Swan Islands Expedition With Dr. Sylvia Earle: Day Four (PHOTOS)

07/21/2011 07:28 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2011

Day four of the Mission Blue expedition to the Swan Islands brought with it a sharp focus on one thing – sharks.

Led by Dr. Sylvia Earle, world-renowned oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence, founder of Mission Blue and 2009 TED Prize Winner, the Swan Islands expedition is an attempt to raise awareness of the critical importance of the Mesoamerican Reef to the overall health of the ocean system and to catalyze support for the declaration of this “hope spot” as an official marine protected area (MPA).

An MPA is an area of the ocean where human activities are more strictly regulated than the surrounding waters – similar to national parks on land that have safeguarded key areas of biodiversity, like the different species of sharks found in the Mesoamerican reef, from environmental degradation for many years. Earle coined the term “hope spots” to describe existing MPAs as well as target regions in need of official MPA status.

In addition to a number of other scientists from the region, Earle is joined on the expedition by Dr. Rachel Graham, Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Gulf and Caribbean Sharks and Rays Program. Following a serendipitous encounter with the unique natural phenomenon of whale sharks aggregating to feed on the spawn of reproducing snappers, Rachel set her life’s course on shark research and conservation. A key component of her approach has been grassroots outreach to help change attitudes towards sharks and support shark-friendly legislation. Rachel is a member of the IUCN shark specialist group and provides the Belize government with technical advice on shark management issues at the national and international levels.

Dr. Rachel Graham of Wildlife Conservation Society discusses her experience studying sharks in the Swan Islands and provides a compelling account of yesterday’s dive with The Huffington Post Green:

“I remember when there were so many sharks in the bay, we couldn’t put a hook in the water without catching a shark” recounted a patriarch fisher from the island of Utila in the Bay Islands in Honduras. This recollection of shark abundance is heard time and again with most Western Caribbean fishers over 50 years old.

Today, it’s a different story. Sharks have been so heavily over-fished to feed the demand for white meat during the Lenten season and supplying fins to for the seemingly insatiable demand for shark fin soup, that they are rarely encountered by today’s fishers and even less frequently by divers, many of who pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to see sharks in the wild. Sadly, there are few places left in the world where sharks still abound and fulfill their ecological role keeping prey populations in balance.
While working to better understand sharks over the past fourteen years, I often wondered whether the Swan Islands, a remote set of islands off the north coast of Honduras and only 350 miles east of my home in Punta Gorda, Belize, was one of these rare havens for sharks. My curiosity was further piqued when the President of Honduras declared a ban on shark fishing, potentially the country into a shark sanctuary if the ban can be enforced.

As luck would have it, wonderment turned to reality when I was invited to join an exploration cruise in the company of Dr. Sylvia Earle and her team.

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Swan Islands: Day 4

So we needed to find sharks quickly using a system that would reveal species diversity and relative abundance of both sharks and a range of other large fish. The team of divers surveying the coral reef for the Healthy Reef project run by Dr. Melanie McField and a team or photographers were coming up practically empty handed with counts of predatory fish including groupers, snappers and jacks. It was clear from their surveys that the site had been heavily over-fished, and relatively recently….and sharks were nowhere to be seen.

Contrary to the unthinking bloodthirsty portrayal we have erroneously bestowed upon sharks, they are smart and often very shy, often staying far away from divers unless lured by bait. This is where the baited remote underwater video (BRUV) set-ups came into their own. These underwater video stations operate in a similar way to camera traps that biologists use to catch images of elusive terrestrial animals such as tigers or jaguars.

Working with Shark Legacy Project’s Giacomo Palavicini and the crew from the Aggressor, we quickly set up four underwater camera stations made of PVC pipes, wood, rope and a wide-angle video camera. The piece de resistance was the long PVC arm placed in front of the camera, at the end of which dangled empty beer cans stuffed with mashed tuna steak tied to the pole with chicken wire. A simple yet functional design that gives us insights into the secret lives of fish. And my expedition companions were kind enough to ensure a steady supply of bait cans during the course of the voyage…Science can be a tough mistress.

Success! Our very first camera deployment came back with wonderful footage of a highly inquisitive juvenile female Caribbean reef shark (SEE PHOTO). And it only got better from thereon. We all waited with great anticipation to pick up the BRUVs. So we doubled the deployments, parsed between deep and shallow waters and almost every deployment came back with footage of sharks, large grouper and barracudas checking out the bait and often rubbing themselves on the bait cans, like cats in thrall to the narcotic effects of catnip. On subsequent deployments we captured up to four sharks at a time buzzing the bait arm. Each revision of the camera footage would bring loud “WOOHOOs” and Oh YEAH!” from all folks. But the volume of whoops and hollers hit a crescendo with the appearance of a great hammerhead, nonchalantly swimming in front of one of the camera, easily dispersing two smaller Caribbean reef sharks that had previously been monopolizing the bait. Globally endangered to extinction, great hammerheads are now so rare that seeing one is not only a treat but truly an honor. Their tall dorsal fin, much prized in Asia for fin soup and a key driver for their gross decline, scythes through the water as their wondrous hammer shaped head searches out their favorite prey, the southern stingray.

As we all retired to our bunks following a long day at sea, I think about how this first day of the Swan Islands expedition has given me hope: that here perhaps exists one of the few remaining places on Earth where sharks are left alone to live in peace, much as they have for 400 million years…. And I can only wonder at what our array of underwater eyes will reveal tomorrow.

With Earle at the helm, hope is certainly the theme of this week’s expedition to the Swan Islands and Mesoamerican Reef.

Using the unique hashtag #hopespots, Earle will continue to post real-time content from the expedition, including photos, blogs and video, on Twitter @bluerules and on her Friends of Dr. Sylvia Earle.

Earle and her team are also encouraging the public to join them in taking action to protect this hope spot – and others in need of MPA status – by logging on to their website – www.sylviaearlealliance.org – where they can donate to local conservation efforts aimed at safeguarding the Mesoamerican Reef.

Continue to visit The Huffington Post Green for exclusive photos from the Swan Islands expedition led by Dr. Sylvia Earle.