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Entries in whale sharks (38)


How cute is this little guy?

This is one of the smaller whale sharks I’ve seen on YouTube. Starts around 8:25 into the video (I can’t seem to work out how to embed a video half way through). You can see him do a bit of subsurface ram filtering, and he coughs a couple of times, which is a behaviour we see at the aquarium from time to time. 

Those remoras are a real drag…


Tampa - brace yourselves...

Next week I will be in sunny Tampa for the 6th International Symposium on Aquatic Animal Health, a great meeting that happens every four years covering the gamut of AAH from aquaculture to fisheries to aquariums and even marine mammals (they’re OK too, ‘spose).  The energetic Andy Kane from UF and the lovely and talented Sarah Poynton from Johns Hopkins are chairing the program and it looks to be a great set of folks attending. They’ve got me co-chairing a session about parasites in molluscs, which should be fun, and my own talk will be about metabolomics in whale sharks, a collaboration with colleagues at Georgia Tech.  What’s metabolomics, I hear you say?  Well, perhaps I’ll post about it while I’m there (you know, AFTER I make the powerpoint.  I should probably start that…).



The AGM for the Fish Health Section of the American Fisheries Society will also be there, so we’ll be mixing hundreds of science talks with some serious chit-chat about the state of fish health science in this country, which has evolved significantly of late, in part because of new disease epizootics (VHSV anyone?), the National Aquatic Animal Health Plan and the increasing role of veterinarians in fish health research (the more the merrier, I say).

Should be a great meeting.  Anyone got any “must hit” spots while I am there? or want to meet up for a cuban sandwich, or better yet, a couple of cervezas?


Whale shark genome schwag has been unbridled!

This is so cool!  To raise funds for the whale shark genomics research on which I am one of the lead investigators, Georgia Aquarium has had a limited run of custom Silly Bands made - that latest of wildly popular kids fashion accessories.  In each pack is a band for each letter of the genetic code (for the non-biologists among you, that’s A, C, T and G), as well as a first-of-its-kind whale shark and the Aquarium’s spiffy G-fish logo.  With these bad-boys your kids can be fashionable and learn about genetics and marine biology at the same time.  Its not just for kids; heck, I am wearing them right now (and I feel cooler already!)

 The exclusive whale shark genome Silly Bands. Go on, you know you want them.

They’re exclusive to the aquarium and you can bask in the glow of their rubbery goodness for just $3 a pack, with all proceeds going to the whale shark genome project.  The best way to get them is to visit the aquarium in downtown Atlanta, but if you’re not in the ATL, don’t despair; if you buy five or more packs (i.e. $15), you can send a check directly to Stephanie at the address below and she’ll send them right to you.  PLUS you get to say you helped scientists at the Aquarium and Emory University to sequence the genome of the world’s largest fish, as well as participating in the craziest bit of crowd-sourced science funding ever.  SCIENCE - love it!


Stephanie Brown

Assistant Manager

Georgia Aquarium

225 Baker Street

Atlanta, GA 30313

(please make checks out to “Georgia Aquarium”)

Georgia Aquarium is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit institution


Its International Whale Shark Day!

I know I’ve dedicated a lot of blog space to whale sharks lately, but in celebration of the end of the field season, here’s one more.  Its International Whale Shark Day!  This day of appreciation for our mellow spotty elasmobranch buddies was designated at the 2nd Whale Shark Symposium in isla Holbox in 2008. 

Have you hugged a 30ft polka-dotted behemoth today?

Rhincodon typus (c) 2010 Georgia Aquarium/Alistair Dove 


A photo post from field work in Mexico

Sorry things have been a bit quiet on the blog lately.  Our field work season has reached a crescendo, with several back-to-back trips to Mexico where I and others from Georgia Aquarium are studying whale sharks that aggregate annually in the coastal waters of the Yucatan, and thats left little time for writing.  To learn more about the whale shark project, go here.  Its been a real treat lately, with hundreds of sharks feeding in the area east of Isla Contoy and Isla Mujeres.  Between the boat work, which focuses on photo cataloguing and ecological sampling, and aerial surveys, which focus on counting and distribution, we’ve been gathering a ton of data that will help shed light on why these aggregations form, and how to better protect them in the future.  Rather than write about it, I figured I’d let the pictures do some talking.  Required legalese: all these images are copyright 2010 Alistair Dove/Georgia Aquarium and may not be reproduced without permission.

