By Angelina Cecchetto on 28th November 2013
Shark Angel Julie Andersen (sharkangels.org) performs an impromptu underwater dance with a curious oceanic white tip shark – stunning video by Built By Wildman.
By Angelina Cecchetto on 13th August 2013
Two divers named Shawn Stamback and Francis Antigua got the fright of their lives when they nearly got snatched away by two enormous humpback whales who suddenly surfaced out of the water to feast on a school of anchovies. This happened a few weeks ago off the coast of central California. The two dive buddies who were surrounded by a school of anchovies never thought that two enormous humpback whales would simultaneously jump out of the water by their side! They both instantaneously thought the other had been swallowed by the whales.
In areas known to be populated or popular with whales, boaters are advised to stay at least a hundred yards/meters away from whales and this explains pretty clearly why. This is certainly a dive experience they will both remember for quite a while, not to say for ever.
Lesson to learn for us divers: when you dive near a big school of anchovies (or any school of praying fish, I would even say) watch your surroundings and keep an eye underwater until you get back on board!
Happy and safe diving to all!
By Angelina Cecchetto on 12th July 2013
A 52 000 years old underwater Bald Cypress forest which was buried under ocean sediments was recently discovered by scuba divers in Alabama! The amazing thing is that the forest has been protected in an oxygen free environment for over 50 000 years and is now home to a flourishing reef rich in fish, crustaceans, sea anemones and other underwater organisms.
It is thought that hurricane Katrina contributed to uncover the hidden forest in 2005. After that date, a local dive shop owner realized that something exceptional was happening in the area after a local fisherman revealed that the area was extremely prolific in fish.
The following year, a friend of the dive shop owner went down to see what was happening underwater and marveled at the finding of the underwater forest. Diving the forest was described as “fairy like”. The spot was kept secret for several years mainly to avoid pillage and to protect it however in 2012 the dive shop owner finally disclosed the existence of the forest to scientists who are now researching the area. The forest which lays at 18m/60ft depth covers an area of about 0.8 sq kms/0.5 sq miles and is located a few miles away from the coast of Mobile, Alabama and could well reveal new information on the climate of the Gulf of Mexico thousands of years ago. This could reveal valuable information on the period also known as the “Wisconsin Glaciation” when sea levels were much lower than they currently are.
Because Bald Cypress trees can live thousands of years, the underwater trees could potentially reveal thousands of years of climate information on the area which for scientists is a very exciting perspective that could bring new explanations on nowadays phenomenon. Whatever the outcome of researches will be, I must say that as a diver, I would love to dive this awe inspiring underwater forest!!
By Angelina Cecchetto on 21st March 2013
Nature together with the existence of many species have never been so much in danger of extinction, there is a lot to do to protect Life. Thankfully some people do care and act about it and thanks to these people’s solidarity and efficient campaigning, some great steps forward have been achieved.
The first great news is surely the decision to finally place five species of highly traded and endangered sharks (oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and three species of hammerheads), both manta rays and one species of sawfish on the protected list at the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meeting held this month in Bangkok, Thailand. This was one of the first strong engagements to admit the criticality of sharks and rays situation and to finally protect them.
On March 8th 2013 another great step forward was achieved by the California Coastal Commission (CCC) who heard people’s outcry and petitions and voted unanimously to reject the US Navy’s request to maintain military testing, sonar and bomb deployments throughout Southern California, Hawaii, Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast. Many dolphins and whales have been killed already but should the CCC have approved the maintenance of the Navy’s project, millions of cetaceans would have been killed in the next 5 years so this is great news for the life preservation of many cetaceans in these areas so thanks for signing the petition everybody!
The other step forward was also achieved in Thailand when Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced that Thailand is ending the sale of elephant ivory. This is a fantastic step towards elephant conservation there. Once again this was achieved thanks to people’s mobilization and especially WWF actions and campaigns gathering thousands of petition signatures.
In December last year, thanks to a WWF “I Will If You Will” campaign for Earth Hour 2012 which gathered the voices of 120,000 Russians and presented it to the government, the Russian Parliament voted a long-awaited law to protect the country’s seas from oil pollution.
Last but not least, we will mention the fantastic work achieved by the Sea Shepherds team who returned to Melbourne last Monday after “Operation Zero Tolerance” which is their most successful campaign to date. Their courage, solidarity and perseverance saved the lives of hundreds of whales in the Antartic and showed yet again that when people get together to defend the right cause they can have a positive influence on events or history. As many environmentalists, I was also delighted to hear that Germany finally dropped their warrant against Captain Paul Watson.
