WHALE SHARK EXPERTS VISIT ST HELENA | Sharon Henry
These little blue pills are working wonders, two and a half hours in and I’m still going strong, haven’t chucked up yet or even felt nauseous. Bobbing about on the choppy Atlantic, on a boat that is weaving a zigzag route along the coastline on the windward side of St Helena, searching for whale sharks, the biggest fish in the ocean. Why? Because, they are still relatively new to science and today’s excursion will help to determine if they hang out on the windward as much as the leeward side. I’ve hitched a ride with two whale shark experts visiting St Helena for two weeks to tag these majestic creatures and collect data.
So a mile out with sea spray flying, boat pitching and horizon toing and froing I am glad the blue seasick tablets are still working. And we haven’t seen any whale sharks yet.
Do not be alarmed by the word, shark; whale sharks are known as gentle giants of the sea. Although they grow up to 12 metres in length and have massively wide mouths, the largest thing they’ll eat are very small fish, preferring to filter feed on plankton and fish eggs.
The experts on this trip are Drs Raphael de la Parra and Alistair (Al) Dove, both marine biologists. Raphael is Mexican, lives in Cancun and is the Executive Director of The Blue Realm Project; Al is Australian, lives in the US and is a Senior Scientist at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
They are very friendly, passionate about marine life and extremely “honoured” to be here.
They are also a little crazy; one and half hours into our mission the fin of a hammerhead shark is spotted just off the Barn. This causes much excitement amongst the pair who hastily don snorkelling kits and jump in for a closer look. I think their craziness is contagious because Elizabeth Clingham, St Helena’s Marine Conservation Officer, jumps in with them, shrieking, “Don’t let my mummy find out!” The young hammerhead is a bit shy and hightails it at the sight of them – thankfully.
The ‘Enchanted Isle,’ is our transport for the day, owned and skippered by Johnny Herne, crewed by Graham Sim and expertly driven by Johnny’s 17 year old son Alex, who is following a pre-set course via GPS. My other fellow ‘sailors’ are August Graham from The Sentinel newspaper and Richard Moors of Vision Media.
All eyes are peeled for movement, shadows or fins in the water – this takes my mind off seasickness at least.
Not one to miss an opportunity, Johnny whips out a fishing rod and begins to trawl. “I might catch something for dinner!” he explains. I don’t know about fish but a fairy tern is showing keen interest in the colourful lure, dangling on the hook.
Whilst Raphael is checking equipment in the cab I grab him for a chat. Raphael has studied these graceful creatures for 12 years. “We were conducting aerial surveys in 2010,” he tells me. “We were able to count up to 420 animals in a single area at one time. Can you imagine! Yes, I absolutely got in the water with them.”
Wow, exciting stuff. On St Helena aggregations (group of whale sharks) up to 35 have been recorded.
“They tend to aggregate when the food availability is high,” says Raphael. “I guess the main reason they come is food. We’ve taken samples of the plankton and it will be quite interesting to see the different animals it is composed of.” Studies have discovered that elsewhere whale sharks feed on little tunny (tuna) fish eggs.
The duo have successfully attached 14 satellite tags to whale sharks on this visit. These devices will store an abundance of information; position, depth and water temperature. They are programmed to detach by a small explosive after 6, 9 or 12 months, float to the surface and automatically transmit data via satellite.
Raphael speaks with a lilting Spanish accent, “We really do not have any idea where these whale sharks come from. By tracking their journey after they leave this area, we will start to know a little more about them. We are presuming they may be related more closely to the African coast because it’s closer.
“But in 2007 we deployed a satellite tag on a big female in Mexico and it detached between Ascension Island and St Peter & St Paul Rocks. That gives us the trend that maybe this area is quite important, probably for delivering and giving birth to puppies.”
The pair have also been collecting biopsies from the skin, “By the means of giving them a little scratch,” says Raphael. “Their skin is about an inch thick so it doesn’t hurt. With that piece of tissue from each animal we can conduct at least three different studies. One should be nutrition, another is molecular biology (DNA) and the other will look for contaminates and pollutants like heavy metals.”
St Helena is the only place in the world where mating has been witnessed by humans; two separate accounts on separate occasions. “It would be super to confirm this for ourselves,” smiles Raphael.
“Even though the whale shark is the biggest fish in the world we know very little about them. For example we know nothing about their gestation, their birth production, where they breed, deliver and so on.”
Having been ‘indoors’ for a short while I am feeling a little queasy after my chat with Raphael. Back outside the cool breeze revives me some while I nibble on Marmite sandwiches. This seems to do the trick. Feeling brave I walk to the bow and watch dolphins racing alongside us.
All seems quiet on the whale shark front. The two designated lookouts, Johnny and Graham regimentally scan for signs.
