July 11, 2009

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We’ve made some impressive new friends today–about six of them, all giant, serene and strikingly beautiful. First, the backstory….
Having arrived on Isla Holbox (pronounced “hol-bosh”) very late last night, we weren’t able to mobilize for our departure from this charming island village until 10:30 this morning. And this meant we had to fight a stiff tropical wind for two hours, followed by a wicked squall, before we reached the rich feeding grounds of the Whale Sharks, six miles off Cabo Catoche on the far northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula. Our Deep Search Team includes board member Shari Sant Plummer and team members Kip Evans and John Racanelli. Our fearless leader Sylvia Earle is currently in the Florida Keys on another expedition. Also aboard for our wild ride into the Gulf was Cristina Mittermeier, executive director of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and the leader of RAVE 2009 (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition), which began today. More about Cristina’s interesting work later.

A few notes about the Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus). It is the largest fish in the ocean, reaching sizes of up to 20 meters (66 feet). Found throughout tropical and warm temperate seas, it is a filter feeder—harmless to humans (and all other mammals, for that matter). Here in Holbox, the sharks gather to feed on tiny drifting and swimming organisms called plankton and nekton, sweeping huge quantities into their huge mouths and catching them in their gill rakers. In spite of their jumbo size, these beautiful fish have teeth smaller than our own.

On the feeding grounds, we saw pelicans, frigates, terns and a booby overhead. We observed several breaching Manta Rays during the day—an exciting event every single time it happens. Tuna, a loggerhead turtle, several bottle nosed dolphins and a massive school of cow nosed rays rounded out the day’s sightings. The sharks are in this patch of water for a reason—to feed!—and at times have been observed in aggregations of up to 100 sharks. This also means, however, that the water is not the aquamarine most of us associate with warm tropical waters.

More like murky green, with overtones of chocolate and cherry syrup (see photos for elaboration). But if this is what the Whale Sharks are here for, who are we to complain about a little reduced visibility?

As for us, we’re here to learn more about these gentle giants, of course, but more importantly, to lend our voices to those who want to expand the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve and give them adequate protection from, well, us. We humans have a way of loving things to death sometimes, and many of our Mexican colleagues are committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen here. We’ll talk more about these efforts in our next blog. And we’ll tell you more about Cristina and her team’s incredible RAVE—spanning the entire Gulf of Mexico.

Tomorrow we go to the “Agua Azul” (blue water), where reportedly there are 250 Whale Sharks currently congregating! Should be interesting…. Hasta mañana.

John Racanelli

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