STUART PHILPOTT spends some time with the Whaleshark and Oceanic Research Centre on the island of Utila
Stuart Philpott spends some time diving with a whaleshark research centre on the island of Utila.
Surely life couldn’t get much better than living on a Caribbean island and working at a whaleshark research centre. On my recent trip to Utila, situated off the Honduran coast, I visited the WSORC ( Whaleshark and Oceanic Research Centre) based at the Utila Dive Lodge. British born Konrad Madej had been managing the centre since September 2015, and from what I could see, he was having a whale of a time. The facility attracted students and volunteers from all over the world. Usually they stayed for periods of between one to six months to write papers and carry out research work which could be anything from data collation and lionfish dissections to whaleshark tagging.
Utila is a hotspot for year-round whaleshark (Rhincodon typus) sightings so where better to set up a dedicated research centre. The peak season is between April, May and June. Using air support will almost guarantee sightings. Konrad told me that earlier in the year a French film crew had hired an old Bell Huey chopper for a two-day shoot and had got plenty of close-up shark footage for their documentary. Unfortunately my budget was not on such a grand scale so I had to make do with a dive boat supplied by Utila Lodge and around twenty pairs of eyes vigilantly scanning the horizon. I had also arrived a month outside of the main season so my chances weren’t looking great.
The WSORC (www.wsorc.org) has been monitoring whalesharks since the late 1990s. Konrad said: “When we are searching for whalesharks we normally look for congregations of sea birds diving into the water.” This usually denotes a ‘boil’ where shoals of silversides or anchovies have been forced to the surface by predatory tuna. The whalesharks pick up the acoustic noise from the feeding tuna and home in on the action.
Students are encouraged to bring their own underwater cameras so that they can photo ID the whalesharks. Konrad said: “By the fifth gill slit at the base of the pectoral fin on the left hand side there is a unique pattern of 12-15 spots.” They also record any scarring, sex, size, number of remoras attached, site location, how many people are in the water with the shark, how boats are interacting and whether they are breaking any regulations. All this information is added to the WSORC database.
Recently Konrad had been conducting pioneering research into the migratory routes of whalesharks. To help with his studies a company called Liquid Robotics (www.liquid-robotics.com) had donated two USD$400,000 state-of-the-art SHARC wave gliders. The wave gliders are basically drones that can track whalesharks tagged with a transmitter. This information is sent back to Konrad’s computer via a GPS link.
We made a slight detour during our whaleshark expedition so I could get a closer look at the innovative wave glider. From the surface the unit looks just like a 3m x 80cm surfboard constructed from titanium and fibreglass to withstand harsh sea conditions. The wave gliders are usually painted yellow for commercial projects or black if used by the military. I grabbed my scuba gear so I could check out what was happening below the surface. At a depth of approximately 4m there is a series of mechanical paddles all linked together. As the surfboard rides over the waves the energy is transferred to the paddles, thus creating forward propulsion. With the addition of two solar panels there is enough power to re-charge the GPS transmitter/receiver batteries making the unit totally maintenance-free for several years. There is also a collision detection system. I was surprised how fast the wave glider was actually travelling. In fact, I could barely keep up! Konrad said the wave glider has a top speed of around three knots. Way below the paddles (at about 10m) hangs the torpedo-shaped acoustic sensor which picks up the signals from the whaleshark tag transmitters. This was surrounded by a shoal of juvenile jacks. Sometimes even turtles swim alongside.
Konrad said: “The hardest part of the job is attaching the transmitter tags to the whalesharks.” The skin on the larger males is so thick that a barb fired from a spear gun just bounces off. Konrad had experimented with a variety of different spearguns and eventually settled on using a powerful double band version. He aims for the base of the dorsal fin. He showed me some video footage of the procedure and the shark doesn’t even feel the sharp looking barb. In 2016 the WSROC successfully tagged three sharks, the largest being a 12-metre-long male and the smallest a 4-metre male. The acoustic tags cost around $1,000 each. Konrad said he only had enough funds to buy five but he would ideally like to have at least twenty tags and five wave gliders in the field. Any private donations are more than welcome!
Two weeks before I arrived there had been multiple whalesharks sightings. But same old story, when I appeared, there were none to be seen. We spent the whole day searching for some bird activity. There were a few individuals flying about but this didn’t lead to anything fruitful. As a consolation Konrad took me to Neptune’s bar where I actually caught sight of my first whaleshark - a cocktail made from blue curacao and white rum, with white spots made from tapioca. The bar staff wouldn’t divulge the exact ingredients - apparently it’s a trade secret.
