Yasmine’s first shark encounters

By Yasmine Metaxa, 13 years old

Back in October of last year, I, Yasmine Metaxa, was asked if I wanted to participate in a shark tagging expedition trip off the coast of Mexico. The idea was to participate in The Watermen Project which combines research for the preservation of sharks together with education about sharks. I was supposed to participate on the education part and try to pass on the information I have learnt to my school! It was a very amazing experience but also a difficult trip and I will try and share some of these experiences with you.

Yasmine's First Shark Encounters-chat
Chatting with William Winram and my dad on the expedition boat.

Our trip started on the 5th of January of this year where we had to fly for over 24 hours from Geneva to get to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, where the expedition boat would depart from. We arrived in Cabo very tired on the evening of the 5th of January and boarded the boat on the 6th. I had never been on an expedition boat before, so I was surprised to see how simple and basic the boat was. At 30 meters in length it had to accommodate 15 people who were part of the expedition and 8 crewmembers. The boat was relatively old, but fully equipped with diving equipment, a decompression chamber and two inflatable boats to take us around. Most importantly, the boat had the strength to stay at sea for over 7 days without the need for refueling or stopping at an island to get food. It was on arrival on the boat that we started understanding the significance of the trip ahead of us. We were told that once onboard we were not going to set foot on land for the next 7 days and in order to get to our destination we had to cross the Pacific Ocean for a non-stop 24 hour trip! We were headed to the Revillagigedos Islands, which is a group of four volcanic islands in the Pacific ocean. The four islands are San Benedicto, Socorro, Rocca Partida and Clarion. The 3 first islands have a separate time zone to the Clarion island. These islands are uninhabited with the exception of a naval base on the south Socorro island that has a population of 250 people (staff and families). There is also a small naval garrison of 9 men on Clarion Island. These islands are only visited by eco-tourists who are keen to scuba dive and explore the magnificence of the nature there. These islands are sometimes referred to as Mexico’s “little Galapagos’ islands”.
And off we went, our trip felt even longer than what it took and due to the constant rolling of the boat on the large ocean waves, it was very tiring. We felt sea sick for the longer part and we could only cure this by taking special sea sickness pills as well as spending time sleeping!
On the morning of the 7th we finally arrived to San Benedicto a volcanic island that had its latest eruption in 1952 that almost destroyed it! You can see the dried up lava flow from the side of the volcano into the water on a part of the bay that we were told that we would also dive.

Yasmine's First Shark Encounters-island
The Island San Benedicto with it’s volcano and the lava flow.

The expedition was organized by William Winram, a freediving champion, who volunteers his time in support of shark conservation. On the boat we also have Dr. Mauricio Hoyos who is a scientist who has dedicated his professional life to the behavior of sharks. Mauricio is currently working with two species listed as “endangered globally” and of “concern” on the IUCN’s Red list, the hammerhead shark and the great white shark. Mauricio is going to use the data collected from the shark tagging in order to convince the government of Mexico to put in place new laws that will help protect the hammerhead sharks. I discussed with Mauricio the importance of sharks in the oceans and he explained that sharks are important because they regulate the amount and health of other fish species. Sharks are an apex predator and they will often feed on sick, diseased or old animals, which is a way of preventing disease or sickness from spreading. They act like a regulator to the balance of the oceans. Mauricio explained that the loss of sharks will have effects beyond our imagination for our oceans which make up the largest part of our planet. Finally there is still a lot to learn from sharks as it is said that they may have been one of the first animals on earth to develop an immune system and they seem to have a much greater ability than humans to resist cancers and other diseases.
We then got to spend some time understanding how the sharks are tagged. This is a process that is very delicate and not always successful. The person that is tagging must approach the sharks with a spear gun and must place the tag on the shark next to the main fin either to the right or to the left of it.

Yasmine's First Shark Encounters-tag
Acoustic Tag used to study the sharks’ movements.

The spear gun has a camera installed on it that will capture the moment this happens and the diver must note what kind of a shark has been tagged as well as whether it was a male or a female. To make things even more difficult the shark tagging happens while free diving (single breath of air) and not with a scuba tank. This is the only way to approach these animals, quietly and eventually to have a higher success rate. Finally the difficulty is even greater as we are told that this time of the year the sharks are at 30 – 40 meters of depth and there is a very strong current! The good news is that the shark’s skin is very strong and the tagging does not hurt them, but it must feel like a strong pinch just like when we humans have a needle touch us for blood taking.
We ended up spending the next few days swimming in the ocean, monitoring the work of the shark tagging team. We also had the opportunity to do some scuba diving and free dive along with several manta rays dolphins, sea turtles, whales, schools of tuna, and other beautiful exotic fish. The marine life in this region is extraordinary and breath taking. I enjoyed all these underwater activities as well as diving next to the lava flow.