Flating mats of Sargassum are home to all sorts of things. These baby jacks were seeking shelter from me and caught a red reflection off my rashguardThis is what we came for: a whale shark feeding east of the Yucatan.Any port in a storm: this tiny 2 inch barracuda was hitching a ride with a moon jelly

Most filefish live on rocky and coral reefs, but this one was vigorously defending a little bit of SargassumIts hard not to feel like the whale sharks are checking you out sometimes

Georgia Aquarium senior aquarist Marj Awai wielding the 7D and housing: stills AND HD video *drool*People are the biggest threat to whale sharks. This male had a close encounter with a boat but luckily came away with only shallow scrapes. We see deeper cuts from propellers sometimes, and utmost caution is warranted when moving among the animals.The most common view of a whale shark. Even though they seem to swim effortlessly, keeping up with them is only possible for short distances. This is the last one we’ll see until next years field work season. Adios amigo!


Dancing with a Giant - the reprise

You might remember an earlier post about Dancing with a Giant, in which I was pretty emotional about an amazing swim I had just done with a whale shark in Mexico.  Well I can now share the video of that animal.  There’s a good bit at around 0:50 where you can see right into his mouth, and see the filter pads they use for sieving their planktonic food from the water. In this case, he’s filtering fish eggs, which you can’t see because they are too small and are also transparent; thats good for us though, because it gives us a nice clear view.  Without further ado then, here he is, MXA-181:


Hola de nuevo, México!

Headed back to Quintana Roo in light of a good weather forecast and a chance to finish some chemical ecology sampling we aimed to do last time but were denied due to weather and other concerns.  What’s chemical ecology?  Its the study of how animals interact with the chemicals in their environment and shape their behaviour accordingly.  In this case, we’re especially interested in what whale sharks can smell, what sort of “odor landscape” they live in, and how they exploit this to find food.

Unlike a lot of “big” marine scienctists that work off ships in the UNOLS fleet, we actually work from small boats close to the coast, so weather is a key factor.  Do me a favour and pray to whatever deity or natural force works for you, in order that we get some favourable conditions to finish this work so we can move on to other things, OK?  Me?  I’ll be praying to Chaac, the mayan rain god, not for rain, but for no rain.  More importantly, I’ll pray to the head honcho of all Mayan gods, who also happens to be the wind god - Kukulcan - for no wind.  I may as well pray to Joe Pesci, but it can’t hurt.


Why should sharks get all the glory? - its shark *PARASITE* week too

 Everytime you sit down to watch a premiere in this weeks Discovery Channel shark week, I want you to imagine something: every single shark you see is loaded with parasites.  All of them.  On the gills, sometimes on the skin, and especially in their unique spiral valve intestine, live a myriad critters that make their living off the top predators in the ocean.  Which makes you wonder, are they really the top?  Hmmmm….

In celebration of this carnival of diversity that exploits our toothy friends, AMNH curator/blogger Susan Perkins (ably supported by a veritable Who’s Who of fish parasitologists from around the world) is hosting a parade of bugs for shark week on her blog Parasite-a-Day. Here’s what she’s had so far:

August1. Anthobothrium, an elegant tapeworm.  Yes, I said elegant.  You got a problem with that?

August 2. Gnathiid isopods.  The ticks of the marine realm, blood meal anyone?

August 3. Branchotenthes robinoverstreeti.  A six-suckered monogenean from the guitarfish

August 4. Pandarus rhincodonicus.  A parasitic copepod that likes to hitch a ride on the lips oif whale sharks.

Keep an eye on the blog for the rest of the week and beyond.  Its a fantastic showcase of parasite diversity



Shark Week is here

In the past I've had mixed feelings about Discovery Channel's "shark week".  Its great for raising the   profile of our toothy friends, but it has tended to dwell on the gory or sensationalist stuff in the past.  This year, though, they seem to be pushing the conservation and science end of things a bit more, which of course makes me happy.  Georgia Aquarium (my employer) is their partner this year on the website, and they are featuring the web cam from our Ocean Voyager exhibit, which houses manta rays, whale sharks, lots of other sharks and a great teleost (finfish) collection too.  They're also hosting website Q&A with aquarium shark experts (tonights is at 10PM) after each premier on the TV channel, and vignettes from life working with sharks at the aquarium, including a couple of my lab-coated self.