To conclude, I would say that we can all make a positive difference in this world, there is no right or wrong way to do so. As Zachary Scott rightly said, “As you grow older, you’ll find the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do” so if you want to do something about what is happening you can.
We have a voice and we can use it! Here are a few petitions to sign should you want to use your voice to make a positive difference:
By Angelina Cecchetto on 21st February 2013
As far as Nature and Ocean conservation are concerned we all know that there is a lot do to do prevent many species from extinction.
There are however many courageous people, source of true inspiration, who fight for the defense of Life and Justice against very often more powerful greedy bullies. What gives a glimpse of hope in such a gloomy global context is that many initiatives to protect environment have seen the light, together with associations, projects, foundations and active defense groups and their actions do have positive results! Thanks to all these different actions, we can see some progress forward. In the last few months a few positive steps have been made in the right direction.
On the 22nd of November 2012, the EU Parliament voted a stronger shark finning ban preventing the fins to be landed without the shark body attached. The EU actually banned shark finning in 2003 but there was a major loophole to that ban as the fins could be landed separately from the shark body. The EU Parliament put an end to that loophole with the newly enforced ban.
On the 6th of February 2013 the EU Parliament voted to restore Europeans fish stocks by 2020. A historic vote by an overwhelming majority of 502 vs. 137 members of the European Parliament who called for the restoration of fish stocks by 2020. This casts a strong line and a clear message upon the upcoming negotiations on the Common Fisheries Policy reform between the EU fisheries ministers and Parliament.
Last week, the local government in Raja Ampat announced the creation of a Shark and Manta Ray Sanctuary in the Coral Triangle (aka “The Amazon of the ocean”) to protect many species and particularly sharks and rays. The Coral Triangle is a rich marine ecosystem located in the tropical waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.
Considering Indonesia ranks as the world’s largest exporter of sharks and rays, the Shark and Ray Sanctuary seems like a step in the right direction. Hopefully the Indonesian authorities would have realized that the international interest from divers brings more long term benefits than the short term benefits from fishing and that there is therefore more value to live sharks and rays than dead ones.
Yesterday some great news came out of Captain Paul Watson’s Sea Shepherd fleet extremely brave actions against hostile Japanese attacks in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Amongst Icebergs, the Sea Shepherd fleet bravely opposed an 8,000 ton Japanese ship (the Nisshin Maru) which was trying to illegally get a transfer of Heavy Fuel Oil from another Japanese ship (the Sun Laurel) in the protected area of the Antarctic Treaty Zone where it is illegal to even bring Heavy Fuel Oil.
The three Sea Shepherd ships knowing of the plan of the illegal refueling, took strategic position around the Sun Laurel to prevent the refueling. In the end four Japanese ships reacted with much violence towards the Sea Shepherd fleet going up to blatantly attacking them with high power water cannons and throwing concussion grenades at the Sea Shepherd ships. One of the Japanese tanker even heeled over one the of the Sea Shepherd fleet who bravely stood its ground despite the extremely intimidating and dangerous Japanese actions. Thanks to the heroic actions of the Sea Shepherd team the illegal refueling didn’t happen but even more importantly all the harpoon vessels have gone away and the whale fleet seems to be giving up for now. As Captain Paul Watsons relates in his article: “The best news of all came with the announcement that the Institute for Cetacean Research has called a temporary halt to all whaling operations.”
The fourth great news is the discovery (or re-discovery) of a new whale species found under a California highway! During major construction projects of a California highway, it seems that several species of early toothed baleen whales were discovered in the Laguna Canyon outcrop. Scientists believed that this type of whales were extinct over 5 million years ago before these were found! The actual discovery was made between 2000 and 2005 and the researchers studying the findings for years just announced their views this week. The new toothed whale specie which is said by the researchers to be much larger than the other species and prey on sharks was nicknamed “Willy”.
 “New whale species found under a California highway” related by Jaymi Heimbuch http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/new-whale-species-unearthed-california-highway-dig.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter
By Angelina Cecchetto on 18th February 2013
Shark finning is described as such: “Shark finning refers to the removal and retention of shark fins. The rest of the body is generally discarded in the ocean; […] Sharks without their fins are often still alive; unable to move normally, they die of suffocation or are eaten by other predators.”
