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Isla Mujeres Sailfish – 2012

Posted in news, photography, production, travel, video with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2012 by shawnheinrichs

Sailfish lights up as it strikes baitball

We returned to Isla Mujeres for our 4th season of sailfish action aboard the Lilly M and Andrea M of Keen M International. Captains Anthony, Rogelio and David did an outstanding job as usual. Despite challenging weather conditions and fluctuations in the activity, each trip was huge success with epic sailfish baitball action. In addition, we encountered many other species of marine life, and scored some terrific interactions.

Richard and striking sailfish - close one

In our first trip, Richard Branson and his family joined us to give the sailfish a try. Having already experienced the whale shark aggregations in July, he was ready to turn up the heat several notches and experience one of the most exciting and intense marine spectacles found anywhere in the Ocean. Also with me was my good friend John Petry who was trying his hand at a “Shawn Epic” for the first time. Lawrence kindly invited us as guests to join him on the his vessel the Chachalaca for some incredible action!

Sailfish lines up on Richard Branson

Sailfish makes a very close pass by Richard!

Whale shark swoops through with ball of bait fish

Manta ray comes in close to investigate and turns right under Richard

The trip was a huge success with baitballs lasting for hours and sailfish ripping apart the sardines just inches from our masks.  We also swam with groups of giant mantas, a whale shark. One curious manta decided to give Richard a closer look, coming nose to nose before ducking right under him. For Richard’s son Sam, his interaction with a whale shark was a first in his lifetime. Everyone left with huge smiles, excited to return to Isla again from more marine mega-fauna activity.

Sailfish poses with Branson family

Richard Branson and family in the sailfish mix

Sam Branson swims up from the blue

Team Shot: Bransons, Anthony and Shawn

Great trip with Lawrence on the Chacalaca...thank you!

I also had a second group with me during that first week. Sean Havas, Sterling Zumbunn (Backscatter) and my older brother Brett Heinrichs. The group was incredibly proficient in the water and I even struggled to keep up with the furious pace that we chased down baitball after bait ball. Day one we landed a 3 hour baitball and another 2 hour baitball. Day 2 was much the same. Day 3 and 4 I was off the boat and the success continued without me. Day 5 we regrouped and found sails again, but this time conditions had turned and we called it an early day. Overall the trip was a huge success and everyone came back with epic imagery.

Sailfish bites down on sardine

Sean Havas gets up close on the action

Brett Heinrichs photographs sailfish

Sterling Zumbrunn working the baitball

Sailfish blocks retreating sardine ball

On our second trip, David Vic and Debbie, Phil Sokol and Greg Redfern joined me. Except for Greg, the entire team were sailfish veterans so I knew we are going to get it done right. With several very slow days from the outset, I was beginning to get nervous. The team however remained upbeat and positive, and on day four we landed the mother load.

Sailfish charges head on, inches from my dome

We spent 4 hours on a single baitball (5 hours is my record length baitball )with 75-100 sailfish tearing it apart. The action never let up and we documented the ball whittle down to the last few sardines. Two days later we scored another baitball that lasted another 2 hours, and with 6 hours or intense baitball action for the week, the group left with full CF cards and lifetime memories.

Sailfish uses sail to block sardines

Sailfish hits sardine

Sailfish in perfect harmony

Frigates pick up scraps from sailfish

Frigate birds hover right above baitball

Our third and final trip faced just as challenging sea conditions, with persistent winds and upwellings creating green/turbid waters. I was joined by Lupo Dion, and Michael and Nadine Umbscheiden. Unfortunately, Mary O’Malley was booked to come but fell sick the day before the trip and had to cancel. We missed here dearly, but there is always next year!

Chaos - Feeding frigates and pelicans

Day one we chased down a baitball and spent 2 hours with it. Unfortunately the waters were green but we still managed some great shots. On day 3 we landed a 2 hour baitball of epic intensity. In four years interacting with the sailfish, I have never experienced such ferocious activity. The sailfish boxed in a very tired ball of sardines and set about tearing it apart. The passes were fast, furious and often terrifying. Though the entire group were no strangers to intense bill animal action, I have never seen so many defensive postures and dodges. The sailfish would slice off a few sardines from the ball, who would race toward us for cover. The entire swarm of sailfish would set upon them, charging by us at light-speed as we winced behind our cameras. Way to many close calls for my liking!

Sailfish flares in front of Lupo

Very close call!

Sailfish strikes sardine

Full Sail

Sailfish shows it colors

Sailfish chase down baitball

Day 4 turned out to be especially memorable. While motoring across blue waters in search of sailfish action, we came across 100-150 whale sharks feeding on the surface. This looked to be exactly the same scene as we witness in July/August during the annual whale shark aggregation here. At this time of year, satellite tagging data indicates that these whale sharks are meant to be at the furthest extent of their migrations from Isla. But here they were? We dove in and discovered the water was full of tiny clear eggs that looked very much like the eggs we see the whale sharks feeding on in July. It was a mystery why the whale sharks have arrived 3 months early, but one thing was clear; we were going to snorkel with them! We spent 5 hours with these majestic animals, filming as groups of whale sharks, swimming up to 5 abreast and 4 deep came cruising by. It was an incredible prelude to the summer whale shark trips that lay ahead for us.

