Friday, April 10, 2015

What to Look For If You Are Interested in a Great Hammerhead Trip to Bimini


I just returned from a grueling trip to Bimini, Bahamas.  Bimini is the closest of the Bahamas Islands to the US.  It is only 60 miles from Miami.  Ironically, it's the most goddamn difficult island of the Bahamas that I've had to get to.  I write about the best way to get to Bimini in another blog post.  I discuss here what divers and photographers should look for in a trip to see great hammerhead sharks in Bimini. 


A trip to Bimini could easily be a perfect trip.  Here’s a perfect trip for me: a land-based hotel, with great diving sites close by.  A hotel that is not overly expensive but is safe, clean, and comfortable, with good free wifi and working air-conditioning.  Decent food at the hotel and other restaurants nearby.  A short ride to the dive sites.  Reliable air travel to and from the destination, so you can make your plans and connecting flights without stress and worry and additional expense. Best of all, seeing large animals like great hammerhead sharks up close and fairly easily. 


1.  Make sure that the operator has been to Bimini many times, and that he/she recommends a good way to get there.  If the operator recommends Silver Airways, then I’d say that the operator does not have enough experience.  I myself will avoid Silver Airways at all costs, and I will try to fly to Bimini via Sky Bahamas. 

For some reason, everyone kept telling me that Silver Airways was the best way to get there, but they were AWFUL.  After the trip, I heard that SkyBahamas was a far better way to get to Bimini.  I wonder why no one told me this beforehand.  I asked several folks who should have known. 


2.  If you are staying at the Bimini Big Game Lodge, you’ll be better off if the operator gives you a package deal for room and meals.  If you book yourself at the Big Game Lodge, you won’t know what room you are getting, exactly (they are all OK but you don’t want a second floor room); the room rates will increase even though you have a confirmation; and they’ll try to add charges like a $35 resort fee when you check out.  

3.  Lastly, I'd like to go with an operator who is comfortable with having me and other photographers get their (gloved) hands and cameras right under the mouths of these great hammerheads.  I have a video clip on my blog as example.   The shark handlers should be able to bring the sharks right over your head and your camera. 

Our trip leader Mike Black had no problem bringing two divers at a time (one at each side) and creating shots where he'd hold the bait and bring the sharks right over our cameras (and my bare hands).  It was good that the divers in the water were limited to two divers per shark handler (one on each side), and no more than 2 shark handlers at a time.

Tips on How to Get to Bimini

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I returned recently  from a grueling trip to Bimini, Bahamas.  Bimini is the closest of the Bahamas Islands to the US.  It is only 60 miles from Miami.  Ironically, it's the most goddamn difficult island of the Bahamas that I've had to get to.  I've flown to Nassau in one day, filmed scenes for a commercial the next day, and flown all the way back home from Nassau on the third day, easily and without stress.  This trip was nowhere near as easy.  It was one of the most stressful trips I've had to take, because these days, if you miss your connection, you are sh** out of luck with the airlines and have to find a way home by relying on the largesse and professionalism of the airline that is supposed to fly you back. 

Here’s a summary in case you don’t want to read the excruciating details below:

How to get to Bimini: I suggest using Sky Bahamas from Fort Lauderdale to get to and from Bimini.  I suggest avoiding flying Silver Airways or taking the “Fast Ferry” to Bimini. 

My friends Deb and Vince, of Epic Diving, just wrote: 

"Bimini is worth not giving up on :)  Sky Bahamas definitely has a more reliable flight schedule.  I believe they have added flights from Florida to Bimini, but need to double check.  I know that they fly to Bimini from Nassau, as does Western Air."

Where to stay on Bimini: in most cases, your group will already be staying at the Bimini Big Game Lodge.  It’s the biggest hotel on North Bimini, which has more “other” restaurants and sights than South Bimini.  The Bimini Sands is on South Bimini and is the only hotel there.  If you are at the Bimini Big Game Lodge, try your utmost to get a ground floor room.  All the rooms are the same distance from the boat and diving area, save for the second floor rooms, which involve far more walking distance and stairs.  The Big Game Lodge has individual “cottages” which are within 20 feet of the other rooms.  Those cottages would be fine to stay in but cost a bit more.  

On South Bimini Island, where the airport is, there is one and only one hotel, which is the Bimini Sands hotel.  There is not much else on South Bimini.  Folks must take a very short ferry ride to North Bimini in order to eat anywhere other than the Bimini Sands.  

Deb of Epic Diving just told me that there is another hotel that divers can stay at on North Bimini Island.   Here's what Deb wrote: 

"We have been staying at either the Bimini Big Game Club or the Sea Crest Hotel, both on North Bimini.  The Big Game Club has more of a resort feel with marina, pool, bar, and restaurant on site.  The Sea Crest has more of a motel feel but offers and onsite marina and clean rooms with AC and mini-fridge.  There is no restaurant or bar which, honestly, the guests enjoyed because they were "forced" to explore a variety of restaurants on the island." 

