All posts by Jill Studholme

By Jill Studholme. Jill edits SCUBA News (ISSN 1476-8011), the monthly newsletter with articles on diving and marine science. She tweets as @SCUBANews. You can find her on Google+ at https://plus.google.com/+JillStudholme/.
Humpback Whale

Humpback Whales Sing for their Supper

Whales may sing for their supper, a study in the open access journal Scientific Reports suggests.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) work together whilst foraging on the bottom for food – but how do they co-ordinate their behaviour? Susan Parks of Syracuse University believes she may have the answer.

Her research group have been monitoring humpback whales for a decade.

This study used digital acoustic tags to record sounds made by the whales when feeding on the bottom (at around 30-35 m depth) of the Northwest Atlantic. The data showed that whales often feed on the seafloor in close co-ordination, matching diving and behaviour on the seabed. The researchers heard the whales making a previously undescribed sound which sounded like “tick-tock”.

The scientists noticed that the bottom-feeding sounds, were only produced under low-light conditions whilst other humpback whales were nearby.

Why the whales make the noises is unclear. It may be to co-ordinate timing of feeding activities under low light conditions, to alert other humpback whales to the location of particularly good patches for feeding – acting like a dinner bell – or to flush out the prey.

“Hints of behaviour suggest that other whales who overhear the sounds are attracted to them and may eavesdrop on other whales hunting for food,” Professor Parks says.

Dinner for the humpbacks feeding on the bottom was mainly sand lance. These are eel-like fish which bury themselves in the sand of the ocean floor.

Sand Lance

Sand Lance

Humpback whales forage across habitats on a wide diversity of prey, ranging from krill to larger schooling fish species, using a variety of feeding strategies. This novel acoustic cue used whilst foraging on a bottom-dwelling prey provides yet more evidence of the learning abilities of humpback whales.

Scientific Reports is a primary research publication from the publishers of Nature.

Further Reading:
Parks, Cusano, Stimpert, Weinrich, Friedlaender & Wiley. Evidence for acoustic communication among bottom foraging humpback whales Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 7508 (2014)
Biologist reveals how whales may sing for their supper

Diver on wreck

Diving incidents down again

The British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) has published its Annual Diving Incident Report for 2014. The 2014 report records a total of 216 incidents.

BSAC have monitored and reported on diving incidents since 1964. Their report contains both details of UK diving incidents occurring to divers of all affiliations, and incidents occurring world-wide involving BSAC members.

In the last three years the number of reported incidents has declined by approximately 60 per year.

BSAC conclude that the decline may be because a normal amount of diving has taken place but:

  • either it has been safer and fewer incidents have occurred,

  • or a normal number of incidents have occurred but fewer have been reported.

Alternatively, less diving may have taken place and thus fewer incidents occurred.

There are some trends identified in the report that indicate that there are improvements to diver safety with respect to decompression illness and buoyancy control, and also a reduction in boating incidents.

BSAC say that most of the incidents reported could have been avoided had those involved followed a few basic principles of safe diving practice. Several incidents involved rapid ascents due to panic and a rush for the surface, poor buoyancy control, out of air, delayed surface marker buoy issues or a weight-related issue. Interestingly, there was also an increase this year in the number of cases which identified the malfunction of inflation or dump valves on a BCD or drysuit.

The “Incident Year” in the report ran from 1st October 2013 to 30th September 2014. Of the 216 incidents, 16 were fatal. Six cases probably involved divers who suffered a ‘nondiving’ related medical incident (for example a heart attack) whilst in the water. Four cases involved a separation of some kind. One case involved a diver who died as a result of breathing poisonous gas in a dry passage in a partially flooded mine.

Full details of each incident are covered in the report.

Further Reading:
BSAC Diving Incident Report 2014

Global Fishing Watch

Global Fishing Watch shows you ships fishing in protected areas

In the last 60 years the fishing industry have caught nine out of every ten large fish. That’s only 10% of large fish like tuna, cod, swordfish and halibut remaining on the planet. International fleets still pursue what is remaining. According a 2014 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, over 90% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited or over-fished.

