5 Best Places to Dive with Sharks

Sharks are feared by most people – but should they be? A recent survey conducted by SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium suggests that 72 per cent of Australians are afraid of sharks. Yet with several shark species in imminent danger of extinction a growing number of people are learning the need for greater protection. In fact the same survey discovered that 77 per cent of Australians think sharks need great protection. Education is key to changing attitudes about sharks, and diving with sharks is one of the best ways to learn about them. There are plenty of places to do that safely, while gaining a greater understanding for these much-maligned creatures. We take a look at the five best places to dive with sharks.

5 best places to dive with sharks
According to Rob Townsend, Marine Scientist at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, “61 percent of Aussies admitted that they didn’t know that such a significant number of shark species were in an imminent or severe status of danger and only 30 percent of Australians knew that Grey Nurse Sharks are Critically Endangered.”

Here are our picks for the best five places to dive with sharks.

1. Shark Fest Fiji

Fiji now has five shark feeding dives. With four in Beqa Lagoon, perhaps the most famous being The Cathedral, established by Beqa Lagoon Resort, which primarily attracts tiger sharks. It’s an adrenalin-pumped experience as these powerful creatures come in for a tuna-head snack. If you want to learn more about tiger sharks – and the 6 other species of sharks that visit the Cathedral, get your Shark School Certification with shark expert Dr Eric Richter at Shark Fest Fiji 2020. You’ll gain a wealth of knowledge from the seminars and put your new skills into practice diving with over 7 species of sharks including the majestic tiger sharks at the Resort’s famous Fiji Shark Dive – The Cathedral.

Beqa lagoon resort fiji sharkfest opengraph

Other fantastic shark dives in Fiji include The Bistro, managed by Aquatrek, the original Beqa Lagoon Shark Dive, and The Awakening at Barefoot Kuata Resort in the Yasawa Islands, established by shark expert Dr Thomas Vignaud.

2. Malapascua, Philippines

Thresher sharks are possibly the world’s prettiest sharks, their long tails giving them a graceful (extremely photogenic) appearance. There are a number of resorts on Malapascua Island where you can get to see these creatures up close year-round, including Sea Explorers at Ocean Vida Beach Resort, where you can do daily sunrise dives at Monad Shoal.

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Most Philippines liveaboard options include Malapasuca on their itineraries during the year, including Infiniti, Atlantis Azores and Seadoors. A great way to see the sharks of Malapascua and the Visayas, is to attend Seadoors Shark College with Dr Thomas Vignaud which runs each July, or their Visayas Shark Specials in October and November.

3. Fulidhoo, Maldives

Fulidhoo, in the Maldives Central Atolls, is home to the world’s largest aggregations of nurse sharks. Night dives are particularly popular, especially to Alimatha house reef, where divers can encounter dozens of schooling nurse sharks. It’s also an inexpensive way to dive the Maldives, at a locally-managed resort accessible by ferry or speedboat from the international airport in Male.

4. Palau’s Shark Sanctuary

For many divers, Palau is the Holy Grail of scuba diving. The fact that in 2015 the small nation declared 80% of their territorial waters off limits to commercial fishing is one of the reasons why. There are numerous currents from far and near making the waters highly nutritious and supporting a food chain from plankton to mantas, and snappers to sharks and everything in between.

There are several dive centres and liveaboards from which to base yourself for a shark diving adventure, including Fish n Fins and their liveaboard Ocean Hunter III, Sam’s Tours, Solitude One and the Palau Siren.

5. Cocos Island, Costa Rica

Widely held as the most exciting dive in the world, in Cocos you can expect to see schooling hammerheads, oceanic white tips, silky, silver lace and grey-sharks, as well as mantas and mobula rays – and it’s not uncommon to also see whale sharks and dolphins.

Cocos Island is very remote, only accessible by liveaboard – and there are several, including Aggressor’s Okeanos I and Okeanos II, the Argo and Sea Hunter.

Other Great Shark Dives

Of course, it’s hard to stop at just FIVE great shark dives! Socorro and Malpelo are both fantastic dive destinations for pelagic action and various species of schooling sharks.

Galapagos has long been famous for schooling hammerheads, but have you heard of Yonaguni, a remote island in Okinawa, Japan, where hammerheads aggregate each winter?

In Australia, there are several places where you can dive with grey nurse sharks along the NSW coast – here are our pics for the best grey nurse shark dives, and of course, Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions’ Great White Shark Cage dive is one of the most exciting shark dives in the world.

Rodney fox expeditions great white shark cage diving south australia one shark surface cage

A Very Merry Christmas Tree Worm!

At this year’s BIG event on the Great Barrier Reef, the annual mass coral spawning event, Quicksilver Cruises’ Silversonic dive team recorded a rare sighting one of the Reef’s tiniest, and most festive of creatures getting it on: Christmas Tree Worms.

The rare sighting happened – in broad daylight – on Agincourt Reef and as the worms released their reproductive materials at a dive site called Barracuda Bommie, the world’s tiniest orgy was captured on video by Quicksilver skipper Shane ‘Sharky’ Down.

“I have been diving these reefs for many years and this is a first time I have seen the Christmas Tree Worms spawn. I have seen coral spawning many times but to see this in the middle of the day on a dive was truly magical, very rare and special. It’s an amazing world under the water and the corals never cease to astonish a long-time underwater advocate”.

Christmas Tree Worms are a common sight on the Great Barrier Reef and build a tube (their home) into hard corals. They are brightly coloured, live in pairs and only grow to approximately four centimetres in height. The tiny animals are highly sensitive to vibration and fast changes in light (signs that a predator may be passing overhead) and they typically react by rapidly retracting into the safety of their tube homes. Once settled on a coral bommie, Christmas Tree Worms remain in the same spot for their life – around 20-30 years.

Sex on the Reef: science and tourism join forces to save the Great Barrier Reef

This past weekend, the world’s biggest orgasm inspired a new collaboration, as tourism operators join forces with scientists to help save the Great Barrier Reef. It was a busy night on the reef, with divers and scientists flocking for a chance to witness the annual coral spawning, proof of life for the embattled – yet seemingly resilient – Great Barrier Reef.

This year media were invited to witness the grand event, with scientists on hand to showcase a number of restoration programs, made possible by collaboration with tourism operators, to nurture high value reefs, protect coral biodiversity and restore those parts of the Reef damaged by bleaching events and cyclones.

Sex on the reef: science and tourism join forces to save the great barrier reef
Coral spawning on Moore Reef, captured by Gabriel Guzman, Calypso Imagery.

Researchers from Southern Cross University, James Cook University, and University of Technology Sydney are joining forces with operators such as Reef Magic, Passions of Paradise and Wavelength Cruises to manage a variety of programs.

Great barrier reef coral larval restoration kate chartrand credit christian miller
JCU Senior Researcher Katie Chartrand at Reef Magic’s Marineworld pontoon. Photo: Christian Miller

Coral Larval Restoration Project

Led by Southern Cross University (SCU), with scientists from James Cook University (JCU) and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), the Larval Restoration Project aims to restore coral populations and re-establish breeding corals on degraded reefs. Back in the early 1980s, this research team’s project leader, Southern Cross University Professor Peter Harrison, also led the team that discovered how corals reproduce – the first to witness the mass coral spawning.

The team will harvest coral sperm and eggs released during the spawning in a bid to grow new coral larvae, which will be resettled back on to heavily degraded sections of the northern Great Barrier Reef in the coming week.

Sex on the reef: science and tourism join forces to save the great barrier reef
Dr Peter Harrison and Katie Chartrand at work on the Reef Magic pontoon.