Whale sharks feeding on surface

Whale shark feeds on surface

Whale shark gulps down fish eggs

Whale shark with snorkeler

Split shot with whale sharks and Lilly M

Juan, Nadine, Shawn, Rogelio and Lupo

Overall this year was a huge success and offered even more diversity of interactions than prior seasons. In addition to sailfish, we encountered:

–       Whale Sharks

–       Giant Mantas

–       Caribbean Mantas

–       Mobula Rays

–       4 species of dolphins

–       Wahoo (hunting)

–       Barracuda (hunting)

–       Jacks  (massive school)

–       Bonito schools (hunting)

Gulping Whale Shark

Manta ray glides overhead

Caribbean Manta passes below

Dolphins hunt bonito

The diversity, quantity and quality of big animal interactions sets Isla Mujeres apart from other locations on the planet. Working in small groups, we achieve the best interactions possible. I can’t wait for next year!

Home away from home

Oslob Philippines and the Whale Sharks

Posted in conservation, news, photography, production, travel, video with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2012 by shawnheinrichs

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the recently “discovered” Oslob, Philippines whale shark situation because of the feeding of the sharks that accompanies the tourism.

As with all things in life, there are many strong opinions and diverse viewpoints.However, there is much to be learned by opening our minds to alternative perspectives, even if we don’t end up agreeing with that perspective. The saying “seek first to understand, then to be understood” comes to mind, and it was in this spirit that I approached the story of Oslob’s whale sharks.

My visit to Oslob was unintended. I came to the Philippines to work with a local advocacy team to help with the new proposed shark conservation legislation. Following this, I was invited down to Dumaguete as guest of Atmosphere Resort to document their conservation work and film some of the spectacular macro life on their reefs.

Fishermen and whale shark connect

Near the end of my trip, we explored a remote dive site near Oslob, Cebu. Upon surfacing from the first dive, an excited local park ranger approached our boat and announced that the fishermen across the channel had befriended whale sharks. If we were willing pay a fee to the fishermen, we could dive with them.

We were both curious and skeptical. We jumped in our boat and headed across the channel to investigate. Upon arriving, we were astounded by the sight of fishermen in dugout canoes, paddling around with whale sharks following behind. We paid 100 pesos per person and plunged in to swim with the whale sharks.

Oslob fishermen and their whale sharks

Realizing we had “discovered” something unique and special, I decided to spend more time to understand and document the situation. With only my dry bag, cameras and a tub of rice, I hopped aboard one of the dugout canoes and paddled ashore.

I spent a day and night with the fishermen learning all I could about the situation. I sat with the local fishermen on the beach under the stars, talking late into the night. I was intrigued by everything they shared with me, including their fishing practices, the history of the whale sharks in the area, and the new whale shark tourism they started.

Fisherman netting tiny shrimp late at night

Later that night, I went out shrimp fishing with the fishermen in their dugouts while also observing the natural feeding practices of the whale sharks in this area. What I witnessed shed light on the daytime feeding conducted by the fishermen. Early the next morning, I spent several hours in the water, alone with the fishermen and several whale sharks. It was a very intimate experience that challenged my prior perceptions and opened my mind to new possibilities.

The following discussion is based on my direct, personal observations.

Feeding of the whale sharks

The whale sharks that come to Oslob are targeting tiny shrimp that rise to the surface at night. These shrimp move in toward the shallows under moonlight. The fishermen catch small quantities of the same shrimp that the whale sharks are eating by using small lights on their canoes and very fine-mesh hand nets (in 1 meter of water).

I observed the whale sharks at night in 2-3 meters of water passing back/forth as they fed on the shrimp. It was hard to believe how shallow they were feeding! In the day, the whale sharks were still in the area, possibly waiting for the evening when the shrimp rise again to the surface.

Fisherman netting tiny shrimp late at night

During the day, the fishermen fed the whale sharks a small amount of shrimp caught from the previous nights catch. Each whale shark may consume a few kilos. Relating to feeding concerns, my observations are as follows:

  • The shrimp that are fed to the whale sharks are not larger shrimp that have been minced, as has been mistakenly reported, but are tiny shrimp that are a natural part of the whale sharks’ diet for this precise area.
  • The hand feeding appears to be a small additional supplement to what the sharks eat on their own.
  • The tiny shrimp are brought ashore within an hour of catching (3am when I was there), packed into sealed plastic bags and stored on ice to keep them fresh for the few hours until they are fed to the sharks.
  • While I did not study the migratory behavior of the whale sharks, it is likely that migration patterns would not be impacted because they still come to feed when the shrimp are available in this area, and leave when the shrimp are not available. The fishermen report that during full moon phases, the shrimp do not appear and the whale sharks are gone.

Fishermen packs tiny shrimp in bag for whale sharks

Tiny shrimp packed in back for whale sharks

Tiny shrimp packed into bags

Whale shark gulps down tiny shrimp

A reasonable concern is that the whale sharks may become habituated to small boats seek possible food handouts. Whale sharks have been known to approach boats in many locations around the world already, sometimes relating to fishing methods, rather than tourism-related feeding. It remains unclear whether or how tourism feeding has any longer term impacts, but I suspect this issue needs a further look.