Lastly, I'd should mention that when I got back home, I called Silver Airways and cancelled the flight back that I had with them later that week.  I told them the reasons why I did not wish to take that upcoming flight, and the agent immediately refunded my ticket cost.  I later wrote Silver Airways and asked that they refund my checked baggage fee, since the bags arrived late.  They never replied.  I disputed the charge with my credit card company, and after a few weeks, the credit card company refunded my account for this $25.  Small amount but a satisfying outcome. 

********
In February, I traveled to Bimini Island, Bahamas, to join a group to photograph great hammerhead sharks.  I’ve posted a video clip from that one-day shoot (which was supposed to last a week).  We got weathered out, but I found out a lot about the logistics of getting to and from Bimini which I will share here.  If you wish to go on one of these great hammerhead shark trips, I give tips on what you might want to look for in such a trip. 

Getting to Bimini:
Bimini is only 60 miles from Miami, and it is the closest of all the Bahamas Islands to the mainland USA.  It’s therefore ironic that I have had the most trouble getting to Bimini and getting off – and the most trouble finding good intel on how to best get there – than any other trip to the Bahamas that I have ever done.  I’ve been to the Bahamas perhaps 20 times in my career: by boat several times for Tiger Beach and dolphins; quick one-day shoots to Stuart Cove’s on Nassau, and most recently, Cat Cay for oceanic whitetip sharks.  I’ve never had as much trouble or worry about reaching my destination as this trip. 

Bimini was a real hassle to get to because the airline that was recommended to me is so unreliable.  Several folks told me that Silver Airways from Fort Lauderdale was the best way to reach Bimini.  They stressed that Silver does charge for checked baggage, but I researched this, and while they do charge $25 for the first checked bag and a bit higher for the second, it was not a big deal. 

What WAS a big deal is that, for the five days prior to my flight, Silver Airways did not make any flights from FLL to Bimini.  Friends of mine on the same trip, who had flown in from Hong Kong, were scheduled to fly out to Bimini the day before me.  Instead, their plane never arrived, and all the hotels in the area were supposedly booked and unavailable.  My two friends, who are world travelers and divers, had to sleep in the Fort Lauderdale airport overnight!  My plane was full of tired folks who were relieved to finally catch a flight to Bimini.  There may have been folks there who had spent more than just one night at the airport! 

Because the plane was so full, Silver Airways decided, without telling anyone, to remove 75% of the luggage on the plane.  Therefore, once we all arrived in Bimini, most folks’ luggage was missing.  We were assured that our luggage would arrive the next day, but to tell the truth, the customer service agents were so unfriendly and uncommunicative, I had little faith that my bag of diving and camera gear would indeed arrive the next day. 

Some folks had mentioned “The Fast Ferry To Bimini from Miami.”  I had heard that it was unreliable.  They have a nice website but it does not give great times or dates.  The website is a bit vague. 

As it turns out, we had one great day of diving with the hammerhead sharks.  Since I did not have my luggage, I had to dive with borrowed gear, and I only had a GoPro camera to use.  It was a great dive and a great day.  My luggage did in fact arrive, but it was no use because the weather after the first day turned too windy, and we had to cut our trip short due to bad diving conditions. 

I had a flight reserved on Silver Airways reserved for Friday, and it was Tuesday.  I therefore cancelled my Friday Silver Airways flight and took the Fast Ferry to Miami ($90 for the trip).  We boarded around 9am and had to check our bags and pay a goddamn checked bag fee, if you can believe it ($25 for the first bag).  We boarded through a cavernous entry space (the ship used to be a ferry) and then a real third world dungeon kind of elevator.  The elevator then magically but slowly opened onto the LIDA deck, where the surroundings became that of a standard cruise ship rather than the gulag industrial scene from below.  The cruise ship is fine.  There’s a breakfast served (I highly recommend eating since you may be stuck on the boat for many more hours than expected).  The trip back to Miami was supposed to take 2.5 hours. 

This is a real cruise ship, albeit a small one.  There are many places to sit and relax, but if you are in the know, you should head straight to the bow of the boat, same floor as the breakfast restaurant floor, and find some seats at the bow.  There are a limited number of seats there and elsewhere where one can put his/her bags and stretch out.  It is better to be in a group to protect your space and seats.  There are plenty of seats but most of them are chairs, comfy enough – but I looked longingly at the flat couches that earlier folks had snapped up.  Once I left my seat to go to the bathroom, and it got snapped up before I returned, even though I had left a bag on it. 

The only problem with snagging seats in the bow of the boat (which has two floors) is that the cruise ship entertains passengers here with lame singing and magic performances.  I would have much preferred some peace and quiet. 

So – it was now around noon, and we reached the Port of Miami.  I had changed my airline tickets and had wrestled with the issue of whether I should stay overnight in the MIA/FLL area, or if I should book the 6pm flight out of Miami airport that was available.  I made the right decision for once!  For the next four hours, no sh*t, the ferry captain attempted in vain to dock the ship.  All of us stood in line in the bow waiting for four hours to get off.  Finally, the ship called a tugboat, and an hour later (five hours after boarding, three hours after reaching our destination), we were able to get off the boat. 

