Thursday, September 28, 2006

Great White Sharks are going inshore False Bay

Great white sharks appear to be following their expected spring season migration into the inshore areas of False Bay, and researchers have appealed to sea users to be extra-vigilant in the coming weeks.The sharks' general movement away from Seal Island and into shallow coastal areas has been confirmed by shark spotters and from data downloaded from acoustic tags fitted to sharks, reported the multi-member Shark Working Group.Shark spotters have started reporting regular sightings this past week: There were white sharks off Muizenberg, St James and Fish Hoek last Friday, on Sunday and again on Tuesday. There was a sighting at Fish Hoek; and another shark was seen at St James on Wednesday.

On Saturday, five of the 35 acoustic receivers that monitor great white shark movements in False Bay were retrieved from the sea floor as part of the collaborative False Bay White Shark Ecology Project, funded by Save Our Seas Foundation and the department of environmental affairs and tourism. Experienced divers recovered four monitors at Muizenberg and one at Partridge Point, near Simon's Town. These receivers detect the presence of a great white shark tagged with an acoustic transmitter and store information, such as which individual sharks were in the area, when they arrived and departed, and how long they stayed for.

Sixty-four great whites have been tagged with the transmitters so far, including 18 tagged earlier this year.Most of these sharks were tagged during the winter months off Seal Island. Shark Working Group spokesperson Gregg Oelofse said the information retrieved from the receivers recovered on Saturday confirmed the results from last year's research and provided valuable information of great white shark behaviour in False Bay.

"Throughout the winter period, great whites were occasionally recorded on the Muizenberg receivers, but because of the low number of detections recorded, it appears as if most of the records were from sharks swimming more than a kilometre offshore," said Oelofse."However, since the end of August and early September, not only have more tagged sharks - six so far - been recorded in the area, but they are also starting to spend longer periods of time here, closer to shore, ultimately leaving Seal Island completely for the summer period. "This corresponds to a decrease in observations and records from the Seal Island receivers."

Based on last year's information and the data retrieved on Saturday, it was expected that white shark inshore activity would increase in the coming weeks, said Oelofse."What is clear is that this seasonal change is not unique to False Bay or recent in its occurrence."Similar behaviour is recorded in Gansbaai, Mossel Bay and even in California (United States). "And anecdotal evidence from fisherman and military exercises suggests it has been occurring in False Bay since the early 1900s."

The information collected by the shark spotters is being correlated to the records from the acoustic receivers. The shark spotted at Baileys Cottage on Friday was most likely a 3,5m female great white tagged at Seal Island in June. "The time that the shark was sighted by the spotters - at 2pm - correlates exactly with a record recorded by the acoustic receiver," said Oelofse.More sea floor acoustic receivers will be retrieved at Cape Hangklip, Pringle Bay and Gordon's Bay on Thursday, if weather conditions are favourable.

Next month, a large-scale inshore tagging operation is planned when researchers will attempt to place transmitters on about 10 great whites that are already swimming near inshore areas like Muizenberg and Fish Hoek."Based on last year's data as well as this year's most recent data, the Shark Working Group would like to ask people using the coast for recreation to be extra-vigilant, particularly over the next few months when the highest occurrence of inshore white shark activity is expected," said Oelofse.

"People are encouraged to use areas where shark spotters are on duty and to take the time to speak to them on the day they visit the beach to find out about recent sightings and activity as well as the current conditions which determine the effectiveness for shark-spotting. "People are also requested to please take the time to read the shark-spotting signs to inform themselves of the four-flag warning system used, as well as be aware of the use of a siren to close the beach".

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

South Africa's shark attacks have no pattern

Of the 99 Great White shark attacks worldwide since 1990, nearly half have occurred in South Africa.But experts say no patterns have emerged in the South African attacks, nor can they say what caused the sharks to attack.

This emerged from a study by shark scientist Geremy Cliff of the Natal Sharks Board, whose findings were published in Finding A Balance, a collection of specialist reports designed to inform the City of Cape Town on strategies to deal with shark conservation and recreational safety.Cliff said that worldwide, the 1990s had seen the highest number of shark attacks of any decade, and that the trend appeared to be continuing.

'Great White sharks are the culprits in almost all cases'Although the number of attacks was increasing globally, the number of deaths had dropped from 13 percent in the 1990s to eight percent this decade, which was attributed to advances in safety practices and medical treatment, and a more aware public avoiding "potentially dangerous situations".Most shark attacks occurred in the US, particularly Florida, and in 2005 surfers and boardriders made up 54 percent of the victims worldwide, swimmers 37 percent and divers five percent, Cliff said.

In the Cape Peninsula there have been 28 documented shark attacks since 1960.Cliff said there appeared to be "no causative factors" for the attacks."Great White sharks are the culprits in almost all cases, while spearfishermen represent the group that are at greatest risk," he wrote.Spearfishermen ventured far offshore, spent several hours in water up to 30m deep, mostly at the surface where they were "highly conspicuous silhouettes, and handle bleeding and struggling fish, which are highly attractive to sharks".

Scuba divers were a low-risk group because they were generally in large numbers and generated a lot of noise."Despite the low numbers - including 26 years in which there were no incidents at all, and a possible under-reporting in the early years - the number of incidents per decade has increased steadily from one in the 1960s (0.1 a year), to eight in the current decade (1.3 a year)," Cliff wrote.This could be attributed to the increased number of people using the sea for recreation nationally.