According to Harrison, this project aims to increase the scale of restoration using some very innovative techniques.

“We have been successful at restoring breeding populations on badly degraded reefs in the Philippines over the last seven years, and we are now applying new technologies to increase the scale and efficiency of the larval restoration process on the Great Barrier Reef,”

Great barrier reef great barrier reef coral larval restoration professor peter harrison moore reef credit juergen freund
Assembling the octagon large scale larval pool led by Prof. Peter Harrison. Photo: Juergen Freund

This includes the mass inoculation of coral larvae with their algal partners (known as symbionts) in the wild to boost their one-in-a-million chance of survival before being settled on affected reef areas.

“We have found that if we boost availability of the symbionts earlier in the process the larvae will take them up – we are simply fast-tracking capacity for corals to start acquiring energy from their symbionts.”

Great barrier reef coral larval restoration credit christian miller
Photo: Christian Miller

Strong partnerships with local tourism operators Aroona Boat Charters and Reef Magic Cruises have been instrumental in enabling this logistical feat.

According to JCU Senior Researcher Katie Chartrand, “We hope to make direct partnerships between science and tourism the norm rather than the exception. A collaborative approach is needed to give the Reef the best chance of thriving into the future.”

Coral Nurturing Program

Meanwhile, off the coast of Port Douglas the Coral Nurture Program is another example of science and tourism working together to protect high value reefs.

An initiative of UTS researchers Associate Professor David Suggett and Dr Emma Camp in partnership with Wavelength Reef Cruises, the approach focuses on long term stewardship and adaptation to help economically valuable reefs stay healthy.

Sex on the reef: science and tourism join forces to save the great barrier reef
Dr Emma Camp at Coral Nurturing Program in Port Douglas. Photo: Frank Gazzola

“By utilising existing tourism infrastructure, plus the knowledge, experience and skills of operators and their crew, interventions at tourism sites can be targeted to the exact needs of each location,” Dr Emma Camp said.

The successful trial is now being rolled out across four new tourism industry partners in Cairns, including Passions of Paradise.

Will this save the Great Barrier Reef?

“What we’re trying to do now is buy time for the coral populations that are still present on the Great Barrier Reef and other reefs around the world,” Professor Harrison said. “Climate action is the only way to ensure coral reefs can survive into the future.

“We know that increasing climate change impacts are going to occur on the Great Barrier Reef and other reefs all around the world, and every reef system on the planet is losing corals faster than they’re naturally replenishing. We’re getting desperate to intervene to capture the remaining genetic diversity that’s in these populations and try to restore corals while we can.”

Great barrier reef 2019 coral spawn credit pablo cogollos
Photo: Pablo Cogollos

Master Reef Guide Gareth Phillips from Reef Teach was with marine biologists Pablo Cogollos and Stuart Ireland on the Sunlover Moore Reef Marine Base, 54km off Cairns for the weekend to film the spawning event, “There was coral spawn everywhere last night. It was like a grey haze with beautiful pink bundles going up – it was a magical night,” Gareth said. “We expect to see more pressures in the future, but the Great Barrier Reef’s size, complexity and huge biodiversity makes it a very strong ecosystem.

“We need to nurture the reef through collaboration between tourism operators such as Sunlover, film makers like Stuart from Calypso, and reef research and educators like myself at Reef Teach. The reef has shown us that she is not lying down, she is doing extremely well and fighting for the future.”

Tourism is playing an increasingly important role in the conservation of coral reefs globally, with tour operators uniquely placed to educate visitors of the threats and inspire action to protect them. Which is where programs such as Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef and the Master Reef Guides initiative can help.

Two million people visit the Great Barrier Reef every year, imagine if they were all ambassadors for the Reef? This is the ambition of Fiona Merida, who developed the Master Reef Guide program, transforming the marine biologists working on the Reef as guides, into master storytellers.

Great barrier reef coral nurture passions of paradise russell hosp and citizens gbr andy ridley 6152
Passions of Paradise Environmental Manager and Master Reef Guide, Russell Hosp with Andy Ridley, CEO, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.

Master Reef Guides enhance your experience on the Reef by explaining the Reef’s complexities, aiming to inspire a deeper connection amongst visitors, that they will share with family and friends long after they leave.

The Citizens program aims to inspire change by sharing live updates of these scientific projects – and many others – with the world on the recently-launched Citizens Atlas and inviting members to make a commitment to make one small change in their everyday life – to save the Reef.

Sex on the reef: science and tourism join forces to save the great barrier reef
Master Reef Guide Michelle Janssen takes three snorkelers on a guided tour of Moore Reef.

“Every individual action contributes to the whole. That could be eating less red meat or bringing your own water bottle. Every action you take, no matter how small, will make a difference,” says Andy Ridley, founder and CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.

“We’re at a critical time in the Reef’s history. The Reef must be more than a poster child for climate change, it must become the inspiration for us to change.”

New study reveals: Mantas have Mates

A five-year study in Raja Ampat has confirmed that manta rays form friendships with other rays – and it’s the female rays that form the longer lasting relationships.

When it comes to marine encounters, most divers will include diving with mantas in their Top 5 diving experiences, their graceful movements often mesmerising – coming into close proximity with such a large, yet gentle creature can be magical to say the least.

But scientists are worried that their wide appeal is starting to disrupt natural behaviour. Combined with climate change, plastic pollution, fishing nets and fisheries that target them for their gills – prized in traditional Chinese medicine – it’s worried this increased popularity is threatening the species’ survival.

Macquarie University’s Robert Perryman set out with colleagues to research the mantas’ social structure to help predict their movements, mating patterns and response to humans to inform conservation and ecotourism.

“Social relationships are something that might be quite easily disturbed by human tourists who have good intentions but may inadvertently disrupt natural social behaviours,” Perryman explains.

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Having previously collected data on mantas at a site in Raja Ampat, he had observed that the creatures exhibited group-like behaviours during feeding and courtship.

But whether that reflected active social preferences or occurred by chance due to habitat, feeding aggregations or seasonal migrations was unclear.

The team gathered data at several locations in Raja Ampat, while diving or snorkelling around cleaning stations or feeding areas. Individual rays were identified by the unique patterns of spots on their underbelly; like human fingerprints.

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“They’re very curious and tolerant of humans, so it’s usually possible to identify all the individuals within a group during a 60-minute dive.”

From 500 samplings scientists recorded around 3,400 encounters, and by matching each photo to previous sightings they built up a database.

This enabled them to build a social network of relationships between rays that were seen at least 10 times, added to sightings recorded from photographs uploaded to a citizen science website. All up, sightings were taken from six sites spanning a 25-kilometre area.

Dive komodo indonesia manta ray credit heather sutton

The scientists were able to discern two distinct social communities within a very small area spanning around 15 km. One comprised mostly mature female rays and the other a mix of males, females and juveniles.

The older females formed longer-term associations, congregating together over weeks and even months. Males tended to form more casual acquaintances, with juveniles and mature males staying away from each other.

This social behaviour wasn’t entirely unexpected. “From their large brains we expect them to be reasonably intelligent animals.”

By understanding their behaviour, researchers hope to achieve the right balance between species preservation and ecotourism.

Bali hai diving nusa lembongan bali indonesia manta with corals

“Knowing how mantas interact is important, particularly in areas where they are susceptible to increasing dive tourism,” says Andrea Marshall, co-founder and principal scientist at the Marine Megafauna Foundation.

“The increasing number of boats and scuba divers around reef mantas in Raja Ampat, particularly at cleaning stations, could break apart their social structures and have impacts on their reproduction.”