This week Oceana, Skytruth and Google launched The Global Fishing Watch. This can identify individual fishing vessels and track their fishing activity, shining a light on fishing activity worldwide.

Global Fishing Watch Map

Global Fishing Watch Example Map

The prototype anlayses data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) network. This was designed to avoid collisions and gives information about a ship’s identy, location, speed and direction of travel. Global Fishing Watch uses the data to map the who, where and when of commercial fishing around the world.

Global Fishing Watch will be available to anyone with an internet connection to monitor when and where commercial fishing is happening around the globe. The designers hope that people will use the tool to see for themselves whether their fisheries are being effectively managed. Seafood suppliers can keep tabs on the boats they buy fish from. Media and the public can act as watchdogs to improve the sustainable management of global fisheries. Fisherman can show that they are obeying the law and doing their part. Researchers will have access to a multi-year record of all trackable fishing activity.

The systems aims to make fishing activity more transparent and identify illegal fishing. It will be able to monitor any fishing activity in closed, protected areas. For example, in tests the Komarovo, a trawler registered in Russia, appeared to be fishing five times inside the Dzhugdzhursky State Nature Reserve in September 2013. The nature reserve is an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) category 1a protected area, meaning it has the highest, and strictest, protection level possible. However, at least five vessels, all registered in Russia, entered the Nature Reserve and exhibited behavior suggestive of fishing in 2013.

There are currently 6,600 marine protected areas (MPAs) covering about 2 percent of the world’s oceans. An even smaller area of the global oceans, about 1 percent, has been protected with a “No Take” designation where all fishing is prohibited.

“Global Fishing Watch is designed to empower all stakeholders, including governments, fishery managers, citizens and members of the fishing industry itself, so that together they may work to bring back a healthy, bio-diverse and maximally productive ocean,” said Andrew Sharpless, CEO of Oceana. “By engaging citizens to hold their elected officials accountable for managing fisheries sustainably and for enforcing fishing rules, Global Fishing Watch will help bring back the world’s fisheries, protecting and enhancing the livelihoods of the hundreds of millions of people who depend on ocean fisheries for food and income.”

Although the Global Fishing Watch promises to be a fantastic tool, it is not perfect. Many smaller fishing vessels are not included in Global Fishing Watch as vessels below 300 gross tonnage are not currently required to operate AIS in many areas. It is hoped that the AIS will be expanded to smaller ships.

SkyTruth is a nonprofit organization using remote sensing and digital mapping to create stunning images that expose the environmental impact of natural resource extraction and other human activities. Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Google Earth Outreach is a team dedicated to leveraging and developing Google’s infrastructure to address environmental and humanitarian issues through partnerships with non-profits, educational institutions, and research groups.

Further Reading:
Global Fishing Watch

Frog Fish, Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef: Australia to ban Sediment Dumping on Part of Reef

Australia has declared that it will ban dumping of sediment in the marine park area of the Great Barrier Reef, but not in the entire World Heritage Site. This matters because, according to environmental pressure group Fight for the Reef, in recent years 80% of dumping has been in World Heritage waters just outside the Marine Park.

During a speech in Sydney at the World Parks Congress, Environment Minister Greg Hunt said that the government will legislate a ban on dumping.

Spoil will still affect Coral and Seagrass

A ban in just the Marine Park, though, would still allow millions of tonnes of spoil to be dumped where plumes can easily drift onto coral and seagrass.

The expansion of Abbot Point, to make it one of the world’s biggest coal ports in middle of the Great Barrier Reef is still going to go ahead – this time with the dumping of toxic sludge on wetlands. Wetlands are the filters and the fish nurseries for the Reef.

Groups press to protect entire World Heritage Area

Environmental groups are pressing for the government to protect the entire World Heritage area or risk an ‘in-danger’ listing for the Reef from the World Heritage Committee.

Practically the entire Great Barrier Reef was inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1981. It contains the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc. It also contains habitats of species like the dugong and the large green turtle, which are threatened with extinction.