Although there were only four fatalities, it was "noteworthy" that three of them occurred in the last four years.Although the shark attack files were started in the 1960s, there were nine recorded cases of shark attacks in the peninsula from 1900 to 1959, of which four were fatal.Water turbidity (cloudiness) did not appear to play a role. Only one of the 21 attacks where water depth was estimated had occurred in shallow water. The average depth was six metres and average distance offshore was 100m.Potentially valuable information, like the presence of seals or fishing activity, was not recorded.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Tagging provides great info on sharks

THE white pointer Columba tagged off Pearson Island in June this year has provided researchers with an insight into the scope the sharks travel.

The shark swam straight for the Western Australian coast.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) marine researcher Russell Bradford said it was the first shark that had been tracked by satellite that had moved north along the WA coast.

"We have known for some time that white sharks move up the WA coast as far as the Carnavon-NW Cape region but we do not know why they do this, nor do we have a good detailed track of how they get there," Mr Bradford said.

The 3.5 metre Columba was the only white shark that was tagged by the CSIRO researchers in the June project and follows on from 10 taggings by the CSIRO since 2000.

In November 2004 four great white sharks were tagged and their travels posted on the internet.
It added to information found from six other sharks tagged by the CSIRO since 2000.

Three of the November-tagged sharks swam along the coast past Venus Bay and Streaky Bay to get to the Great Australian Bight.

Another shark swam the opposite direction along the middle of Spencer Gulf just northwest of Wardang Island.

The travels of the four sharks, named Bomber, Michael, Sam C and Rolf for three months over summer can still be viewed on the CSIRO website.

Two sharks tagged in March in the same year were found to go their separate ways, one swam to the Great Barrier Reef for the winter before returning to the Bass Strait while the other headed west and ended up between Albany and Esperance.

Mr Bradford said it would be exciting to watch Columba's movements over the next few weeks to see where she went and if she stopped to give clues as to why this species of shark moved to the northern WA waters at this time of year.

"This track is also consolidating our picture that white shark movements are not random but follow patterns with visits common to particular places at particular times of year - with some sharks appearing to follow common routes when they travel."

Eventually the researchers will use the information found through shark tracking to minimise interactions between sharks and people.

Mr Bradford said there was currently no tracking of sharks on Eyre Peninsula.

Are shark attacks good for business?

Shark attacks are damaging the surfing industry but they may be good for the cage-diving operators.Cape Town Tourism general manager Mariette du Toit said there was a notable increase in cage-diving inquiries each time there was a shark encounter.On the other hand, many surfshops, surf schools and other watersport businesses have reported a drop-off in business in the wake of recent shark encounters.

'Every time somebody is bitten, it obviously awakens interest'Speaking at a shark attack debate held by surfers at Muizenberg on Sunday, Du Toit said: "Cape Town Tourism has noted our concern in terms of the sensationalism attached to shark incidents."Ironically, we see an increase in the number of people interested in a shark experience after each incident.

"Many people have a wrong perception of the great white shark, and tourism stakeholders and operators must be responsible in the way in which we 'sell' natural experiences."However, cage-diving operators were adamant that business had not boomed in the wake of recent shark attacks.While Gordon's Bay cage-diving operator Theunis Esterhuizen agreed with Du Toit's observation that "every time somebody is bitten, it obviously awakens interest", he said this had not sparked a sudden boost in his business.

Rob Lawrence, another of the three cage-diving operators licensed to work in the False Bay area, denied there had been an increase in business or inquiries."An increase in clients and business is a long-term thing. The growth in my business is not because of isolated shark attacks in the area, but rather because of a steady increase of interest over the years and because we've built up a reputation in the industry," said Lawrence, who has operated in the area for 15 years.

Simon's Town operator Chris Fallows said he had operated for 12 years and has not used chum for the past three years.Surf shop operators said they had been hard hit by the recent attacks. Dave Chudleigh, co-owner of the Surf Shack school at Surfers Corner in Muizenberg, said there had been a drop in business. "It's mostly been in the local market and not tourists. I think it's not so much the shark attack as the media coverage that came after it."He said the media was "sensationalising" the shark issue, despite the fact there were more deaths by other causes each year.Titch Paul, who owns the Lifestyle Surf Shop at Surfer's Corner, had registered a "remarkable" drop in clients."

It could just be the time of the year, but since the Sunrise Beach incident, business has definitely been down," said Paul. "Some of it is probably the media, but you can't take away the reality. It could be people's lives at stake. This has become a real issue, and it hasn't been an issue since I started surfing 45 years ago."But Roxy Towill, who owns the Roxy Surf School for girls in Muizenberg, said her business had not suffered.

"I am in the water every day, and occasionally it does cross my mind as to what's happening underneath me, but in the last few months a number of friends have been injured or come close to death on the roads I drive on every day. It needs to be put into perspective."Shark attacks have been in sharp focus since August 28, when lifeguard Achmat Hassiem, 24, lost his right foot in a shark attack off Sunrise Beach near Muizenberg.

On August 13, Fish Hoek lifesaver Lyle Maasdorp, 19, had a close shave when a shark bit off a piece of his surfski. During the same period, there were two other close encounters between surfers and sharks, most notably when a surfer fled the ocean at Noordhoek about two weeks ago after a shark took an interest in him behind the surfline.

Facts or fiction?