“The innovative wave glider looks just like a 3m x 80cm surfboard constructed from titanium and fibreglass to withstand harsh sea conditions”
Caribbean lionfish (Pterois volitans) are an invasive species, and have no natural predators. There seems to be a number of different stories as to how they ended up in the Caribbean, but the end result is total devastation. Lionfish are eating/reproducing machines which, at this moment in time, are virtually impossible to eradicate.
The WSORC started their lionfish research project in 2015. The main purpose was to record any noticeable behavioural and physical changes. They were also looking at the scientific management of culling and the effects that lionfish have on the local reefs.
I was interested to see how many lionfish had inhabited the offshore reefs so I joined the students on a sample collecting day. Konrad showed me a long clear plastic cylindrical device called a ‘zoo keeper’ which was used as a lionfish containment device. A few years ago divers just carried a simple net bag! I watched Konrad spear a lionfish and then push it through the one way rubber flap at the end of the cylinder. I guess this was a safer option and reduced the risk of getting stung.
At least lionfish don’t swim off when they are being hunted. I watched Konrad lining up another shot using a Hawaiian sling. He took aim while hovering in a level position. Konrad calls it the ‘ninja’ pose. The three pronged spear went straight through the lionfish. I was worried that the reef might be damaged by wayward spears but Konrad said they make sure it’s dead reef behind the lionfish. After two dives the group had caught more than 30 lionfish.
As an island, Utila is managing to control the lionfish population at most of the popular dive sites so it’s quite rare to see them roaming about. But when I went on a deeper tech dive (sub 60m) courtesy of Utila Dive Centre, I saw quite a few individuals lurking under ledges. Maybe lionfish have realised that most recreational divers don’t go below 40m. The culling has been approved by the Honduran government but divers have to hold an official permit.
Everybody eagerly attended the afternoon dissection session. All the students were engrossed and enjoying the experience. The lionfish are weighed and measured before being put under the scalpel. The otolith’s, aka ear bones, are cut off and kept in order to identify the age of the specimen. I noticed that some of the lionfish had super ocular tentacles and some didn’t, and the sizes seem to vary. Konrad revealed that no one knows why they are there. These are also cut off and kept.
Lionfish are eating way beyond their normal life-sustaining needs, which has led to a noticeable increase in the amount of fatty tissue on each specimen. I didn’t realise fish could be fat and unhealthy. Does this mean they are more susceptible to heart attacks? Konrad said they would start to weigh the fatty tissue and record their findings. I watched one of the students empty a fish’s stomach contents. Seven juvenile filefish were removed. The current record is 69 shrimp from a single lionfish! Data has shown a dramatic increase in physical size beyond all historical records. Maximum size used to be around the 30cm mark but this has now grown to more than 40cm, with an average weight of 1kg.
When all the data has been recorded the fillets are cut off - lionfish are actually very good to eat. Ceviche seems to be the local delicacy, which is raw fish ‘cooked’ in lime or lemon juice. The high fat content gives the fish a buttery flavour.
There seemed to be plenty of other ongoing research projects at the WSORC. I spoke to Nancy Armas Martinez, who was looking at the effects of algal growth on local fish populations. I watched Nancy laying a tape measure over the reef and then use a Gopro to record the fish species and coral coverage. This is known as taking line transects and was repeated at varying depths. The video is analysed by a specific software program and can be used to highlight any significant changes. It might not be as exciting or action-packed as whalesharks or lionfish but Utila is located next to the second biggest barrier reef in the world, which is ideal for this type of research.
I didn’t expect to find a thriving research centre so far off the beaten track and I was pleasantly surprised at the range of facilities on offer. There was even an onsite three-man dual lock recompression chamber offering emergency treatment and operator training courses. I was also surprised to find so many nationalities, including a fair proportion of Brits, living and working on the island. (Utila is a popular stop on the South American backpacker route). The WSROC is definitely a solid option for any marine biology student or volunteer who wants to learn more about research, particularly involving whalesharks. Konrad’s work with the wave gliders is cutting-edge. The eyes and ears of the entire whaleshark community are upon him. No pressure! I can’t wait to hear about his findings. If he can successfully track whalesharks maybe, just maybe, I might have a chance of actually finding one next time I visit!
“This has led to a noticeable increase in the amount of fatty tissue on each specimen. I didn’t realise fish could be fat and unhealthy”
Divers on a lionfish hunt
A $400,000 SHARC wave glider
Utila is famous for its whalesharks
Diver with a huge lionfish
Dissecting the catch
In the pot