Researchers hope this new information will help conservation efforts by encouraging broader respect and compassion for these graceful sea creatures.

Life (and lots of it) on the Great Barrier Reef

As I board my first ever Great Barrier Reef liveaboard trip, diving the Coral Sea with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, I’m told conditions have never been better. Calm seas, blue skies and hardly a breath of wind. On this 4-night Coral Sea trip, conditions are so good, in fact, we’re able to dive remote Holmes Reef and Bougainville Reef as well as Osprey Reef.

We steam overnight to Holmes Reef, and after a good night’s sleep, I wake up to an expanse of blue. A quick briefing and we’re in the water. Nonki Bommie is a large coral bommie (or pinnacle) that drops down to 40 metres, covered in soft and hard corals and enormous gorgonian fans.

Diving great barrier reef coral sea holmes reef with mike ball dive expeditions yellow sea fan nonki bommie 7728

In the middle of the pinnacle, there’s a slot, its entrance framed by a large yellow sea fan, one of the largest I’ve ever seen. My buddy and I spend about 10 minutes here before continuing on around the reef wall, but we keep returning to this beautiful slot, approaching it from different directions and swimming through from the opposite side of the pinnacle.

Diving great barrier reef coral sea holmes reef with mike ball dive expeditions whip coral amazing dive site 7912

Along its length, the slot is adorned with yellow fans, red, white, pink and blue soft corals, bright red whip coral, with yellow damsels and purple basslets adding even more colour to this coral kaleidoscope. Parrot fish, wrasse and surgeon fish graze along the top of the reef and overhead, large schools of Jacks patrol the pinnacle, rushing past in formation, glinting in the sunlight.

Diving great barrier reef coral sea holmes reef with mike ball dive expeditions yellow fan and damsel nonki bommie 7847

On our second dive we head to a smaller bommie nearby, adorned with a sea fan so large I can’t fit it in frame as I try to photograph it. Schools of yellow striped snapper arc over the huge fan and its soft coral adornments, while sweetlips and coral trout hover by feather stars waiting to be cleaned.

Our first morning underwater is going well so far.

Diving great barrier reef coral sea holmes reef with mike ball dive expeditions schooling jacks nonki bommie 7732

We cruise along the reef while lunch is served to a site called simply; ‘Amazing’. It could be called so because of the labyrinthine caverns and swim-throughs at this site, or because that’s how divers describe the dive as they emerge afterwards.

Diving great barrier reef coral sea holmes reef with mike ball dive expeditions sweetlips nonki bommie 7819

We swim along a sandy bottom towards the reef, passing a few black tip reef sharks and a grey reef shark along the way before exploring the small coral bommies that lead to the start of this underwater maze.

Diving great barrier reef coral sea holmes reef with mike ball dive expeditions reef shark amazing dive site 7886

Looking closer at the sandy bottom we see hundreds of garden eels swaying in the gentle current and on the bommies, purple basslets hover in front of brightly coloured fans and whip corals, while cardinal fish hide behind.

Diving great barrier reef coral sea holmes reef with mike ball dive expeditions fan and basslets amazing dive site 7873

Everywhere we look, the reef is alive with colour and movement. So… what’s all this about the Reef dying?

There’s no doubt the Reef is under threat, climate change bringing with it storms of increasing intensity and warmer waters causing increasingly frequent coral bleaching events. But this Reef gives me hope.

After diving Holmes Reef, I’m told that this same reef suffered several bleaching events and cyclone damage in recent years. A quick Google search and I find reports of bleaching events in 2002, 2006 and as recently as 2016, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies survey reports:

“At Holmes Reef, the most northern of the reefs surveyed, almost 80% of corals show some sign of bleaching, and of those 40% were fully bleached and 25% dead.”

To see so much life on a reef that, only a couple of years ago, you’d be forgiven for writing off, is heart-lifting to say the least.

Diving great barrier reef coral sea holmes reef with mike ball dive expeditions jacks above reef nonki bommie 7747

It really is not too late to save the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s not too late to save ALL the world’s coral reefs – because they are all under threat. The media focus on the Great Barrier Reef’s demise is a reflection of how well known and well-loved this reef is globally.

According to Dr David Wachenfeld, chief scientist, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA); “We’ve got the most famous reef in the world.”

Dr Wachenfeld was speaking on a panel at the recent Australian Society of Travel Writers convention held in Cairns, along with Quicksilver Cruises Master Reef Guide; Dr Glen Burns and Wendy Morris, Chair of Tourism Tropical North Queensland (TTNQ).

Great barrier reef expert panel
Dr David Wachenfeld, chief scientist, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Wendy Morris, Chair, Tourism Tropical North Queensland and Dr Glen Burns, Quicksilver Cruises’ Master Reef Guide.

The panel did its best to explain the threats faced by the Great Barrier Reef, while outlining the strategies in place to save it and how everyone, media included, can contribute.

“It’s time to toughen up and do what we can to save the Reef – these are challenges we need to lean into – and collaboration is the new innovation,” he said.

And tourism helps. A number of new citizen science-driven projects invite visitors to contribute data such as the Eye on the Reef app which allows snorkelers and divers to share sightings, photographs and short video recordings with scientists. The recently-launched Master Reef Guides program helps educate visitors on the intricacies of the world’s largest living organism on every guided tour. Other programs, such as Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, show people around the globe what they can do at home to help save the Reef. Citizens also shares live updates of the many research programs currently in progress with its amazing Citizens Atlas.

Diving great barrier reef coral sea holmes reef with mike ball dive expeditions diver and soft coral nonki bommie 7805

In fact, according to TTNQ Chair Wendy Morris, “tourism is driving Reef knowledge, you are contributing simply by visiting”. A percentage of every dollar spent by visitors to the Reef goes towards the Reef’s protection and ongoing research.

When questioned if the Reef was affected by ‘over-tourism’, Dr Burns informed media that, compared to international definitions; “even the Great Barrier Reef’s most intensively used areas are not ‘intensively used’ by global standards.”

Purple acropora fingers coral spawning supplied ttnq

Next month is a big month for the Great Barrier Reef, the annual coral spawning event is predicted to happen under a full moon, on the 18th of November.

It’s proof of life. Scientists and media from all over the world have been invited to witness this momentous event and learn about the many and myriad programs in place to protect and preserve the Reef.

If you’d like to visit the Great Barrier Reef and see for yourself, I highly recommend a three, four or 7-night trip with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions.

And stay tuned to the Diveplanit blog for more information on this year’s Great Barrier Reef Coral Spawning Event.

Sea Women of Melanesia: Empowering PNG women to be reef guardians

The Coral Sea Foundation has taken its Sea Women of Melanesia program up a notch with a couple of intensive training programs, the first, held in PNG’s Conflict Islands, providing 17 indigenous women with the skills to protect their surrounding marine environment.

The intensive program for this large group was made possible largely thanks to a generous donation from P&O Cruises Australia, with PADI Asia Pacific providing training materials free of charge.

The intensive two-week course, developed in partnership with Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative (CICI) in PNG, and Dive Munda in the Solomon Islands, includes training in conservation theory, scuba diving and marine biology survey techniques so they have the skills to communicate the need for marine reserves to their local communities & are able to identify areas suitable for marine protected areas for future conservation.

Sea women of melanesia: empowering png women to be reef guardians
The Sea Women of Melanesia out reef surveying in the Conflict Islands

The first intensive course held in the Conflict Islands Resort wrapped up recently. Over a two-week period, the Sea Women of Melanesia program empowered 17 local PNG women to be custodians of their local reefs, in their traditionally matrilineal societies.