It was a calm, perfect morning as Tyna Webb put on her bathing suit and cap as she had done every day for the last 17 years, summer or winter, and dipped into the cool inviting waters of Sunny Cove off South Africa to begin her early morning swim.

Described as a "tall, very elegant, handsome lady, athletic and in excellent health," the 77-year old Grandmother often replied to warnings about not going out too far by saying: "When it's my time, it will be my time."

At about 7am, high on a hill above her, André Mentor, 48, was on the mountainside acting as a spotter for the local fishing crew. It was a vantage point that allowed him to see what Tyna Webb couldn't. As he watched her swimming along, about 150 metres from the shore, she seemed happily oblivious to the 18 foot long shadow circling below her.

Though he screamed and waved his flag to warn her, all he could really do was watch with mounting horror as the shark closed in.

He was not alone. Some 15 other people also witnessed the attack. Others say they saw the shark speed towards Webb and attack her, then the sea around her fill with blood. As one witness described it, the shark "took her, leaving her lying in the water, and then came back for her again and again."

"All that was left was a little red bathing cap," said Paul Dennett, another witness, who watched the attack from his nearby home. Search and Rescue crews who later spotted the shark – a Great White – described it as "bigger than the helicopter. It is huge."

More recently, two lifeguards involved in a training exercise on a beach near Cape Town were 200m offshore in "glassy, clear seas with approximately half a meter swell and a slight on-shore breeze." Acting as "patients" for another three lifesavers in a boat, the two in the water, who were brothers, found themselves drifting alone together at a depth of 2m to 3m, when one spotted a shark heading for the other.

"It was by me when my brother shouted 'Taariq, shark!'," recalled 17-year old Taariq Hassiem, who knew his 24-year old bigger brother, Achmat, would never joke about a shark.

Thanks to the warning, Tariq scrambled into the boat, narrowly managing to escape the shark. But the shark then turned around and headed instead for his brother. As Achmat disappeared beneath the water, a dark cloud appeared where he was.

"I got in the boat," Tariq recalled after the ordeal. "The shark then turned and went straight for my brother. I stuck my hand in the water to see if I could hold him. He grabbed on to my hand. We grabbed him out as fast as possible... His foot was cut clean off," he says.

Few unimaginable horrors affect the human psyche quite like the thought of being eaten alive. And since the demise of the dinosaurs, there are few animals on this planet capable of doing that to you. One obvious one is the shark. But where the real fear comes from is the fact that you'll probably never even know it was there, not until you're halfway through its digestive system.
Perhaps that is why, in a country where there are more people killed on the roads than in almost any other country, where there are more rapes, robberies and murders than almost anywhere else on the planet, a fierce and hugely disproportionate debate is currently raging over what many believe to be a worrying upsurge in shark attacks off the coast of South Africa.

Hardly a day goes by that the newspapers don't contain at least one strongly-worded letter, if not an entire opinion page, on the subject. Equally fascinating is the fact that the ferocity with which some of these opinions are put forward is second only to being savaged by a shark.

Wrote one angry columnist recently in the growing acres of newsprint on the hugely-divisive subject: "We are plagued by sick sadists, child killers, murderers, rapists, car jacking, muggings, yet one mere little shark manages to put the nation on a state of alert. It is truly amazing just how effective those five letters are – shark."

Yet some claim the hysteria is justified. Paul Botha, who runs a surfing lodge near Cape Town, claims Great White sharks have shown a frightening 'tenfold' increase in numbers since the 1990's, when they became a protected species, and that the attacks have already had a huge impact on tourism. "Surfers from Australia, America and Europe have lost all interest in coming here," he says.

Many of the attacks, however, such as that which took the life of medical student Henri Murray as he was spear-fishing in June 2005, have occurred in the False Bay area near Cape Town, where Great Whites share the same breeding grounds as their favourite food – seals.

"To go swimming in False Bay is nuts anyway," says angry shark defender Patrick McNamara. "This is the Great White's restaurant, its hunting ground, not your playground. By taking the risk, we put ourselves in the path of the shark. We are the ones that should be removed from the sea."
Running alongside these strongly-held beliefs are the scientific assertions, usually by shark researchers, that Great Whites are simply inquisitive creatures, don't really like eating humans, usually just have a bite before they realise that, then swim off – usually with your leg or arm in their mouth. In other words, Great Whites are really terribly misunderstood.

This is perhaps why many people appear to have no truck with recent calls for culling these fearsome black-eyed killers – who are an undeniable part of the food chain. Instead, recent suggestions (each with a slight hint of self-interest) include having daily fly-overs (from a pilot) to putting spotters in air balloons (from a spotter) to catching Great Whites by the tail and hauling them back out to sea when they get too close to the beaches (from an ex-shark hunter).

The latter suggestion comes from a man called Theo Ferreira, who claims to have had encounters with more than 5,000 sharks over thirty years – first as a shark hunter, then as a "researcher." He also claims that during the 1970's, he four times hooked a legendary 7m Great White known locally, with understandable awe, as the "submarine." A fish that almost pulled his boat to the bottom of the sea, he recalls.

Ferreira then played an important role in having the Great Whites declared a protected species some fifteen years ago. But even then, he remembers huge discourse.

"We established the White Shark Research Unit at the time but infighting sent everyone their own way, doing their own research," he says. "Results were never coordinated. We tagged more than 250 sharks at the time. There were very few young predators, and the mean size of adults was about 3.2m. Today the average size is about 4m, with a large population of young Great Whites."
That may be bad news for swimmers, but not for shark tourists seeking a close encounter with what has now joined lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, hippos and crocodiles to become one of Africa's must-see Big Seven.