Green Turtle

Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas

In June 2015 the World Heritage Committee will decide whether to place the Barrier Reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Fight for the Reef is a partnership between WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

Further Reading
Fight for the Reef
World Heritage List: Great Barrier Reef

Whale shark

Beth Tierney on Diving the World

Along with her husband Shaun, Beth Tierney is co-author of the popular Diving the World. Jill Studholme interviewed her for SCUBA News.

What makes your book different from other books about diving around the world?

There are two principals we have stuck to ever since the first edition. Right from the start, we asked other divers where they had been and where they were diving next. And then we focused on those places people actually want to go to and can afford to go to. Let’s face it, we would all love to dive the Antarctic, but few of us will win the lottery this week! The other thing is that we can say – hand on heart – that there is nothing in the book that we haven’t personally done. If we haven’t dived the country or a specific site, we don’t write about it or pass opinion. It makes the guide unique. Yes, it is personal to us and our experiences but at least readers know we have said it because we have done it!

Blue ringed octopus

Blue ringed octopus

Whale Shark

This is the third edition – did you have to revisit all the dive
sites in the original book and have you added any new areas to the book?

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing! I love the idea of going back to everywhere again, but sadly, that’s not practical for every edition. However, we have dived almost everywhere more than once and revisited some places specifically to make sure we are up-to-date. Jordan is a good example, it was our first ever foray into the Red Sea but it didn’t go into the first two editions. However, this time around, we found it was hitting more wish lists so we went back and checked it out. And yes, it was as good as we remembered it.

Where would you like to dive next?

Always a hard one as we tend to hold off making plans to see what new things crop up – if a different destination or new liveaboard appears, we can just hop on. However, we are both quite keen to go back to Papua New Guinea where there is a mix of reefs and wrecks and it is never that busy. We would both like to revisit Truk Lagoon or perhaps explore the Malpelo in the Eastern Pacific.

Do you have a worst diving experience?

We have been fortunate to never have any really serious dramas, although there have been plenty of small ones that make hilarious dinnertime tales. As for bad dive experiences, the hardest one was a dive in the far south of Indonesia in the Indian Ocean. We were heading for a pinnacle beyond the surf zone with no land in sight. When we reached it and entered the water, all was calm but as soon as we reached about 25 metres there was a phenomenal tidal change that hit the pinnacle as a 5 or 6 metre surge. One minute we would be at 24 metres, and then in seconds were thrown up to 18 before dropping rapidly to over 30 metres. It was terrifying and hilarious all at once. Trying to abort a dive like that is nigh on impossible too as our computers screeched non-stop. We ended up clinging to rocks on the pinnacle and slowly working our way up, ending with just 12 minutes of deco-time. Phew.

Great photos are a hallmark of your books, what photographic equipment do you use?

The images in the book have been taken over quite a few years so some were on film. Way back when, Shaun used a Nikonos V and a Nikon F90 in a Sea and Sea Housing. When he went over to the dark side (oops, digital), he stuck with Sea and Sea housings as he feels they are the most ergonomic and simple, incredibly well built but good value. His first digital SLR camera was a Nikon D200 and he has a D300 as well.

Now that the new book is finished, what projects have you in the pipeline?

At the moment, we are working on converting our previous guide, Diving Southeast Asia to a digital version. This means going back over all the factual content to ensure it is still correct (or fix what has changed) then we also updating the operator listings. We are hoping it will be available before Christmas this year.

What do you do for recreation when you are not diving?

We’ve recently bought a new house in the wilds of Dorset (UK), so life is currently all to do with renovating and gardening. We are lucky enough to have a stream though, with all sorts of wonderful wildlife – crayfish, kingfishers and water voles – so we are not completely missing the marine world. I am contemplating putting my Canon S110 in it’s housing to see what I can get when I go paddling!

Most people would like your job – diving exotic places and writing about it – how did you get into it?

Way back in the 80s we did a round-the-world trek spending long spells in the tropics, floating over vivid coral reefs and wishing we were down below with the divers. At the time our budget didn’t extend to learning to dive but within months of returning to London we signed up for a BSAC course, did our first open water dives in the Maldives and our qualification dives in Cyprus.