Interaction with the sharks

Another concern relates to interaction practices. I have had extensive experience visiting many whale shark diving destinations throughout the world—not just Oslob. In my experience, the greatest concerns are less about proximity of guests to whale sharks and more about density/number of tourists and also the number and actions of motorboats. I do believe there should be regulations to protect the sharks. Here are my thoughts:

  • Guidelines should focus on managing the number of boats and guests at any given time in the water interacting with the sharks. In many places, the “one boat per shark” rule makes a lot of sense, with a limit of number of guests per shark.
  • If motor boats are being used (they are not in Oslob), the boats should not gun their motors to approach a shark when sighted and the boat should keep sufficient distance from the shark to reduce the chance of maiming the shark with the propellers.
  • Riding and handling of sharks should be prohibited. Though riding on sharks has been reported in the past at Oslob, the new regulations prohibit this.
  • In the case of Oslob, the whale sharks are feeding on their natural prey but certainly not in a natural manner because they remained mostly stationary and upright. My observations were that they cared little for divers or snorkelers and even approached them without concern.

Whale shark sits vertically in water

Two whale sharks approach a dugout canoe

Diving with whale sharks

Another controversy is whether SCUBA diving or snorkeling is the preferred means of experiencing whale sharks. Some suggest that diving negatively affects the animals. However, there are many locations around the world, including Galapagos, Cocos, Seychelles, Maldives, Mozambique, Thailand, where diving with whale sharks is endorsed and promoted and does not seem to have any negative impact.

  • Diving does raise the issue of diver safety when divers must share the open water with boat traffic and moving animals. In Oslob, however, both the whale sharks and the boats are remaining in relatively fixed positions. There is no need for divers to make rapid ascents.
  • A second issue relates to the animals using the water column to create breaks from tourists. In Oslob, the animals are generally stationary at the surface and in shallow water. As such, there is no need, intention or even possibility for the animals to move way or seek space.

Whale sharks with dugout canoes

The new regulations in Oslob

At the time of my visit to Oslob in early December, 2011, the whale sharks were only known to a few local operators and no regulations of any type were in place. While concerning, visitor traffic was still minimal. After I completed documenting the extraordinary situation at Oslob, I requested that all members of my dive group not publicize the Oslob whale sharks until such time as I could help the implementation of proper guidelines. I was concerned that if the world found out about Oslob, the situation could spin out of control.

I submitted my findings and recommendations to the parties involved in establishing the regulations. I collaborate with many of the top marine mega-fauna researchers, and I have extensive experience dealing in the management of tourism interactions with whale sharks and manta rays in locations around the world. I also work closely with fishing communities in remote locations around the world helping them foster development of tourism opportunities (as apposed to destructive fishing).

When I landed back home in the USA, I discovered that a Philippine newspaper had just run a feature on Oslob’s whale sharks. A brief search of the internet revealed blogs and images popping up everywhere. The story was out.

In the face of what I considered to be rampant hearsay and growing speculative commentary, I made the decision to release my story to the press.

Whale sharks lined up below dugout canoes

I was happy to see that my input was well received and my recommendations considered in the final regulations, as I’m sure others were. In late January (just a few weeks ago) the following regulations were implemented:

  1. Whale Shark Viewing Time Opens at 6 AM and closes at 1PM
  2. Rules in Watching Whale Sharks
  • Do not touch, ride, or chase a whale shark
  • Do not restrict normal movement or behavior of the shark
  • Flash photography are not allowed
  • Motorboats are prohibited in the area. Only paddleboats are allowed.
  • Viewing is limited to 30 minutes
  • A maximum of six tourists is allowed to view for 30 minutes while a maximum of four divers is allowed to avoid crowding.

There has been widespread criticism that the regulations, after just a few weeks, are being ignored and not properly implemented. We must bear in mind however, that these regulations have just been implemented, and that this village has very little experience with tourism management. As such, they are starting with minimal infrastructure and training is in place. It takes time, commitment and support to properly implement regulations and socialize them within communities, and for us to continue to reinforce the importance of these regulations being applied effectively.

Whale sharks lined up under dugout canoes

In my opinion, the above regulations are some of the strictest in the industry with regard to whale shark interaction. In Donsol, Ningaloo, Thialand, the Maldives, parts of Mexico, and most other locations, far more tourists are allowed to interact with the whale sharks. Furthermore, in these other locations motorized boats often run intercepts on the whale sharks to drop tourists as close as possible to minimize their swimming. The consequences are self evident, as whale sharks in these areas frequent exhibit scars from propellers and chopped dorsal and tail fins. Having spent time photographing in these areas, I find it is difficult to produce an image of a whale shark that has not been injured. I wouldn’t want to stop (and in fact endorse) the whale shark diving in these areas, but instead offer these examples to help us shed a fair and honest light on the Oslob situation.

Closing Comments

Many of us in the diving and conservation community care deeply about these animals, as well as the opportunity to experience them. There are different ways and places to experience sharks. Seeing the controversy the feeding of these sharks has caused, I realize that we may all share a passion for these animals, but may still disagree on what the graver concerns may be. I’m personally disheartened that the outcry over the feeding of these sharks has been louder than that over the illegal slaughter of manta rays in this very same region.

