Ocean of Hope

A Great White Shark’s view of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week

great white shark
Great White Shark photo by: Cherilyn Chin

Hi, my name is Boo. I’m the star of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. At least my species is. I’m a great white shark. My name is Boo because I like to sneak up on my prey. The name “shark” already strikes terror in humans, but adding the “great white” part makes me sound scarier. I must admit, my mouthful of teeth and red gums are very intimidating, and aren’t very pretty. But my mouth sure does scare my prey, which is what matters most to me!

I don’t like how sharks are portrayed during Shark Week. We’re not man-eating mindless machines. I gotta eat, and over millions of years, great white sharks have become very proficient at eating other animals. Eating live prey is messy with blood everywhere in the water. Did you know I can smell one drop of blood in 25 gallons (100 liters) of seawater?

I could have been named a “great gray shark” because my back is gray. This is due to countershading. That means that when animals see me from below, my white belly blends into the sunlight above me. When an animal looks at me from above, my gray back blends into the dark water below me.

I’m not like those show-off great white sharks that live off of South Africa. I don’t jump clear out of the water when catching my prey. Instead I sneak up on my prey from below. I live off the coast of California, and I like to eat sea lions, seals, small toothed whales and carrion (food I scavenge).

I have 300 triangular teeth several rows deep. The teeth are continually being replaced so I never have to see a dentist.

I have no natural predator, except for orcas or killer whales. I have an unnatural predator in humans. Up to 100 million sharks annually are killed, mainly for their fins. The fins are used in shark fin soup, a delicacy in many Asian countries.

I would be safer if I just stayed near California, but a lot of great white sharks travel to the “White Shark Café” between Baja California and Hawaii. Those waters are not protected by any one nation. Why we do that is a mystery to humans, and I ain’t gonna be the one who talks!

I hope if you tune into Shark Week this week that you remember who the true killers are (humans) and that you remember me, Boo. I’m not that scary after all, right?

10 Amazing Manta Ray Facts

manta ray facts
Manta Ray Silhouette photo by: Jackie Reid NOAA

10 Amazing Manta Ray Facts

1. There are two species of Manta Rays: The Coastal or Reef Manta Ray (Manta alfredi) and the Oceanic or Giant Manta Ray (Manta birostris).

2. A Manta Ray’s spot pattern on its belly is as unique as a human fingerprint. (There is an international database of Manta Ray belly pictures called Manta Matcher)

3. Manta Rays feed on the smallest denizens of the oceans, the microscopic plankton. (Manta Rays feed by filtering seawater through their gill rakers).

4. Manta Rays may have self recognition, something only higher primates, elephants, dolphins and humans have. See previous blog entry, “Moby the Manta Ray and Self-Recognition”

5. Manta Rays have the largest brain/body ratio of any fish in the ocean.

6. Despite that their prey is so small, Manta Rays can have wingspans up to 23 feet (7 meters) and weigh 2,980 lb (1,350 kg).

7. When courting, a train of up to a dozen males will follow one female.

8. Manta Rays swim constantly and only occasionally stop to be cleaned of parasites at a cleaning station on a coral reef.

9. Manta Rays like to breach (jump high out of the water), but the reason why is still unknown.

And the last manta ray fact is an important one:
10. Manta Rays are at risk from fishing for their gill rakers. (Manta Ray gill rakers are used in a controversial new formula of Traditional Chinese Medicine)

The Fastest, Heaviest, Largest, Longest, & Oldest Ocean Animals

oarfish Smithsonian
The longest fish in the ocean: Oarfish photo of oarfish model taken at Smithsonian Institution

Now that the Winter Olympics are over, I thought I’d list some record-breaking ocean animals:

1. The fastest fish in the ocean is a sailfish clocked at 68.18 mph (miles per hour)or 109.73 kph (kilometers per hour).

2. The fastest shark is a mako shark measured at 60 mph (96.56 kph).

3. The heaviest bony fish is a Mola mola (ocean sunfish) that was 10 feet long and weighed 4,928 pounds.

4. The largest fish is a whale shark that was 41.5 feet long (12.6 meters) and weighed 66,000 pounds (21.5 metric tons).

5. The largest, heaviest, and longest ocean animal is a blue whale female measured at 109 feet 3.5 inches(33.27 meters) and 190 tons.

6. The longest fish is an oarfish that was 56 feet long (17 meters)

7. The longest colony (of more than one animal) of animals is a siphonophore (similar to a jellyfish) named Praya dubia that is 100-160 feet long (30-50 meters)

8. The oldest ocean animal was an ocean quahog clam named Ming who was 507 years old.

9. The oldest mammal is a bowhead whale estimated to be at least 211 years old.

10. The deepest swimming air-breathing animal is a sperm whale, which can dive to depths of 9800 feet (3 kilometers)

Some facts based on Biggest, Smallest, Fastest, and Deepest marine animals

Whale Shark Snorkeling off of Cancun, Mexico

whale sharks cancun mexico
Whale Shark: photo by Cherilyn Jose

Snorkeling with Whale sharks off of Cancun, Mexico

Last summer (2012), I got the once-in-a lifetime opportunity to swim with whale sharks off of Cancun, Mexico. Whale sharks are the largest fish and the largest shark in the ocean, yet they only eat the tiniest denizens of the ocean, plankton. They are as gentle, magnificent, and as large as their namesake “whales.”