The course taught them how to identify areas that need protection, how to work closely within their communities and neighbouring communities to establish ways to protect their reefs and help sustain their traditional livelihood, assisting traditional resource owners for many years to come.

Sea women of melanesia: empowering png women to be reef guardians

Milne Bay Province is the biggest maritime province of PNG, a diverse area of small island groups spread over a wide expanse. The income of the islands is low, with most island communities relying on the marine environment to survive.

Fishing for the village is commonplace, but it’s the illegal side of fishing that is causing problems. With the growing needs of a developing modern society in PNG, some fishermen have resorted to unsustainable practices, including shark finning and turtle poaching, affecting all aspects of this delicate coral reef ecosystem.

Conservation International’s ecological report found that the reefs around Milne Bay held an identified total of 418 Scleractinia coral species, which is more than half the world’s species, seven of which are newly identified species. The protection of Milne Bay’s coral reefs through the establishment of Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMA’s) will ensure that there is abundant fish life for the villages to survive on in the future.

Sea women of melanesia: empowering png women to be reef guardians

CIC General Manager Hayley Versace says engaging the surrounding island communities is a step in the right direction.

“I only want the best for our neighbouring island communities. They are so kind and generous even when they have nothing. It seems they have been abandoned by the government of the day and the rest of the world with global climate change and access to reliable resources becoming increasingly harder. Running these programs will give the communities the tools to manage the oceans’ natural resources for the future. This will be for the betterment of our neighbors and surrounding oceans. The ocean has given me so much over my lifetime, it is time I start giving something back.”

Sea women of melanesia: empowering png women to be reef guardians
A Coral Sea Foundation volunteer checking the coral

Through the course, the women learnt how to identify areas that need protection, how to work within their communities and neighbouring communities, and to become advocates for marine conservation. These tools and skills acquired are a combination of science, ecotourism, and sustainability, which in turn will help them develop marine reserves that will enhance fisheries and ecotourism resources while improving the basic quality of people in the far-flung rural areas.

While a bit nervous to start with, the 17 enthusiastic Melanesian women had amazing support from the PADI Dive Instructors, and soon took to the water like they belonged there. PADI generously donated training materials for participants, as well as hats and t-shirts for the group.

“We are incredibly grateful for the support of our partners at PADI Asia Pacific and P&O Cruises Australia whose generous funding allowed this group of women to be trained.” 

Sea women of melanesia: empowering png women to be reef guardians

A few participants had never seen the wonders below the surface and others had deep water phobia, nonetheless, as soon as they got comfortable there was no stopping them.

Bathsheba “Benita” Gaunedi from Deboyne Group of Islands shares her experience.

“I never considered the underwater world to be this beautiful. Growing up, my life literally was surrounded by the sea- it was where we washed our cooking and eating utensils; washed our clothes and importantly it was our garden.”

Around here the sea is the highway, the only way island communities can get to other places and access resources like hospitals, it also produces all the communities’ resources.

“We cared less about the health of the corals, the reefs and all that lived in the sea. But then came a time when seashells were hard to find, fishermen returned with small fish or no catch at all and then illegal deals were struck by greedy individuals with outsiders for bech de mer (sea cucumbers) and shark fins.

“I was glad to attend this program because being a woman in my culture leaves me no choice but to follow rules and decisions set by elders of my community who are all men. This opportunity will give me the power to make the change I have always wanted to do.”

Bathsheba enjoyed the two weeks; day-in-day-out. This young mother is determined that all that she achieved and learnt from the SWoM program will not go to waste.

“With this training, I am confident that I will now be able to take back what I have learned and implement in my Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) that my island community has set aside. Importantly, I am now able to dive underwater with confidence to monitor marine life.”

Sea women of melanesia: empowering png women to be reef guardians

Bathsheba’s story aligns with the other sixteen women’s following this once in a lifetime opportunity.

“I wish to thank all my fellow participants for assisting in one way or another and a big appreciation to my dive-buddy for watching my back in and out of the water and to Terry from Pelagic Dive Travel for his patience.”

According Coral Sea Foundation CEO Andy Lewis, the SWoM Program was inspired by Lorie Pipiga, a young girl from Fergusson Island, Milne Bay Province, and on the numerous trips that Andy has made to PNG, during which he came to realise that there were more girls than boys studying marine science in PNG universities.

Sea women of melanesia: empowering png women to be reef guardians

“It was inspiring and moving to see that these women are committed to conservation, however there was lack of additional training. It is now my hope that with support from our partners and sponsors, we can expand the reach of this program in PNG and the Solomon Islands.”

So far so good. From its humble beginnings just two years ago, the Sea Women of Melanesia has grown from just one graduate in 2017, two in 2018 and now in 2019, 17 women have successfully completed the training.

Sea women of melanesia: empowering png women to be reef guardians

The Sea Women of Melanesia Team

Dr Andy Lewis, CEO of Coral Sea Foundation

Dr Andy Lewis is one of the most skilled & widely travelled ecotourism professionals in the Indo-Pacific region. With a strong background in small ship adventure cruising, he managed the ecotourism activities aboard the luxury vessel True North for over a decade, exploring, delivering outstanding guest experiences across a wide variety of tropical locations. With a PhD in coral reef ecology from James Cook University, Andy’s passion for the reefs, islands & people of the South-Pacific is tangible. This passion drives the development of the Coral Sea Foundation as a platform for delivering the vision for sustainable reef management & the ultimate marine ecotourism experience.

Naomi Longa, Director – Sea Women of Melanesia Program

Naomi is a Papua New Guinean woman from the Island of New Britain, located in the North-Eastern part of Papua New Guinea. Inspired by the sea, she went on to obtain her Bachelor of Science in Biology at the University of Papua New Guinea, and completed her Open Water Diver certificate at the Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative facility in the Louisiade Archipelago. Her drive & determination for keeping a pristine marine environment in her home, matched with her knowledge & understanding of the difficult cultural forces at play in Papua New Guinea make her the ideal mentor for the next generation of Sea Women of Melanesia.

Belinda Botha, Operations Manager, Dive Munda

Belinda is a passionate advocate for the conservation, as well as the continuing education, of the marine environment. Dive Munda has already created many opportunities for the local youth, training them as part of the Dive Munda team. She works ferociously towards protecting and preserving not only the amazing natural resources (above & below the water) but also the traditional & Kastom cultures of the Solomon Islanders.

Euna Zio, Dive Munda SWoM Trainer

Euna is a Munda local woman whose curiosity was sparked by her time working at the Agnes Gateway Hotel. Against the stigma of an “unsafe, man’s job” she learnt to scuba dive. She has continued her training to become the second indigenous dive instructor in the Solomon Islands. Euna is a strong advocate of conservation and women’s empowerment, conducting outreach programs to educate local girls about career choices and protecting the ocean.

Best Muck Diving in the Coral Triangle

Once upon a time, divers travelled to the Asia-Pacific region to explore beautiful coral reefs. However, over the last decade, more and more divers have been looking beyond the coral and exploring the best muck diving in the coral triangle. With this area home to greatest biodiversity and some of the most exotic marine critters on the planet it is easy to see why.

Best dives philippines jayne jenkins mantis shrimp with eggs
Image: Jayne Jenkins

Muck diving may not be for everyone, but this form of diving has exploded in popularity over the last decade. The reason for its popularity is the weird and wonderful critters that can be found in this environment, critters that are not found on coral or rocky reefs, some so small it becomes a challenge (and a skill) to spot them.