Village boy leans over butchered whale sharks

The greatest and continuing concern remains the killing of these animals. The history in this region has been one where whale sharks have been targeted and slaughtered for fins and meat, both before and since the ban. Some villages of Bohol have systematically targeted whale sharks and largely wiped them out in waters of the region.

The fishermen in Oslob related that up until a decade ago, dozens of whale sharks were prevalent in their waters throughout the year and regularly encountered during their fishing. Fishermen then came from Bohol and slaughtered large numbers of whale sharks for their fins. Once they were done, the whale sharks were gone. Now a decade later, some have returned. While the Oslob village was not the killers, they are only now valuing these animals alive and the fishing community has a stake in the conservation of these whale sharks.

Let’s celebrate this progress while at the same time working towards proper management and interaction practices. We have an opportunity in Oslob to work with this fishing community (not against it), to help them foster more responsible interaction practices. These fishermen expressed true affection and appreciation for these animals, and are eager to develop tourism while maintaining the well being of the whale sharks. Rather than become embroiled in debate and criticism, we should be a positive force in helping that happen, because the bottom line is, the greatest threat to these animals is directed fisheries and not tourism.

Local fishermen promote their new tourism

The Dark Room

Posted in conservation, news, photography, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2012 by shawnheinrichs

Warning – The following contains imagery that depicts the hard truth.

My soul was blackened. Where once I had seen light at the end of the tunnel, now there was only darkness engulfing me. How had mankind gone so far off the track, engaging in such barbaric acts, willful cruelty and reckless destruction? Nature has given us so many incredible gifts, but rather than cherish and protect them, we have set out to systematically eradicate them.

Fighting on the frontlines of shark conservation can be a lonely, frustrating and often depressing experience. In July of 2011, I had just returned from a long string of investigations focused on the shark fin and manta ray gill-raker trade. With a decade of environmental investigation experience under my belt, I have seen just about every imaginable act of cruelty and wanton destruction. Through these hard experiences I have learned to separate myself, developing an alter ego as it were, to cope in the heat of the moment and not subject myself to increased danger.

Over the years I have convinced myself that these two personas can coexist in harmony, that my thick skin and polished armor would safeguard my soul from the effects of the ugliness I have witnessed. I feared that if it the blackness seeped through a crack in my armor, it would poison my soul and I would lose the path. Folks often ask me what it is like to work on frontlines and how do I keep it up. I respond with a safe confident answer that I get used to it, that I maintain professional detachment, keep my cool, focus on the job at hand, and I don’t internalize it.

In the face of such destruction, I walk a fine line between bitter reality and hope. My job is to expose the destruction as a wake up call to the world, but also to preserve hope in the future; that mankind will wake up, will change and things will get better. I call this approach ‘strong medicine in small doses’. The problem is, in the process of collecting these ‘small doses’ I have had to expose myself to massive and prolonged doses. And as no surprise, this extreme exposure has proven toxic and painful and only now am I realizing this.

I live in a world of imagery. I am obsessed with the visual sense and addicted to the process of capturing powerful images. I am a storyteller and imagery is my medium. My ambition is to somehow get my camera to capture what my soul experiences through my eyes, an enhanced version of reality, order in chaos, focused, isolated and profound.

I present the following images and captions as a form of self-therapy; my way of explaining the investigation world I experience, as seen through my eyes, and the darkness that accompanies it.

I call this collection of images THE DARK ROOM

Raja Ampat, Indonesia – After 6 years defending our No-Take-Zone against poachers we intercept a shark boat on the boundary of the protected area. In the water, I look into the lifeless eye of a one of our sharks that had grown up in the safety of the protected area, only to suffocate and die in a gill net, its fins to be sliced off and body discarded.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia – Gill nets rake the fragile reefs on the seafloor trapping sharks and rays. My eyes follow the net as it rolls up and over the side o the boat. I watch desperate fishermen pull in the net, laboring against the weight of a Guitar Ray struggling to free itself, exhausted on the brink of survival.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia – The bodies of grey reef sharks pile up on the deck of the gill net boat illegally fishing for sharks in the MPA. After 6 years successfully thwarting poachers, the depletion of sharks throughout Indonesia drives fishermen to target the last remaining shark stocks in marine protected areas.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia – I step back as a young fisherman tosses the lifeless body of a juvenile gray reef shark onto a pile of dead sharks and rays. No shark is too small to be spared from the cruelty of the shark fin trade.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia – Like some ancient tribal masks, I stare at heads of sharks and rays drying on the roof of this shark boat caught illegally fishing in the MPA. Hammerheads, Guitar Rays and other endangered species are among the victims of this senseless slaughter.

East Flores, Indonesia – Motoring across the calm waters in the early morning light, we come upon a local fishing boat. My eyes lock on the dark beautiful eye of a lifeless Pelagic Thresher shark staring up at me, its skin a glistening gold in the warm morning sun. The value of the fins from this endangered shark are driving the mass slaughter of the species in this region.

