Whale shark ‘bling’ could unlock mysteries of giants of the deep


The whale shark is a heavyweight in more ways than one.

Rhincodon typus is the world’s largest fish, reaching a whopping 18 meters (59 feet) in length and weighing up to 21 tons.

Its economic impact is just as massive. A recent study on whale shark tourism in a single atoll in the Maldives showed that tourists there spend nearly US$ 10 million annually for the privilege of swimming with whale sharks. Countries as diverse as Belize, the Seychelles and Australia similarly nurture multimillion-dollar whale-shark tourism industries — often based on only short 6- to 12-week seasons when the whale sharks are present.

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Under pressure, an ‘alien’ world reveals secrets — and warning signs

frilled shark

The deep-sea frilled shark is rarely seen by humans. Eel-like in shape, this species can measure 6 feet long and eat things that are more than half of its body length. (© Mario Sánchez Bueno)

Tonight the Discovery Channel will air its third installment of the show “Alien Sharks” as part of Shark Week. As in its previous two installments, this show will explore the amazing diversity of deep-sea sharks that, because of their natural habitat, are rarely seen by human eyes.

The deep sea is a place of great mystery and intrigue. Ancient mariners thought it was home to sea serpents and kraken, which emerged to drag ships to their doom. While we now know that some of these “monsters” suffered from mistaken identity — sea serpents were likely oarfish or eels, and the kraken was probably giant squid — we still know almost nothing about the deep sea.

Years ago, I had a rare glance into this realm — and an up-close look at an “alien” of the deep.

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For a week, swim with the sharks

Whale shark in Cendrawasih Bay in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago. © Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock

Whale shark in Cendrawasih Bay in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago. (© Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock)

Few species have been on Earth as long as sharks have — 400 million years, predating the dinosaurs. Fewer have captured the imagination of humans as sharks have.

Next week is Shark Week, TV’s annual ode to these mysterious, misunderstood creatures of the deep — a perfect time for us to highlight new research and new insights into the world’s sharks and the seas they inhabit.

Coming soon:

  • Plunge into the waters of Indonesia with CI’s Mark Erdmann as he and other researchers attempt to drill a hole in the fin of a whale shark (for a very good cause).
  • Strap into a submersible with CI’s Greg Stone as he ventures 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) beneath the sea for a look at an alien world — and a brush with a rarely seen denizen of the deep.
  • Tune in to the Discovery Channel on Monday, July 6, at 10 p.m. ET/PT for “Alien Sharks: Close Encounters,” with appearances by CI experts.
  • Get up to date on the five things you didn’t know sharks do for you.

Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director. 

Making the Links: June 2015

This is my latest post in “Making the Links,” a monthly blog series in which I attempt to connect the dots between nature and people in the news. (To learn more about the goal of the series, read the first post.)

A palm oil plantation in North Sumatra, Indonesia. A ban on trans fats could lead to an increase in demand for palm oil. (© Tory Read)

A palm oil plantation in North Sumatra, Indonesia. A ban on trans fats could lead to an increase in demand for palm oil, which is a major driver of tropical deforestation. Leading companies and industry coalitions like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil are working to ensure that palm oil production doesn’t lead to further forest loss. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Here’s my link roundup from June.  Continue reading

Ocean’s Seven: 7 ocean-themed books to read this summer

sea lion asleep on sand, Galapagos Islands

A young sea lion sleeps in the sand in the Galápagos Islands. (© Rod Mast)

Let’s face it: Most people aren’t reading Dostoyevsky at the beach.

Amid the bright sunshine and lapping waves, it’s easier to page through a grocery-store romance novel than focus on a dense book that is unconnected to your surroundings. But here’s a thought: Let the sea inspire you to learn more about it.

With that in mind, here are seven marine-themed page-turners recommended by Conservation International staff who work on ocean issues around the globe. Continue reading

Species success stories offer glimmer of hope amid extinction crisis

Iberian lynx cubs, Spain

Iberian lynx cubs in Spain. Thanks to a range of conservation efforts, the species tripled its population in 10 years, enough of an increase to lower its threat status from Critically Endangered to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (© PROGRAMA DE CONSERVACIÓN EX-SITU DEL LINCE IBÉRICO)

African lions, Asian slipper orchids, New Zealand sea lions — they’re all unique, even iconic, species.

And they’re all threatened with extinction. Continue reading

Village takes bold step to save fishery — with help from goats

woman walking on beach, Ambodivahibe, Madagascar

A woman walks on the beach in Ambodivahibe, Madagascar. Since they began closing certain areas to fishing for part of the year, local communities are seeing huge growth in the number of fish they catch. (© Conservation International/photo by Johnson Rakotoniaina)

On one day in 2009, the Malagasy village of Ivovona harvested 600 kilograms (1,322 pounds) of fish, mostly octopus. Earlier this year, those same fishermen, joined by others from the nearby village of Ambavarano, pulled in 5 tons of octopus — in three hours.

How did things turn around so quickly in a remote, poverty-stricken community? The villagers made the decision to adopt fishing regulations — and gained a new source of livelihood in the process. Continue reading

Pope Francis reminds us: Protect our home

Pope Francis

Pope Francis during a 2014 visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. (© European Union 2014 – European Parliament)

Anyone who takes a breath, drinks a drop of water or eats a bite of food, and wonders where all this nourishment comes from, understands that every single one of us depends upon nature for our lives.

Unfortunately, since the Industrial Revolution, the awareness of this direct connection has become fainter and often ignored outright. Our market-based system glorifies economic activity or GDP, where cost-benefit analyses too often override the core values that shape our moral behavior. This is especially true regarding our relationship with nature. We have lost sight of her value to all of us.  There has been a breach of faith.

For years I have believed that we need an 11th Commandment: Thou shalt cherish the Earth. And we have needed a respected, unifying voice to carry this message to all people.

Today, Pope Francis is this voice, and this is the message he has sent the world. Continue reading

Connections and contradictions grow in Mexico’s ‘Water Forest’

Jurgen Hoth holding lizard in Mexico's Water Forest

CI Mexico’s Jürgen Hoth holds a lizard found in the native grasslands that make up part of the Water Forest, an area that provides fresh water for the more than 23 million people residing in the Mexico City metropolitan region. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

It’s home to volcano rabbits, giant mushrooms and ancient lava fields. It supplies 23 million people with water. Its stunning natural beauty obscures years of power struggles and contradictions.

Welcome to the Bosque de Agua (Water Forest), where everything you thought you knew about how to take care of a forest dissipates with the morning mist.

Planting trees can be bad. Leaving land untouched can be worse. And yes, a healthy forest can be made to thrive smack in the middle of one of the world’s largest urban areas — if the conditions are right. Continue reading

Dispatch from Atauro: Search for Species Raises More Questions

This is the final post from David Emmett about a recent expedition searching for new species on the island of Atauro in the Southeast Asian country of Timor-Leste. Read previous blogs from the expedition.

Timor-Leste RAP team on boat

The Timor-Leste RAP team traveling between Atauro island and the Timorese capital of Dili. (photo courtesy of Timor-Leste RAP team)

The final day of our survey somehow encapsulated everything that is wonderful about Timor and Atauro.

We woke early, packed our field gear onto the boat and went for one last snorkeling trip. Once again, it was magnificent! In the bright sunlight and crystal-clear water, we saw stunning corals and a vast variety of reef fish. Out from the fringing reef, the seafloor drops more than 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) below the surface, creating habitat for big species such as sharks, whales and dolphins. This is where CI is proposing a shark sanctuary that would cover a combination of reefs and deep water, allowing for a range of species and ecosystems. Continue reading