Sharks are fished out of the water, their fins are being cut on boats whilst they agonize in excruciating pain and then thrown back out into the water without being able to swim properly, they are then pretty much doomed to die.
I wonder how we would like it if some predator would hunt us out, cut our legs and arms off slowly whilst still alive and then throw us back into nature without arms and legs?
Shark finning needs to stop not only because this is a barbaric practice but because the shark population is being depleted and several shark species are in danger of extinction.
According to the report of the IUCN that the Shark Specialist Group published in 2007 after 7 years of experts’ studies “32% of the world’s pelagic sharks and rays (20 species) are threatened.”
On the current IUCN Red List numbers speak by themselves; 15 species of sharks are critically endangered of extinction whilst 11 species are endangered.
Shark finning is one of the main causes behind shark depletion. China is often pointed at as the most important market as shark fin soup is a delicacy there and is thought to have curative properties. The great irony of the situation is that far from being curative shark fins can actually be toxic!
Wildlife non-governmental organization “WildAid” warned that eating too much shark fin soup can cause sterility in men. Pregnant women are advised not to eat shark fin soups during their pregnancy and whilst breast feeding. The reason for this being the presence of mercury in shark fins due to industrial pollution absorbed by the smaller fish that sharks prey upon. The presence of Mercury in the ocean stems back from industrial contamination of lakes and rivers, mercury being used in the manufacture of batteries, plastic and paper.
The situation is not only highly ironic but ironically tragic I would say. So what can we do to help stop this?
I truly believe that we need to work on education, passing on the right information and multiply initiatives worldwide. Some Chinese newspapers have published articles about the dangers related to eating shark fin soup regularly or for pregnant women. I would like to know more about what else is done there and I am starting to work on a “long haul” awareness project which would ideally be diffused in China too.
I think that the more we campaign and petition about the subject the more people will be aware of what is happening and will be in grade to take informed decisions for themselves in their own conscience. The idea is to work on the demand of the markets. If the demand drastically decreases the markets will die off by themselves. I am fully aware that it will take years before seeing a noticeable positive change of population habits but we have to clearly bear in mind that the 26 species of sharks and rays that are in danger of extinction do not have many years ahead of them before they are totally extinguished from the planet. We need to act and fast!
 The Conservation Status of Pelagic Sharks and Rays https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/summary_of_report.pdf
 “Watch out for shark fin soup” China Daily.
 “What You Need to Know about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish” EPA – http://water.epa.gov/scitech/swguidance/fishshellfish/outreach/advice_index.cfm
By Angelina Cecchetto on 9 February 2013
Following the great feedback I received from the last post “The first breathtaking photo of a giant oceanic Manta Ray giving birth??” it would seem that the picture could well show a case of what is called “gastro-intestinal eversion” where the manta actually ejects the lower part of its intestine out of the cloaca in order to clean its intestine from indigestible debris.
This is an event which has so far been rarely recorded in the wild. One other case has been recorded in 2007 at a cleaning station in waters off Maui.
Since I am no marine biologist I will leave it to the specialists to decide whether the picture shows a manta giving birth or everting its intestine. In any case this is a very rare and lucky shot!
What this information leads me to wonder is whether the regularity at which the mantas evert their intestine has been increased by the anthropogenic pollution factor? It would also be interesting to know what sort of impact this has on the mantas habits and behaviors if any.
It would also seem that the shot could be of a Manta alfredi rather than Manta birostris, this is still to be defined with other shots. The differentiation between Manta alfredi and Manta birostris is fairly recent and dates back from 2009. In fact Manta alfredy, also known as Reef Manta Ray and Manta birostris are both part of what is called the “genus Manta” family and they can easily be confused. It would seem that manta birostris do not display markings between the gills.
What is pretty certain is that the situation of the mantas alfredy is also critical. The same over fishing threats apply to both species and the population is drastically decreasing. The IUCN categorized the manta rays as “Vulnerable” in between the “Near Threatened” and “Endangered” species and states that “Overall, the rate of population reduction appears to be high in several regions, up to as much as 80% over the last three generations (approximately 75 years), and globally a decline of 30% is strongly suspected.”
As I mentioned in the previous article, there are various factors that led to this critical state of affairs: overfishing, very low fecundity rate and anthropogenic pollution. It would seem that in the wild female mantas give birth to a single pup every 2 to 3 years cycle. When we add this factor to the overfishing trends we can easily understand that populations are being easily depleted.