As the years went by, we became increasingly involved in the diving world as a photojournalist team: Shaun’s first career was as a studio photographer and Beth worked in advertising and marketing as a consultant to the travel industry. In the early ’90s, we took a ‘career break’ and aimed to dive our way around the world. We didn’t manage to see as much as we wanted but it was a great year.

Since then, we have become PADI Master Scuba Divers and our work has become increasingly focused on dive travel books plus we run SeaFocus.com.

Diving the World Third Edition

Diving the World

You can order a signed copy of Diving the World from the Tierneys’ Sea Focus website. It is also available with 49% off from Amazon.

As well as information about over 275 dive sites, the book covers: local customs; suggestions for dive centres, accommodation and restaurants; information on what to do when you’re not diving (useful for non-divers travelling with you) and anecdotes about the diving. The authors have dived, reviewed and photographed every site in the book.

The new edition is out 12 November.

Further Reading:
More interviews with diving authors, and scuba book reviews.

Helmut Jellyfish

Strange marine animals found around the Canary Islands

Marine conservation group Oceana have found an amazing array of marine life in their expedition around the Canary Islands.

Oceana - Siphonophora

Siphonophora, photo © Oceana

Using ROVs (remotely operated underwater vehicles) down to 1000 m as well as scuba divers to shallow depths, they documented large colonies of deep-sea white coral, crystal aggregations of sponges, dense forests of black corals, oceanic puffers, giant foraminifera, carnivorous sponges and sharks, as well as many other biological communities and species in the south of the El Hierro Island.

Oceanic Puffers

Aggregation of Oceanic puffers (Lagocephalus lagocephalus lagocephalus) with reproductive purposes. El Desierto, El Hierro, Canary Islands, Spain. photo © Oceana

“Although there are some habitats that are specific to certain depths, in all dives and environments we have documented many different species, demonstrating the richness in biodiversity of southern El Hierro”, says Ricardo Aguilar, Research Director at Oceana in Europe. “With information gathered from this expedition, we intend to promote the creation of a marine national park in the southern part of El Hierro island; the first one in Europe.”

Nemichthys sp

Nemichthys sp, photo © Oceana

El Hierro boasts highly diverse and valuable marine habitats and species, which led Oceana to propose the protection of its waters in 2011. Earlier this year El Hierro became the first island in the world to use 100 percent renewable energies, making the island unique from an environmental point of view.

Carnivorous sponge

Carnivorous sponge photo © Oceana

As well as documenting the sea life around El Hierro, the expedition is exploring for the first time seamounts in the Eastern Atlantic. These have hardly ever been filmed before.

Brown-snout spookfish (Dolichopteryx longipes)

Brown-snout spookfish (Dolichopteryx longipes), photo © Oceana

The Canary Islands and their adjacent seamounts hold the most diverse elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) community of the whole European Union, with up to 79 species identified.

Bigeye thresher shark (Alopias superciliosus)

Bigeye thresher shark (Alopias superciliosus) photo © Oceana

Oceana was founded in 2001 and is the largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation, protecting marine ecosystems and endangered species.

Vampire Squid

Vampire Squid, photo © Oceana

Sea urchin (Phormosoma placenta)

Sea urchin (Phormosoma placenta), photo © Oceana

Tripod Fish (Bathypterois dubius)

Tripod Fish (Bathypterois dubius), photo © Oceana

Sea Cucumber Elasipodida

Sea Cucumber Elasipodida, photo © Oceana

All photos copyright Oceana

Further Reading:
Oceana – Canary Islands Expedition 2014

SCUBA Fish Count

Silent divers count more fish

SCUBA divers underestimate the amount of life in heavily-fished areas, a study suggests.

Scientists from Australia compared fish counts by SCUBA divers—who produce noisy bubbles—and divers using silent rebreathers. They found little difference in counts between the two in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), where the fish weren’t frightened of the divers. In more heavily fished areas though, the bubble-free divers recorded 48% more species and up to 260% greater fish abundance than the SCUBA divers.

snapper

Visual assessment by SCUBA divers is a commonly used method to gauge reef fish communities. However, the report in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution casts doubt upon its accuracy in some areas, saying that as fishing pressure increases so does the bias of the count.