I want to share my experiences, and especially the logistics, so anyone seeking out whale sharks (or thinking about it) will have an idea of what’s ahead for them.

More than a year ago, while perusing Shark Research Institute’s auction catalog, I came across a whale shark expedition led by one of the world’s pre-eminent whale shark researchers, Dr. Jennifer V. Schmidt of the University of Illinois at Chicago. I quickly signed up for the 5 day expedition, and I even dragged my family along to Cancun, Mexico (only I participated in the expedition though).

So not only did I get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snorkel alongside whale sharks, but I got to work alongside a whale shark scientist. Dr. Schmidt accompanied our group on the boat. Her lectures every evening were very informative and clear, as my 7 year old son could easily follow along. I have read everything I can find on the internet on whale sharks (most books are out of date), but I learned a lot from Dr. Schmidt, especially about her genetic work with whale sharks. Dr. Schmidt is not only knowledgeable about whale sharks, but also about the Cancun area. I enjoyed all her restaurant recommendations, and had there been time, I would have taken her advice for sightseeing.

The hotel we stayed at, the Radisson Hacienda Cancun, caters to businessmen, and was comfortable and clean. The advantage of not being on the main hotel strip of Cancun was that we were only 5 minutes away from the dock and it was much quieter. If staying on the strip, the van trip to the dock could take up to an hour or more depending on how many stops there were.

The expedition planned for 3 mornings of snorkeling with the whale sharks, but unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate and we only got two trips in. A hurricane passed just south of us, and the ocean near us felt its effects. The two mornings were more than worth the price of the trip (click here for information on this year’s trip).

The wind and waves began to kick up on the second morning, and many of the people on the boat were seasick. This meant my expedition’s party of 3 was allowed to stay in the water longer than the normally 10 allowed minutes per two people per tour guide. There are guidelines for eco-tourists to follow, most notably staying two guests per tour guide, and not touching or riding the whale sharks. But many boats did not stick to the tour guide rule, as we saw many lost tourists looking for their boat. The boats near the whale sharks must be permitted, but often other unauthorized boats will join in on the fun. Such is the price for eco-tourism, but it is better that the whale sharks are being loved, rather than killed for their large fins for shark fin soup.

Upon arrival at the dock (Puerto Juarez), it is quite chaotic with so many people there. In a nearby packed room there is a briefing, sometimes after a long wait in English (and also one in Spanish) of conduct around the whale sharks. They require biodegradable and eco-friendly sunscreens, and they sell some there if you don’t bring your own.

The souvenirs, such as t-shirts and stuffed animals, sold there benefit the whale sharks directly so they are worth buying. Bring along a credit card or American dollars, as they didn’t seem to have change for the pesos I brought. I bought two “I swam with whale sharks” t-shirts, and a stuffed whale shark.

After the briefing, it is a mad rush for tourists to get to their boats, many which are pinned in by other boats. The boat ride takes awhile (up to 45 minutes or more depending on where the whale sharks are feeding that day) and I got rather wet, so dress accordingly. The previous week’s expedition had gorgeous weather and calm seas, but my expedition had the opposite weather. Be sure to bring seasickness medication just in case. I always take a Bonine the night before, and the morning of my boat rides and have yet to be seasick.

Then out of the blue, there are boats everywhere in a boat “convention.” The water crawls with whale shark dorsal fins, and the tips of their tails sticking up out of the water. Then a whale shark cruises by, with its cavernous mouth gulping down water. There are so many boats around that engine fumes abound. The fumes made me more nauseous than the growing waves and rocking boat!

There were not any directions from the boat operators on how to get into the water, or for the order of people entering the water, but basically the first ones ready enter first with the tour guide. A lifejacket or wetsuit is required to enter the water, and they provide mask, snorkel, and fins if you do not bring your own.

Entering the water for the first time is surreal. There is something magical and humbling about seeing a 15-30 foot long behemoth emerge out of the clear blue water. It took several moments for my over-awed brain to register, “oh my, that’s a whale shark!” They are so graceful underwater for something so large (up to 9 tons for a 30 foot whale shark). Sometimes the whale sharks headed straight for me, and it took me several seconds to remember to get out of the way as I was too busy snapping photos. The whale sharks are highly maneuverable, and they will avoid any collisions. It is still a good idea to get out of their way though.

