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THE GALAPAGOS WHALE SHARK PROJECT CONDUCTS A RESEARCH TRIP IN 2020

The Galapagos Whale Shark Project held (just) a research trip to the Galapagos during the COVID Pandemic of 2020.

I recently spoke with Jonathan Green & Jenny Waack from The Galapagos Whale Shark Project (GWSP), where we discussed their research trip in 2020, about how it almost didn’t go ahead, the difficulties they faced & the results which are both positive & tragic.

The logo of the Galapagos Whale Shark Project with Jon & Jenny the directors.

Photo: Jonathan Green & Jenny Waack with the Logo from the Galapagos Whale Shark Project.

Last year was tough, the COVID pandemic has affected everyone in some way or form. When COVID first started to spread international borders started shutting very quickly, (some say slammed shut) to stop the spread. If you were overseas away from your home country, you had to scramble to make a flight back before the borders were closed (unfortunately some did not make it in time & are still trying to make it home…).

The GWSP’s research trip was scheduled for June 2020, but as COVID-19 started to spread & international travel restrictions starting, it was uncertain whether it would run. With several months waiting to see what would eventuate, there started to be the hope of a window of opportunity in July, as travel was just starting to be opened between Ecuador, the US & the Galapagos. They decided to push for July but they faced the issue of permits & permission from the Galapagos National Park Authority to get out to the dive sites. The permission came through, but the trip now had to be rescheduled for August. Lucky at this time the borders between the USA, Ecuador & the Galapagos were open, but not for most parts of the world which meant their partners from AUS, NZ, US & Japan could not make it.

This meant that the team numbers & funding was unfortunately down, as the partners also contributed to the overall cost. A deal was stuck with a tuna tagging program that would help share the vessel & costs.

TRAVELLING IN THE PANDEMIC

Although travel was open for the team it was a difficult trip to get there. Jon & Jenny had to travel into the US to pick up equipment, which meant a PCR test to get in, await results, a hotel stay, then back into mainland Ecuador, which meant another test ( await results) & then 14 days in quarantine, then after that, over to the Galapagos for another PCR test (another wait on results) & a wait for the 72 hours for their equipment from the mainland to go through quarantine as well. Add to this the flight delays & flight restrictions compounded by the uncertainty that the borders may shut at any time, it was a hard few weeks.

Jon & Jenny from the Galapagos Whale Shark Project about to board a flight to the Galapagos Islands during the COVID pandemic

Photo: Jon & Jenny before boarding a flight to the Galapagos Islands

ARRIVING IN THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

On arrival to the Galapagos in August, they noticed straight away how quiet it was. Jonathan first travelled to the Galapagos over thirty years ago & he remembers that first time arrival. Back then it was a small community, quiet, no real tourists & the stares from locals at “who are these people”. It felt like it had gone back in time with no taxis, no cars, shops were closed & the locals looking at them as they were from another planet. However the team did notice that the community had banded together & become self-sufficient, with the growth of their own vegetables, the interaction of community members with art fairs, the creation of opportunities, like making chocolate, & masks. This action had led back to the age-old form of the barter, a community trading with each other for their needs, a completely different feel than just relying on the tourist dollar. (A positive in such a small community, hopefully, the banding & interaction of the community stays into the future as tourists return.)

The team from the 2020 Galapagos Whale Shark Project research trip.

The Team- Jules Paredes — DIRECCIONDEL PARQUE NACIONAL GALÁPAGOS, Jonathan Green — GWSP, Alex Hearn — UNIVERSIDAD SAN FRANCISCO DE QUITO, Jenny Waack — GWSP, Sophia Green — GWSP.