So if you're into sharks, check it out.  And if you don't totally dig sharks - well, what's wrong with ya? 


If you have to go, go big!

When you want to learn about the biology of a charismatic species, any species really, sometimes you end up learning about the grosser side of life too.  Thats kind of how I came to take this picture last week in Mexico, where I and several others from the team at Georgia Aquarium have been doing research on whale sharks lately (see several other blog posts heareabouts).  It was taken during an aerial survey we did from an altitude of 1,500 ft in a Cessna 206 and shows a whale shark that has just defecated.  Now, whale sharks tend to do everything on a giant scale, so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised, but I estimate the animal to be between 8 and 11m (25-35ft) in length and so, based on that estimate, thats a cloud of poo behind him thats over 30ft in diameter!  Its unusual to see wild sharks in the act of pooping, but this group of animals was so numerous and feeding so heavily, that you could actually see several clouds like this at any given time.  Whats feeding heavily got to do with it?  Well, unlike mammals, which tend to have a relatively fixed gut passage time for food, a lot of cold-blooded critters can, well, sort of push it out the back end, simply by pushing more in the front end.

Far from being a trivial observation of one of life's less savoury moments, it could actually become a really important research opportunity if we can manage to catch some of that magical egesta in a container of some sort, for analysis back at the lab.   Scientists can do all sorts of stuff with poo, like looking for parasite eggs or other pathogens, sequencing the DNA of both the shark and its prey species, or comparing nutrient values of food (from plankton tows) and comparing them to values from faeces to work out how much nutrition they are gaining from their food.  Its a great way to learn a lot in a short time and do it in a totally non-invasive way.

Mostly though, its a cool photo to gross people out at parties...


Dancing with a Giant

A lot of people think science is soulless, sterile or austere in its objectivity; there’s a prevalent stereotype of the scientist as a lab nerd in a white coat, out of touch with the “real world” and with the more emotive aspects of life. That couldn’t be further from the truth, of course. Most scientists I know – me included - are motivated precisely by a profound wonder and amazement for the natural world around them; its usually why they get into science in the first place. When biologists go into the field, they often end up reconnecting with those feelings, established during their formative years, and end up resorting to a sort of childish state of pure joy over whatever biological phenomenon that they happen to be studying. I just had such an experience, one that was so extraordinary that it may well have changed the way I think about biology forever.

As part of the research program at Georgia Aquarium, we are in Mexico to study the biology of whale sharks, which gather annually in the coastal waters of Quintana Roo, from Isla Mujeres north and west to Isla Holbox. Its bliss just to be out on the water again (its been a while), admiring the everchanging seascape, marveling at the myriad forms of life that make their home in the ocean, and reminding yourself that the endless stream of doom and gloom news about “the environment” isn’t really the full picture. Flying fish skip from wave crest to wave crest, pursued by sinister-looking frigate birds that swoop in to grab them on the wing, while turtles lazily periscope their heads above the surface to spy on pods of spotted dolphins that race around as if there were somewhere important that they really needed to be.

In due time, we found our objective, a group of whale sharks feeding at the surface, attended by a flotilla of ecotourist boats. Each of our team had a chance to swim alongside these spectacular behemoths as they were cruising effortlessly among the boats and patches of food, at speeds that exhausted a mere human to match.  We also photographed many of them for an identification database.  Then we took some time to gather data on the physical and chemical properties of the water, during which the ecotour boats petered away, returning their cargo of tourists to their respective all-inclusives in time for lunch and leaving us with the whale sharks mostly to ourselves. They continued to feed, constantly inhaling bathtubs of plankton from the surface tension, their gills flapping loosely on the rejected water current like flags in a gentle breeze.