The divers wearing rebreathers were able to get closer to the larger, most heavily-fished species which were very shy of divers in the non-protected areas. The researchers—Steven J. Lindfield, Euan S. Harvey, Jennifer L. McIlwain and Andrew R. Halford—recommend the use of this bubble-free diving system for surveys assessing reef fish populations, especially in areas where fish are heavily targeted by spearfishing. If fish behaviour isn’t taken into account, surveys using SCUBA could result in in the wrong conclusions when comparing fished and protected areas.

The surveys were carried out in Guam.

Further Reading:
Lindfield, S. J., Harvey, E. S., McIlwain, J. L., Halford, A. R. (2014), Silent fish surveys: bubble-free diving highlights inaccuracies associated with SCUBA-based surveys in heavily fished areas. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.12262

Photo credit: Tim Nicholson

Scuba Challenge raising money for disability day

Gruelling Scuba Challenge on Tomorrow

Tomorrow is the SCUBA Challenge, where disabled and able-bodied divers will complete 64 lengths in the pool – fully kitted up – and 2 open water dives to raise money for Disability Day.

Organised by Dave Thompson, who sustained a spinal cord injury whilst playing American Football and has since been a full time wheelchair user with limited use in his left arm and none in his right arm or legs. As well as able-bodied divers, Dave is joined in this year’s challenge by three other disabled divers: two have spinal cord injuries and one has had a quadruple heart bypass. Proving the scuba diving is a fully inclusive hobby.

They are raising money to support the world’s largest ‘not for profit’ voluntary-led disability exhibition. If you would like to join Dave and the team, please email Dave on dave.thompson@5bp.nhs.uk. Alternatively you can donate at https://www.justgiving.com/scubachallenge2014/.

One of the divers is 22 year old ex-serviceman Tom Coleridge, a full time wheelchair user since being shot in Afghanistan in 2010. Tom’s injury left him paralysed from the waist.

The SCUBA Challenge day will start with an 18 m morning dive at Capenwray Quarry in Lancashire, followed by an afternoon 18 m dive at Eccleston Delph and finally late afternoon 64 lengths of the swimming pool at Woolston Leisure Centre, Warrington (UK).

Dave told us how he felt on a previous year’s challenge (and that one didn’t include an open water dives).

“For me it was a slow, slow and even slower pace. After ten lengths I felt a deep pain in my one good shoulder which was probably due to the weeks of training. I managed to stop a few time (under water) whilst John my dive buddy for the day adjusted my weights. But once into a rhythm the next thirty lengths flew by, and at forty five lengths John signalled that I should change my tank as I was low on air, I must admit that I was so knackered, I hadn’t noticed. As I surfaced briefly, my wife Pam handed me a drink, but just reaching for the bottle was excruciatingly painful. The stretching hadn’t done me much good; in fact my single arm long stroke was now reduced to a very small flicker type movement, but it kept me going between several rests lying on the bottom. At one stage I just wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep, thinking that I might wake up and it would be over.

But eventually John counted down the last few lengths from ten, and then somehow I saw one finger. This was it just one to go. One final push to the finish and as I surfaced everyone was standing around the pool cheering and clapping. As I hung onto the edge of the pool I remember seeing Simon’s face with a huge smile, and then Graham grabbed hold of my tank just as I was sliding back into the water. I remember looking around and feeling a huge sense of physical achievement, a sense that I hadn’t felt for twenty two years. One of the highlights of the day was swimming the last length with my son Gavin who was attempting a try dive. Ironically I finished at the opposite end to the pool hoist and had to swim back to get out. But on the way back John handed me a stud earring that had glistened at me each time I swam past it. It’s strange how something so small became a focus even though I was totally exhausted. My spirits were lifted as one by one everyone came forward as I handed out their certificates.”

scuba challenge for disability day
To donate, join in or find out more go to https://www.justgiving.com/scubachallenge2014/ or contact Dave on dave.thompson@5bp.nhs.uk

European eel

Ship noise slows eels and lets predators catch them twice as quickly

Eels are losing the fight to survive when faced with marine noise pollution such as that of passing ships, according to a study published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Scientists from the Universities of Exeter and Bristol that found that in the presence of ship noise, European eels (Anguilla anguilla) were 50% less likely to respond to an ambush from a predator, while those that did had 25% slower reaction times. Those that were pursued by a predator were caught more than twice as quickly.