"The sharks are actually contributing tremendously to the tourism industry and job creation. Eco-tourism is booming. People come to see the Big Seven now, with the Great White Shark being one of the main attractions," Patrick McNamara asserts.

Even here, there is major discord. The practice of chumming the water with fishy blood to attract the sharks, then getting them used to being near humans, is frequently blamed for the rise in attacks. Attacks which can be experienced even from the supposed safety of a metal shark cage as British tourist Mark Currie, from Barrow-in-Furness found out when an 18 foot Great White shook him around like "an ant in a jar."

And so the result of all this disagreement, like so many things these days in South Africa, appears as if it will result in nothing new being done. As the country's perfect beaches and pristine waters promise to fill up again with tourists for the approaching summer, the only prevention tactic remains shark spotters looking out from high on the hills above, a measure which could not save Tyna Webb.

"The sharks were never a problem in the past – they've always been there but they never used to attack people," says veteran surfer Steven Harcourt-Wood, who only last weekend survived an encounter with a 3.5-metre Great White. "I've seen small ones out at the back from time to time but this is different. Their behavior has changed completely."

Which brings us, as always, to the film Jaws. Its key moments, after all, involved an approaching summer season and a woman swimming on her own in glassy waters before being savagely and unexpectedly gobbled by a Great White. Then came a training exercise that went wrong, and a shark cage almost torn asunder. Finally, we had a shark hunter wrestling with the biggest fish he'd ever seen in his life as it threatened to pull his boat down to the bottom of the sea.

Though these events in the movie scared the hell out of us, all of them were just fiction. On the other hand, all of them actually happened in South Africa.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Shark diving and fishing a good mix?

Mixing diving with eco-tourism is a careful balancing act. Recently shark diving operators and vessel owners tackled the controversial issue of allowing clients to fish while simultaneously attracting Great White sharks into the same area for cage diving. With the stewardship of the newly formed Bio-Sphere Reserve at Isla Guadalupe in mind, the owners of several Great White shark diving vessels and Shark Diver have announced a new working group in San Diego, Ca.

Every season, Isla Guadalupe, Mexico accommodates more than seven full-time and part-time shark vessels, which bring more than 600 eco-tourists to cage dive and see Great White sharks up close. Last season, vessel owners Greg Grivetto of Horizon Charters, Shane Slaughter and John Coniff from Islander Charters along with Mike Lever from Nautilus Explorer and Patric Douglas from Shark Diver began looking into the issue of recreational fishing while conducting cage diving operations with Great Whites.

All five operators have recently concluded that the two activities do not mix. “After careful review of our operations, we have decided that allowing divers to fish while we’re in the new Bio Sphere of Isla Guadalupe is counter productive to maintaining the ecosystem and protecting the safety of the Great White Shark species,” said Grivetto. “In the past we allowed divers to fish for tuna while at the shark site. But when we discovered fishing tackle on the very sharks we were there to observe, we changed our practices.” “Eco-tourism is all about leaving the smallest footprint you can” says Mike Lever.

We run dive operations at other sensitive sites including the Revillagigedos and choose not to offer fishing opportunities in any Biosphere Reserves or marine protected areas. For us it was an easy decision”Shane Slaughter from Islander "As a fisherman, I feel the act of fishing at Guadalupe is fine on its own, but to deliberately attract sharks while fishing gear is in the water is irresponsible and potentially fatal to the sharks...

That is not what eco-tourism is all about." Douglas also thought this was the right decision for Isla Guadalupe. “If you look at other Great White shark sites worldwide, you’ll see a trend towards banning fishing during shark diving operations. As the Mexican government begins to take positive steps to ensure that the Isla Guadalupe Bio-Sphere activities are conducive to long term use, we’re changing our operations to support this 100 percent.”

A joint statement from this new working group was released today: “We are working as a group to educate the general public about Great White sharks and activities that may affect them. Our programs provide generous support to research teams and deep insight into the sharks day to day behaviors. Short term and long term shark diving protocols will be reviewed by us as will activities related to our impact on this site and the sharks. For now we have decided that fishing activities in concert with shark diving activities lead to unfortunate mishaps that are not conducive to responsible shark eco-tourism. We look forward to future seasons at Isla Guadalupe and continued shark diving with these magnificent animals”

Friday, September 08, 2006

Great White sharks tagging close beaches!

A string of False Bay beaches will be closed to swimming and boating for several days in October to allow researchers to tag great white sharks.The move comes after an apparent recent increase in shark sightings and attacks close to the shore.Gregg Oelofse, who represents the City of Cape Town on the Shark Working Group, said on Tuesday: "The intention will be to do an intensive, in-shore tagging exercise."The beaches that are likely to be closed are those between Glencairn and Muizenberg Corner, including Fish Hoek and St James.

'Chumming would not be used to attract the sharks'The team of researchers will include experts from the Marine and Coastal Management branch of the Department of of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, and University of Cape Town researcher Alison Kock."We want to try to tag as many sharks inshore as we can, so that we can, in time, have a better understanding of what's going on in False Bay," Oelofse said.

