise have an opportunity to do so, to learn more about these incredible creatures, gain an appreciation for them, and hopefully, make a few more people want to do something to ensure these amazing animals survive.

Sadly, while dolphins were protected in 1972 by the marine mammal laws here in the US, and throughout the world, they are still threatened. Many die each year as unintentional bycatch, from habitat destruction, from pollution, from interaction with fisherman and fishing gear, and also from human interactions.

2 million people visit these dolphins each year. They are definitely the ambassadors for ocean conservation here at the zoo, and worldwide.

At the zoo, I caught up with the lead curator of the dolphin exhibit as well as my friend Dr. Stuart Strahl, the CEO of the zoo. We had long discussions about the approach to captivity as well as the critical role they play in research as well, furthering my knowledge on the subject. And, I got a behind the scenes tour which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Here are a few myths that were quickly shattered:

Zoos and aquariums capture dolphins from the wild. FALSE. All of the dolphins at Brookfield have been raised in captivity. In fact, they are leading an 8 institution consortium managing the breeding to ensure all dolphins in captivity are bred in captivity – while maintaining strong genetic histories.

There is no benefit to having dolphins in captivity. FALSE. The studies and work undertaken by trainers and researchers in zoos and aquariums and by scientists in the wild feed one another can be tied directly to the conservation of wild marine mammals. The dolphins at Brookfield Zoo serve as a baseline, controlled population that the dolphins in the wild can be compared against.

Dolphin shows are just circus acts. FALSE. The responsible zoos and aquariums teach dolphins behaviors and actions to help with their care – and keep them busy. Dolphins love to learn and desire constant stimulation. And, Brookfield does not support the rogue efforts to capture dolphins to allow the public to swim with them.

After visiting Brookfield, I headed down to Sarasota and Mote to meet with Dr. Randall Wells and learn more about the common bottlenose dolphin and the last few years of his research.

You see, my attachment to dolphins grew even stronger when, a few years ago, I participated in a study with Dr. Randall Wells in the field on the longest running dolphin research study in history. Going on its 38th year, the program has studied four generation of dolphins in Sarasota Bay. As part of Dr. Wells' team, I assisted in the collection of samples from wild dolphins. It was amazing to see Dr. Wells team in action. We literally captured wild dolphins and then quickly and with very little impact were able to perform the necessary tests

A collaborative effort between the Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield Zoo) and Mote Marine Laboratory, the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program allows Dr. Wells and his staff – including volunteer interns to study the biology, behavior, health, physiology, and ecology of bottlenose dolphins, as well as human impacts on them.

And it is no small task. They have documented the movements of more than 120 dolphins in a 40-square-mile area of Sarasota Bay. They have discovered the social organization of dolphin groups based on sex, age, and reproductive condition and have been able to establish family trees through observations and blood analysis of these dolphins.

Field research in Sarasota Bay, Florida, and other locations, has offered a substantial body of information to those who protect dolphins in the wild and care for them in zoos and aquariums.

The common bottlenose dolphins of Sarasota Bay have adapted to sharing their waters with other boaters, fisherman and jet skiers. It is amazing to see them appear in the Bay as you are coming and going, just enjoying the beautiful water – or trying to get a free meal.

I love seeing the dolphins when I am Florida and know that their presence here in Sarasota Bay is leading to better knowledge, understanding and conservation of dolphins throughout the world – in large part due to Dr. Wells and the Brookfield Zoological Society. And that the dolphins in captivity in Chicago are playing a very critical role in that as well.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The War over Whales

Finally the long awaited show featuring last year’s Sea Shepherd whaling campaign (Operation Migaloo) is being released on Animal Planet. Shark Angel Kim is one of the key characters and I can’t wait to see her in action on the high seas.

The campaign was an exciting one, with hostages being taken, Paul getting shot and one of the Zodiac’s tipping over into the frigid waters. I am sure the seven part series will be a huge success. Think “Deadliest Catch” without all of the needless aquatic carnage – instead of featuring boats raping the seas, Discovery is following a group that is actually protecting it.

And we got to go to the premier! It was so great to see all the Sea Shepherds getting some highly-deserved accolades for the incredibly dangerous but incredibly important work they do.

Be sure to watch Whale Wars on Animal Planet. I am gutted that it isn’t in South Africa yet, but I already have my order in for the DVD box set.

Check out Whale Wars here… http://animal.discovery.com/tv/whale-wars/

More pics here.