East Flores, Indonesia – An excited village boy holds up a fetal Scalloped Hammerhead, cut from the belly of a large mature female, and like a toy, the children toss it around. In this remote village, any large marine animal is a target for the spears of the hunters. Later this fetal shark is discarded on the beach, only to be engulfed by the rising tide, lost forever.

East Flores, Indonesia – I survey the tails cut from hundreds of Pelagic Thresher sharks, now drying in the sun in preparation for shipment to Surabaya and Jakarta fin traders. In just 2 months, thousands of these sharks are landed in this village to satisfy the insatiable demand for shark fins in China.

Lombok, Indonesia – Longline vessels, often illegally fishing in Australian waters, dump the bodies of sharks into the water. I cringe as porters drive gaff hooks into the lifeless bodies, heft the sharks on the shoulders, and carry them to the auction. Everyday sharks are landed here, targeted for their fins.

Lombok, Indonesia – No shark is spared. I kneel down to examine this pile of baby Hammerhead sharks auctioned for sale in the street of the market. Never to grow to maturity, these small sharks bear witness to the insanity of the trade.

Lombok, Indonesia – The auction area fills as shark after shark is dumped on the filthy floor. Amongst the landings this day are 18 Tiger sharks, taken from a single reef. One fisherman confides in me that these Tigers were caught on a newly discovered reef where they had never before fished. In one day they stripped out all of them, generations of these sharks lost forever.

Lombok, Indonesia – No fin is too small. Fins are sliced from baby sharks and tossed in a pile at my feet. With populations of mature sharks so depleted, fishermen now target juvenile and baby sharks to satisfy the shark fin trade. Even these fishermen know that shark populations are collapsing.

Manta, Ecuador – Hammerhead sharks are landed as “bycatch” in longline fisheries off Manta Ecuador. In reality, industrial fishing fleets have so depleted tuna stocks that fishermen now turn to sharks as their primary targets. Fins from sharks captured in these directed fisheries head straight to Asia.

Manta, Ecuador – Mass slaughter. Blue, Thresher and Mako sharks are hacked apart on the beach in front of my eyes. Blood spatters my legs as body parts are tossed in piles. Whereas meat is of very little value, the fins fetch huge profits. This grizzly scene plays out each day on the bloody beaches of Manta.

Manta, Ecuador - Alone on a remote beach on foreign soil with camera in hand, shark bodies piled up all around, an angry fisherman wields around and in a rage thrusts his razor sharp machete under my chin, shouting words in a language I don’t understand. This is no place for fear, weakness, regret or any of those emotions we have the luxury of feeling in the safety of our everyday lives. You engage, become part of it, blend in and eliminate any concern that you are a threat… you do this or do you don’t last long in this game.

Kesennuma, Japan – The largest scale shark landings I have ever witnessed, thousands of sharks are unloaded from industrial longline vessels and lined up on the concrete floor in preparation for auction.

Kesennuma, Japan – Organized chaos, pile upon pile - I watch in disbelief as literally thousands of Blue Sharks are stacked in neat piles in preparation for auction. With a ruthless efficiency, the industrial shark fishery is taking a devastating toll on pelagic sharks populations – the scale of this destruction is simply beyond comprehension.

Kesennuma, Japan – The face of the 100 million. Blood soaked floors, the stench almost unbearable, hundreds of salmon sharks are lined up, weighed and then their fins are sliced off. I reflect that in this one port alone, millions of sharks are landed each year. Then the depressing reality hits me, the estimated 100 million sharks landed globally is likely an understatement. We don’t have much time.

Tung Kang, Taiwan – I watch as close to 100 ‘dressed’ shark carcasses are unloaded from a Taiwanese long-range longline vessel. The conspicuously missing heads and fins disguise the fact that these were once beautiful, awesome predators.

Tung Kang, Taiwan – Looking into the sad eye of a butchered Hammerhead, lying alone on the filthy concrete floor, it strikes me how this brutalized animal reflects the true consequences of the shark fin trade. For every set of fins, this is the cost.

Tung Kang, Taiwan – Longline hook still embedded in it lifeless jaw, this Hammerhead provides just a glimpse into the reality of industrial longline fisheries.

Tung Kang, Taiwan –Grotesquely fascinating, this orderly stack of Hammerhead corpses disguise a vicious reality, that hammerhead populations have been depleted by as much as 99% in some regions, ravaged by unbridled longline fisheries.

Tung Kang, Taiwan - Finned and gutted, the bodies of Hammerhead and Silky sharks are scattered on the filthy floor of the port. Though the fins are valuable, the meat is worth relatively little.

Tung Kang, Taiwan –Staring into the dark, beautiful eyes of these Mako and Thresher sharks, I am reminded how they are targeted intensively for their valuable fins and meat, and as a consequence, their populations have been severely depleted.

Tung Kang, Taiwan – What is the cost of the shark fin trade? For every set of fins, a powerful and graceful predator was needlessly slaughtered.

Tung Kang, Taiwan – Sliced, sorted and priced for sale, the Ocean’s apex predators are reduced to this, a basket of fins.

Tung Kang, Taiwan – As this man sorts through thousands of fins, I have to imagine that he doesn’t truly understand the significance of the industrial engine of destruction of which he is a participant

Tung Kang, Taiwan – Ignoring the longlines, the commercial fishing vessels, the ports, the processing facilities, all of it – I focus on what is driving the destruction – the absurd demand for shark fins that has fueled a global epidemic.