Lead researcher Dr Steve Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology & Global Change at the University of Exeter, said: “Our findings demonstrate that acute acoustic events, such as the noise of a passing ship, may have serious impacts on animals with direct consequences for life-or-death behavioural responses. If these impacts affect whole populations then the endangered eel, which has seen a 90% crash in abundance over the past 20 years due to climate change, may have one more problem to deal with as they cross busy coastal areas.”

When scientists played recordings of shipping noise to eels, the fish had higher stress levels and reduced right-left preferences.

The study highlights the importance of assessing the scale of impacts of the noise that now pervades many coastal environments.

The European eel is classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. As well as noise pollution it faces loss of habitat, physical barriers to migration, problems with parasites and over-fishing.

Further Reading:
Simpson, S. D., Purser, J. and Radford, A. N. (2014), Anthropogenic noise compromises antipredator behaviour in European eels. Global Change Biology. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12685

Photo credit: David Perez (CC BY 3.0)

Hammerhead sharks

Shark Fin Sales Halved in China

Prices and sales of shark fin are falling in China by 50-70% according to a report by environmental group WildAid.

Around 7% of all sharks are killed every year. This exceeds the average rebound rate for many shark populations, meaning that if things don’t change they are condemned to extinction. Shark products include meat, skin, teeth and oil, but it is the higher market value of shark fins – primarily in China – that has driven the demand for these beautiful animals and their population declines. However things are changing. A campaign in China to raise awareness of the effects of buying shark products has been very successful.

Demand reduction can be very effective” says Peter Knights, Executive Director of WildAid. “The more people learn about the consequences of eating shark fin soup, the less they want to participate in the trade. Government bans on shark fin at state banquets in China and Hong Kong also helped send the right message.

The new report documents:

  • 82% decline in sales reported by shark fin vendors in Guangzhou, China
  • 85% of Chinese consumers surveyed online said they gave up shark fin soup within the past 3 years. Two thirds cited awareness campaigns with 28% citing the government banquet ban as a reason.
  • 24 airlines, three shipping lines and five hotel groups have officially banned shark fin from their operations

Up to 73 million sharks are killed for their fins. Of the fourteen shark species most prevalent in the shark fin trade, all have experienced regional population declines ranging from 40-99%, and all are classified as Threatened or Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

In the Guangzhou markets, assumed to be the new centre of China’s shark fin trade, wholesale traders are now complaining of dwindling sales and falling prices. Retailers who were selling medium-sized shark fins for as much as US$642 per kilogram are now able only to charge half as much. One Guangzhou wholesaler commented that “shark fin is a dying business” and another is quoted saying that “Yao Ming’s commercial impact single-handedly smashed my business,” in reference to WildAid’s ongoing multimedia public awareness campaigns.

The sharks most commonly killed for fins are: tiger shark, great hammerhead, scalloped hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, thresher shark, blue shark, shortfin mako shark, bull shark, silky shark, dusky shark and sandbar shark.

Tiger shark

Although the report is good news for sharks, the shark fin trade continues, both legally and illegally. For example in March 2014, WildAid interviews with Belizean fishermen revealed they continue to get US$75 per pound (approximately US$165 per kilogram) for medium to large shark fin and, comparatively, only US$7 per pound (approximately US$15 per kilogram) for the meat. Evidence of locally protected nurse sharks being targeted for their fins was also noted. In April 2014, the Belizean Fisheries Department arrested two fishermen for the attempted illegal export of 73 dried shark fins and other marine products to Guatemala.

So, good news for sharks but still work to be done to save the sharks and their oceans.