18 August 2016 – The 1000th whale shark has been identified in Philippine waters, making the Philippines the third largest known aggregation of whale sharks in the world and the biggest in South East Asia, according to the online library Wildbook for whale sharks. Whale sharks are identified by their unique spot pattern, and scientists all over the world use this pattern on the left side of their body to distinguish between individuals. Researchers from the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE) and WWF-Philippines have been adopting this technique for a number of years and together with submissions from the public the Philippines reached 1000 identified individual whale sharks this week.
The 1000th whale shark is an incredibly important milestone for the country and one which every Filipino can be proud of. Once coined as the capital of whale shark hunting in South East Asia, the Philippines changed the fate of the species in 1998 when it became the third country in the world to protect whale sharks under Fisheries Administrative Order 193. Since then, the population is showing signs of slow recovery. Today this iconic species attracts thousands of tourists every year and even features on the 100 peso bill.
However, dangers lurk in the surrounding seas, meaning that it is now more important than ever to protect these animals. Recently the species was upgraded from Vulnerable to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, a consequence of the historical and ongoing threat of illegal fisheries, particularly in the South China Sea, and the fact that whale sharks are animals that make large scale movements across international borders. Researchers from LAMAVE and the Marine Megafauna Foundation have been investigating the movements of Philippine sharks using satellite tags to better understand the implications of these threats to whale sharks encountered in Philippine waters.
The 1000th shark, was spotted by Mr. Jon Jon Rufino whilst diving in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. Jon Jon sent the video to LAMAVE and the Tubbataha Management Office, as part of a citizen science project which encourages visitors to the park to contribute photographs and videos of their shark encounters to assess the biodiversity of the park. Jon Jon’s footage revealed that the shark is a juvenile male, similar in size to the juvenile sharks we see closer to shore in Donsol and Southern Leyte. Jon Jon’s encounter is one of an increasing number of sightings in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the past few years. To date Tubbataha Reefs have contributed a total of 65 individuals to the national catalog of whale sharks, with additional individuals pending upload. These figures highlight the importance of the park for the largest fish in the sea.
To mark this milestone, the 1000th shark will be nicknamed “Pangga” (short for “Palangga,” which means beloved) to honor the Philippines’ relationship with this enormous shark, which we hope will continue to be an iconic species for the country long into the future.
A video illustrating the full story and featuring LAMAVE Executive Director Jessica Labaja is available here:
The 1000th whale shark on WildBook for whale sharks is available to view here:
For further information, please contact Sally Snow at:
They are hardly found anywhere else in the country, but their presence in the Tubbataha Reefs makes it possible to generate greater understanding of their kind. A team of researchers from the Large Marine Vertebrates Project – Philippines (LAMAVE) and the Tubbataha Management Office successfully tagged two tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) in the Park during Expedition Shark 2 on 11 to 19 June.
The tiger sharks, listed as Near Threatened (NT) in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, were both caught in successive days in the South Atoll off the Delsan Wreck dive site. A baited fishing line about 60 meters deep with a barbless hook at the end was used to catch the sharks. Both the captured tiger sharks measured more than three meters long and each are estimated to weigh more than 340 kilograms (www.FishBase.org).
Dr. Alessandro Ponzo from LAMAVE – Philippines embedded an acoustic tag in one of the tiger sharks. This type of tag will send ‘pings’ to three acoustic receivers strategically moored in different spots around the park once the tagged individual comes within a 500 to 800-meter radius. A fin-mount tag was installed on the dorsal fin of the second tiger shark. While the acoustic tag works only within the park, the fin-mount tag will send signals to a nearby satellite once the tagged tiger shark surfaces anywhere in the world. Both of the tags are expected to produce information on the location and movement of the sharks. These information will be useful in understanding the dynamics of how the sharks use Tubbataha as a habitat, their range, and the potential areas of concern in the protection of the species.
After embedding the tags, tissue samples were collected from the pelvic fin of the sharks. These will be used for genetic connectivity studies in order to contribute to an ongoing global research on sharks. Visible parasites were also removed and collected. The sharks were measured and their gender verified before being released from the hook and ropes which secured them beside the patrol boat. These were carried out on a time span of between 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the size and behavior of the shark. Aside from the two tiger sharks, five grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) were also hooked and embedded with acoustic tags. All of the sharks showed normal activity after release as great efforts were made to reduce the stress of the animals during the procedure.
The team also carried out Underwater Visual Surveys (UVS) for elasmobranchs. Last year’s UVS revealed that Tubbataha has the highest density of whitetip reef and grey reef sharks in the world. Sharks and other apex predators are vital to functional marine food webs and to the health of the marine environment in general. By maintaining the normal abundance of species below their trophic level, sharks facilitate balanced competition between lower groups, therefore improving the species diversity within an area. The research team cruised the Sulu Sea onboard WWF’s research vessel, M/Y Navorca. The crew of M/Y Navorca were most helpful in ensuring the success of the study.