"(Kock) already has a number of receivers on the ocean floor and beaches around False Bay. These will then pick up the movements of the sharks that are tagged."To tag a white shark, you have to get it up to a boat. We want to close the beaches (while we do this), because safety is obviously our first concern."Oelofse said chumming would not be used to attract the sharks."The shark spotters will guide the boat to the shark and bait - like a piece of tuna on a rope - will be used to attract the shark to the boat."

"But it will be weather-dependent, so we'll pick the right time and we'll inform people long in advance. There'll also be city officials on the beaches to make people aware of what's going on," Oelofse said."There'll also be boats in the water to make sure no kayakers or anyone else is in the vicinity. "It's very much in the public interest that this operation takes place. We don't want to inconvenience people, but we'd rather err on the side of caution."

Oelofse said Kock had already tagged around 30 great whites off Seal Island."Now we need to tag sharks in-shore too to cover all bases."Their tags, or "pingers", would emit a signal for up to two years. This would be picked up by the receivers on the sea bed.The Fish Hoek beach was temporarily closed to water users last year, as part of the shark-tagging programme.

Sharks are not evil!

The female great white shark in the photo has an eye the size of a silver dollar. She is gazing back, knowingly, at the swimmer photographing her. The water ripples over her snout and her mouth is slightly open.

At two tons and 17 feet, she has the ability to thrust herself completely out of the water as she captures her prey, the Cape fur seal. She also has an undeservedly bad reputation.

Neil Hammerschlag, 27, who took the photo, wants this known about her: She and the other 400 species of sharks are wantonly slaughtered, and are disappearing in the oceans of the world.
Sharks: Magnificent and Threatened is an exhibit of Hammerschlag's photos at the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium. He is a shark researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Miami's Rosensteil School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and has been fascinated by these animals since his childhood in South Africa.

His message, printed in large letters on the wall of the museum gallery, is this: ``Sharks are important in maintaining the ocean's health, and add excitement, richness and mystery to our planet.''

He has seen them up close and personal. He is teaching high school students in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to identify local sharks and test their habitat for clues about their lives. And he is translating the inspiration he finds in these ocean predators into an urgent sense of saving them.

Hammerschlag's family spent summer vacations on the beaches near Durban, he said, and at the end of the day the sharks caught in protective nets around the beach were hauled up and dissected.

''I'd be there every summer, in the front row, to see how big the heart was and what was in their stomachs,'' he said. ``They look like jet fighters and they swim so gracefully. They have a sense of awe and beauty. When I found that they were so threatened, all the elements came together, their size, beauty, power. I felt toward sharks like people feel toward dogs and cats.''

When he was 7, his family left South Africa's dangers and apartheid for Toronto, Canada.

At the University of Toronto, even without an ocean, Hammerschlag went into ecology and zoology with a minor in fine arts. ''That's where I got the photo thing,'' he said.

On summer breaks, he found ways to get involved in shark tagging.

And the oceans kept calling, so he moved to South Florida to get a master's degree from Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Institute. His master's research was on the predator/prey relationship between great white sharks and Cape fur seals. He worked on Seal Islands, in False Bay, off the South African coast.

While he was at Nova, a South Broward high school called the university saying it had students who wanted to do internships or help with master's theses data.

''I was the only one who responded,'' Hammerschlag said.

High school students in the marine magnet program at South Broward worked with white shark data. It seemed to be working so well, Hammerschlag felt, that he and the director of the marine program at South Broward, Ted Davis, put together a trip for students to South Africa to gather data themselves. They secured a grant from the American Institute of Marine Studies.

Daniell Washington, a Miamian, was among the eight students and four teachers who spent 15 days with great white sharks.

''It was the summer after I graduated from high school,'' Washington said. ``It was the best experience of my life. It was an opportunity to really be immersed in marine science and the ocean, and to be able to see nature at its prime, face to face.''

The trip erased Washington's stereotypical prejudices about sharks: that they are nothing but mindless eating machines.

''Once in the field, I realized they somehow have a personality, each shark,'' she said. ``In the afternoon, when we did identification, they would come up to the boat for bait, and each had its own tactic.''

Today Washington is a second year University of Miami marine biology student.

''Neil is an awesome teacher,'' she said. ``He has a natural ability to tell things clearly and thoroughly. He is funny. He showed us what to do in harsh conditions. He kept us together and we felt we were a team.''

Hammerschlag, who lives in Miami Beach, is a runner, a diver and used to play ice hockey in Canada. His doctoral work looks at marine life in South Florida's estuaries and the effect of sharks on the fish populations.

His high school students are producing data that point to high levels of mercury in sharks of the area, and, he says, ``has important management and conservation applications. We're looking at where specific shark species congregate, the mercury levels, and where they're getting mercury.''
Hammerschlag's website is, and he puts shark information on it, along with his stunning photographs.

So what's it like to have only a camera between you and a shark?

''There is a sense of excitement and thrill,'' he said. ``But more a feeling of awe and appreciation. I get excited, but not in a scared, roller-coaster way. I feel honored I'm sharing the water with these animals.''

Encounter with Great White shark has a happy ending

A surfer has narrowly avoided becoming the latest victim of a Great White shark encounter after one circled him and rammed his board in waters off Noordhoek beach on Saturday.The 3.5-metre shark circled Steven Harcourt-Wood for around five minutes while 10 or 12 other surfers looked on, unable to move for fear of provoking an attack. "It came at me, thrashing its tail and bashing the board.