The partners for the Galapagos Whale Shark Project

Photo: The GWSP teams partners & sponsors 

THE TRIP

After loading the vessel, they set out on their 15-day trip to their research destination of the Darwin Islands. At this point, the team was worried about the impact of the reported international fishing fleets in the area. Over 200 vessels were just sitting outside of the Galapagos marine area plundering the ocean. (The vessels were being heavily followed by the public & had been found to switch off their marine tracking & duck into the Ecuadorian waters around the Galapagos to illegally fish). Thankfully, they didn’t encounter any vessels in the area on their way out which could be due to the Ecuadoran navel which had conducted a crackdown on illegal fishing, just before they arrived.

Upon arrival at the dive site, they went straight to work to check out the conditions. The goal was to tag 10 whale sharks, photo ID them & take blood samples (this is conducted in a non-invasive way).

A TYPICAL DAY OF RESEARCH

The team would begin diving around 5.30–6 am, out of the water by 7 am, then the second dive around 10 am, with the final dive after lunch around 2.00 pm. All dives were a maximum of 60 minutes with all dives completed & out of the water by 3.00 pm for safety (currents are strong so there was a concern of divers travelling long distances). The afternoon was used for data download, analysis of blood samples (measurements of the blood gas concentrations & lactate acid levels which are used to determine the basic health of the animal) & the id of photos.

The dives were conducted in teams of four divers. The idea was to Jump in at Darwin then use currents to travel from the north or south, which is safer. Once underwater the divers position staggering themselves at depth along the rocks to search for the whale sharks. Once spotted the group would signal each other & come together so that one person was to tag, one person to photo, one person to draw blood (if a whale shark notices the drawing of blood or felt uncomfortable in any way it was not pursed or hassled, most do not notice the drawing of blood), then the fourth diver acted as a safety & documentation diver with a camera.

The Galapagos Whale Shark team at work drawing blood & the other team members videoing.

Photo: A diver drawing blood with video documentary being taken.

WHAT TAGS ARE USED?

The team managed to tag a total of 10 individual sharks, with eight SPLASH-10 tags on eight females ranging from 4 to 14 metres, two MiniPAT & Spot8 hybrid tags to were attached to a juvenile female & male. Of the ten only 9 reported. 3 stopped within 60 days and they lost contact with them over the abyssal plain. Only 3 continued past the 6-month mark and none have reported for over 2 months now. However, Jon notes that he has tags go “dark” for almost 4 months so still has hope data will surface. 

The SPLASH10 tags record both vertical & horizontal movements but are expensive at around $4000USD including the clamp & SAT time. The results offer very accurate data which can be used to determine the areas visited by the whale sharks which can then be used to create conservation areas. Spots & MiniPATS are two tags, the Spot tags mainly record horizontal movements & MiniPATS mainly record vertical movement. Blood was taken from six whale sharks. 

A Splash 10 type tag used by the Galapagos Whale Shark Team to track whale sharks. Notice the clamps.

Photo: A Splash10 type tag, with the clip.

A SPLASH 10 type satellite tracking tag deployed on a whale shark by the Galapagos Whale Shark Project.

Photo: A tag attached

A graph showing the depth of a tagged whale shark from the Galapagos Whale Shark Project before it came off due to the extreme depth.

Photo: The dive profile of the 10-meter female. The tags are not rated for such depth & tend to implode, which is unfortunate as the whale shark dives over 2000 meters.

CONCLUSION/ FINDINGS

Three main important points were noted:

  1. Evidence of a travel corridor from the Galapagos to Cocos Islands — The satellite tracking of a whale shark from the Galapagos Island’s to Cocos Islands. The first time  the data has shown this corridor, amplifying the need for a marine park covering this route.
  2. A Whaleshark returns to the original area of tagging — A tagged female was noted on an 80-day trip originating in the Galapagos Islands & returning to the same area she was tagged.
  3. The Whale sharks dispersed in different directions but crossed later in the same areas — the tagged juvenile Male headed to the eastern pacific then back under to the south then entered the same area as the females off the coast of Peru. The tagged females all left in different directions, the female juveniles in a different direction than the female adults. The tagged male & the female juveniles crossed through the same area off the coast of Peru but the data is inconclusive if it was the same time.
The pathways the tagged whale sharks took using the satellite tracking from the Galapagos Whale Shark Projects tags.