Tung Kang, Taiwan – I count over 120 bags and an estimated 10,000 fins offloaded from a single Taiwanese longliner! From the same vessel, less than one hundred shark bodies are accounted for. The quantity of fins is so great that frontend loaders are required to move them.

Tung Kang, Taiwan – Face-to-face with carnage form the destruction of several thousand pelagic sharks, I do some quick math. Taiwan has an estimated 2,000-registered longliners, each deploying as much as 100 miles of longline. That’s 200,000 miles of longline, enough to wrap around our planet 8 times – and Taiwan is only the 4th largest shark fishing nation!

Tung Kang, Taiwan – Strange, morbid beauty, the vibrant colors of the factory workers disguise the grisly reality – these workers are participants in greatest slaughter of large marine species ever in the history of our planet.

Kaohsiung, Taiwan – Beyond comprehension, thousands of fins dry sun in a Taiwan processing facility. I learn that this a daily occurrence and that this is just one of many facilities in this area processing huge quantities of fins.

Kaohsiung, Taiwan – Symmetry, shape, color and shadow draw capture my attentoin, disguising the cruel reality of the bloodshed behind the trade. I imagine that this is the detachment that the traders feel when they look upon these fields of fins.

Hong Kong – Fins in spiral, dry on a rack on sidewalk in front of a shark fin trader. To a local passerby, this is a common occurrence not worthy of even a glance. To me, this is the death spiral prorogated by the Hong Kong shark fin trade, historically the epicenter of the shark fin trade.

Hong Kong – Carefully sorted by size and grade, fins are displayed for sale in a shark fin trader’s store. Sadly, this is the end of the line for most sharks.

Amidst all this death and destruction, I sometimes ask myself why I even bother to persist? The reality is, the outlook is pretty bleak and we are fighting an uphill battle. The forces of destruction far outnumber the forces of conservation, and for every dollar spent to conserve a resource, 10,000 dollars are spent to extract it.

Fortunately, this massive imbalance in numbers is countered by the incredible passion and commitment of the people engaged in conservation. And nowhere are more dedicated and sacrificing individuals found than in the field of shark conservation. I am blessed to call these people my colleagues and friends, and I believe we will ultimate succeed in ending the slaughter.  Together, we are accomplishing more than I ever imagined. In the past two years, the tide has begun to turn with shark sanctuaries and shark fin legislation coming online in key regions across the globe. I take this moment to recognize these individuals.

Andros Island, Bahamas – In the setting sun, the Bahamas rises as a shining beacon of hope for shark conservation. In July of 2011, the Bahamas declared the waters or it’s entire EEZ a sanctuary for sharks, fulfilling a dream started in 2008.

Andy & Marit Miners –Pure sacrifice and uncompromising integrity are words that just scratch the surface when describing two of the most committed people in marine conservation. By their initiative, we have secured over 1200 sq. km. of some the most bio-diverse reefs on earth and restored shark populations in an area once ravaged by shark finners.

Paul Hilton –No nonsense and steadfast, Paul has been exposing the destruction of industrial fisheries and the brutality of the wildlife trade for well over a decade. I have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Paul in some of our most difficult and challenging investigations to date, and there is no person I would rather have by my side when situation gets heavy.

John Weller –A world-class photographer, writer, and orator, John is dear friend and my inspiration to become the best artist I can be. John is uncompromising in his commitment to perfection, and his uncanny ability to capture the true human connection to nature will change the world.

Jim Abernethy –The man who loves sharks - in addition to being an author and an incredible wildlife photographer, more than anyone Jim has shattered misconceptions about the nature of sharks. Following up on This Is Your Ocean Sharks (directed by my good friend George Schellenger), I look forward to producing our next exciting film together. I am honored to call Jim one of my closest friends.

Mary O’Malley and her husband Lupo – One of the greatest unsung heroes in shark conservation, Mary is a force to be reckoned with. Tireless and uncompromising, she has played a decisive role in just about every piece of shark fin legislation and shark sanctuary to date. In Florida, sharks are finally gaining much needed protection largely due to her efforts. Mary, you are awesome!

Stefanie Brendl & Clayton Hee - Teaming up with Senatore Hee, Stefanie’s personal sacrifice and unyielding determination resulted in a victory for the Hawaii shark fin legislation, probably one of the most decisive wins in shark conservation history. Stefanie has quickly become a force in Pacific shark conservation. In addition to being my colleague in the Pacific Shark Initiative, I am so excited to have Stefanie as my close friend.

Matt Rand - No ego, tireless and uncompromising commitment to true conservation, Matt with the shark team at Pew has reshaped the face of shark conservation. Massive wins in both sanctuaries and shark fin legislation can largely be attributed to his work. I am truly privileged to work with Matt and I am proud to call him my friend.

Michael Skoletsky - Never one to promote himself, Michael has quietly assembled an impressive team of the movers and shakers from the dive and underwater imaging community, to counsel and drive Shark Savers initiatives. Sincere and focused, Michael is a constant in the battle to save sharks. He is also a true friend.