Best muck diving in Asia famboyant cuttlefish

The name muck is a bit misleading and a turnoff to some divers who think they are going to be exploring murky and muddy bottoms. In reality most muck sites have clear water with the name referring to the habitat, which is almost anything apart from coral and rocky reefs, such as sand, rubble and silt. These soft bottom environments play host to a diverse range of species, such as octopus, cuttlefish, frogfish, snake eels, stargazers, seahorses, pipefish, shrimps, crabs, worms and nudibranchs.

Thorny seahorse at club paradise house reef diving busuanga palawan philippines

Muck diving can be enjoyed just about anywhere, but the rich waters of the Coral Triangle and South Pacific region are definitely home to some of the best muck diving in the world. Following is guide to some the best muck diving destinations in this region.

Best muck diving in Lembeh, Indonesia

The Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi is the Holy Grail of muck diving destinations, with several dozen muck sites for divers to explore. Famed for its black sand at sites like Hairball, Retak Larry, Slow Poke, Rojos and Aer Bajo, Lembeh actually has a variety of muck sites that vary from rock gardens to rubbish piles to coral rubble at sites like Nudi Falls, Bianca and Critter Hunt.

Best muck diving in Asia wonderpus

Lembeh is where you will find all the famous muck critters – flamboyant cuttlefish, wonderpus, mimic octopus, coconut octopus, cockatoo waspfish, snake eels, stargazers, bobbit worms, thorny seahorse, ghostpipefish and a great variety of frogfish. Countless dive resorts line both sides of the Lembeh Strait and all employ excellent dive guides that are invaluable in finding the most camouflaged of critters.

Bligh water ghostpipefish

Recommended dive resorts for muck diving in Lembeh include Critters@Lembeh Resort, Eco Divers Resort, Kungkungan Bay Resort, Solitude Lembeh Resort, Thalassa Lembeh Dive Resort.

Best muck diving in Bali, Indonesia

Bali has a fabulous mix of dive sites, but some of its best are its muck diving sites. Most of these are concentrated around the area of Tulamben Bay, but others can be found off Gili Manuk, Seririt and Padang Bai. Most Balinese muck sites are a mix of rubble, black sand and coral patches, meaning they are home to a diverse range of species.

Diving gili islands nudibranch jj
Image: Jayne Jenkins

Tulamben’s most famous muck site is Seraya Secrets, but other delightful sites in the area include Petitisan, Tianyar and the Liberty Wreck. Commonly seen off Bali are frogfish, mantis shrimps, seahorses, zebra crabs, ghost pipefish and ribbon eels. Blessed with dive resorts around much of its coastline, Bali is also a great spot to do a muck diving safari, exploring a range of different dive sites over one or several days.

Diving gili islands ribbon eel jj
Image: Jayne Jenkins

Other wonderful muck diving sites in Indonesia can be found off Ambon, Flores and Lombok. Recommended dive resorts for muck diving in Bali include Gangga Divers at Lotus Bungalows Candidasa, Tauch Terminal Resort Tulamben, Werner Lau Diving, Pemuteran.

Best muck diving in Dumaguete, Philippines

Located at the southern end of Negros, Dumaguete is the premier muck diving destination in the Philippines. Dotting the coastline south of Dumaguete, around the small town of Dauin, are countless muck sites with black sand and rubble, such as San Miguel, Sahara, Bonnet’s Corner, Dauin Norte and Masaplod Sur.

Best muck diving in Asia hairy frogfish

Known as the ‘Frogfish Capital of the World’ Dumaguete certainly lives up to the name with the area blessed with an abundance of these wonderful fish. But this area is also a great spot to see wonderpus, flamboyant cuttlefish, seahorses, stargazers, snake eels, blue-ringed octopus and even rare mototi octopus.

Shaun the sheep nudibranch
Image: Heather Sutton

Taking divers to these magic muck sites are numerous dive resorts, which also offer visitors reef diving at Apo Island and whale shark encounters at nearby Oslob.

Best muck napoleaon snake eel

Our recommended dive resorts for muck diving in Dumaguete include Atlantis Resort Dumaguete, Atmosphere Resort & Spa and Sea Explorers Dauin. If you want to become an expert in frogfish, Atmosphere Resort now runs a PADI Frogfish Specialty Course.

Best muck diving in Asia mototi octopus

Best muck diving in Anilao, Philippines

Anilao is located just south of Manila and is a popular holiday destination for local and visiting divers. It is best known for its macro critters, and more recently its blackwater dives, however the area is blessed with a great mix of reef and muck sites, many of which can be done on the same dive.

Best muck diving in Asia weedy scorpionfish

Its best muck sites have black sand, such as Secret Bay, Coconut Point and Anilao Pier, but others are a mix of sand, rubble and coral patches, such as Betlehem, Buceo Point, Koala Point and Sun View. At these sites divers will see seahorses, mimic octopus, flamboyant cuttlefish, frogfish, nudibranchs, Coleman shrimps, dragonets and many other critters. The location of countless dive resorts, Anilao is a great destination for any muck diver.

Best muck diving in Asia cowfish

The Philippines has many other locations with brilliant muck diving, including Puerto Galera and Sogod Bay.

There are also fantastic muck sites in other parts of Asia, especially off Dili, Timor Leste and Mabul, Malaysia. Other muck sites are also found in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Nudibranchs diving alma jane at puerto galera the philippines diveplanit

Best muck diving in Australia and non-tropical waters

Muck diving is not limited to tropical waters, with the temperate waters of southern Australia blessed with some wonderful critters. Most of the muck critters found in the cooler waters of Australia are endemic and the area is one of the best places to see frogfish, handfish, seadragons, seahorses, pipefish and a unique range of cephalopods.

Best muck diving in Asia waspfish

Some of those critters include the striped pyjama squid, tasselled frogfish, blue-lined octopus, Sydney pygmy pipehorse, giant cuttlefish and the leafy seadragon. Popular muck diving destinations in Australia include Port Stephens, Sydney, Melbourne and Edithburgh.

If you want to learn more about muck diving, muck critters and the best places to muck dive, then please pickup a copy of the guide book Muck Diving, the world’s first guide to muck diving by Nigel Marsh.

Debunking shark attack myths

It’s Shark Week, and we thought to celebrate these magnificent apex creatures, we’d take a look at the many shark attack myths that get everyone so excited every time Shark Week comes around. Shark lover Nigel Marsh sat on a panel of experts recently to discuss the topic.

A great majority of the population are terrified by sharks and believe they have a real chance of being attacked by a shark each time they enter the ocean. This fear sadly stops many people from swimming in the ocean or learning to scuba dive. But a fear of sharks is mainly based on misleading portrayals of sharks in horror movies, overdramatised documentaries and the sensationalised reports of the mainstream media.

I have been diving with sharks for over forty years, and I still have all of my limbs attached.

Shark myths great hammerhead

I, like most divers, have grown to love and admire sharks, and coming in contact with thousands of sharks, I have learnt that they are not mindless killing machines, man-eaters or monsters, but an important part of a healthy marine ecosystem. I love sharks so much that I travel around the world to dive with them and last year produced a book on the best places to see sharks called Diving With Sharks (available in book shops now).

Because of the book, I was recently invited to be part of a panel discussing sharks and shark attacks at the Byron Bay Community Centre. Also on the panel were; Dr Daniel Bucher, Associate Professor: Marine Ecology and Fisheries at Southern Cross University and two politicians representing the Greens, Peter Whish-Wilson and Tamara Smith. Over the course of the evening we discussed a number of shark topics, answered questions from the audience and debunked the most popular myths concerning sharks…

Shark myths hero

Myth 1. All sharks are dangerous. There are over 500 species of sharks, of which only a dozen are considered potentially dangerous. In fact, most sharks are completely harmless. The great majority of shark species are less than one metre long and most have teeth that are only a few millimetres long. Most sharks are also very shy and wary, as they are preyed upon by their larger cousins and other ocean predators like seals, gropers and even killer whales.

