Friday, July 31, 2009

China Splash Tag starts to transmit!

After a whole month of total silence, the SPLASH tag that David mounted on the dorsal fin of a whale shark off Hainan, China has at last transmitted!

This is the first time that a fin-mount tag has been successfully attached to the dorsal fin of a whale shark (see earlier article)
and apart from a single location when the tag was attached on the 28th of June, it has been worryingly silent ever since.

David was concerned that perhaps the tag antennae had been damaged while the shark had remained in captivity for a further 12 hours prior to release, even though the Chinese fisheries scientific officer Cui Yun-Chen had confirmed it had looked good…. Seems that he was quite right!

A map of the track of the whale shark tagged with a SPLASH tag; the tag was deployed off Sanya on the 28.06.09 and the last position was on the 31.07.09. Map courtesy www.

So what has this shark been doing since it was released of San-Ya on Hainan Island to the South West of Hong Kong a month ago?

We might never really know but the splash tag is sending snatches of data from this period so we might get some indication over the coming weeks. What we have to take into consideration is that the satellites that have the ARGOS platform do not have a global 24 hour coverage and that while this area has in excess of 14 ARGOS satellite passes each day, their footprint is short and so there may be less than 3 hours coverage each day.

That means that even if the shark is on the surface and the tag transmitting all day at best we would get only 12.5% of the transmissions.
On the other hand the shark may simply have been staying deep for the last month getting used to being back in the open ocean and not restrained by a sea-pen to shallow sunlight waters.

Whatever the reason, for the last three days we have captured from one to three transmissions each day and so we are forever optimistic of getting more information!

On receipt of the first transmission David and colleagues Suzanne Gendron and David Lai from Ocean Park Conservation Foundation (OPCF) all heaved a collective sigh of relief as OPCF had funded the SPLASH tag. We are sure that Director Zeng Xiaoguang and Mr. Cui Yun-chen from the Bureau of Fishery Management of South China Sea will also be relieved to hear that their shark is alive and doing well!

The SPLASH tag is an advanced satellite tag developed by Wildlife Computers that acts as both a data logger, recording details of depth and temperature the tag encounters, and also as a tracking device that transmits to the ARGOS platforms on NOAA weather satellites.

A proto-type fin-mount SPLASH tag mounted onto an aluminum and plastic collar for attaching with a single bolt by a RamSet gun. Photo courtesy MCSS

These tags have been used to great effect on marine mammals and on some species of sharks where the shark can be restrained to allow the tag to be fitted directly to the dorsal fin; in whale sharks their deployment up to this point has been either on a floating torpedo towed on a tether behind the shark or on a collar mounted to the dorsal fin, neither of which has proven to be very successful.

The SPLASH tag successfully mounted directly to the dorsal fin of the whale shark off Sanya by David, Suzanne and the OPCF & Bureau of Fishery Management team. Photo David Lai OPCF

As such, this tag may indeed be a very important step forward in whale shark research; if fin-mounted SPLASH tags stay on and give enough data in terms of position and behaviour some of the perplexing questions about whale shark migrations may yet be revealed!

Watch this blog for updates of our Chinese adventurer….. guess we should have a name for him so send us your suggestions!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Unusual Visitor to Kuwait Marina

On July 22nd the marina waterfront near the Marina Crescent in Kuwait City had a rather unusual visitor last week when a six metre whale shark dropped in for a spot of sight-seeing!

Visitors were pleasantly surprised to see the unmistakable spotted form of a whale shark swimming close to the surface of the water in the marina.

The local public were both surprised and concerned as a marina is no place for a whale shark and
many reported the sighting to the the Environmental Public Authority (EPA). EPA realising the scale of the problem in turn contacted local experts at The Scientific Center of Kuwait (TSCK) and mobilised assistance through the Voluntary Work Centre (VWC) and the Kuwait Dive Team (KDC).

The group's first attempt to get the shark back to sea was to use a boat to lead it out of the marina but this failed and so the organisers contacted a host of international colleagues for advice.

A second attempt using snorkellers and divers to form a human barricade also failed to guide the shark out to sea, the depth of the marina making it easy for the shark to swim around divers.

Input from a number of international colleagues suggested that using a net was probably the best option and after five days on hard work the combined group was successful in persuading the shark that the open ocean was indeed a better place for it to be!

