Under the oceans surface lies an ancient family. They are one of the most misunderstood creatures on our planet, yet they live in every sea and are our oceans most successful predators -SHARKS!
For the last two years, a team from the BBC’s Natural History Unit has been travelling the world to make ‘Shark!’, the ultimate wildlife trilogy on these extraordinary yet misunderstood animals. Using the latest ultra HD and high-speed-camera technology to film behaviour never seen before, the team has filmed over 30 species of shark (and their cousins, the rays) in dozens of locations. This new series, narrated by Paul McGann, will change everything you thought about sharks, revealing all aspects of their lives and showing them to be intelligent, social and complex creatures.
The first one hour episode, of the three part series, shows the huge diversity of sharks and why they are such great hunters, while the second episode delves into the secret lives of sharks and rays, from courtship and mating, to growing up and navigating the ocean. The final episode “Shark: Beneath The Surface” shows the extraordinary work of scientists across the world as they uncover the secrets of sharks, and examines the future of sharks as they face their darkest hour. LAMAVE’s, Dr Alessandro Ponzo, is one of the scientists featured in the third episode, and gives viewers an insight into some of the work the Large Marine Vertebrates Project (LAMAVE) is doing on whale sharks in the Philippines. Two more of our team also worked on the shoot – Steve De Neef as second camera and Sally Snow as the team’s fixer (in-country coordinator).
The Large Marine Vertebrates Project Philippines, (LAMAVE) has been studying whale sharks in the Philippines since 2012. The project is a collaboration between three small, but dedicated Non-Government-Organisations (NGOs) striving for the conservation of large marine animals through science, education, and advocacy. We work with both National and Local Government Units (LGUs), local communities and the private sector.
LAMAVE currently have three active whale shark projects in the Philippines, all of them are in areas where whale shark tourism occurs. Two of the sites interact with wild natural aggregations of whale sharks, while one, Oslob is an artificial aggregation which relies on provisioning (feeding wildlife). It’s a controversial practice that we do not endorse, and as an organisation we believe swimming with wild whale sharks is a much better experience and the more responsible choice.
Since the feeding began in Oslob, LAMAVE have been studying the whale sharks associated with the tourism destination and have been working with the LGU to encourage the proper management of this unique site. To date our team has identified 212 individual whale sharks through photo-ID and in 2013 we published our first paper on the whale shark population that visit the interaction area.
The site offers us as researchers, an opportunity to study whale sharks up close and personal and paired with our studies on natural whale shark aggregations it has provided an interesting comparison study to investigate shark behavior and habitat use. We also collect data and samples which we are sharing with peers in our research field. The team has been collecting parasites for analysis by a team led by Dr Mark Meeken and Professor Chris Austin who are interested in finding out whether copepods found on a whale shark, are in fact picked up in different areas of the world and essentially can be used to help track where the shark has been. Various scientists working on whale sharks around the Indian Ocean have contributed copepods to the study including: LAMAVE, Simon Pierce in Mozambique, David Rowat in the Seychelles, Guy Stevens in the Maldives and of course Mark’s group at Ningaloo. The project is funded by Save Our Seas and by the SeaWorld Research and Rescue Foundation Inc (SWRRFI), AIMS and Monash University.
We’ve also been taking biopsy samples (tissue samples) of the sharks which Dr Jennifer Schmidt is using to determine the genetic relationship between whale shark aggregations worldwide, and we’ve been trying to find out what effect the feeding is having on the sharks, the local community and the economy. For more information on our work in the area please read the publications on our website.
Today, across the country over 800 whale sharks have been identified in the Philippines thanks to WWF-Philippines, LAMAVE and citizen science (www.whaleshark.org) and we are learning more everyday. Since the BBC visited our team in 2013, we had the first photographic match of an individual whale shark in two different countries in East Asia – it was first photographed in Taiwan and then later in Southern Leyte in the Philippines (that’s a straight line journey of 1600km!). More exciting, is our recent collaborative satellite tagging programme with the Marine Megafauna Foundation. By satellite tagging Philippine whale shark we hope to better understand their movements both nationally and international. With still active shark fisheries in Asia, this information could be crucial for their protection.
For more information on the topics discussed above please follow the reference links in the text and feel free to download our own whale shark infographic!