Whale Shark Conference: Utila on a world stage

Posted on August 7, 2008
Written by: Shark Savers

2nd annual International Whale Shark Conference

Whale Shark Conference logoThey were all there.  Australia the giant, Mexico the united, India the inspiring, Philippines the passionate, Belize the organised, United Stated the double edge sword,  Kenya the mysterious and more.

The island is Holbox, Mexico, on the very tip of the Yucatán peninsula, an island not so different than our own where roughly 1500 locals welcomed us for the 2nd International Whale Shark Conference. You could feel the energy they spread about not only as our hosts but as a joint community where diving is nonexistent and whale shark tourism is one if not the main purpose.

Then there were a handful of us from Utila there on our own dime to listen, talk, share and see where the world stands on the subject of whale sharks. Team Honduras consisted of videographers Dan Cain from Funky Fat Fish Productions and Jessika Cirkus of SeaCirkus Productions, Bryan Becker of WSORC, Steve Fox and I of Utila Whale Shark Research. Two government officials were expected but failed to turn up. Which screams the question: “Where is the interest and commitment from the Honduras government in their 5th source of revenue that is Utila?” Diving is our main activity of course but the attraction of Utila over Roatan or other local destination is primarily our gentle giants.

Meanwhile at the conference, we were offered research progress in the field of whale sharks genetics to figure out population structures, on impact of whale shark tourism on different cultures and communities and about the advancements in tracking technologies, to name a few. Some countries representatives had results, some asked for help, some simply showed their standpoint at this time. And all of us still had so many questions. The work is far from over.

Steve Fox of Utila Whale Shark Research presented our lot.  It consisted of Ecocean Photo ID details, sharks seen in Utila , also sex ratios that we have encountered mated with moon phase data. In a place where we are still trying to build up enthusiasm and structure enough to get our captains, dive masters and clients involved in photo identification, consistent encounter data gathering and regard for code of conduct, it becomes obvious that we are only a step up from anecdotal information, what  we call citizen science.

Field Days

On two different occasions I had the opportunity to go in the field with Dr. Rachel T. Graham who oversees the MarineMeganet project of acoustic tagging that encompasses the United States, Mexico, Belize and Utila.  It was days where I found myself on a boat with colleagues from 5 different countries to collect biopsy samples, tag some whale sharks with visual numbered and acoustic tags and retrieve some receivers. Their environment and circumstances of whale shark encounters are pretty much at the other end of the spectrum to our own. In Mexico they are dealing with visibility averaging 5 metres, mind you this is no big problem when you come across 16 of them in one day. They are everywhere and are going about in roughly 10 metres of water. So I am back to Utila highly motivated with new ideas and more experience.

Utila Whale Shark Research has been busy this year with accumulating photos and Encounter sheets from the different dive shops and Resorts and deployment of the first acoustic tags on Utila. I have tagged 4 whale sharks despite a difficult season weather wise and low encounter count. Our next steps are collecting the receivers in the area, downloading the information and reinforce and maintain our commitment to keeping the dive shops and Resort of Utila involved, aware and enthusiastic about the value of whale sharks to our collective daily lives.

Isabelle Foisy
Research Assistant
Utila Whale Shark Research.com