I am now more interested in the scenery. You don’t quite appreciate the sheer size of the apparently impenetrable cliffs until you are up close and personal. Our route ‘zigs’ out a mile and ‘zags’ in, to about 100 metres off the coastline. Tilting my head back I take in the imposing size of the Barn, Great Stone Top and the Sandy Bay Barn. Viewing landmarks such as Turks Cap, King and Queen Rocks, Flagstaff and Prosperous Bay from this different perspective is quite captivating.
Chatting to Elizabeth back at the stern about our beautiful island I’m suddenly not feeling well, I keep this information to myself. Mind over matter…
Thinking another blue pill will sort it out I duck inside to wash it down with water. Then it happens, I throw up a bit in my mouth. I step outside, praying no one talks to me en route and very ladylike spit it overboard. Then without warning, this morning’s breakfast is involuntarily projected an impressive two metres overboard. I instantly feel better, getting sick does wonders for alleviating seasickness.
By now the midday sun is out in full force and the dolphins are putting on an athletic display. Not wanting to jeopardise my fragile wellbeing I decide to put the camera away for a bit and just enjoy the dolphins.
We motor past Sandy Bay Beach toward Blue Point and reach the rocky outcrop of Speery Island at 1.30pm. Presuming that whale sharks are crossed off our itinerary for today, we circle Speery then go in for a closer inspection. The surface is encrusted with guano from hundreds of years of sea bird habitation. It smells it too. Raphael and Al, cameras in hand, aren’t deterred.
As we round South West Point and move back into calmer waters, more dolphins come out to play.
Then someone suggests we swim with the dolphins. Swimming with wild dolphins is a rare experience, for most people.
So like children we splash into the azure ocean, cameras in hand, to swim with wild dolphins. But, like the hammerhead, they don’t stick around. Plus I am a bit slow off the mark and they have disappeared by the time I’ve settled into breathing with a snorkel.
But, here I am swimming in the deep blue sea, feeling warm and safe. What a surreal experience. The only thing that can top this high would be the gentle nudge of a whale shark. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen.
While Alex steers us back to the wharf, I ask Al if he’s disappointed with today’s no show. He shrugs his shoulders and says, “We can’t claim that they are likely not found in the windward side of the island without checking for ourselves.”
That said the team did strike it lucky on many other occasions during their short stay. “What’s really interesting is here you’ve got adult males and adult females mixing with a few juveniles,” says Al. “Mostly in places where people study whale sharks, it’s dominated by juveniles and there’s only a couple that’s dominated by adults, and that’s typically all female, like the Galapagos. So that combination of adult males, adult females and a few juveniles is very unique. It makes St Helena a globally significant habitat for whale sharks.”
Happy, sun burnt and windswept I step ashore and thank the team for the trip. Shame the whale sharks kept undercover but that’s just one of those things, however, I did swim with these huge fish a year ago, so I’m still one of the lucky ones. And today I got to circumnavigate the island, swim in the ocean and talk to two amazing scientists.
Throughout our experience with photography we’ve often trekked long distances for landscapes, only to find complete cloud cover ruining the picture. Photographing wildlife is similar, very hit and miss – as today’s excursion proves. There is never a guarantee, it goes with the job!
The whale shark season has just started; What The Saints Did Next will be back…
Even Johnny is going home empty handed; the tuna just weren’t biting today.
Whale Sharky Facts:
Whale sharks are the largest fish on the planet. It is named ‘whale’ because of its size and not because it is related to them.
A whale shark has 1.5 metre wide mouth with 4000 teeth arranged in 350 rows. Although this sounds scary, teeth are very small (size of a match head) and looks like a rasp. Al says it’s similar to the rough side of Velcro.
They are a migratory species and found in tropical, warm oceans and live in the open sea.
Whale shark season on St Helena usually runs January to April.
Whale shark skeletons are made of cartilage not bone.
They can grow up to 12m long and weigh 20 tonnes.
Their skin has unique patterns of spots and stripes, like fingerprints that can be photo-identified.
The capture of a female in July 1996 that was pregnant with 300 pups indicated whale sharks are ovoviviparous. The eggs remain in the body and the females give birth to live young which are 40 to 60 cm (16 to 24 in) long. Evidence indicates the pups are not all born at once, but rather the female retains sperm from one mating and produces a steady stream of pups over a prolonged period.
They reach sexual maturity at around 30 years and their lifespan is an estimated 70 to 100 years.
The whale shark is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. Because of its size, slowness, long development time, and high value on international markets, the species is vulnerable to intentional fishing.
Whale sharks are a protected species on St Helena.
A small whale shark touring industry has cropped up in recent years and policies and guidelines have been implemented to safeguard these docile visitors. Be warned – tour operators cannot guarantee a successful trip.
Whale Sharky facts sources: