Tom and I have wanted a whale shark encounter for so long, but it's honestly just a matter of luck in Hawaiian waters. While on a drop with an oceanic whitetip shark with a local friend of mine who was tagging the sharks for research, all of a sudden a large female whale shark appeared! This was my first wild whale shark, and it was an absolutely breathtaking moment when she appeared out of the depths and swam slowly towards us. For almost 2 hours, we got to enjoy her presence, swimming to keep up with her as she circled an underwater fish farm structure. She even surfaced to within inches of us a few times. I can only surmise she was slightly curious of us, too! She is the first whale shark tagged in Hawaii, and it'll be fascinating to find out what we can learn from her. Aside from humpback whales, she is the largest animal we've ever swam with. But she was so peaceful and swam with such precision and ease. It made us realize even more the need to protect these fascinating animals, sharks in general, and our beautiful blue planet. I'll have a more in-depth write-up soon. For now, enjoy these beautiful photos.
We compiled a quick video that showcases some of our encounters from this last year. Our hope is, it'll help inspire others to create change and help us protect our oceans. It's 8 minutes long so it's lengthy, but just picture David Attenborough charismatically narrating the whole thing, and it's worth the watch :)
Happy #WorldWildlifeDay! This year’s theme is #LifeBelowWater, which is very fitting for us and our research. We are trying to do everything we can to make a difference because what we do now will ultimately determine the future of marine life and the health of our oceans.
World Wildlife Day was created as an opportunity to celebrate the many varieties of plant and animal life and to raise awareness for conservation. It urges us to make a stand against wildlife crimes (like shark finning) causing the endangerment of many species that ultimately results in a loss of biodiversity. This loss creates holes in food webs, and can also cause entire ecosystems to collapse. The best thing we can do is spread the word, teach our youth, and make changes at an individual level with the goal of living a more sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyle.
This is a picture from one of the most memorable encounters we've ever had with sharks. There were over 200 scalloped hammerhead sharks, and they were very peaceful, allowing us to swim with them for almost an hour. In the background, we could hear a humpback whale singing. Sharks are top predators, and are vital to a healthy ecosystem. Losing them would spell disaster for our world’s oceans. Unfortunately, scenes like this are becoming a thing of the past as sharks are being killed at record-breaking numbers all over the world.
One of the most prominent illegal industries is shark finning for shark fin soup. Shark fin soup is a specialty dish usually served at weddings and events in China, but it can be found worldwide. The shark fins themselves only provide texture to the soup, as they are tasteless. But fins drive a hefty profit, so sharks are brutally killed for their fins all over the world. For more info, we strongly suggest watching the work done by Rob Stewart and his documentaries Sharkwater and Sharkwater Extinction. They are tough to watch, but they have great info into this lucrative business of shark exploitation.
We are a bit behind on keeping up this page and we have some exciting changes to share soon! 2018 was a busy year with 10 major research trips. Now that it's the "off" season, we are working tirelessly to write up our data and finalize our notes from our encounters as well as plan our educational outreach and research goals for the new season. We should have our page updated within the next few weeks.
Our last trip to Hawaii, our main focus was pilot whales and tiger sharks. While we found tiger sharks and bottlenose dolphins actively feeding on amberjacks, we also lucked out and found 2 monk seals. It's always special to see endangered Hawaiian monk seals in their natural environment. There are only around 1,100 seals left in the wild. This one pictured here was successful in capturing an amberjack for lunch, and decided to feed right next to our boat while we were motored down. Tom also captured this dip-cam video footage from the boat with our GoPro. Because monk seals are easily stressed, we were not swimming with or purposely approaching these endangered mammals. Instead, we kept our distance and enjoyed watching their natural behaviors from the boat. If you're fortunate enough to see Hawaiian monk seals in the wild, be respectful of their space and watch them from a safe distance. And report injured or ill seals as quickly as possible.
For more information on active research, follow the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program facebook page, and you can also purchase a 4ocean bracelet to help support ocean clean-up and monk seal conservation:
We are currently in Norway working on our orca research and studying this beautiful environment. Our first day on the water was flat calm, with beautiful pink skies and hundreds of orcas. While the crew prepared our zodiacs, we watched from the deck of the Malmö as the orcas darted in and amongst the fishing boats to capture their share of the herring. Here in Norway, the fisheries industry is highly sustainable, after crashing almost 40 years ago, and it seems to allow for an abundance of these apex predators. It’s refreshing to see a successful fishing industry where fisherman and whale watchers/biologists alike can share the waters with little disagreement. I hope to see this practice shared on a worldwide scale in areas where fisheries are plunging and causing the collapse of many marine ecosystems.
In the arctic in winter, sunlight is dim and short-lived, but if you’re lucky enough to have clear skies, you have a few hours of “sunset”. As soon as the zodiacs were ready, we left our “home” ship and headed out into the fjord. Our first drop in the water, we had 2 female orcas swim beneath us, seemingly shy of us at first but definitely curious. They stayed right out of camera view, just far enough into the dark abyss that I couldn’t get a focus on them, so instead I got to enjoy watching them gently glide beneath me. Sometimes in these moments, I find it’s best to truly take it all in and watch with my own eyes then to stress about taking the perfect photo. I was also trying out a few new settings to improve my underwater photography, but this change proved to make focusing quite difficult.
On our second drop, I again had two orcas peacefully swimming by me, this time quite close. As soon as they were passed me, I turned and saw a large pod of 18+ orcas turning towards me. My heart was pounding and I just tried to focus on adjusting my camera to be in the right place at the right time. This is the moment I’ve waited 2 years to capture. Even though I’ve seen orcas underwater multiple times now, nothing prepares you for the heart-rush. It’s an indescribable feeling when they are slowly moving passed you, in pod formation, turning their heads and bellies towards you, all the while echolocating and blowing bubbles. It is truly a gift to be in their presence, and they seemingly have a mutual curiosity about us.
As the fishing boats wrapped up their day, our 2 zodiacs were the only boats left in the fjord, a rare, special moment that we tried to take in for as long as possible. We were treated to a beautiful sunset (something again that has proved to be quite rare in the arctic), and the behavior of the orcas shifted from feeding to play. Three orcas started to follow our zodiac. They seemed to love the sound of our motor, and a few camera drops in the water showed they were playing with the boat bubbles. Orcas are highly intelligent cetaceans, so they exhibit many playful behaviors. Our last drops of the day proved this. On two occasions, we had two orcas offer us pieces of their jellyfish. Tom & Zack had an orca just below them blow the jellyfish towards them, collect it again, and then repeat this behavior. I had heard about this from Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier but never thought we’d be fortunate enough to experience it. Our time in Norway has already been incredible, and we’ve just scratched the surface. We are learning so much, and cannot wait to get back in the water! Thanks to everyone who has supported our research, our organization, and our photography to help us study these amazing predators and help protect and preserve this beautiful arctic ecosystem. More photos & videos coming soon.
April 2018: Orca & humpback whale research - Monterey Bay, California
June 2018: Whale & shark research - Kona, Hawaii
July 2018: Northern resident orcas & humpback whales - Anchorage, Alaska
August 2018: manatees - Orlando, FL
September 2018: Orca & humpback whales - Monterey Bay, California
November 2018: Orca & humpback research - Arctic Norway
December 2018: Whale & shark research - Maui & Kona, Hawaii
February 2019: Humpback whales - Silver Bank, Dominican Republic
March 2019: Whale & shark research - Kona, Hawaii
April 2019: Orca & humpback whale research - Monterey Bay, California
Future Dates TBD