The Beacon: Margot's blog

Whale Sharks: Belize’s Gentle Giants

whale shark

© 2010 Tony Rath/

And now, for something entirely different… a brief respite from the oil spill madness. A reminder of the beauty of the seas from Oceana scientist Margot Stiles. - Emily

Every spring Belize hosts one of nature’s great wonders: the arrival of whale sharks in search of spawning snapper. This year I had the pleasure of witnessing it first hand, on last month’s Oceana expedition.

The whale shark is the largest fish in the sea at 60 feet long, but it is mild-mannered and harmless to people. Around the full moons of March through June each year, whale sharks arrive and begin feeding at the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve near Placencia, Belize.

Tony Rath of Naturalight Productions has spent thirty years photographing wildlife in Belize and still beams at the mention of his most recent expedition with Oceana. “Seeing whale sharks this close is an unforgettable experience, as inspiring as seeing a puma or any of the large animals on land,” he said.

I couldn’t agree more. Despite hundreds of dives around the world, I found swimming side-by-side with a whale shark truly sublime, a transcendent moment I’ll look back on for many years to come.

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Gulf of Mexico Coral Expedition - Part Four

Red Grouper in the Gulf of Mexico

This morning we ran two dives in a row, working through lunch to try to finish early. Each dive lasts one to two hours.

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Gulf of Mexico Coral Expedition - Part Three

The main drawback of joining a cruise part way through is that you begin the trip with stories of the amazing things that everyone saw just before you arrived. This cruise is no exception.

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Gulf of Mexico Coral Expedition - Part Two


After several hours of transit we arrive at the next dive site for the ROV. ROV stands for remotely operated vehicle, the workhorse of deep seafloor research and the primary focus of this cruise.

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Gulf of Mexico Coral Expedition - Part One

Oceana marine biologist Margot Stiles reports from the Gulf of Mexico, where she is assisting on a marine habitat project.

This week I'm participating in an oceanographic research cruise through NOAA, the government agency in charge of fisheries. The purpose of the cruise is to map and document fish habitat in the Gulf of Mexico including filming of deep-sea coral gardens that have never been seen before. Some of the ridges, pinnacles, and coral gardens we are visiting currently hang in the balance as the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and national leaders consider whether to protect them from destructive fishing by the end of 2008.

Oceana actively supports protection of deep-sea coral ecosystems and though I spend most of my time writing, reading, and telling people about their beauty, this will be my first chance to see them live and in person. This week's cruise covers the eastern Gulf of Mexico from Sarasota, Florida around to Pascagoula, Mississippi.

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The Matrix

July 29, 2006

Early this morning we started off next to the coast in calm, peaceful waters broken only by the pontoons of our catamaran. Standing on deck you can see shapes on the seafloor down to fifteen meters depth. This makes Ricardo's quest for seagrass meadows a lot easier.

Today we are on a voyage of discovery. We are looking at two banks or small seamounts that show up on the map as dots, that we will be describing and mapping in greater detail. The boat cruises and turns back and forth over the site in order to develop a more detailed map with our new cartographic machine. From the point of view of any nearby vessel we must look very strange going in circles but with each turn we collect better information. The "OLEX" machine takes depth data using soundbeams and aggregates it into a geographic matrix. In the areas of the matrix that are missing data, it extrapolates by averaging nearby datapoints, adding new information as it becomes available. The result is a detailed map of the banks were we are going to dive.

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Island of Doves

July 28, 2006

This morning we brought divers to the Isla de las Palomas (Island of Doves). I stayed on Ranger where Carlos put me on a bubble-watching mission. While diving you breathe in air from your tank that later is exhaled to rise to the surface. A group of four or five divers emits a steady stream of bubbles that is distinguishable between the waves. It's pretty straightforward to keep them within sight, but like everything with the sea this can change rapidly. During the dive the group might stray into twos or threes and if the wind blows it can obscure the pattern of bubbles. The Ranger maintains a safe distance from the divers and we also warn away other boats.

In the aftenoon we arrive in Cartagena, a beautiful city full of quiet meandering streets. I went walking through different plazas and to shake off the heat that has clung to us the past week I drank three ice slush drinks (2 lemon and 1 horchata). During this ramble through the city I met several people from Maroccos and ate dinner in a Moroccan restaurant. In this part of Spain there is also an intangible sensation of the proximity to Africa. It highlights the socio-political human lines crossed by marine fish, turtles, dolphins and other animals. To follow them and document human impacts it will be obligatory for us to also explore the African coast of the Mediterranean. Ranger's upcoming plans include searching for illegal driftnets on the Moroccan coast.

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2,774 Jellyfish and Counting

July 27, 2006

Last night we laid anchor outside of the Mar Menor (minor sea) and this morning we passed through a drawbridge and into this unusual world unto itself. In the weightless air of early morning we moved ahead into emerald waters and thousands, actually more like MILLIONS of jellyfish. We lined up along the front railing and my jaw dropped as jellies began to float by in groups of five, ten, thirty at a time in a continuous flow past both sides of the pontoon. Amazing, and in numbers beyond the imagination. Ricardo counted 2774 passing between the pontoons of the catamaran in order to try and estimate how many there might be.

These jellies were unlike any I've seen before. Words are probably insufficient but to give an idea they are as spectacular as tutus of professional bailarinas, extravagant Easter bonnets, or works of modern art in blown glass. The ones known as "fried eggs" or Cotylorhiza tuberculata have a bell with soft edges, the color of peaches. Beneath this cap they reach out with four "arms" that are actually used to capture food. And the entire animal is surrounded by a mantle of brilliant jewels in shades of purple and white. When you approach them underwater they pulse habitually and unconsciously, circulating nutrients through their body and maintaining their position in the water column.

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July 25, 2006

Yesterday I arrived in Valencia with the extreme good fortune to be able to join the Ranger. At this moment we are still in port and it sounds like we will be departing this afternoon. Everyone is quietly busy in their own way getting ready to leave, to take care of themselves in a way that's not possible at sea. In port everything gets washed, from clothing to the boat and the people on board. We also take advantage of the improved connection to land, with free access to fresh water, direct cell phone calls and shopping for food or cigarrettes for the smokers.

This morning Carlos climbed to the top of the mast to fix a light that is used for nighttime signaling. It's a pretty big production just to change a lightbulb. Carlos donned a special harness that looks more like a padded chair for stadium seating with big pockets to put tools in. One could imagine how dangerous this operation would be at sea, and it made me think of tall-masted sailing ships in olden days, when sailors had to climb the rigging to change the sails even during storms and wartime attacks. At least on the Ranger Carlos completed the task without a second thought and easily returned to the deck.

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