Some time ago, Simona Auteri - Italy's deepest CWTB woman (AIDA) - spend some time at a whale shark conservation project in Madagascar.
This is what her daily interaction with those magnificent gentle giants taught her.
"I am actually an architect! I grew up in Genova, a harbor town in the north of Italy and the sea has always been my passion. Whilst I have always explored the sea through snorkeling or sailing, I discovered freediving whilst on a trip to the Philippines and that episode pretty much changed my life! Freediving challenged a lot of my beliefs and preconceptions, and the more I read about the underwater world, the more I wanted to discover. I became interested in marine biology and read lots of books, that's when my perception of sharks started shifting. The feeling of fear started to transform into curiosity and appreciation of their role as apex predators within the ocean ecosystem, and the more I documented myself, the more I became fascinated with their intelligence and their world".
"Whale sharks are not whales and whilst they don’t have huge teeth, they are real sharks. Unlike whales, they breathe and feed through the water they filter. They are the largest living fish on earth, reaching up to 20m in length and weigh up to 34 tonnes, yet their behavior is largely unknown. Whilst they are big and still classify as sharks, whale sharks use their strong sense of smell to find plankton, filtering seawater at the staggering rate of 600,000 liters per hour so to feed about 22 kilos of plankton a day. Whale sharks are classified as endangered species and there is huge value in participating in conservation projects with whale sharks. They love tropical waters and Madagascar is one of the aggregation places where young juvenile male whale sharks come feeding".
"Founded by Stella Diamant, Madagascar Whale Shark Project aims to study and protect whale sharks in Madagascar, while raising awareness and empowering local communities through ecotourism, making the locals realize that a live shark is worth more than a dead shark. Whale sharks also lack protection in Madagascar and, in the face of growing tourism, no local regulations were in place to regulate interactions, hence one of the project's missions is to set up a code of conduct for sustainable whale tour operators to approach whale sharks in the area. The project is co-supervised by whale shark expert Dr. Simon Pierce and marine megafauna specialist Dr. Jeremy Kiszka".
"Madagascar Whale Shark Project deploys volunteers to identify each whale shark encountered. In fact, each whale shark has a unique pattern of white dots that resemble a constellation (hence the malagasy name Milky Way Sharks) which identifies each individual as a set of fingerprints. Us volunteer would take pictures of the left-hand side of the unique pattern behind its gills and above its pectoral fins together with a recording of relevant GPS location data and would later upload them onto the global sighting database WhaleShark.org, thus helping researchers count how many sharks are seen and track their movements and behaviors over time. In 2019 alone, the Madagascar Whale Shark Project together with us volunteers and with the collaboration of the sustainable tour operator Les Baleines Rand’Eau, recorded 413 encounters with whale sharks in Nosy Be with a total of 97 days at sea".
"One of the most memorable moments was to free a whale shark that was growing into a thick rope around its neck. I noticed something was wrong from afar and quickly called guide Thomas from the sustainable Whale operator Les Baleines Rand’eau to join me in the water with a knife to cut the rope. Thomas is a strong freediver and we quickly developed the plan for him to cut the rope attached to the whale shark neck, whilst I would try and remove it from its body. The whale shark was coming to the surface towards us as if to pledge for help, and at that time we got hold of the rope. Whilst Thomas started cutting the rope, the whale shark started sinking in the deep real fast and we had to use our freediving skills to equalize our ears whilst cutting and freeing the whale shark. It took us three dives to finally free the animal which kept on diving deep and then returning to the surface to find us again. Removing the rope revealed thick cuts through its neck, however, our team saw the same whale shark the day after and it was healthy and its scars were recovering".
"Whale sharks are majestic and oblivious, they have a brain the size of a walnut despite their size, and have lateral sight so it happens that they realize you are there once they are really close to you which can be really funny. Also, it can happen that a really young individual starts playing with you and following you around really close, opening and closing their large mouth in continuous motion. This is hilarious to watch and yet at the same time you have to be fast in swimming away whilst being careful to avoid touching the animal. Not only Nosy Be bay is full of whale sharks but the abundance of krill and plankton brings a wealth of megafauna species. The blue is astonishing and words cannot describe the feelings of connection and peace found whilst freediving with a fleet of Mobula Rays, or the joy of an encounter with a family of curious dolphins that come and play, or observing the wise turtles feeding in their habitat".
"The bay is also home to a large family of the very rare Omura’s Whales which were only discovered in the area in 2012 by a team of scientists led by marine Biologist Salvatore Cerchio. I met Salvatore Cerchio at a conference during my time in Madagascar as he was there to drop hydrophones at 300m below sea level to record the sounds of the Omura’s whales' songs. Through their year-long recordings, they could find that Omura’s whales are actually a resident species of Nosy Be bay. He made us listen to their songs, and we could distinguish single individuals' songs and choir songs, in a similar way that birds and crickets sing to interact with each other".
"What did shark conservation teach me? Read, inform yourself, participate in ocean conservation programs, do not buy fish from supermarkets, and, most of all, fall in love with our oceans and their inhabitants".