Congratulations to all the volunteers from EPA, TSCK, VWC and KDT who spent many tense and frustrating hours in returning this particular shark to the ocean and out of harms way!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tagging whale sharks in China….. part 2

The story so far (see previous post)..... David (MCSS Chairman and whale shark researcher) has flown to China to assist the the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation (OPCF) and the Fishery and Fish Harbor Administration of the South China Sea in satellite tagging two whale sharks that are currently in a sea-pen but about to be released...

The sea-pen the sharks were in was a 20 metre round aquaculture pen of around 6 metres depth, attached to the owner’s fishing boat by a long rope which had been used to tow the pen several miles to its current location.

Visibility was all of 2 metres so finding the sharks was not actually as easy as we had at first thought! However, after a few minutes it became apparent that the sharks were doing laps around the pen along the bottom netting and so staying in one place let you get them once per circuit.

Suzanne Gendron and David prepare to enter the sea-pen, with some feelings of uncertantity it would seem! Photo David Lai

And there were in fact three sharks in the pen, a fisherman had brought in another shark the night before which showed some nasty cuts and abrasions and so this third shark would get transferred back to the main pen for recuperation.

All the sharks were males, the new injured shark was around 3.5 metres as was one of the releasees, while the other was a little larger at around 5 metres. After a brief discussion with the ‘owner’ of the sharks Mr LAI, it was apparent that he didn’t think much of our idea of using a tail rope to restrain the sharks saying that this really upset them, it would be much easier to use a flat net to strand them at the surface where they would go quiet….

As none of us had ever tried to restrain a whale shark (or any shark over three metres!) and Mr LAI seemed to know what he was talking about we decided to let him try. The shark swam into the net and six crew members rapidly pulled the net tight like a trampoline and lo and behold one whale shark was duly stranded on the netting and lay there remarkably calmly with an occasional, rather resigned sweep of his tail….

Just as Mr. LAI predicted the shark just sat in the net waiting patiently... Photo David Lai

This in fact was the biggest shark so we attached one of the Wildlife computer anchored PATs, set to pop off at 6 months, to the base of his dorsal fin and let him go to see how he would react. Once the net dropped he happily swam off and continued doing his laps around the pen!

Next one up was the second releasee and this one was similarly very compliant: so this one got two PATs, one set for 3 months and one for 12 months and then he likewise joined his marathon training partner doing circuits once more. The third shark was the injured shark and this one also was similarly very complacent about being stranded in a few inches of water; this gave us time to have a good look at his injuries and some rather odd skin discolouration. We were also able to clip off a section of frayed skin tissue from a deep gash on his caudal keel for genetic analysis. Hopefully Mr LAI’s high protein whale shark feed would have him sorted and ready for release in a short while!

This just left us the fin-mount splash tag which needed to be attached by two bolts through the dorsal fin, so not an easy job and one that has not been attempted on a whale shark before, although these tags have been used this way with excellent results on salmon sharks and great white sharks. Well we knew we could restrain the sharks and that they were fairly complacent, but drilling two holes through the dorsal fin? There was only one way to find out!

How many people does it take to fit a fin-mount SPLASH tag to a whale shark.... a lot less than you would think! Photo David Lai

So shark number one (the biggest one!) was rounded up once again and beached onto the trampoline, this time with Suzanne and David cradling him on their laps and holding him against the side of the pen so that the dorsal was clear of the water and close enough to drill. Once again the shark was incredibly cooperative and only flicked his tail twice during the drilling process. The tag was attached with special stainless steel bolts with an aluminium cap on the tag end that would corrode off in about five months and so release the tag from the shark and allow the mounting bolts to fall out… In less than four minutes the tag was securely mounted with two bolts properly tightened and looking very smart on his dorsal fin!

And here it is one SPLASH tag fin-mounted onto a whale shark... now we just need to see if it will cooperate and swim at the surface! Photo David Lai

He swam off a bit faster this time so he had probably had quite enough of this trampoline netting game for one day and Suzanne and David followed him around for quite a while to make sure he was alright and the tag was indeed as secure as it looked…. it was!

So one hour and forty minutes of very unusual tagging activity resulting in the first ever direct fin-mount of a tag to a whale shark…. The overnight crew were briefed to keep an eye open for any odd behaviour, we were worried that the sharks might try to ditch their new jewellery by tangling it on the pen netting sides but our fears were unfounded and the sharks and tags were all present and correct the next morning for the big release.

