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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

What am I really volunteering for, you ask?

MOZAMBIQUE | Wednesday, 11 April 2012 | Views [235]

So what exactly is it that us volunteers are doing in Tofo?  I had a hard time articulating before, but now it's much clearer.

Tofo may be small but its marine environment is second to none.  For marine biologists, this place is heaven on earth for their studies and passion; there are dizzying varieties of fish, sharks, and turtles, attracted here to nest, mate, and feed in part due to the abundance of zooplankton and phytoplankton (they are the microscopic organisms floating in the water, considered the basis of ocean life and bottom of the ocean food chain), coral reefs, and its geographic location (two currents, one from north and one from south of the Indian Ocean, converge around this area), all comprising to make up a rich marine ecosystem.  Local fishermen recognize the abundance of fish, thus fishing is a common way of living.  Now if the fishermen were only fishing for the residents and the few businesses in the area, it may be sustainable (although nets and spearfishing can harm the big fish and sharks); the crisis is there are fisheries, some known but many underground, that target whale sharks for their fins and manta rays for their gill racks, and those animal populations are dwindling rapidly to near extinction.

Despite the somewhat confusing name, whale sharks are in fact a shark and not a whale.  They may look fearsome due to their sheer size (they are the largest fish species in the world, up to 20 meters long), but they are docile creatures and completely harmless to humans and most other fish.  They feed mainly on planktons, some small fish and crustaceans, and some plants like algae.  Whale sharks have a very unique pattern of spots and stripes all along their body; each whale shark has a distinct "fingerprint" of spots and stripes on both sides of its body, which scientists use to identify for tracking each shark's life history.  Globally, over 3000 whale sharks have been identified (i.e. photos taken, spots analyzed, or perhaps tagged), and the Mozambique coastline ranks third in number of whale sharks identified, making it a true hot spot, yet it is the only hot spot with no legal protection for whale shark fishing.  Due to its docile nature and massive size, whale sharks are frequently targeted mainly for their fins, to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the Chinese who regard shark fin soup as a delicacy; secondarily, their meat are also targeted (imagine how much meat can be cut and sold from a 10m whale shark), yet whale shark meat is high in mercury thus not really safe for humans to consume. 

Manta rays are the second largest fish species on earth.  Tofo is unique in that it is one of the few places on earth that is home to both species of mantas, the giant manta and reef manta.  Mantas have diamond-shaped bodies and swim by flapping their pectoral fins like a bird (or I think, like Batman).  Giant mantas are larger of the two, with a disc width up to 8m, while the reef mantas have a disc width up to 5m.  Planktons are the main source of food for mantas, and they may eat up to 15% of their weight in a week.  Mantas also have a unique fingerprint that distinguishes each individual, made up of spots located in the underside on their body.  It's not officially known how long mantas live, though scientists estimate upwards of 40 years.  They are slow to mature and to reproduce; gestation period is a year long and each live birth produces only one offspring (no multiple births have yet been sighted), after which the female manta may pause and not reproduce for a year or two.  Mantas don't have many predators except for sharks such as great whites, which bite their fins; 75% of mantas in the Mozambican waters have clear and obvious shark bites.  Not all bite wounds are fatal; to heal, mantas go to a "cleaning station" to be treated.  A "cleaning station" is a truly unique marine ecosystem phenomenon:  it's an area usually along the edges of a coral reef colony where manta rays go to be cleaned, sort of like a spa for them.  Different fish species, including butterfly fish and surgeon fish, are the "workers" at these cleaning stations; each fish type has its specific cleaning task, from ridding of parasites to disinfecting wounds to gill rack cleaning, both on the outside and inside the body.  Manta rays spend anywhere from 2 to 8 hours at a cleaning station, floating while the fish go to work.  Talk about an intelligent animal, with a nature-built spa!