'I was the first surfer out of the water'"There was no doubt in my mind that he wanted to serve me up for dinner," said Harcourt-Wood.Neither Harcourt-Wood, a 37-year-old surfer from Noordhoek, nor the others in the water were able to escape as there was a lull in the waves at the back line.

"It was completely flat. We were stuck. "And no one paddled away because the shark could have chased them."I was trying to get a look at its eyes and mouth so I could position myself correctly, but it was coming from far below the water."

'The sharks were never a problem in the past'As the shark came at him water sports fanatic Harcourt-Wood bravely squared up to it and paddled at the shark, face to face."I think that's what saved me.

If you move fast or paddle away they are more likely to see you as prey and go for you," he said. "Eventually a set of waves came and we all went for it at once - I was the first surfer out of the water," he said. Although Harcourt-Wood has been surfing for 27 years it was his first real encounter with a shark."The sharks were never a problem in the past - they've always been there but they never used to attack people.

"I've seen small ones out at the back from time to time but this is different. "Their behaviour has changed completely."From now on Harcourt-Wood will use a shark-repelling electronic device."If the leash on the device touches your skin you get a sting... but that's better than a bite. I've had my warning now," he said. Boats worked to protect surfers at the Roxy Surf Jam at nearby Long Beach on Sunday.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Great White Shark on display by Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium announced today it has put a great white shark on display in the Outer Bay exhibit for the second time in the aquarium's history.

In 2004 and 2005, a female white shark was on display in the aquarium's Outer Bay exhibit for approximately six months and became "the most powerful emissary for ocean conservation in our history,'' according to aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard. Attendance at the aquarium increased by approximately 30 percent, to more than 1 million people, during the 198 days the shark was on display, according to aquarium officials.

The new shark on display is a 5-foot-8-inch male weighing approximately 104 pounds. He was caught on Aug. 17 in Santa Monica Bay.

In contrast to the first shark, which was accidentally caught by fishermen and turned over to the aquarium, the new shark was purposely caught by aquarium animal husbandry experts for display.

"There are a lot of unknowns with sharks that are bycatch from a commercial fishery,'' aquarium staff veterinarian Mike Murray said. "We never know how long they've been in the net, or to what degree their health is compromised. We have much more confidence that we have a healthy animal to begin with when our team does the collecting.''

Part of the shark's display at the aquarium will include information about conservation. White sharks are in decline worldwide, in part because they're slow to reproduce and because of growing fishing pressure, the aquarium reports. White sharks are now a protected species in California and other U.S. coastal waters, as well as in South Africa, Australia, Mexico and other nations. Their fearsome reputation has also made them a target of trophy hunters and the curio trade, according to aquarium officials.

Aquarium visitors can see the new white shark daily through Labor Day from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily beginning Tuesday. It can also be viewed online via the aquarium's streaming Outer Bay webcam from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily at

Numerous shark species share the oceans with humans but for how long?

The numbers are “Jaws”-dropping: More than 100 million sharks killed each year. One billion pounds of shark fins imported annually into China alone – for soup. Of the 390 known species of shark, 110 classified as endangered, threatened or vulnerable.

The long, slender blue shark, plying Southern California waters, can reach 13 feet long.The last number may actually be higher, but scientists say they don't know enough about many sharks' biology or circumstances to say for sure.

That uncertainty extends to many of the sharks – and their cousins, the skates and rays – living off of the coasts of Southern and Baja California. Some of these creatures, from the notorious great white shark to the communal bat ray, reside or pass within wading distance of millions of people each day, but they remain shadows in the sea.

“Virtually nothing is known about local shark populations,” said Jeffrey Graham, a marine biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We have a few ideas about mako and thresher sharks because they have some commercial importance. We can count how many get caught. But we have very little knowledge about anything else, especially south of the border where few species are quantified. We don't know how many of these animals are out there, or even where they are.”

To remedy the situation, Graham and colleagues have created the Southern California Bight Elasmobranch Consortium, a collaboration among U.S. and Mexican scientists, fisheries managers and public officials to study and promote greater awareness of elasmobranches (sharks, skates and rays) living in the bight, a 450-mile stretch from Point Conception near Santa Barbara to Cabo Colonet in Baja California.

“We want to develop a cohesive voice with a common interest, which is to better understand these animals and better preserve them,” said Graham. “There are easily 30 to 40 species of elasmobranch (pronounced ee-lazmo-brank) living within five miles of Scripps. But nobody has a real appreciation of what they're doing or how they are faring. What are their ecological roles?
“A lot of species appear to be in decline. Are they sentinels for the environment? If so, what are they telling us about the rest of the sea?”

Graham is a shark specialist. He has spent years studying their remarkable physiologies and abilities. They are capable of great feats of strength and endurance. For example, the estimated bite strength of the shortfin mako shark, found in San Diego waters, is several tons per square inch. Blue sharks, also seen locally, are global swimmers, migrating thousands of miles each year in pursuit of food and temperate waters.

A different shark warning

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists the following 20 sharks on its Red List of endangered species:

Ganges shark
Borneo shark
Basking shark
Speartooth shark
Whitefin topeshark
Angular angel shark
Smoothback angel shark
Spinner shark
Pondicherry shark
Smoothtooth blacktip shark
Blacktip shark
Dusky shark
Grey nurse or sand tiger shark
Great white shark
Gulper shark
Basking shark
School or tope shark
Bluegray carpetshark
Porbeagle shark
Whale shark

At least 10 other shark species are believed to be endangered, but data remains insufficient to declare them so.