Peter Knights - Unwavering in his commitment, Pete has been at the forefront of the battle to end the shark fin trade for well over a decade. A man of few words and serious action, under Pete’s leadership, WildAid has achieved the unimaginable, and bringing hard-hitting shark conservation media to hundreds of millions of people in China. Having worked frontlines with Pete for many years, I consider him a close friend and important ally in the battle to end the shark fin trade.

Rob Stewart – Rob created one of the most important films in shark conservation to date. Exposing the story of global shark destruction to the world, Rob’s film has inspired people to stand up and fight for sharks. Rob and I have faced together some of our most discouraging shark conservation experiences, but also some of the most inspiring victories. I look forward to continuing to work with Rob as an ally in race to end the destruction of sharks.

Howard and Michelle Hall – Passionate about the Oceans, their films have inspired fascination and appreciation of the Oceans by millions across the globe. The work of these industry icons offers a true testament to the power of media in engaging people in conservation. And above all else, they are kind, wonderful people and their friendship is something I treasure.

The California Coalition – They proved that we could all come together and truly make a difference. Refusing to yield in the face of massive industry opposition and powerful lobbying forces, the California team achieved a shark fin ban in one of the top 10 economies in the world. I cannot say enough about this team.

Yao Ming – When he speaks, hundreds of millions listen. Refusing to back down in the face of intense pressure levied by shark fin industry pundits, Yao is our key to securing a ban on the shark fin trade in China. Yao is a real-life hero.

My Family – Without the love, support and encouragement from my wife and two beautiful daughters, I could never have persevered in the face of such overwhelming obstacles. I believe we must act now to preserve the health of our Oceans for future generations, or face severe environmental consequences beyond even the worst predictions. My family sacrifices so much in support of my demanding work schedule and extensive travel, and for this I cannot thank them enough. I love you guys!

As I look back at the decade of work behind me and the lifetime of work that lies ahead, I take comfort in knowing I have the company of such a remarkable group of friends and allies on this journey. In the past 2 years especially, we have accomplished more than any of us could ever have imagined. I believe this has inspired all of us to work harder, sacrifice more and set even more ambitious goals. We will not stop until the battle is won.

Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness – The words of Rev. Seizan Kawakami serve as a daily reminder to me of why we must continue to fight in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. By taking a stand for what is right, we create a beacon for others, and maybe, just maybe, we will ignite a blaze that will spread across the globe and change the world.

JASA-Blue Sphere Media-Wetpixel Mexico Whale Shark Aggregation – 2011

Posted in news, photography, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2011 by shawnheinrichs

Jim Abernethy and I just wrapped up this years series of whale shark aggregation trips off Isla Mujeres, Mexico. As with they prior two years (see videos), this year was a home run with incredible in-water and topside activity and on peak days, several hundred whale sharks gathered in the space of 1 square km. When we first discovered the aggregation, we could never have guessed how it would transform the the tiny island of Isla Mujeres into the worlds whale shark mecca. Nowhere else can you swim with such huge numbers of whale sharks, in blue water with such a great degree of certainty.

Ocean full of whale sharks

Our guests hailed from all over the world including Hong Kong, France, Europe, Australia and of course the US, among others. Many guests reported this was one of the best experiences of their lives. This year we are also hosted a special WildAid supporter trip that delivered in spades.

The whale shark activity was full on, the Island delightful, the hotel and pool a welcome haven after a long day on the water,and the guacamole, cervezas, and gelato unforgettable.

Douglas Seifert enjoys a gelato after a hard day of whale sharking

Please enjoy this small sample of images from thousands of images taken on our trips.

L-R: WildAid Crew - Shawn, Jeanne, Raymond, Walter, Sharon, Richard Branson, Samantha, Mark, Pete, Keith, Corrie

Dr Robert Hueter - Whale Shark Researcher

Peter Knights - Executive Director WildAid with Whale Shark

Whale Shark eats tourism boat

Briana Rivera with Whale Shark

Briana Rivera with Whale Shark

Richard Branson sharing a whale shark moment (video grab)

Ocean full of whale sharks

Greg, Debbie and David after looking the wrong way!

Corie Knights enjoying a whale shark moment

Mantas and whale sharks feeding frenzy

Whale shark with manta Birostris below

Manta Birostris with whale shark behind

Whale shark taking a BIG gulp

Corie Knights with feeding whale shark

Peter and Corie Knights enjoying a whale shark moment

Whale shark smile

Douglas Seifert drops down to capture silhouette shot

Two whale sharks split as they approach

Stationary whale shark feeds below surface

Huge whale shark rises below the Lilly M

Whale shark in vertical feeding posture

Whale shark refelections

Gordon Klein silhouetted with two whale sharks

Three whale sharks cross while feeding

Whale shark passed by drifting sargassum with colony of minows

Cownose rays glide below whale shark aggregation

Gordon Klein drifts down below whale shark

Danielle Heinrichs photographing whale sharks

Whale shark feeds in glassy calm seas

Whale shark poops

Sailfish dart through whale shark aggregation

Loggerhead turtle drifts below whale sharks

Whale shark filters eggs through its gills

Whale sharks cross while feeding

Danielle Heinrichs enjoying the whale shark action

Left-Right: Greg, Captain Rojelio, Gordon, Shawn, Phil, Debbie, David and 1st Mate Juan

Swimming with Tigers – Guy Harvey Magazine

Posted in conservation, news, photography, travel with tags , , , , , on June 8, 2011 by shawnheinrichs

Three ocean artists – a painter, a sculptor, and a photographer – recently set out together on a journey to the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas, teaming with sharks.  Their mission: to share the beauty of sharks with the world in hopes of convincing leaders in the Bahamas and Florida to protect this last shark stronghold; doing so would help to secure the health of our oceans and our own existence on the planet.  While global shark populations have been severely depleted by fisheries targeting sharks for the fins, the sharks in the Bahamas have been largely spared…but for how long?

