Diving with a Purpose

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Citizen Scientist trips: Hammerhead tagging Project

Revillagigedo Islands, December 2016

Author and photographer: Chrisrtian Vizl

I met Dora Sandoval, owner of the Rocio Del Mar Liveaboard Dive Boat, a few years ago. A popular dive magazine sent me to write an article and take pictures about her boat that she proudly operates in some of Mexico´s most magical waters. I found myself very impressed by the quality of service Dora and her crew work diligently to deliver to her divers on every trip. I remember she mentioned to me about her latest adventure which was redesigning another liveaboard, Quino El Guardian. The Quino was to be a vessel specifically built not only for scuba diving but also for scientific research and education. I became very interested in her idea especially during these times when our oceans face grave danger due to the devastation we humans are imposing around the world.

Quino El Guardian Photo by Christian Vizl
Quino El Guardian Photo by Christian Vizl

If we want to protect the areas of the ocean that are vital to countless living animals, we need data about an area and the individual species that depend on these ecosystems for their survival. Marine scientists devote their lives to gathering this data but they need boats, equipment, and support to get to these often-remote locations.

Bait ball in Socorro Photo by Christian Vizl
Bait ball in Socorro Photo by Christian Vizl

On the other hand, we, as members of the diving and underwater photography community, regularly travel to these destinations, but usually know very little about the lives of the animals we so cherish to encounter. And because we don’t know, we not only do little to protect and preserve these ecosystems, but may worsen the situation with poor diving practices that damage the corals and overstress the marine life we encounter.

México, Revillagigedo Islands, San Benedicto. Half and half image of a silkie shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) and fishes, and San Benedicto Island with Liveaboard Quino el Guardian on top. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, San Benedicto. Half and half image of a silkie shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) and fishes, and San Benedicto Island with Liveaboard Quino el Guardian on top. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Socorro. A giant manta (Manta birostris) swimming near a sandy bottom in the canyons of Socorro Island with Dr. James Ketchum taking pictures for photo ID. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Socorro. A giant manta (Manta birostris) swimming near a sandy bottom in the canyons of Socorro Island with Dr. James Ketchum taking pictures for photo ID. Photo by Christian Vizl

DIVING WITH A PURPOSE

TheQuino El Guardian with its Citizen Science Program was designed to create a solution in which everyone benefits; the scientists, the divers, and the ocean.

Scientists benefit by having access to an amazing boat and crew that gets them to where they need to be and the eager divers to help with their research.

The divers benefit from the opportunity to learn about the ecosystem first-hand from leading scientists as well as the satisfaction to be doing something that helps protect what they love, in this case the ocean and all it’s beautiful marine life. They also help protect these areas by creating awareness with the images and stories they will share with friends and family and these stories will be one of conservation.

The ocean benefits by creating more conscientious divers with a heightened respect for these vital areas of the world. It also enables the scientists to collect that needed data to help further conservation efforts.

México, Revillagigedo Islands, Roca Partida. A school of Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks (Sphyrna lewini) swimming some 120 ft deep around Roca Partida Island. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Roca Partida. A school of Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks (Sphyrna lewini) swimming some 120 ft deep around Roca Partida Island. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Socorro. A giant Manta birostris as seen from above swimming in a rocky sandy bottom. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Socorro. A giant Manta birostris as seen from above swimming in a rocky sandy bottom. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, San Benedicto. Dr. James Ketchum in field work observing and documenting a silkie shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) swimming near the surface. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, San Benedicto. Dr. James Ketchum in field work observing and documenting a silkie shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) swimming near the surface. Photo by Christian Vizl

Science, investigation, education, conservation – these are the main areas of interest during these trips. In the words of Dora,

“Citizen Science is a program where divers, by meeting and working hand in hand with scientists, not only get to dive in amazing places with less divers, they also get to participate in the conservation and preservation of these incredible destinations. The only prerequisites to participate in this program are to be a certified diver and to have an open mind and the willingness to learn alongside world renown experts like James Ketchum and Robert Rubin. Without the Quino El Guardian, scientists wouldn’t have a method to get to remote locations like the Revillagigedo Islands.”

The areas chosen for these projects are the last frontiers – they are the most pristine places on earth with an urgency to be protected. Through programs like this we are making sure we are doing the best we can at making a difference.

México, Revillagigedo Islands, Quino El Guardian. Different types of tags used for sharks, as well as graphic material for the citizen scientists program aboard Quino El Guardian. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Quino El Guardian. Different types of tags used for sharks, as well as graphic material for the citizen scientists program aboard Quino El Guardian. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Roca Partida. A free diving champion targetting a silkie shark to tag him for scientific research to understand their movements and patterns. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Roca Partida. A free diving champion targetting a silkie shark to tag him for scientific research to understand their movements and patterns. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Socorro. Dr. James Ketchum a marine biologist and ecologyst placing a baited camera for research purposes on a rocky bottom. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Socorro. Dr. James Ketchum a marine biologist and ecologyst placing a baited camera for research purposes on a rocky bottom. Photo by Christian Vizl

HAMMERHEAD TAGGING PROJECT

In December 2016, I had the opportunity to participate in one of this trips. It was multi-faceted with the primary goal of tagging hammerhead sharks to understand their movement patterns, shark and manta identification to determine their abundance and diversity, and taking micro plastic and zooplankton samples to determine the effect of these pollutants on mantas.