Thresher shark Java or pigeye shark Kitefin shark Salmon shark Megamouth shark Broadnose sevengill shark Bigeye sand tiger shark Narrowmouth catshark Great hammerhead shark Argentine angel shark Some sharks – the mako, salmon and great white – are “warmblooded.” That is, body heat generated in red muscle is used to warm the circulatory system, allowing the fish to swim and live in cold waters rich with prey.

But despite their notable attributes, most sharks appear ill-equipped to deal with the pressures of modern life, at least those posed by men: over-fishing, pollution, habitat loss.

“In that sense, they have obvious biological flaws,” said Graham. “They grow slowly and have limited reproductive capability. That makes them less likely to survive this great pressure of human expansion over the next 50 years.”

If sharks are to survive, Graham and others will have to learn a lot more about how to save them. It's not an easy task, particularly with pelagic or open ocean species like the mako, blue and thresher.

“These aren't fish most people encounter very often,” said Suzanne Kohin, a research biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla. “Unless they get caught in a commercial drift gill net, you have to really go looking for them.”

Scripps researchers have recently been doing just that, venturing out in small boats for hours on end, chumming ocean waters off San Diego to lure mako sharks close enough to be temporarily caught and tagged.

The tagging program, funded by California Sea Grant College Program, is intended to reveal the natural behaviors of mako sharks. While not a primary target of California's gill net fishery, makos are frequently trapped in the expansive nets as they drift below the ocean surface. The larger sharks have some commercial value; smaller makos are typically discarded.

Once a mako shark is caught by Scripps researchers, it is fed a mackerel stuffed with a pinging acoustic device that allows researchers (following in a boat) to track the sharks' swimming patterns and depth preferences for the next 24 hours, sometimes longer.

A solitary mako shark patrols waters off San Diego. Makos appear to be relatively plentiful, but researchers know very little about their habits and biology. A recent paper published in Marine Biology on the tagging program reported that makos spent at least 80 percent of their time in the upper 39 feet of the ocean, almost never venturing below 78 feet. The finding buttresses a state law that mandates gill nets must be set at least 36 feet deep. The law was written to protect marine mammals, but appears also to benefit mako sharks.

Another Scripps program, also funded by California Sea Grant, involves attaching paper clip-sized electronic tags to the dorsal fins of thresher sharks, which are a primary target of commercial fishermen. The tags record the movements of released sharks – how far they swim each day, where and at what depths in the water column. Stored data from the tags is recovered when the sharks are caught. Each tag returned to Scripps brings a $50 reward.

Dan Cartamil, a graduate student in Graham's lab who is conducting the thresher program, says the expanded database of thresher shark movements and patterns will help scientists identify areas or water depths especially important to the species. These places could then be factored into future conservation programs.

Keeping current

Graham said the consortium's first goal is to better organize the efforts of diverse scientists and organizations in Southern California studying elasobranchs, and to find new sources of funding.
“We want everybody to know what everybody else is doing,” said Graham, “and for that information to get to people who can use it, not just scientists, but also commercial fishermen, sport fishermen and the general public.”

Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Dan Cartamil releases a tagged thresher shark - a favorite of commercial fishermen. The tags record the shark's movements, helping scientists determine how to protect the species from overfishing. The second goal is to expand and improve the flow of scientific communication with researchers, fishermen and the public in Mexico, said Cartamil, one of the consortium organizers.

“Sharks in the Southern California Bight certainly don't respect international boundaries. Migratory patterns lead them to spend part of the year with us, part of the year in Mexican waters.”

But what happens to them once they venture south is even more of a mystery than what happens to them in Southern California waters.

Based on admittedly scant data, Kohin at the National Marine Fisheries Service believes local shark stocks are reasonably stable, with a few notable exceptions like the Pacific angel shark, whose numbers have declined sharply due to overfishing. A few species like the mako, she said, may even be increasing in population, based on counts of caught fish.

One reason for the improvement, said Graham, has been the tightening of rules governing shark “finning,” in which a shark's fins are removed for sale (dried fin sells for more than $300 per pound in Asian markets and is used to make soup), while the rest of the still-living fish is tossed back into the sea to die.

In 2000, President Clinton signed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act (introduced by former Congressman Randy Cunningham) which mandated that any harvested shark fin brought into port must still be attached to the rest of the fish.

In 2002, a U.S. Coast Guard ship seized an American transport vessel a few hundred miles off Acapulco carrying 32 tons of shark fins ultimately bound for the Asian market. Graham says it's estimated the cargo represented 11,000 to 12,000 sharks killed.

“If fishermen have to keep the sharks intact for market, they can't carry so many back to port. The anti-finning act has curbed U.S. fin production, but it's still a huge problem worldwide,” he said.
Including, perhaps, to the south.

“Fishing rules are lax in Mexico,” said Cartamil. “There's barely any sort of enforceable regulation.”
No one knows how many sharks are harvested in Mexican waters for their fins, or how many die in drift gill nets intended for other fisheries. Graham hopes the consortium, through existing and new partnerships with organizations like Centro de Investigacion Cientifica y de Educacion Superior de Ensenada (CICESE), a Mexican science agency based in Baja California, will spur both research and action.

“We want to foment new ideas. This can't really be done very easily through federal or state channels. There are too many binational issues and complications. But if we can get scientists and others on both sides of the border talking, if we can get students moving back and forth between science institutions like Scripps and CICESE, then we explore common interests and what needs to be done.”