Shark myths bull

Myth 2. The shark population is exploding. According to the media, and some fishermen, the oceans are shark-infested and shark numbers are exploding. As a diver I would love this to be true, but the truth is many shark species are in decline, and some are on the threatened species list as their numbers have been decimated by fishers.

Sharks are apex predators, and just like their counterparts on land, the big cats, their population is very small compared to their prey and they only have a small number of young. It doesn’t take much for their numbers to fall out of balance, and unfortunately this has happened with many shark species being slaughtered in their millions by fishers for their fins and others being killed by beach meshing programs. One only has to look at the number of sharks captured in beach meshing programs over the years to see there has been a steady decline since they were first installed.

Shark myths tiger

Myth 3. Sharks target humans as prey. Humans are not prey for sharks and if we were no one could safely enter the ocean. Sharks generally don’t eat people, and most shark attacks involve a single bite. Most shark attacks should more accurately be called shark bites, with the shark taking one bite, either accidently or to see if the person is potential prey. If the shark was trying to eat the person they would keep on biting, but in most cases the shark only takes one bite and swims off when it realises the person is not its normal prey. Unfortunately, one bite from some shark species is enough to maim or kill the poor victim.

Scuba divers are rarely bitten by sharks, even though they come in contact with more sharks than any other group of ocean users. It is thought that sharks see scuba divers as another large predator, so they are wary of us, and the only way that many can be lured close is with the use of baits at popular and well-organised shark feeds.

Shark myths carribean reef

Myth 4. The rogue shark theory. It was once believed that a shark would get a taste for human flesh after a shark attack and would then attack other people. This theory is still used by authorities as an excuse to slaughter sharks after an attack. The rogue shark theory was disproved long ago, as most shark attacks involve a single bite and no attempt to eat the victim. Occasionally a series of shark attacks can occur in an area over a short period of time, such as happened in Cid Harbour in the Whitsundays last year. Why this occurs is still not known, but Cid Harbour is a known bull shark habitat with murky water, and an area that the locals avoid swimming, unfortunately all the victims were tourists.

Shark nets for nsw are the by catch fatalities too high diveplanit blog

Myth 5. Shark nets prevent shark attacks. Sharks nets or beach meshing are mainly used in Australia and South Africa, and involves a series of nets set off a beach to kill sharks. These nets don’t cover the entire beach, and are set several metres below the surface and several metres off the bottom. They don’t actually stop sharks reaching the shallows where swimmers are, and most sharks get entangled when heading back into deeper water without any contact with swimmers and surfers. These nets don’t prevent shark attacks, they are installed to cull shark numbers, and they have been very effective in doing this. However, they also kill turtles, rays, seals, dolphins, dugongs, whales and most of the sharks killed by these nets are harmless species. In reality you have just as much chance of being bitten by a shark at a beach with shark nets as one without nets.

Shark myths silvertip

In Queensland a number of shark nets have been replaced with baited drumlines. While definitely better than shark nets, as they kill less innocent marine creatures, they still kill sharks, including many species that are critically endangered. There have been several reviews by state governments on the removal shark nets, but with people and politicians still paranoid about sharks, and losing votes, these killing devices are set to remain. A number of other devices are being looked at to make beaches shark free, such as eco-barriers, but none of these have worked successfully.

Awakening shark dive credit thomas vignaud barefoot collection a

Eliminating the risk of shark attack on ocean beaches is almost impossible, they are going to happen no matter what governments do. It is simply a risk people have to accept when they enter the ocean, the shark’s habitat. However, that risk is extremely low, each year around 80 people are bitten by sharks and around five people die. More people die from bee stings, dog attacks and even cow attacks, and these unfortunate people never make the news (as someone that is allergic to bee stings, and having almost died from a sting, I can tell you I fear bees more than sharks). Sharks have far more to fear from humans, as we kill around one hundred million of them each year to supply the Chinese demand for the horrible and tasteless shark fin soup.

Fulidhoo dive nurse shark opengraph

10 worst single-use plastics and how to replace them with eco-friendly alternatives

We’re halfway through Plastic Free July, a global movement started two years ago to raise awareness of our wasteful use of single-use plastic items – straws, coffee cups and bottled water, to name a few.

In fact, around 40% of plastics consumed are single-use. While convenient, they’re discarded after just one use. The amount of time, energy and effort that goes into producing, exporting and importing these products just doesn’t add up – especially if they’re made to last forever.

Where do single-use plastics go once we’ve used them? Shockingly, only 12 per cent of plastic items used in Australia are recycled. For years, we’ve been sending our plastic waste overseas to be processed, but now countries like China have refused to accept 99 per cent of our rubbish. These days, our recyclable waste often ends in landfill, littered by the sides of roads, in our parks, beaches and oceans.

Something needs to change. Some of us have opted to forgo single-use plastic for an entire month to raise awareness, but if we can each forgo even a few this month (or ongoing!) it will start to make a difference.

Here are some tips from the  WWF – the 10 worst single-use plastics and some eco-friendly alternatives that you can swap them for:

Straws seriously suck as plastic pollution

  1. Plastic Straws

In Australia, 2.47 billion plastic straws end up in landfill. They’re lightweight, so once they’re dropped or discarded, plastic straws easily blow into waterways and enter our oceans. Once in our oceans, they’re extremely dangerous for our marine wildlife.

Plastic free alternatives: Stainless steel straws, bamboo straws, pasta straws and rice straws. For those that like the flexibility of plastic straws, there are other eco-friendly alternatives including paper straws, reusable silicone straws and compostable plant-based straws. Or best of all – and when possible, choose to go straw-free!

  1. Plastic Drink Stirrers

Cocktail stirrers are a fun accessory for drinks, but most are made from plastic and only used once before they’re thrown away. They end up in the trash, on our beaches and in our oceans.

Plastic free alternatives: Reusable glass or bamboo stirrers, or spoons. Or try a stick of celery, carrot or cucumber.

Plastic pollution alternatives balloons malin

  1. Balloons

What goes up must eventually come down. While balloons are a nice decorative item for celebrations, they’re one of the highest-risk plastic debris items for seabirds. Not only are the balloons themselves deadly, but so are the plastic sticks that often come with them.

Plastic free alternatives: Plan a planet-friendly party and skip the balloons. Opt for more eco-friendly decoration options like paper lanterns, recycled bunting, DIY bubble blowers and flowers.

Plastic pollution alternatives bunting
Image: Boycott Balloons Fremantle
  1. Plastic Cotton Buds

Did you know that 1.5 billion cotton buds are produced every day, with the average person disposing of 415 a year? Sadly, many of these cotton buds end up in our oceans. Once the cotton tips dissolve, all that’s left is essentially a small, rigid plastic stick which is easily ingested by birds, fish and other marine wildlife.

Plastic free alternatives: Fluid ear washes, bamboo cotton buds, organic cotton makeup pads or a reusable silicon swab like The Last Swab. It comes in two designs – one for swabbing your ears and one for makeup. (And like my granny used to say – “Stick nothing in your ears smaller than your elbow!”)

Plastic pollution alternatives cups plastic free july
Image: Plastic Free July

5 & 6. Coffee Cups & Lids

Australians love coffee. If we lined up all the takeaway coffee cups we use in Australia each year, it would stretch around our Earth twice. Around 2.6 billion coffee cups end up in landfill each year.

It’s important to note that most takeaway coffee cups can’t be recycled as they’re made with a plastic lining. The good news is that there are plenty of cafes that now offer discounts on your morning brew if you bring in your own reusable cup.