The scientific team was lead by Dr. James Ketchum, who is cofounder of Pelagios Kakunjá, a Mexican non-profit organization that seeks to conserve sharks and pelagic species by understanding their movements, migratory patterns, and population dynamics in the Mexican Pacific. He has been studying sharks and migratory pelagic species since 1996, holds a Ph.D. in Ecology from UC Davis and his publications about hammerheads and whale sharks constitute pioneering work in México and Ecuador.

Also on the team was Fred Buyle, a Belgian free diving champion and photographer, co-founder of AIDA who, after his achievements as a professional athlete, was drawn organically into photography and involvement with leading scientists and conservationists around the world. Scientists needed his skills to document and tag hammerheads sharks which are very shy and hard to approach especially while scuba diving. He considers himself, “Just the link between the scientist and the animal” and does this as volunteer work. In addition, Fred documents the entire process on these trips and gives all this material to the scientist to help them with their communication strategies, so they can promote their conservation work.

The third member of the scientific team was Master in Science, Tania Pelamati, who earned a degree in Biology at the University of Milan and a master in Marine Biology at Universitá Politecnica delle Marche, Italy. She is part of Pelagios Kakunjá and collaborates in many projects. Her specific area of interest is the study of emergent pollutants affecting marine environment and the effect of plastics on manta rays.

This was an impressive group of people to spend 10 days aboard a liveaboard and it was as awesome as it sounds! During this time, they all gave very interesting presentations about their work and the animals with which we were diving. The other divers and I learned first hand how to tag a shark, take microplastic and zooplankton samples, how to photo ID sharks and mantas, learned about shark biology and ecology and in general assisted the scientists in their field work, which eventually will help in the conservation of this amazing place and incredible animals.

México, Revillagigedo Islands, San Benedicto.  Diving enjoying a Manta birostris swimming on top of the canyons. One of the divers is aiming bubbles to the ventral area of the manta because they seem to enjoy a lot the sensation. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, San Benedicto. Diving enjoying a Manta birostris swimming on top of the canyons. One of the divers is aiming bubbles to the ventral area of the manta because they seem to enjoy a lot the sensation. Photo by Christian Vizl

In the words of Jorge, another fellow diver on the trip who was a very experience diver and dive store owner from Ensenada, México,

“Citizen Science trips are a great idea, because it´s not only diving, we learn about the biology of the animals and how to protect them. Myths like sharks being aggressive or that a giant manta is going to attack me like the Crocodile Hunter are debunked”.

Another participant, Roberto, said,

“It´s a great bonus to the trip because you learn while having fun and experiencing the adventure”, and Ralph, a young photographer from the US, explained that he learned a lot more and it made the dives far more interesting while interacting with everyone with a goal that is science-based.

México, Revillagigedo Islands, San Benedicto. A silkie shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) and some jacks swimming below the Quino el Guardian Liveaboard. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, San Benedicto. A silkie shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) and some jacks swimming below the Quino el Guardian Liveaboard. Photo by Christian Vizl

Talk about diving with a purpose! And all this with no extra cost for us, on the contrary, I felt I was receiving so much more for my payment than just a regular dive, especially the feeling of helping scientists to protect these animals and ecosystems that I love so much. For me, this is the future of diving…

México, Revillagigedo Islands, Quino El Guardian. Luis the divemaster aboard giving his safety briefing at the beginning of the trip. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Quino El Guardian. Luis the divemaster aboard giving his safety briefing at the beginning of the trip. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Quino El Guardian. Dr. James Ketchum explaining how to operate the  tags used for sharks, as well as graphic material for the citizen scientists program aboard Quino El Guardian. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Quino El Guardian. Dr. James Ketchum explaining how to operate the tags used for sharks, as well as graphic material for the citizen scientists program aboard Quino El Guardian. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Quino El Guardian. Dr. James Ketchum during his presentation on tagging sharks, with Fred Buyle on the back. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Quino El Guardian. Dr. James Ketchum during his presentation on tagging sharks, with Fred Buyle on the back. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Quino El Guardian. Fred Buyle preparing the spear gun used to insert the tag into the sharks dorsal fin. Photo by Christian Vizl
México, Revillagigedo Islands, Quino El Guardian. Fred Buyle preparing the spear gun used to insert the tag into the sharks dorsal fin. Photo by Christian Vizl
CHRISTIAN VIZL

CHRISTIAN VIZL was born in México City in 1972.  Has a degree in Business Administration, was formed as a Diving Instructor, Cave Diver, Rafting Guide, and Sailor. Was a member of CEDAM, a Mexican organization devoted to marine arquaeology. Lived for a year in Germany (1993) a year in Akumal, southeast México (1997) and a year in Australia (1998). He has been an enthusiast photographer since he was 15 years old, but it´s since 2010 when he starts with underwater photography and with a more professional approach.

Every since I was a kid, as far as I can remember, I was attracted to the sea. I dream about what lie beneath the waves. I imagine what would it looked like if suddenly all the water would disappear for a while, but all the animals and living creatures would remain at the same place they where, so I could then take a walk inside the ocean and see them all, suspended for a moment in time and space.

I still have that same dream, and I am very grateful that now I am able to live it every time I go down to the sea. I see my pictures, and realize they are the result of that childhood dream…beautiful and incredible marine life suspended in their natural environment and capture in a brief moment of time. They are my way of seeing this dream, how I perceive it and how being underwater in this magical world, in the presence of the marine environment makes me feel. It has been a fantastic journey of exploration and discovery, both outside and inside me, which I hope to keep doing for the rest of my life.

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January 25, 2017 |

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