February 23, 2015
Written by: Dr. Al Dove
Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium
After back-to-back red eye flights and 5 days steaming aboard the RMS St. Helena, I was still unprepared for the stark, breathtaking cliffs of St. Helena when they came into view. Thrust up from the abyssal seafloor 14 million years ago, the South Atlantic island grew over the next 8 million years of continuous volcanic eruptions like a giant pancake stack, alternating layers of grim grey basalt and rusty red ash. Ceaseless pounding of oceanic swells have since shaped the rocks into dizzying 400ft walls that confront the sea in all directions, with barely a break for the occasional steep-sided valley, and only one short black-sand beach for the whole island. The first visitors must have wondered “where do we land?” and so do I.
We’ve come a long, long way to study the whale sharks of St. Helena, over 6,200 miles as the crow flies but almost double that in flight and ship routes, and I’m nervous. Anyone who relies on whale sharks showing up anywhere is foolish! Could it be that we have come all this way, only to be eluded by the world’s biggest fish? Thankfully any fears are put to rest before we even set foot on the island, when my colleague Rafael shouts excitedly “Whale shark!” as we pull slowly into the anchorage opposite Jamestown. And there it is, a huge spotty behemoth, some 30ft long, turning gently away from the approaching ship. PHEW! They’re here. OK, now we can get to work.
Over the next 14 days Rafael and I work alongside staff from the St. Helena Government Environment and Natural Resources Directorate, as well as local ecotour operators and other interested parties, to document the most newly-discovered whale shark aggregation in the world. We deploy 14 satellite tags, take biopsies for genetics, gather hundreds of photo identification images to add to the global database, and make thousands of laser measurements for a project on body size estimation in free-swimming whale sharks.
Scientifically, it is an outrageous success, and marks a bold new chapter in the whale shark research program at Georgia Aquarium. My St Helenian colleagues, led by the irrepressible Elizabeth Clingham, are delighted at the team’s progress, and so am I. I can’t wait to share the news with the team back in Atlanta, and with our other partners Mote Marine Laboratory and the Marine Megafauna Foundation. The worst part is the interminable waiting to hear back from the satellite tags, which will take 6 to 12 months to pop off the animals and report back, depending on exactly how we programmed them.