Plastic free alternatives: Reusable glass Keep Cups, porcelain mugs or have your coffee dining in.

Plastic pollution alternatives cutlery plastic free july
Image: Plastic Free July
  1. Plastic Cutlery

Eating out and getting takeaway often comes with more than just food. Plastic cutlery and plastic bags are often included in the mix.

In Australia, plastic cutlery isn’t easily recycled. Recycling machines often can’t sort them due to their shape, so many end up in landfill and take centuries to degrade.

Eco-friendly alternatives: Next time you order takeaway, make a special request to say no to the additional plastic. Switch to reusable bamboo utensils, a travel cutlery set that you can take with you wherever you go or bring your own from home. Chopsticks are also a great alternative to have in your bag if you’re planning on getting takeaway.

Plastic pollution alternatives cups and cutlery plastic free july
Image: Plastic Free July
  1. Plastic Cups

500 billion disposable cups are consumed every year. That’s enough to go around the Earth 1,360 times. While lightweight and convenient, foam cups (made from polystyrene) can’t be collected by most council kerbside recycling services and often end up in landfill.

Plastic free alternatives: Bring your own reusable cup or a mason jar if you’re planning a trip to your favourite juice or smoothie shop. You can also help encourage your favourite cafes and food retailers to switch to eco-friendly and compostable alternatives.

  1. Plastic Containers

Globally, over 78 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging is produced every year and it is projected that plastic production will increase by 40% by 2030. The packaging industry is the largest converter of virgin plastics, and many of these are only used once for food packaging, shopping bags and beverage bottles.

Plastic free alternatives: Avoid pre-packaged meals. Most food outlets will happily put the food directly into your own reusable container if you ask. Some options for containers include glass containers, stainless steel lunch boxes and mason jars. You can also shop at bulk food stores and bring your own containers to fill. If you’re eating out, why not ask your favourite outlets to switch to compostable and eco-friendly alternatives?

Plastic pollution alternatives senator peter whish wilson
Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson takes his own container for lunch.
  1. Plastic Plates

Plastic plates might be cheap and handy when hosting parties or at picnics or food courts, but once they’re thrown away, they inevitably end up in landfill. Most recycling centres are unable to sort these plates due to their shape.

Plastic free alternatives: Regular porcelain plates. Alternatively, palm leaf or bamboo pulp plates.

Plastic pollution alternatives bowls plastic free july
Image: Plastic Free July

Click here for more ways to help limit plastic waste – and to support the WWF’s efforts and sign their petition.

Oslob whale sharks: unnatural encounter or successful conservation program?

Wildlife encounters often polarise people, none more so than the hugely popular Oslob Whale Sharks in the Philippines, where whale sharks gather en-masse to feed around fishing boats, and tourists gather en-masse to watch. Is this an unnatural, harmful experience for these giant creatures? And the surrounding marine environment. Or is it the opposite?

12 oslob whale sharks heather sutton
Photo: Heather Sutton

Myth-busting Oslob Whale Sharks

There are claims that by feeding the whale sharks, their behaviour is modified, the sharks stop migrating, further claims that the animals are often harmed by the close encounters. But marine scientist Judi Lowe claims otherwise.

Lowe, a marine scientist at the Southern Cross University in Australia, led a recently published study of Oslob Whale Sharks (OWS), together with Dr Mark Meekan and Johann Tejada at the Bureau of Fishery and Aquatic Resources.

“People say the feeding stops the whale sharks migrating, a common myth. There is no evidence for this at all. It’s also claimed the whale sharks are habituated to boats and people, and I’m not sure why this is problematic. The whale sharks of Tan-awan have been nudging fishing boats and nets of these fishermen and their fathers and grandfathers for generations.

15 oslob whale sharks heather sutton
Photo: Heather Sutton

“As to damage done, the boats used to take tourists for an encounter are small non-motorised outrigger canoes, called banca – traditional fishing boats. No harm comes to the whale sharks from propellers, unlike pretty much every other whale shark swimming location around the equator. People also say that it is unnatural for whale sharks to spend time in shallow water and feeding upright is not natural behaviour. These statements are both wrong.”

9 oslob whale sharks heather sutton
Photo: Heather Sutton

Lowe’s research into Oslob Whale Sharks has found that these diving tours run by former fishermen have lifted local villagers out of poverty and given new protection to overfished marine life. The fishermen-turned-entrepreneurs have hit on a successful scheme to help lift their coastal community out of poverty, which also finances the protection of endangered whale sharks in the Philippines.

The History of Oslob Whale Sharks

Back in 2011, a group of 58 fishermen from Oslob who were struggling to feed their families turned to the local whale shark population and set up a community-based dive company. In a few short years it has become hugely popular, attracting more than 750,00 visitors in the first five years and amounting to $18.4m in ticket sales over the same period.

While the attraction has drawn criticism, Lowe’s research argues that this unique business model has improved food security, healthcare and education in the community while also safeguarding the species. Whale sharks are protected by law here, but illegally poached and finned alive in other parts of the country.

6 oslob whale sharks heather sutton
Photo: Heather Sutton

“Oslob, in the province of Cebu, is one of the poorest fishing sites in the Philippines but also anywhere in the world,” said Lowe. “Before the creation of OWS many of the fishermen could not afford to put food on their table or educate their children, some had also lost their homes in typhoons.”

Former fishermen Jesson Jumuad who leads a team at OWS said: “As fishermen we were earning as little as $1.40 a day and nothing on days when the current was strong.

“Sometimes in a day I didn’t have any fish to be sold but now I can give my family good food three times a day. I have built a brick house, bought a motor bike and can afford to send my daughter to school.”

13 oslob whale sharks heather sutton
Photo: Heather Sutton

Over fishing and reef destruction

Historically, food security in Oslob has been an issue due to years of overfishing and the destruction of coral reefs. Between the 1950s and 1980s a destructive form of fishing called ‘muro ami’, was common here.

The practice of muro ami employed children, sending them underwater to form a human curtain, pounding the coral with rocks, to drive fish into nets. “They smashed up the reefs leading to diminished fish stocks, deepening the poverty of the fishing community in Oslob,” said Lowe.

Oslob Whale Sharks: a special connection

But the fishermen of Oslob never hunted the whale sharks. Their connection with the creatures spans generations. The fishermen knew how to lure them away from their nets with handfuls of krill should they bump into their canoes.

In 2011 a tourist paid one of these fishermen to attract a whale shark close to shore so he could get a proper look, and the idea of using whale sharks as a source of income was born. Now the local fishermen paddle tourists out to watch, snorkel or dive with the sharks 364 days a year from 6am to midday.

2 oslob whale sharks heather sutton

And the new-found income stays in Oslob, providing livelihoods, increased food security, healthcare, education and housing for the community while protecting the sharks and the coral reefs their livelihoods depend on.

Sixty per cent of the business is owned by the fishermen, 10% by the local village of Tan-awan and 30% of the profits go to the local authority to fund marine wardens, employed to protect the region from poachers or those using destructive fishing practices.

The Philippines outlawed the hunting of whale sharks in 1998 but illegal poaching continues with the sharks’ fins exported and sold on the black market. As well as the protection of whale sharks, money generated funds the management of five marine reserves.

Lowe’s study found that while expatriate and national elite-owned dive tourism can undermine local livelihood benefits – the OWS model has shown how community dive tourism without donor funding can bring big payoffs for fishers and their communities. In addition, the business helps conserve the marine environment by reducing the fishing efforts of 177 fishermen.