Whether this picture shows a Manta birostris or a Manta alfredi and whether it is showing a birth or a gastro intestinal eversion (I leave it to the knowledgeable marine specialists and scientists to decide), the important message is that Mantas are in danger and they need a strong global protection. I am hoping that this picture will raise awareness, open up discussions, ideas exchange and humbly contribute towards global mantas protection.
By Angelina Cecchetto on 7th February 2013
When my friend and Film Maker Martin Ureta came to the Maldives for a dive holiday he was far from imagining that he would be the amazingly lucky and first ever photographer of a giant oceanic manta giving birth in its natural environment!
Despite a growing number of scientific studies on manta populations very little is known thus far about the giant oceanic Manta ray also known as Manta Birostris. No one has ever seen them give birth so far. So it would seem that Martin is the first person to have ever photographed a Manta Birostris in the process of giving birth in its natural environment, and this happened during the first week of January 2013! The shot was taken during a dive in the southern part of the Ari Atoll in the Maldives in a dive spot famous for spotting mantas. During the dive a group of 3 Mantas Birostris were twirling over the shallow reef to feed to the delight of the group of divers observing their graceful underwater moves. The divers were all mesmerized by the spectacle and couldn’t believe their luck to have spotted the mantas and have them twirling over them for some magical minutes. Martin was busy enjoying the show and capturing this underwater ballet on camera. None the divers, nor their guide noticed anything particular happening with the mantas during the actual dive but when they came back to the island and viewed the pictures we noticed something unusual in one of the manta’s pelvic area. I immediately thought this might be the unbelievable capture of a manta birth but I am not a marine biologist.
When he returned from holidays, Martin contacted The Manta Network in California to get an opinion on what is actually happening on the photo. Robert Aston, The Manta Network Executive Director shared the photo with Dr. Robert Rubin who is one of the foremost experts on Manta Birostris and from their very enthusiastic feedback, it would seem that the picture is indeed the first picture of a Manta Birostris giving birth.
We would like to use this picture as a flagship picture to defend mantas and especially the giant oceanic mantas. We hope this picture will create the awareness that mantas are some of the most peaceful and graceful underwater creatures. Very little is known about them so far but all the studies being led are highlighting a drastic decline in their populations. According to the IUCN “The rate of population reduction appears to be high in several regions, as much as 80% over the last three generations (approximately 75 years), and globally a decline of 30% is strongly suspected.”
The IUCN categorized the manta rays as “Vulnerable” in between the “Near Threatened” and “Endangered” species. There are a various factors that led to this critical state of affairs.
The first main threat comes from fishing as mantas are highly valuable in international markets and in particular in Asian markets. As Africa Geographic’s Science Editor Tim Jackson mentions in his article entitled “Myths about manta rays”: “In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that the gill-rakers of mantas and other rays cure chickenpox and alleviate high blood pressure. They don’t!”
The fact that mantas are easy to spot from the surface due to their large size, and easy to fish out because of their slow swimming speed and the fact that they don’t avoid humans, make them a very easy prey for many fishing boats.
Another important factor to understand is mantas reproductive cycle. Although there is a lot to be learnt still, it is thought that Mantas Birostris have a gestation period of one year and generally give birth to a single pup at a time. It is still not quite clear whether females have a pup per year or one every 2 years. At this rate it is important to understand that if the fishing rate is higher than the manta rays reproductive rate, they will soon be extinct.
Another factor to mention is the anthropogenic factor such as water warming and pollution which indirectly affects mantas habitat although it is pretty difficult to evaluate in which measure.
To conclude I would say that in the light of all of the above it appears quite vital that worldwide measures are taken as soon as possible. Some countries have already applied strong measures to protect mantas as the UICN states, mainly the United States, the Republic of Maldives, the Philippines, Mexico, Ecuador, Australia and New Zealand. Whilst this is a great start, Mantas are in danger and need a strong global worldwide protection.
Mantas are some of the most peaceful and graceful underwater creatures I have been given the chance to see. It would be a lot more than just an “awful shame” to loose such a magical underwater specie in the name of an unfounded cure property.
 The Manta Network, California. http://worldoceanobservatory.org/directory-listing/manta-network
 Myths about manta rays by Tim Jackson: http://blog.africageographic.com/africa-geographic-blog/conservation/myths-about-manta-rays/