Yasmine's First Shark Encounters-ray
A Giant Manta Ray gently passing by.

Did you know that tiger sharks are second to the great white in numbers of attacks on humans? Well, guess what… I was swimming around the lava flow, turned around, and 3 meters away was a tiger shark! (see picture 3) The closest I ever got to a shark! People ask me when I tell them this experience: were you in a cage? I was NOT! I did not swim away and scream like people would normally do, as a matter of fact, I swam towards it. I know, it was the wrong thing to do since they are still predators but not killing machines. Obviously, it swam away. So I continued swimming. Then, another swimmer with us in the water spotted the same tiger shark again! It was swimming around us! William, who was with us too, told us to get back on the zodiac and head towards the boat. This was because the sun was setting, it was almost 5:00pm, and as the sun low in the horizon it was more difficult to see clearly underwater therefore it would’ve not be safe for us. So we left.

Yasmine's First Shark Encounters-shark
This was a young and curious tiger shark investigating us.

Another aspect of the trip that was also memorable was that we were in a part of the world where communications were very limited. We could use a satellite phone to make calls in case of an emergency or to call home but the calls were limited in time as they were very expensive.
On the 12th of January we had reached the last day of our trip. The team had managed to tag 11 sharks, which was an acceptable amount, although they had initially hoped to tag 20 or more. Given the tough conditions that the team was faced with, they were all very happy with the final results. We spent the rest of the day traveling arrived in Cabo San Luca the next day on the 13th of January. It was weird getting back on steady land and for the next few days I felt like I was still on the boat. I was told that I suffered from land sickness! We took off the next morning and got back to Geneva on the 15th. This was a great experience that I am very happy to be able to share with all of you. I hope that through this article I have conveyed the importance of protecting endangered animals such as sharks that are extremely important for keeping our oceans balanced. As a final note I wanted to let you know that Geneva’s Natural History museum has devoted the whole month of February ’13 on the topic of sharks and water!

Revillagigedo Archipelago ’13

Project type: Expedition
Dates: January 6-13, 2013
Location: San Benedicto, the Revillagigedo Archipelago, Mexico
Base: Liveaboard
Project target: placing acoustic tags on Scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini)
Lead scientist: Dr. Edgar Mauricio Hoyos Padilla
Tagging team: William Winram, Philippe Beauchamp safety diver, Lukas Mueller scientific assistant
Participants: twelve from age 13 to 52
Sea life: abundant

San Benedicto, third largest island of the Revillagigedo Archipelago, 386 km southwest of Cabo San Lucas

San Benedicto, third largest island of the Revillagigedo Archipelago, 386 km southwest of Cabo San Lucas

The main challenge of this tagging expedition was the fact that the scalloped hammerhead sharks stayed deep within the water column. The team dove to an area of the reef serving as a cleaning station for the sharks, but the area was battered by heavy currents. As a consequence tags were placed at depths of 22 to 40 meters.

Scalloped hammerhead shark about to get tagged – photo William Winram

Scalloped hammerhead shark about to get tagged – photo William Winram

The youngest participant Yasmine had several encounters that re-enforced the value of this concept of The Watermen Project. At 13 years of age she saw a 4.5-meter tiger shark up close, Galapagos sharks, silver tip sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks and she swam with a giant manta ray… as well as seeing scores of dolphins, hearing humpback whales singing and watching as they would swim by the boat etc… not bad for 13-year old!

As a young marine biology student, Lukas not only shared in many of these encounters but also worked hard, logging data, keeping track of tags and getting in the water to watch the tagging. He left with a real idea of what this kind of work is like and what it entails for both the scientist and those of us that help in the research. He left the expedition even more inspired and passionate about the sea and sharks.

The other members of the expedition also who shared in the encounters with the different species of marine life as well as the evening talks on the boat given by Dr. Mauricio Hoyos about sharks, his research and the particulars of the island we were anchoring near. Many thanks to them as their coming together to support sharks conservation is what made this expedition possible.

Waiting at 25 meters for hammerhead sharks - photo Laurent Egli

waiting at 25 meters for hammerhead sharks – photo Laurent Egli

It took about 300 dives over the course of six days to place ten tags. Dr. Hoyos having had no luck placing tags over the past five years prior to this expedition, this number is sufficient to give him the first chance to have good data about the scalloped hammerhead sharks and their behaviour.