Photo: All tags overlayed. Over to the right, you can see the intersection of three tags.

WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE WHALE SHARK PROJECT TEAM?

Originally the team had two trips planned but due to the continuing situation, they have had to schedule only one on the 24 August 2021. The team will join up with the Georgia Aquarium who will have a vet tech that will analyse blood samples for gas, lactose, baseline health, & nano plastics in their system on a cellar basis.

The study of the nano-plastics is a new area of study & they are hoping to show what level such nano-plastics are invading filter feeders. Unfortunately, no ultrasound again as the team from Japan cannot make it.

They hope this will provide more data on the Galapagos to Cocos Island corridor, whale shark return trip tracking & show new data on the amount of nano-plastic showing up in the marine life food chain (it's a case of how much not if…).

A whale shark in the waters of the Galapagos National Park.

Photo: A cruising Whale Shark

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?

Donations — Currently the Galapagos Whale Shark team is in the process of registering as an organisation (a “.org”) in the USA. They have filed all the necessary paperwork & are awaiting confirmation from the correct department, but due to the backlog caused by the COVID situation, it is taking longer than normal. Once this has been confirmed it allows the organisation to list on such sites as Gofundme, which will allow direct contributions to help with direct expedition funding as well as for the tags. Presently you can make a donation on their website here. C

Support dive trips — The GWSP conducts charter trips under the Galapagos Shark Dive banner. Each trip is accompanied by one of the team members who will offer tips on how to photograph whale sharks for the visual id requirements (and general photography tips), informative presentations & a shore excursion to learn more about the wildlife that inhabits the Galapagos Islands. These trips will not be involved in the tagging or taking blood samples, it is an informative & relaxing trip. Your support on these trips will help spread the word about the organisation & a part of your trip cost will go directly to help the shark expedition later in that year. (Pelagic Dive Travel also offers a donation to the scientific trip from each booking through them).

Photo Identification — Photo Identification is a passive tracking mechanism. From the 5th gill slit to the end of the pectoral fin, the whale shark's markings make up a unique pattern that serves to identify each shark as an individual. If you see a whale shark photograph it & upload to Wildbook where it will be added to the database. 

The Wildbook Website were the ID for Whale Sharks are recorded. Anyone can record a whale shark they have seen.

Photo: The data upload into Wildbook.

MARINE CONSERVATION MATTERS

The case of “Hope” highlights that the work The Galapagos Whale Shark Project is doing. Without the tagging of Hope which showed that she must have been caught & transported through international waters,(see photo 12 below), we would not have realised the extent of such proliferation of our marine world. The GWSP team is dedicated & committed to protecting whale sharks as well as the entire marine environment. 

We as divers, people who use the ocean & in reality all of us should be taking note that the marine environment is being decimated & we need to support the protection of it for our future generations.

An overlay of the tag from the Whale Shark & the fishing fleets in the same area, hence the belief Hope was taken...

Photo: The overlay of the tagged whale shark "Hope" with the fishing activity in shade... Her last two transmissions were just 32 minutes apart and during this time she had travelled a distance of approximately 3.8nm. This could be satellite error but if true her speed would be between 6-8 knots per hour, a figure far too high to be a swimming whale shark that might average 1.5 knots per hour with a maximum speed of around 3 knots. Her position was then compared with fishing activities in the area at the time of her disappearance using Global Fishing Watch & you can see that she had been constantly swimming through areas of extremely intense fishing for much of the time she was in international waters and at the time of her last reported position. Theres no way to prove it but this means she was picked up by the fishing fleet...

Follow the GSD team on social media, get out on one of their trips & show your support!

You can also support a marine organisation or initiative in your local area or even just a beach clean-up. Save our seas!