Dead in the water

For much of their recent history, sharks have been perceived simply as unthinking eating machines, neither of which is true. Experts say they possess a particular intelligence and curiosity. Like dolphins, who enjoy a reputation for being brainy, sharks can be trained. And they eat periodically, depending on their metabolism and the availability of food. While large species like the great white, which can grow to 20 feet and weigh 4,000 pounds, are capable of consuming whole seals, other sharks eat less than 2 percent of their body weight each day.

Sharks have been around a long time, more than 400 million years. But there are real concerns that some species won't survive the century, perhaps not even the decade due to hunting, indiscriminate fishing techniques and human greed. According to projections by some environmental groups like the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, perhaps 20 shark species could go extinct by 2017, among them the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), the last known surviving member of its genus.

Now that's scary.

New observer vehicle to study sharks' behaviour

The mysteries of shark behaviour in their natural environment may soon be revealed when a shark observer vehicle (SOV1) is launched for trials in Overberg waters later this month.

The prime objective of this project is to succeed in capturing the mating and pupping (birth) of Great White sharks on video. This would be a world first, never documented or witnessed before.
The SOV belongs to Sharkproject, an international initiative for research into and protection of sharks. The 4,2 m high tech, 900 kg self propelled submersible cage will document Great White shark behaviour and take part in shark research in cooperation with local scientists, researchers and Marine and Coastal Management (MCM).

The non-pressurised craft has a maximum speed of 12 km/h which will carry a two man crew in scuba gear. They can stay submerged for up to four hours although the plan is to limit the dives to one hour at a time. The SOV's two high-definition video cameras can produce recordings suitable for direct TV broadcasts and also allow for good quality still photographs of sharks in their natural environment.

The SOV, built to exact international standards in Germany, is on its way to Cape Town. It will be launched from a semi-inflatable “water trailer” being manufactured in Hermanus by Cape Rubber Ducks. The trailer boat is to be towed to the actual operational area by a support vessel.
When the SOV is in operation underwater the support vessel will fly a flag to indicate there are divers below.

Sharkproject is registered in Germany as a non-profit making organisation founded by Gerhard Wegner after a visit to Hermanus where he came face to face with the Great White predator during a cage dive off Dyer Island.

He recognised the urgency of protecting this top marine predator-turned-prey from an even more efficient predator - man, to preserve them for future generations. Great Whites are being slaughtered at the rate of 200 million a year - far above their reproductive rate. As a result the sharks are rapidly nearing extinction, and this extinction will endanger the whole fabric of the marine eco-balance that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years.

South Africa is leading the world by protecting the dwindling numbers of Great White Sharks and it may be in our local waters where scientists can shed light on, and perhaps help to save, this unfairly maligned and magnificent creature.

Two other beaches are closed due to shark sightings

The waters at all Port San Luis beaches - Avila Beach, Olde Port Beach and Fishermen's Beach - will be closed to people through Labor Day weekend, according to Harbor District officials.

The waters had been closed since last Friday evening due to a credible great white shark sighting in the bay and were expected to reopen at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

However, another credible sighting of a great white shark in the bay Wednesday morning prompted a five-day extension of the water closure, officials said.

“The five-day water use restriction is meant to be an opportunity to educate the public about specific ocean hazards,” said Casey Nielsen, Harbor District operations manager.

The sand will remain open during the five-day closure and advisory signs have been posted alerting the public of the sighting.

Advisory signs will also be posted at Pismo Beach warning the public to enter the water at their own risk. The city doesn't have the authority to close the water as does the Harbor District.
A Harbor District ordinance allows the water's closure for five days after a credible report of a shark sighting .

“When we post the signs, we're not saying that the beaches are dangerous and then safe five days later,” said Mike Harkness, California Department of Forestry/Pismo Beach Fire Department battalion chief. “We are saying we believe there's a perceived elevated level of risk and (warning people) to enter the water at their own risk.”

Officials expect to reopen the waters in Port San Luis at 7 a.m. Monday, if there isn't another credible sighting between now and then. Advisory signs will also be taken down at that point.

Avila Beach still closed

A second shark siting in less than a week.

Just when Avila Beach was about to reopen, the Port San Luis Harbor District closes the water for another five days.

Port officials said there was a credible shark sighting about 100 yards off the beach around 7 a.m.
The witness claimed she saw a Great White Shark.

The waters have been off limits since Friday night, when a local fisherman said he saw a Great White in the harbor.

The last fatal shark attack was in August of 2003.

While the beach will remain open, the water is off limits through Labor Day weekend. It is set to reopen on Monday at 7 a.m.

Beaches closed for a few days following Great White shark sighting

The waters at Avila Beach and Port San Luis will be closed until 7 a.m. Monday morning after a shark siting was reported Wednesday, harbor officials said.

A person standing on the bluff south of Avila Pier reported seeing a great white shark feeding just outside the no boat buoys at Avila Beach. Harbor officials went through a two-page checklist with the individual and deemed it a credible shark sighting, officials said.

The harbor district’s policy created in 2003 following a fatal shark attack at Avila Beach is to close the water for five days after a shark citing. The beach will remain open.

"The five-day water use restriction is meant to be an opportunity to educate the public about specific ocean hazards," said Casey Nielsen, operations manager at Port San Luis Harbor District.

Because of the natural ecological cycle, the harbor is full of marine life that serves as bait for the sharks, officials said.