It was at this point that I got in the water a second time. Rafael, our captain and colleague from Project Domino, had put us on a large animal that was feeding below the surface in a more vertical pose than their normal surface “ram filtering” style. This more upright type of feeding, which they use when food is especially dense, sees their tail sink down towards the bottom and cease its rhythmic swinging and, hanging suspended like this, the animal begins to actively suck in enormous gulps of water. In this state I was able to approach the animal much more closely, a large male, and to see how each pulse of that fantastic mouth was pulling in not only water but tiny silver vortices of air down from the surface, such was the force of suction. He was suspended like this for what seemed like an eternity, but was realistically perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, during which he continued to feed and appeared completely indifferent to my presence. I was able to swim over every part of his massive frame and inspect every detail, from his tremendous girth to the creamy white belly distended with food, and from the remoras that pestered his every fin to the tiny copepod parasites grazing across his skin like herds of hoofstock might roam a savannah.  His body was home to a veritable community of hangers-on. I watched his eye roll carelessly over me while he continued to inhale vast amounts of water and plankton, all of which disappeared into that cavernous mouth with its 20 jet-black filtering pads. We continued to dance together like this – or rather I danced around him - close enough that I could have reached out to touch him at any point, until with a tiny shake of his head and a hefty sweep of his tail he was done with the meal and headed off in search of another patch to vacuum, leaving me breathless from a cocktail equal parts exertion and exhilaration.

Back on the boat I did my best to relay to the others what I had just experienced. Despite apparently talking “a mile a minute”, I struggled to find the right words, but they were probably unnecessary anyway. Certainly everyone who had been in the water with the animals that day had experienced many of the same feelings, and I am sure they were writ large on my face (in big black and white spotted letters!). In swimming with this one particular animal, I experienced a profound connection with a truly spectacular natural phenomenon, one that will provide ample motivation to continue the search for a better understanding of the nature of such things, for long into the future.  These are the moments that launch and tie together a career in biology, and that was the best one I have ever had.


The latest from the Whale Shark Festival in Isla Mujeres

I am down here with other folks from the aquarium as well as other scientists, government folks and ecotour operators for the 3rd annual Whale Shark Festival in the beautiful Yucatan location of Isla Mujeres.  Here's some short videos that might give you the flavour of whats been going on.

Here's Beatrix and Rafael de la Parra from Proyecto Domino explaining the importance to Isla Mujeres of whale shark movements to and from Utila in Honduras.  The audience is mostly ecotour operators and members of the public.  Bob Hueter from Mote spoke about threats to whale sharks, while Darcy Bradley from ECOCEAN talked about their program and I chimed in for a talk on whale shark research at Georgia Aquarium

Check out this inflatable whale shark from the festival parade - that thing is made of awesome!  Later that night they illuminated it from the inside and it watched over the stage show and the Ms Whale Shark awards, where they elected a grandma as queen of the festival!

This is Teatro del Mar, and educational puppet show that Amigos de Isla Contoy have shown to thousands of school kids to improve ocean literacy.  The kids were completely rapt!

And I couldn't resist putting in this clip of turtle hatchlings at the state run hatchery in Isla Mujeres.  There's a lot of problems there with beach erosion and disturbance, so when turtles nest, they excavate the eggs and bring them to the hatchery, where they have a cool fenced off area where the eggs are reburied and incubated until they hatch.  Warning, cuteness overload a distinct possibility...

You can follow along on Twitter too


Fieldwork here we come!

Things will probably get a little irregular around here over the next couple of weeks.  I'm part of a group of Aquarium folks leaving for Mexico tomorrow to participate in the Whale Shark Festival on Isla Mujeres, just near Cancun, followed by some intensive field work with colleague Rafael de la Parra, who you may remember from previous posts.  We'll be tagging animals, photographing their spot patterns for the ECOCEAN project (their spots are like fingerprints!), collecting plankton samples and sampling the chemistry of the water to look for differences where they are feeding and where they are not.  I'll try to post some stuff as we go along, even if its only a picture or a video here and there (there wont be much time for writing, unless the weather closes us out)

All of this is part of our partnership called Project Domino, which aims to understand and protect whale sharks in Mexican waters.  Its bigger than that, however, because many of those same animals travel from the Yucatan to the Caribbean, the West Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico; sharks dont pay attention to sovereign borders.  Obviously concerns are running high for any animals that travel into the GoM, due to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  Keep your fingers crossed that those animals avoid the affected area and that this latest attempt to cap the wellhead is successful.


PS to the WS thread...

The Whale shark that I mentioned in yesterdays thread as having been caught in Pakistan was not claimed by the Sindh Wildlife Department (citing lack of funds) but was instead butchered and sold right off the beach.  The liver was sold for 800 Pakistani rupees and will be used to waterproof the hulls of fishing boats, and the rest of the carcass was sold for 500 rupees.

How much is that in US dollars?  $9.30 and $5.83, respectively...