I did not know this until now, but manta rays are also targeted by fishermen, specifically for their gill racker and less so for their fins or meat.  Similar to a whale shark, a manta ray eats by simply opening its mouth to take in as much water as possible; the gill racker is like a sieve inside its body that filters the water out while keeping the planktons or other animals in, which are then consumed.  Somehow the Chinese claim and promote gill rackers as a cure for a wide array of ailments, from chicken pox to cancer, to boosting immune system and purifying the body by ridding it of toxins, to enhancing blood circulation, and to helping couples with fertility problems.  99% of gills are imported into the main hub in Guangzhou, China, with estimated trade volume between 60,000kg to 80,000 kg per year and an estimated value of US$11 million, an amount even higher than shark fins.  With a dwindling shark population, coupled with shark finning receiving increased bad publicity and global pressure to end, manta ray gills may now be in higher demand, thus increasing the threat to manta rays.

This is where conservation groups like Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) in Tofo comes in (http://marinemegafauna.org/).  The founder, Dr. Andrea Marshall (a California gal from the bay area, check her out at http://www.queenofmantas.com/) came to Tofo ten years ago to complete her PhD studies on manta rays, and ended up staying and founding MMF.  She, along with Dr. Simon Pierce, who focuses on whale sharks, and a few full-time marine biologists and the occasional PhD candidates, are passionate about researching these animals and getting them the legal protection they deserve.  They may be a small team  with a humble dwelling as their lab, but their work are recognized worldwide, and both Andrea and Simon are frequently invited to present on topics regarding these animals and the need to protect and conserve them, truly putting MMF and Tofo on the map.  They work closely with other scientists all over the world in other marine hot spots such as Australia to share information and findings; they also advocate local officials and governments to make them understand the crisis and to pressure for legal and legislation changes.

Scientific research takes time and lots of effort, and that's where volunteers like myself come in.  We contribute by gathering and entering data.  The data we gather include photos of fish, especially photos that clearly show the "fingerprint" of whale sharks and manta rays; details of sightings (who, what, when, where, how); and fish count (remember the manta cleaning station?  An increase or decrease of butterfly or surgeon fish may indicate a change in visits by manta rays, which may indicate a population increase or decrease).  To conduct the fish count, all volunteers are required to learn 60 different types of fish and pass a test with a score of at least 90% (I scored a 95, and in case you doubt my knowledge, I can tell you that Dory from Finding Nemo is a Palette Surgeon Fish while the one with the scar in the tank is a Moorish Idol).

After every dive or ocean safari with animal sightings, we log the data so the scientists have an ongoing record of fish count or animals sighted.  In addition, we assist in entering data from whale shark sightings in Seychelles and Djibouti, two other hot spots with prominent marine biologists who continually gather data.  They post their data and photos to Google Docs, which are then shared with a few selected groups, including us.  We organize and write up the sighting details, touch up the photos, and then enter them into a database owned by a group named Eco Ocean.  The coolest part about this data entry is using an application developed by NASA, which takes a ID photo of a whale shark, and it aims to match it against existing whale shark records already in the database; the matching is done by comparing the "fingerprint" or the unique spots and stripes on the whale sharks from the photos, so when we upload the photos, we have to mark the spots in that fingerprint, which is both a science and an art.  So far I think I've matched two whale sharks and identified a new one.  

MMF also holds a one-hour talk every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; Monday is on manta rays, Wednesday is whale sharks, and Friday on general marine conservation or special topics.  I've attended three talks so far and am immensely impressed.  Andrea is clearly very passionate and articulate about manta rays; the last talk she gave was a special one on a recent research trip she took to Burma and Thailand, to meet with the scientists there on how manta population has drastically declined in the waters of that region, and also to tag manta rays who reside at dive sites there.  One very disturbing occurence was a grim discovery of a highly destructive fishing practing call "bomb fishing"; fisherman would fashion homemade bombs, weigh them down, plant them into the ocean floor; the bomb will blast, killing or seriously damaging every living fish or coral in the vicinity.  She personally sighted a few hundreds dead fish on the ocean floor; these fish did not float to the surface (where is what the fishermen would have wanted so they could collect them) and instead turned the ocean floor into an instant mass grave.  I've never heard of such practice and cannot believe it's even done!

I feel so lucky to be around these exceptionally smart and dedicated scientists, who are passionate advocate for these graceful, majestic, yet vulnerable animals.  There's always something new and exciting to learn everyday. 

Tags: djibouti, eco ocean, gill racker, manta ray, marine megafauna foundation, seychelles, shark fin, tofo, whale shark

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