Read the full Article

Shark Boat – Sanctuary Under Siege

Posted in conservation, news, photography, travel with tags , , , , , , , on May 20, 2011 by shawnheinrichs

Misool Eco Resort, located in Southeast Raja Ampat, operates a locally manned Ranger Patrol to enforce the boundaries of the 168 sq. mile Misool Conservation Area (MCA) and the recently established second MCA for the 150 sq. miles surrounding the adjacent Daram Islands.

Six years into the MCA projects, and thanks to the efforts the reefs today are bursting with an incredible diversity and abundance of marine life and even shark populations are staging a remarkable comeback after decades of ruthless shark finning. The resurgence of sharks and rays inside the two protected areas has made the corridor linking the protected areas very alluring to fishermen seeking to illegally exploit the spillover from the MCAs.

This April I returned to Raja Ampat with a team of manta researchers and my investigative teammate Paul Hilton. Early one morning while in route to the manta site we observed a suspicious boat in the corridor. After radioing the Ranger Patrol we approached the boat and boarded it. On the roof of the boat, the disembodied heads of almost two-dozen scalloped hammerheads, a dozen grey reef sharks, and a dozen guitar rays and bow guitar mouth rays. Most disturbingly, the lifeless bodies of several mature grey reef sharks and a large guitar ray lay piled on front. Our captain informed the captain of the shark boat that he was illegally fishing sharks and rays (Raja Ampat is now a Shark and Ray Sanctuary) and that he must cease and leave the area immediately. Sadly, once these nets are in the water, the damage from gill nets is unavoidable.

Yard after yard of gillnet rolled up the side of the boat. The lifeless carcass of grey reef shark broke the surface and was hoisted aboard. It was clear that this shark had struggled for a long time and had ultimately died from suffocation. Several more lifeless reef sharks were hauled aboard and our hope of rescuing sharks turned to despair. Then the dark shape of a large guitar ray appeared and realizing it was still alive, we raced to free it. The team hoisted the massive ray aboard the boat, untangled it and released it. This rescued effort was followed by the successful release of a bow-mouth ray, another guitar ray, a wobbegong shark, and a pelagic stingray or two. All in all, we freed and released half a dozen live animals.

Our ranger boat arrived and took over the enforcement effort. Recognizing our work was finished; we untied from the fishing boat and pulled away. As I took stock of all day’s events, I was reminded that conservation is much more than a stand-alone victory, more than a one-time culmination of effort and intention.  Effective conservation is a lifetime commitment requiring constant care and vigilance.  To believe otherwise is to not only court disillusionment and failure, but also to imperil our most treasured resources.

–       Shawn Heinrichs

You can do your part to support true marine conservation:

–       Visit Misool Eco Resort (www.misoolecoresort.com) and put your ecotourism dollars to work

–       Go to www.daramproject.org and donate to the patrol

–       Go to www.wildaid.org and www.sharksavers.org and help end the slaughter of sharks

Daram Marine Reserve

Posted in conservation, news, video with tags , , , , , , , on September 10, 2009 by shawnheinrichs

The Raja Ampat Islands are situated in the north west of Papua, Indonesia, and cover an area of approximately 6,962 sq. km. Situated in the heart of the coral triangle, the area is home to some of the worlds most bio-diverse reef communities with recent studies stating that the reefs of this area are perhaps at the very centre of world bio-diversity. We intend to protect a total area of 450 sq. miles within this region that contains some of its most pristine reefs.

Significant groundwork has been laid toward this end including:

  • Established marine protected area of approximately 200 sq. miles that will be included in this area
  • Existing marine protected area is absolute no-take zone as will be the new marine reserve
  • Implemented management and patrol system with an impressive 3 year track record
  • Obtained buy-in and participation of local community in its protection and maintenance
  • Created financial model to insure local community shares in the success of the new marine reserve
  • Established a patrol and enforcement plan that will assure the sanctity of the marine reserve
  • Obtained head of fisheries endorsement and commitment to zone the marine reserve as tourism only
  • On the ground presence to oversea establishment and operations of reserve
  • NGO partners to provide administrative, training and scientific support

With much of the groundwork laid to establish the Daram Marine Reserve, we are now seeking funding to enable us implement the plan. This incredible area is under immediate and severe threat of ruin from destructive fishing practices that have encroached upon the area. As such, there is little time to waste in setting up the reserve. We must act fast or risk losing one of the most pristine, bio-diverse and beautiful reef systems left on earth.

Daram Marine Reserve Video