Sharks: misunderstood but Very Important Fish!

In one of her previous blog-post, our former Marine Biology Intern Jade told you all about her favourite fish, today she is sharing all about her ALL TIME favourite fish: the Shark!

Jade is about to sit down on her chair for a nice quiet meal with her family whilst on the other side of the world Chiara is snorkelling with a 2 metre black tip reef shark.

Black tip Reef Shark swimming peacefully next to a powder blue surgeon fish spotted around Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu

Black tip Reef Shark swimming peacefully next to a powder blue surgeon fish spotted around Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu

In your opinion which of these two individual is most at risk of injury or death: Jade or Chiara?

If you chose Chiara, chances are worrying about the wrong person.

Statistically speaking your chances of dying by falling off a chair are 70 times higher than dying of a shark attack!

Truth is that seemingly innocent appliances or animals like toasters, vending machines, domestic dogs and mosquitos kill more people a year than sharks.

Yet, we still all carry on making toast for breakfast!

Sharks are misunderstood creatures; they’re just really BIG fish

Sharks are misunderstood creatures; they’re just really BIG fish

Because of movies like Jaws, sharks have earned a bad reputation for being blood-thirsty predators with an insatiable appetite, especially if their favourite dish -human flesh is on the menu.

Luckily for us, these prejudices are completely false- unfortunately for us, we have been fooled by Hollywood and the media who have been feeding us an unrealistic and fabricated portrayal of sharks. But fear sells and we’re all buying it!

Fear sells and we’re all buying it…even the sharks!

Fear sells and we’re all buying it…even the sharks!

In reality sharks are not monsters, they’re just really big fish! Despite their bad reputation, they are some of the most fascinating and prehistoric creatures of the planet, and to let them die out would impact the entire food chain causing the collapse of fisheries and the death of coral reefs worldwide.

Do we really want to tamper with our primary food source?

Sylvia Earle a renowned female oceanographer vouched for the importance of sharks when she said: “Sharks are beautiful animals, and if you’re lucky enough to see lots of them, that means that you’re in a healthy ocean. You should be afraid if you are in the ocean and don’t see sharks”.

What is frightening is that an estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year around the world primarily for the shark finning industry.  In some areas of the globe, their populations have plummeted by more than 90%. Sharks have patrolled our oceans for more than 450 million years, survived five mass extinctions, and now their very existence is under threat as a direct result of this barbaric practice.

To help conserve its shark populations, the Maldivian Government announced a total ban on all shark fishing, capture and killing in Maldivian Waters. Sharks are a vital ecological and economical resource for the country as many tourists come to the Maldives in the hope of seeing sharks in the wild.

Fourteen different species of sharks have been documented in the Maldives. Four of which are commonly spotted in waters around Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu; The Black tip Reef Shark, The White tip Reef Shark, The Grey Reef Shark and The Nurse Shark.

A White tip Reef Shark; mostly seen whilst diving in BAA Atoll

A White tip Reef Shark; mostly seen whilst diving in BAA Atoll

To help provide a better understanding of shark populations in the Maldives, the Dive Ocean team at Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu participates in an initiative launched in 2009 called Shark Watch.  With the help of the tourism industry and resorts, Shark Watch collects baseline information such as the number, species along the approximate length of sharks observed at respective dive sites across the Maldives every month. For research purposes, other parameters such as water temperature and current strengths are also noted.

Although Shark Watch provides invaluable data, it does not allow us to identify individuals and therefore, does not give us an accurate portrayal of shark populations in the Maldives (I.e. Is it the same shark you are seeing at a specific dive site each time or a different one?)

In light of the above, because my heart is completely bitten by sharks, I decided to start the first Visual Shark ID Project at Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu in January 2015 that would allow us to identify specific individuals and thereby more accurately assess their numbers.

We have a great abundance of black tip reef sharks around the Island. Here, I got to snorkel with three of them all at once!)

We have a great abundance of black tip reef sharks around the Island. Here, I got to snorkel with three of them all at once!)

The data we are collecting will not only help us understand shark population dynamics but will also reveal important information about the species:

  • Do sharks show long-term fidelity to reefs?
  • Is Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu a nursery for pregnant black tip reef sharks?
  • What is the maximum number of sharks that our house reef can accommodate?
  • Are there seasonal trends in shark numbers and populations?

What’s great about photo identification is that it is a non-invasive technique. For individual identification you need a very clear FULL BODY picture of both sides of the shark.  That being said, to capture a photograph well suited for ID purposes you need to be within very close proximity to sharks. So if sharks really were the monsters that we see in the movies, I think I would be missing a few or all of the fingers required to type this blog post.

Visible body markings and pigmentation patterns on the dorsal and caudal fins are the main features that we use to identify sharks.

Can you tell the difference between the Dorsal fin of BT1 “GOOD” and BT3” BIMINI”?)

Can you tell the difference between the Dorsal fin of BT1 “GOOD” and BT3” BIMINI”?)

From January to April:

  • I recorded eight different individuals around Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu; 7 blacktips and 1 nurse shark.
  • I snorkelled a total of 27 times on the house reef and sighted a total of 73 sharks.

I would like to invite you to meet a few of them:

Meet BT1 “GOOD”-This is the first shark that I catalogued in the project on January 23rd. I was extremely proud when I managed to get a clear picture of both sides of GOOD; Not an easy feat with sharks! Since January, GOOD has been sighted once every month.

GOOD was given his name to contradict the stereotype of sharks as evil blood thirsty monsters

GOOD was given his name to contradict the stereotype of sharks as evil blood thirsty monsters

BT3 “BIMINI” definitely wins the award for being the most curious pup on the reef. BIMINI is just as interested in approaching you as you are in approaching it; making getting a clear ID shot a piece of cake. BIMINI was first identified on the 24th of January 2015 and has been encountered a total of six times since.

BIMINI always likes to come and say hello!

BIMINI always likes to come and say hello!

BT2 “MAMAN” – First photographed in December before I started my ID project but I finally managed to register her on the 29th January. Month by month I was fascinated by every encounter with MAMAN as I could see her big belly growing.  The gestation period for sharks is around 8 to 9 months.

Last time I saw her was on the 4th April she looked like she was about to deliver at any moment.

Always keep a look out for newly born black tip reef sharks patrolling the sandy lagoons of Dhuni Kolhu!

Can you spot the BIG belly on MAMAN?

Can you spot the BIG belly on MAMAN?

Spending time with the sharks that call our house reef home is an absolute privilege and if you get to the chance to meet one or more of them you will soon realise that they are just like any other fish in the ocean and that humans are NOT on their menu.

Say hello to the curious nurse shark who has taken up residence at our house reefSay hello to the curious nurse shark who has taken up residence at our house reef

Say hello to the curious nurse shark who has taken up residence at our house reef

You might even meet the curious nurse shark living on our house reef!

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2 responses to “Sharks: misunderstood but Very Important Fish!

  1. Wow that was really informative. I loved it and agree that sharks need respect! Check out my blog. My latest blog was about sharks around the British coast. I think you’d enjoy it. I can tell form this post that you are very interested in them. Just like me 😉

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