The big release was preceded by the ‘End of Season Ceremony’ where Suzanne and David were both interviewed by numerous newspapers and TV channels and Suzanne had to take the stage as the representative of our scientific collaboration…. Quite an impressive ceremony with gold canons firing paper confetti and all sorts!

David being interviewed by Dragon TV as Suzanne awaits her turn.... where were the 'hand-maidens' in the red satin dresses at the tagging? Photo David Lai.

For the release itself, this was a rather less flamboyant affair as the sharks had not been trained to do the ‘Free Willy’ breach over the pen wall and simply slipped quietly away through the opened pen to continue the journey that had been interrupted a few months ago… hopefully the larger shark with the Splash tag won’t spend the next three months swimming along the bottom and will come back to the surface occasionally so we can get some position fixes on him… if he does we will put a tracking map up on this blog for you to follow…. We know the tag is working as we got a location from it through the Argos system while we were bolting it to his fin!

So a remarkable two days in China, the first satellite tags ever put onto whale sharks in Chinese waters and the first ever Splash tag bolted to a whale shark’s dorsal fin!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tagging whale sharks in China….. part 1

David Rowat (MCSS Chairman) was recently asked to assist in a whale shark tagging programme in China, a first for this nation and hopefully the beginning of some interesting work in this area.

Suzanne Gendron, a Director of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation in Hong Kong (OPCF), had previously been to Seychelles and seen the MCSS whale shark programme in action; when she was asked by the the Fishery and Fish Harbor Administration of the South China Sea if she could assist with tagging and releasing two sharks, David and MCSS were an obvious choice.

At first the thought of flying all the way to China to find two sharks and tag them was a bit of a tall order but Suzanne explained that these two sharks had been in a large sea-pen for some time and so locating them was actually fairly simple.

And so it was that David was soon winging his way to China to satellite tag two unsuspecting customers! On arrival the fisheries scientific officer CUI Yun-Chen advised that they had just received two PAT tags from Wildlife Computers that were all set up on the new Wildlife anchor darts and ready to go (see tagging article), David had also brought along a PAT tag and a fin mount Splash tag that were being funded by OPCF if there was the possibility to attach them.

One of the whale sharks in the large sea-pen investigates the boat that is used for feeding them, prior to the transfer to San-Ya for release. Photo CUI Yun-Chen

The sharks were two of several whale sharks that had been caught by local fishermen and put into a large sea-pen for eco-tourism activities and after several months they were to be released. Apparently, there are several more whale sharks being kept in similar sea-pens in coastal areas of China, and like-wise these are released after a while and replaced by others as they get caught by fishermen…. What wasn’t clear is whether the captures were accidental or not, but this is certainly better than hunting them for slaughter for the restaurant trade.

The release of the sharks was planned as a part of the end of fishing season ceremony: each year the fishing season is closed for six weeks to allow fish to spawn and help to ensure continuing stocks in the coming seasons. The Fishery and Fish Harbor Administration of the
South China Sea have an end of season ceremony to thank all their staff and the various civil society partners for their assistance and in the spirit of conservation, a number of marine animals that would normally have ended up on the menu in some restaurant are symbolically returned to the sea. This year the two whale sharks were to be the star attraction, with a supporting cast of several horse-shoe crabs and a green turtle.

After meeting up in Hong Kong with the Suzanne Gendron and David Lai from OPCF it was off to San-Ya on Hainan Island to the South West of Hong Kong where the whale sharks were waiting. Director ZHANG and CUI Yun-Chen were on hand to meet everyone at the airport and that evening a plan for the coming day was drawn up.

David’s concern was that the new Wildlife Computers anchor darts, while being effective anchors, could not be attached by the pole-spear and would have to be implanted using the special hand-tool (photo right) and so require a surgical incision… which would mean restraining the sharks and that would not be an easy task!

On the day of the tagging the team had suddenly expanded to over 20 people including representatives from Shandong University and veterinarians from the fisheries department and local NGOs to ensure that the sharks were fit enough to be released and that the tagging was appropriately carried out.

David Rowat (right) goes through a last minute equipment check with David Lai from OPCF (left) on the pier while waiting to board and soon had an interested crowd of the expanded team and local dive centre staff. Photo Suzanne Gendron OPCF

Now all we had to do was restrain two young whale sharks to attach the tags….. how much does a 5 metre whale shark weigh?

To be continued.....