Expedition Shark: Why we need to protect these predators

PALAWAN, Philippines – A figure glides across the clear water. It seems intimidating from a distance but up close, it is breathtaking.

This is the first time Expedition Shark project director Ryan Murray has encountered a tiger shark in shallow waters. Ecstatic but cautious, he discreetly follows the creature. The camera rolls and the shark doesn't seem to mind. 

"When I got to Tubbataha, it was completely different. Sharks, rays, jacks, tunas – it's just something I haven't witnessed before," Ryan says about working on Expedition Shark.

SCHOOLING JACKS. A healthy reef, means healthy residents! From the small reef fish to the larger schooling fish, Tubbataha Reefs offer an insight into a working ecosystem. Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

SCHOOLING JACKS. A healthy reef, means healthy residents! From the small reef fish to the larger schooling fish, Tubbataha Reefs offer an insight into a working ecosystem.

Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

In May 2015, non-profit organization Large Marine Vertebrates Project or LAMAVE conducted the first comprehensive assessment of sharks and rays within the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.

Why study the shark species, and how are they significant to the Tubbataha Reefs? 

In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that 25% of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction. Often portrayed in popular culture as serial killers with an insatiable thirst for blood, it can be challenging to understand the importance of saving them from extinction.

RYAN AT THE STATION. Tubbataha Reefs Park Rangers are based at the ranger station for two months at a time. Sally Snow/LAMAVE

RYAN AT THE STATION. Tubbataha Reefs Park Rangers are based at the ranger station for two months at a time.

Sally Snow/LAMAVE

"When you remove sharks and other top predators from the chain, the reef’s ecosystem loses its balance and creates a cascading effect," Ryan says. These colossal animals are at the top level of the marine food chain, and by keeping  mid-level predators in check, they maintain a healthy cycle in our ocean.

Seeing the world from this perspective is surreal. Blue overrides everything else, while hues of orange glow in contrast. Purple anemones, silver schools of fish, and sharks in white and grey keep the reef alive in harmony. 

It is the only place in the country that attracts a large population of the elasmobranch – sharks, rays, and skates. The protected area spans roughly 10,000 hectares of stunning biodiversity. It is about 150 kilometers southeast of Puerto Princesa, best reached by a live-aboard.

PHOTOGRAPHER STEVE. Steve, a professional conservation photographer and videographer, was the expedition's dedicated underwater cameraman. Simon Pierce/LAMAVE

PHOTOGRAPHER STEVE. Steve, a professional conservation photographer and videographer, was the expedition's dedicated underwater cameraman.

Simon Pierce/LAMAVE

FILMING. Filmmaker Diana Scalfati shoots the sunset from the sandbar located next to the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Ranger Station. Sally Snow/LAMAVE

FILMING. Filmmaker Diana Scalfati shoots the sunset from the sandbar located next to the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Ranger Station.

Sally Snow/LAMAVE

IN FLIGHT. This picture offers a glimpse of bird islet with one of its residents u2013 a Brown Booby in full flight. Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

IN FLIGHT. This picture offers a glimpse of bird islet with one of its residents u2013 a Brown Booby in full flight.

Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

Ryan says this paradise nurtures the whitetips, grey reefs, and blacktips, but migratory species like tiger sharks, whale sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks, and thresher sharks are also present in the reef.

“They are at a higher risk of becoming extinct because they may only use Tubbataha for a certain period of the year, then move on in its pursuit of food,” he adds.

How do you begin protecting sharks? It starts from understanding the species. When LAMAVE is able to identify and track them, it finds out more about its habitat, its breeding or mating patterns, then helps them discover what may harm them.

Together with LAMAVE’s director Dr Alessandro Ponzo, Ryan and the rest of the team carried out 3 methods in Expedition Shark:

1) Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) surveys

DEPLOYING BRUVS. Ryan deploys a BRUVS with the park rangers. Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

DEPLOYING BRUVS. Ryan deploys a BRUVS with the park rangers.

Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

This is basically a camera in a specially designed housing attached to a metal frame. The frame has a 1.5-meter PVC pipe with a bait mesh containing fish heads. The theory: the bait will attract any top predators in the area within the field view of the camera. The videos give an insight into the species present at different depths, be it 20, 40, 60 or 80 meters. So far Ryan has recorded tiger sharks, hammerheads, and a whole host of other species.

2) Underwater Video Surveys

SURVEY TEAM. Park Ranger Segundo F. Conales Jr with LAMAVE researchers Ryan Murray and Jessica Labaja. Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

SURVEY TEAM. Park Ranger Segundo F. Conales Jr with LAMAVE researchers Ryan Murray and Jessica Labaja.

Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

This research method is mostly done via scuba diving to count elasmobranchs. The data collected will act as an important baseline of what species the park hosts, and will contribute to future studies investigating trends in shark abundance. 

3) Satellite tags

TAGS. Gonzalo Araujo and Dr Alessandro Ponzo prepare a SPOT tag ready for deployment on a whale shark. Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

TAGS. Gonzalo Araujo and Dr Alessandro Ponzo prepare a SPOT tag ready for deployment on a whale shark.

Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

Tags used for this project are called SPOT-5 Tags. These send a signal of its location to a passing satellite. The shark has to be active at the surface for the satellite tag to send a signal. They are attached using a spear pole which enters the thick skin of the whale shark. 

Understanding the movements of whale sharks is essential to their protection, particularly if these migratory animals are traveling to unprotected waters outside the Philippines.

NURSE SHARK. One of its most distinguishing features is its barbells u2013 the fleshy appendages that hang below the nostrils. Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

NURSE SHARK. One of its most distinguishing features is its barbells u2013 the fleshy appendages that hang below the nostrils.

Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

PHOTO ID. Dr Simon Pierce and LAMAVE researcher Jessica Labaja compare spot patterns of whale sharks encountered during Expedition Shark. Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

PHOTO ID. Dr Simon Pierce and LAMAVE researcher Jessica Labaja compare spot patterns of whale sharks encountered during Expedition Shark.

Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

Another way LAMAVE gathers data is through the citizen science, a free form of data collection by engaging the public to contribute.

With this method, Ryan talks with as many divers as possible. "It's like having 10/20 cameras in the water at any one time. From collecting photos and videos from all the guests, we identified quite a substantial number of individual whale sharks and about 5 tiger sharks."

Biggest challenge, best experience

“It is interesting to compare a marine protected area like Tubbataha with other sites across the country, so that the public can see the benefits a well managed park can have to an area,” Ryan says. 

Sally Snow, LAMAVE's media director and resident filmmaker, adds the biggest challenge for LAMAVE is to help make marine resources sustainable beyond Tubbataha. Sally says, "It's scary because you think this is what our ocean should look like everywhere but it doesn't. But it is inspiring to see how much people are protecting Tubbataha."

Both Sally and Ryan agree that one of the best experiences from the expedition is working with various people and groups who support the advocacy, particularly the Tubbataha Management Office and the Rangers.  Without them this incredible place would not exist. 

SUCCESS. The team stands together on a sand bar in the middle of the Sulu Sea with the WWF Navorca Crew and the incredible Rangers of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

SUCCESS. The team stands together on a sand bar in the middle of the Sulu Sea with the WWF Navorca Crew and the incredible Rangers of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.

Steve de Neef/LAMAVE

Overall, LAMAVE’s Expedition Shark was a huge success, reaping an incredible amount of donation and support via crowdfunding. 

Attracting international resonance is a great achievement, but conserving natural resources is a long-term endeavor. The support can only keep going when people are aware of the advocacy and how they can help keep the sharks alive, our oceans healthy, and and our way of life thriving. – Rappler.com

All photos from LAMAVE. For more information on LAMAVE, click here