Research investigating the physical impact of feeding the whale sharks, from the same team, in collaboration with a specialist whale shark scientist, is due to be published early next year.

Access the full report here: ‘Does provisioning for tourism harm whale sharks at Oslob? A review of the evidence and reply to Ziegler et al. (2018)’, co-authored by Judi Lowe and Dr Mark Meekan.

4 oslob whale sharks heather sutton

scUber: the first ever ride-share submarine, sends a message from the Great Barrier Reef

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, you’ll have heard about scUber, the world’s first ride-share submarine.

The ingenious partnership between Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) and Uber has put the Great Barrier Reef on the World Stage for all the right reasons: It’s beautiful, it’s alive, and it needs our global support to save it.

Scuber amongst hmas protector ship wreck credit teq

According to TEQ PR and Publicity Leader Shelley Winkel:

“What started out as an ambition to launch the world’s first ride share submarine in the world’s greatest reef, has become a global media tsunami. 2000 TV news stories, 2500 news pieces, hero videos on partner websites, newsletters to an audience of 20 plus million and… Ashton Kutcher sharing it on Facebook.

“Our aim was to put the spotlight on the Great Barrier Reef and remind the world that it is alive, rich in remarkable experiences and waiting for tourists to come visit, fall in love and help us protect it. The reef is fragile but it’s very, very beautiful. Please come and visit it.”

This week the first ever scUber underwater voyage was enjoyed by competition winners, Terry and Kym Purcell. Three days after watching the launch of scUber on the Australian news, avid diver Terry Purcell surprised his wife of 32 years with the once-in-a-lifetime experience. His mission was to show her the underwater world that he passionately loves.

“I’ve been diving on the Great Barrier Reef since I was seven years old and the reef around Heron Island is the most wonderful spot in the world,” said the 54-year-old owner of Purcell’s Engineering in Gladstone.

“Today is really about my wife. She does not have a diver’s certificate. She snorkels but it’s not the same. With this, she can experience the reef first-hand and see it close up.”

“Besides, who else do you know who can say, ‘I hailed a submarine’?”

Terry set his alarm clock early and was on the Uber app by 7:30 am to request the On-Demand ride when it opened to the public for the first time.

Scuber in app credit teq uber

Within minutes of entering “Great Barrier Reef” into the Uber app, a submarine icon popped up on his screen followed by the arrival of a colourful Great Barrier Reef-branded Tesla. The Tesla transferred the couple to Marine Helicopters at Gladstone Airport for a scenic flight to Heron Island and the one-hour underwater scUber experience.

Commenting on the experience and the $3000 price tag, Terry said “It’s an absolute bargain. You can’t put a cost on this. For my wife to be able to see the reef at 18 metres below sea level and to see the bottom of a true coral atoll like I do when I dive was just magic.”

Scuber travelling amongst marine life at heron island credit teq

The scUber experience will be available on Heron Island for just over a week, before moving to Agincourt Reef off the coast of Port Douglas in Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef region from June 9. Availability is strictly limited.

The scUber experience will cost $3,000 AUD for two riders and includes:

  • Pickup from your location with the Uber app;
  • Return scenic helicopter ride to either Heron Island (for riders requesting from Gladstone) or the Quicksilver Cruises pontoon off the coast of Port Douglas (for riders requesting from Cairns, Port Douglas and Palm Cove);
  • One-hour ride in a scUber submarine;
  • Return trip back to your original pickup address with Uber.

Scuber descending credit teq

To celebrate the launch, Queensland and Uber are offering this bucket-list experience to one lucky winner and a friend from each of the following countries: USA, Canada, United Kingdom, France, New Zealand and Australia.

To enter the competition, go to scUberQueensland.com and explain in 25 words or less why you should experience the wonder of the Great Barrier Reef with scUber.

The scUber launch also marks the beginning of a partnership with Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef. The organisation is committed to engaging the world in the protection and conservation of the Great Barrier Reef and reefs all over the world, using tech, data and a collaborative approach to conservation.

Uber’s partnership with Citizens will focus on supporting several initiatives including their Reef Tracks program and the Great Barrier Reef Census through a financial and resource investment program.

Manta ray breeding ground found near Bali

Manta Bay and Manta Point, on the coast of Bali’s Nusa Penida have been identified in new research as vital habitats for reef manta rays, and could be at risk from unregulated tourism and local fishermen.

The new study, led by Murdoch University and Marine Megafauna Foundation PhD student Elitza Germanov, found one hotspot – known as Manta Bay – was frequented by juvenile male mantas looking for food, suggesting the area is a nursery for the threatened species.

Reef manta in nusa penida 3 c simon pierce marine megafauna foundation
Photo: Simon J Pierce www.simonjpierce.com

Researchers also found mature males and females congregating in large numbers at Manta Point, 12km from Manta Bay, where the mantas were observed visiting cleaning stations and engaging in courtship displays during the mating season (which peaks in May).

Ms Germanov said that while mantas are protected in Indonesia, there are few regulations in place to manage the growing tourism industry. The number of boats allowed to enter manta ray habitats is not limited and codes of conduct for manta ray interactions are voluntary.

Freediver with manta c andrea marshall marine megafauna foundation
Photo: Simon J Pierce www.simonjpierce.com

“Large diving groups and boat engine noise can cause chronic stress to these animals,” Ms Germanov said. “Divers may disrupt the foraging, cleaning and mating behaviour of manta rays if they get too close, which can have serious implications for their growth and fitness.”

To minimise the impact from tourism, the researchers have proposed limiting the number of tourism boats allowed at one time and formulating codes of conduct for tour operators to follow.

Reef manta in nusa penida 2 c simon pierce marine megafauna foundation
Photo: Simon J Pierce www.simonjpierce.com

A co-author on the research, Dr I. Gede Hedrawan of Udayana University in Bali, said the new findings could inform conservation efforts in the area.

“Since being declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2014, Nusa Penida has become an attractive area for tourism and international scientists,” Dr Hedrawan said. “This new research will prove useful for MPA managers, informing future reviews and allowing them to assess the appropriate capacity for manta ray watching in this diving hotspot.”

Nusa penida tourim c andrea marshall marine megafauna foundation
Photo: Simon J Pierce www.simonjpierce.com

The researchers also found that even small-scale, traditional fishing poses a threat to the manta rays. During the study, 14 per cent of manta rays were seen either trailing hooks and lines or had injuries and even amputations from fishing gear cutting through their skin and cartilage skeleton.

While all fishing activities are prohibited at Manta Bay and Manta Point, the researchers suggest the whole west coast of Nusa Penida could be closed off to fishing as a precaution and fishing bans be better enforced.

Reef manta in nusa penida 4 c simon pierce marine megafauna foundation
Photo: Simon J Pierce www.simonjpierce.com

Ms Germanov said it was vital to learn more about the manta rays in Indonesia, so more could be done to protect them.

“Where manta rays are born and grow up still baffles us,” she said. “Our research in Indonesia suggests there might be a reef manta nursery in the Nusa Penida area, which is important for us to know because they provide a safe space for young, vulnerable mantas to grow and develop away from the reach of predators.”

Baby manta nusa penida bali c andrea marshall mmf
Photo: Simon J Pierce www.simonjpierce.com

Data for this study was obtained from citizen scientists and trained observers submitting ID photos to the global manta ray database, www.mantamatcher.org over the course of six years, from 2012. A total of 624 reef manta rays were identified from 5,913 sightings based on their unique ventral coloration patterns and sex and maturity indicators.

The study, titled ‘Contrasting habitat use and population dynamics of reef manta rays within the Nusa Penida Marine Protected Area, Indonesia’ was published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.