A good tour guide is invaluable, as many times I was transfixed on one whale shark, only to miss another one right behind me or underneath me. The whale sharks passed within inches of me, but never brushed me. They are definitely close enough to touch, but one must resist the temptation to touch them!

Pictures and videos do not compare to seeing whale sharks in person. Their gray bodies are splattered with white spots and stripes. Their spots look as though they were hand painted on with splotchy edges around them. I was mesmerized by the patterns of spots and stripes on a whale shark. These patterns are as unique to each individual as our fingerprints are to us. Scientists photograph an area just behind the gills to identify whale sharks in a worldwide database called Ecocean Whale Shark ID Library (whaleshark.org) Anyone can submit a photo to the database and help whale shark scientists track these magnificent creatures all around the globe.

The sunlight looks as though it is dancing across the whale sharks’ backs as they gracefully glide by. I once counted 10 seconds from when the whale shark’s head first passed me, to the tail passing me. It reminds me of the opening scene of (the original) Star Wars, where the Imperial Star Destroyer passes “overhead” for several seconds.

The whale sharks rhythmically gulp in seawater constantly, as this is how they eat. The water they inhale gets filtered through their gills, and their gills get covered in “food” which they then swallow. The whale sharks are attracted to this particular area because fish spawn here, and the whale sharks slurp up their eggs for an entire summer (May-September).

Depending on how many people are on the boat, one might get 2-3 10 minute sessions in the water with one other tourist and a tour guide. The minutes pass by quickly, and it is exciting to see the multitude of whale sharks from the boat. There were at least 100 whale sharks in the area we were in. It is sad when the boat finally motors off.

The boat I was on, through Caribbean Connection, stopped at a shallow coral reef for snorkeling after the whale shark encounters. They then stopped for lunch (with freshly made ceviche) and anchored off of Isla Mujeres. There the water is chest deep, and many people enjoyed a drink in the water. Then the boat travels back to port.

It was then time for me to go back to my hotel (by van, or you can take a taxi), to reflect on the once-in-a-lifetime experience I just had! Please contact me with any questions, as I would be happy to answer them.

The 3 Most Pressing Ocean Issues for World Oceans Day

dried shark fins photo by Paul Hilton
Actress Sharon Kwok and 30,000 dried shark fins in Hong Kong: photo by Paul Hilton

This World Oceans Day I would like to reflect on the state of the oceans. There are 3 major issues facing the oceans. They are (in no particular order):

1. Overfishing
2. Climate Change
3. Pollution


*It is estimated that 90% of all large fish (and many smaller species) have been fished out of the oceans.

*According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion.

Fishing can be too efficient with entire schools of fish being caught at once. Fishing can also be incredibly wasteful with by-catch such sea turtles, whales, and sharks when only one fish is being sought (like tuna).

Shark finning is a prime example of overfishing. It is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed a year. They are killed mainly for their fins, which is used to make shark fin soup. Sharks are top level predators, and their naturally low numbers in the wild reflect that. As a consequence, they are slow to reproduce and cannot keep up with the current levels of fishing.

2.Climate Change

Climate change includes global warming, sea level rise, and ocean acidification.

Global warming will cause the oceans to become warmer, and may substantially change ocean circulation patterns. This may disrupt natural feeding cycles and may affect the weather. Some ocean species, like coral, only have a narrow range of temperature tolerance and will die if the oceans become too warm.

Global warming will cause polar ice caps to melt, and sea level will rise accordingly. Some island nations will be flooded out of existence.

Ocean acidification occurs when the pH of the seawater decreases and becomes more acidic (think soda pop). This is because the oceans absorb about a quarter of all carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere. Ocean acidification will make it harder for some animals to build their calcium based shells, and cause many species to go extinct. Ocean acidification has other deleterious effects that are just being discovered.

sea turtle eating plastic
Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish: photo by dep.state.fl.us


Pollution can come in many forms, like untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, or sedimentation. The worst offender by far is plastic pollution. Every imaginable bit of plastic ends up in the oceans one way or another. From plastic bags, to unidentifiable microscopic bits, ocean denizens at all levels of the food chain are affected.

Possible Solutions
While the outlook for the three problems mentioned sound bleak, there is hope.

*Marine protected areas (MPAs) can help fisheries become sustainable by being a nursery for the fish caught right outside the MPA borders. Unfortunately only 1% of the oceans are protected.

*You can help by eating only sustainably caught seafood. Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide as a start.

*Curbing carbon dioxide emissions (i.e. using less fossil fuel) by using other alternative energies will help tremendously in slowing down ocean acidification.

*Driving less and using public transportation are ways to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also consider getting solar power for your home or workplace.

*Plastic pollution is preventable, especially by cutting down the use of single use plastic bags (bring your own bags to the grocery store!), and by supporting local plastic bag bans. We can also pressure manufacturers to use only recyclable packaging.

So this World Oceans Day, please realize that everyday each one of us can make a difference in the health of our oceans!