Five different tiger sharks, with a possible sixth, have been documented and identified since the start of the shark research in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.
Mr. Ryan Murray, LAMAVE’s project leader who is currently staying at Tubbataha, also revealed that three of the tiger sharks have been recorded in TRNP since at least 2012. To distinguish between individual tiger sharks, Murray looks for unique features such as scars, bite marks, and color patterns. The images came from videos and photos from the Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) installed this summer and those shared by tourists and dive operators. Colin Swerdfeger of Stella Maris, Keith Lapuos of Oceana Maria, Chester Lee of Discovery Palawan, and Giga Songco of Vasco have so far been the leading contributors of tiger shark videos and photos, according to Murray. Our sincerest thanks for your support, guys! May your tribe increase.
Murray lauds the participation and support of the diving industry in the on-going shark research. It can be recalled that LAMAVE, in partnership with the Tubbataha Management Office, requested for the support of private citizens through the submission of images taken in Tubbataha. Through the contribution of our partners, citizen science is making its mark in helping us better understand the secrets of our seas.
Last 9 March 2015, we announced the first-ever sighting of the manta look-alike, Mobula japanica, in Tubbataha waters through our article, ‘Another First in Tubbataha!’. It appears we jumped the gun in making the announcement. LAMAVE had just then given us its preliminary findings and was still analyzing more footage from hundreds of videos taken in Tubbataha last year when we made the announcement. We threw caution to the wind. Mea culpa!
Our friends from Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines (MWWP) pointed out to us the possible misidentification. Guy Stevens, Chief Executive and Founder of Manta Trust, has this to say:
Distinguishing between Mobula japanica and M. thurstoni is tricky at the best of times, even with good ID shots, so the identification of the individual in question is by no means certain, however, on balance, there are a few things which make my colleagues and I more inclined to believe this is the later:
- the dark shading on the underside of the pectoral fins is more common on thurstoni, and;
- the double curvature to the leading edge of the pectoral fins, resulting in the appearance of slightly bent-shaped pectoral fins, is also a feature of thurstoni.
We will confirm the identification and announce it here later – less precipitately than we did before, surely. Thanks to our friends from MWWP, LAMAVE and Manta Trust for their comments and help.
However, the good news is, whether it was the Mobula japonica or the Mobula thurstoni, it still is a first in Tubbataha.
25 March Sneak Peek
An average of two sharks are observed every hour in the remote underwater video (RUV) footage taken in Tubbataha – this is today’s update from Marine Park Ranger Noel Bundal on the on-going Tubbataha Elasmobranch Research.
From 16 to 19 March, the RUV units recorded a total of 36 individual sharks from 18 hours of video footage. This comprised of whitetip reef, gray reef, blacktip reef, scalloped hammerhead, and tiger sharks.
RUV deployment was hampered by unfavorable weather conditions in the park. The last deployment was on 19 March. The team, headed by Mr. Ryan Murray, will try to deploy RUV units today on the dive site called South Park, which lies southeast of the Ranger Station.
19 March Sneak Peek
On 17 March 2015, more RUVs were deployed by the shark research team headed by LAMAVE Project Director, Ryan Murray, at the Tubbataha Reefs. With him are marine park rangers from the Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard, Municipality of Cagayancillo and the Tubbataha Management Office.
Yesterday, two baited remote underwater videos (RUV) were deployed north of the North Atoll in 40 to 50 meters of water. One video captured the image of a tiger shark and another recorded 11 adult gray reef sharks.
From the diving operators and tourists we heard of the sighting of a thresher shark in the vicinity of Black Rock, a dive site north of the South Atoll. Jan Beelen, Cruise director of Philippine Siren, reported the sighting. He said another group saw a thresher shark as well but it was hard to determine whether they saw the same individual or a different one. It’s raining sharks!
18 March Sneak Peek
The first remote underwater video (RUV) was deployed at the dive site known as Wall Street at the North Atoll of the Tubbataha Reefs. LAMAVE Project Director, Ryan Murray, with Tubbataha Marine Park Rangers installed the unit in the morning of 16 March 2015. The baited RUV was left at a depth of 30 feet for close to two hours and in that short period of time, captured images of 19 individual sharks. Seven blacktip, 7 white tip, 4 gray reef and one scalloped hammerhead shark were filmed during the period.
Interestingly, the presence of the scalloped hammerhead shark in Tubbataha was previously unconfirmed. The video proves without a doubt that this species thrives in park waters as well.
