Friday, September 13, 2013

Through the Fire and Flames...Err, Fusiliers and Plankton?

High winds and rough seas have curtailed activities for a few days but team Scholar Savi Leblond is getting pretty fired up with the season thus far...

Poor visibility, churning waters, high cloud cover and sea sick tablets; these are the things that make a whale shark season come alive. As we all know, last year was a testing season and I have been asked back as a scholar to ease interns into the 2013 season. I wasn’t expecting to see what I have so far and on the 9th of September I was aflame with adrenaline. 

Although the afternoon whale sharking trip started off with a rest on the leeward side of Conception Island, Johan noticed a sudden apparition of whale sharks in the much rougher, more southern waters of Therese Island. The first shark spotted by Johan went AWOL into a school of what seemed to be excited fusiliers, however we pressed on to linger beside them as if waiting for visual confirmation from the fusiliers themselves. We were joking about a whale shark emerging through the fish causing the famous “fish halo” you would see from the air, our skipper Yannick pointed to his left and muttered what we thought to be a sarcastic “shark”! Sam turned her head and with exhilaration reiterated the word and before I could think of anything else, equipment was slapped on and I was in the water. 
 A solid wall of fusiliers... and a sharks in there somewhere?

Surrounded by these swarming fish trying to clear some out of the way for a proper shot, I managed to get glimpses of different parts of this actively feeding shark. I had not seen such feeding practices but it is clear to both underwater and on boat observers that “thrashing about” are the most accurate words for description; caudal tail vigorously floundering on the surface, head out of the water as it “chomps” on the surface, confused fusiliers making more than a splash attempting to continue their feeding ritual which so happens to be rudely interrupted by this mystery lad. 

 This chomping business gets pretty hectic!

A brief (brief is quite the understatement in this case) window of opportunity presented itself and I snapped left, right and sexed our male friend before he started using his body parts to its full potential disappearing out of site forward and downwards in the poor, green 4.5 meter viz. As I breached the water with the end of encounter symbol flashing my crossed arms to the boat, I noticed an excited, flailing James to my left with his face in the water. To my surprise, a giant grin was vertically hurling its way to the surface thusly adding to our encounter numbers (though after I3S’ing the shots, these two encounters were the same male enjoying his plankton feast). With this fellow quickly ram feeding what seemed to be one last time, he then 180’d downwards with no third appearance. With both encounters lasting a total of only 2 minutes, only a few words were heard when clients, interns and I reached the boat; fast, feeding, got the shots!

At least the fusiliers were pretty chilled...

Though encountering a whale shark is exciting in itself, these encounters were far more exciting. Rather than a lazy whale shark gliding through the waters, we observed and recorded the whale sharks doing what they came here to do; feed on the plankton buffet. The day ended when Johan mentioned one last whale shark before the winds and rains forced our pilot into refuge and on a tricky flight back to the airport. As we looked out at the rough seas, it was hard to discern the white caps from the shoals of fish as well as TWO whale shark caudal fins swiveling out of the water. Without a moment’s thought I was in the water chasing one with the interns chasing the other. Naturally both teams are out for the science, not just for a rousing game of hide-and-go-seek. I needed pictures and I needed them ASAP if this shark repeated all actions of our last encounters. 

 Shark and remoras exit stage right...

Swimming with the surge, through the swarm of fusiliers and the occasional species confused remora, I was well aware of how big this animal was and how powerful it can be. With the best of intentions to keep to the encounter code, the flick of the caudal tail was much wider than expected. Out of my periphery I noticed the whale shark with mouth open, ram feeding the surface of the water, gills alarmed and pectoral fins curved; it was no behavior I had seen for myself before. My shark receded into the depths and when I looked up I was overrun with a bit of concern. The interns with hands high in the air were following their whale shark at an alarming speed straight to my location. As I look down prepared to move every which way, I noticed the shark was well into its diving and quickly out of site before long. 

Its week 2 of whale shark season and all interns are well trained on all activities in the water as well as in the office. With smiles all around after 5 successful trips (one day involving two boats), it’s safe to say that clients are spreading the word; interns are not regretting this step in their lives (except James when he has to G.I.S); team leaders are doing a job well done and we have one very happy David knowing his spotty friends are back with a vengeance. The weather has taken a turn for the worse but fingers crossed its only for a few days and we are back in the water with these hungry buffoons soon. 


Peggy Aldredge said...

Mon ami!!! So proud and excited!!!

Johan Anderson said...

Hehe... Cool stuff Savvi!!! :)