This is part of the shark research in Tubbataha being conducted beginning this year in collaboration with LAMAVE, a consortium of national and international NGOs with the aim of promoting conservation through scientific research and education. A shark expedition is in the offing in May 2015.
The Mobula japonica, a manta look-alike previously unrecorded in Tubbataha waters, was identified this month by LAMAVE biologist, Ryan Murray. Studying hundreds of video footage taken from Tubbataha since October last year, Ryan identified the species from a video footage provided by Colin Swerdfeger, M/V Stella Maris Explorer boat manager.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the largest and oldest conservation organization in the world and the leading authority on the environment, has listed the Mobula japanica under the ‘Near Threatened’ category. Although in found in both temperate and tropical seas, very little else is known of this species’ range. They range in size from .85m at birth to about 8m in maturity. Their age of maturity, longevity, reproductive period and other information on biology and life history is very limited. The Mobula japonica keeps its egg inside the mother’s body until it is ready to hatch. It gives birth to a single pup at a time and therefore has low reproductive potential.
The species is vulnerable to gillnets and its gill rakers are used for the Asian medicinal market. Limited information hinders the conduct of a realistic population assessment and current harvest rates but increased catches observed worldwide ‘is cause for great concern and requires urgent international conservation measures as the species is unlikely to be able to tolerate present levels of exploitation’ (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41833/0).
Citizen science is making great strides in generating more understanding of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and World Heritage Site. Like Colin, you too can contribute to research in the park. Submit videos and photographs of species or unusual occurrences that you observe while diving in Tubbataha. It may yet be another first!
The Large Marine Vertebrates Project (LAMAVE) and the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) are soliciting photos and videos of sharks and rays taken in the park. The said materials will be used to identify individual sharks and rays by distinguishing unique features. These include scars, coloration, and skin patterns. Identifying individual sharks would aid understanding of their movement patterns within the park, around the Philippines, and across the Southeast Asian region.
The study aims to establish shark and ray abundance and distribution in TRNP including their migration patterns. Baited and un-baited remote underwater videos will be used, aerial counts using drones, visual census, satellite tagging of whale sharks and tiger sharks are the methods to be used in the research.
Citizen science will play a crucial role in the study. Photos taken by divers will help in identifying individual sharks and rays. In the past, photos submitted by divers led to the identification of two species of rays previously unrecorded in the park. TMO and LAMAVE guarantee that photos submitted will be used for non-commercial purposes only.
Elasmobranch Conservation Project Coordinator, Mr. Ryan Murray, will be our guest at the ranger station from March to June as he gathers data for the study. He is also willing to conduct educational lectures about the results of the research and current conservation efforts for tourists and dive boat crew while there.
How to share your photos and videos:
- Upload your file into a Google Drive or a Dropbox folder and share it with us at [email protected]
- Send us a DVD or USB Pen Drive addressed to LAMAVE at Cora Luna Residence, Oslob, Cebu, 6025, Philippines. Or at 69 W. Orange Grove Avenue, Sierra Madre, CA 91024, USA.
- Send us an e-mail at [email protected] and we will create an online folder where you will be able to upload your files.
Before you send or upload your files, please rename each file or folder using your name, date, and dive site at which the photo or video was taken. For example:
To stay informed of the results of LAMAVE’s ongoing marine conservation efforts and researches in the Philippines, log on to www.lamave.org.
Nineteen species of elasmobranchs – sharks and rays – have been observed in the waters of the Tubbataha Reefs. Thirteen of these are sharks. It is one of the sites with the highest biodiversity of elasmobranchs in the region.
Most elasmobranchs grow very slowly, mature late, produce very few young, have high natural survivorship, and a long life. These species are dependent on a stable environment.
‘Data show a consistent history of rapid stock collapses. The elasmobranchs, and particularly those sharks which are top marine predators feeding on weak and less fit individuals of other fish species, are considered to be a key factor in the health and maintenance of the marine food webs on which all fisheries ultimately depend. Permanently damaging shark and ray populations is likely to have serious and unexpected negative consequences for commercial and subsistence yields of other important fish stocks.’ IUCN Shark Specialist Group (2002).
To generate further understanding of elasmobranchs in Tubbataha, the Large Marine Vertebrates Project Philippines (LAMAVE) will conduct an assessment of its diversity, abundance and migration patterns. Results of the study will help articulate conservation strategies for elasmobranchs in Tubbataha.
LAMAVE, an NGO which aims to promote conservation through scientific research and education, will likewise conduct a shark identification and data collection training for diving professionals, park staff and partners on 24 – 25 February 2015. Pilipinas Shell Foundation, Inc., will provide funding for the training.
The study will be done in collaboration with the Shark Foundation, The Marine Megafauna Foundation, the University of Victoria, Canada, and TMO.