Oh, and by the way, while waiting three hours for the ship to dock, I learned from other passengers that the Fast Ferry was not able to make its scheduled departures to Bimini for five or so days before it finally arrived, due to bad weather.  So the Fast Ferry is not really that fast, and it seems to be very unreliable also.  It’s too bad. 

We were in the Port of Miami, which is close to downtown Miami.  I had reserved a couple of rental cars with Alamo, who had rental counters in the Intercontinental Hotel about 1.5 miles away.  We took both cabs and Uber (thumbs up to Uber, thumbs way down to the unfriendly and cheating cab driver) to the hotel.  I had to go to the hotel twice: once to be told that they had cancelled our car reservation after waiting for two hours (thanks, cruise ship captain for taking so long) and the second time to retrieve my bags from the ship area and return to the hotel Alamo counter to get my rental car.  It would have taken one trip if Alamo had simply had our cars there, but I can’t blame them.

So, after all this, I posted a trip report to my blog.  Someone associated with the biological station there took issue with my taking issue with all the tags on the sharks.  But he suggested a better way to get to Bimini.  Here’s what Sean Williams wrote:

I'd like to make a few comments. Bimini is like most of the other Bahamian Out Islands. It can be frustrating coming and going at times but those of us used to traveling here have very few issues. It isn't like traveling to Nassau (as you've mentioned) or Freeport. They don't land 747s here and I think that is a great thing. The real Bahamas are places like Bimini, Cat Island, Andros, etc. Not exactly remote, but not exactly urban centers either. Bimini is easy to travel to, situated just 48 miles from Miami and 52 miles from Fort Lauderdale, you can come over by boat in a few hrs with good weather. Something you can't easily do in Nassau. Besides Florida, you can also catch flights daily from Nassau on Western Air or Sky Bahamas. I highly recommend this option. With a 9am flight and a 4pm flight on Western you can often travel from home to Bimini in the same day. Flamingo Air makes daily trips from Freeport making it another travel option. In reality Bimini is one of the easier islands to come and go from, by boat or plane. You just have to know where to look or have guides that actually know the islands.


Another couple on my trip cancelled their Silver Airways flight out, and booked a flight with SkyBahamas instead.  Here’s what they wrote:

“We didn’t trust Silver Airways (despite we already bought the round trip tickets to fly on Feb 22nd Sun tomorrow), so we flew on SkyBahamas, to leave Bimini, as informed you already.

It is a much better airline, the plane itself is large (well, at least the one that we flew on, had 34-seater, but only 4 guests (incl. us two) and 3 other Sky Bahamas’s different flight’s crew riding) and flew nearly on time (just 5-min late).

There was NO bag charge, unless your bags are overweighted (we had nearly 120kgs fm the 4 check-in bags)) and we only paid USD20.
When we came (together with you) on Silver Air, they charged us USD25/person for 1st bag and USD40/person for 2nd bag, so my wife and I I totally paid USD130 for our 4 bags on Silver Airlines.

Even such a short (20-25min) flight, Sky Bahamas even gave us a drink.

Sky Bahamas check-in counter lady at Bimini told us they usually fly in from Nassau to Bimini and then continue to Fort Lauderdale, then after that the plane would go to something Marsh (Bahamas).

When you go [return} to G.Hammer in Bimini, we highly recommend you to take Sky Bahamas.


So, in summary, I am going to take Sky Bahamas if I ever return to Bimini.  I will try to avoid flying Silver Airways or taking the “Fast Ferry” to Bimini. 

One thing that folks who live near Miami and Fort Lauderdale do not have to contend with is the problem of finding a hotel room in case you are stuck at the airport or your flight/trip is cancelled.  For instance, my friends Stephen and Takako from Hong Kong had to sleep in the f***ing airport when Silver Airways cancelled their flight the day before my flight.  That would be a nightmare. 

This was one of the most stressful trips I've had to take, because these days, if you miss your connection, you are sh** out of luck with the airlines and have to find a way home by relying on the largesse and professionalism of the airline that is supposed to fly you back. 


For some reason, in mid to late February when I traveled to FLL, there were almost NO hotels in the area that were available.  This is a problem if you wish to add days to your trip to allow for things like airline cancellations, or if you need a hotel room at the last minute. 

The hotels in the FLL and Miami area were all booked up and super-expensive -- I think because of the Miami Boat Show and because February is a high month for folks going out on cruise ships.  I am a fan of Hampton Inns and just need something like them – safe, clean, comfortable, free wifi, no frills, convenient, and under $150 almost everywhere – but all the Hampton Inns in the FLL area were over $300 per night.  I refuse to pay $300 per night for a stinking Hampton Inn.  I am also a fan of La Quinta hotels (they let my dogs stay at no extra charge) and found three of those in the FLL area that charged under $140 or so. 

In Bimini, I should add, the group stayed at the Bimini Big Game Lodge.  This hotel is fine.  The food in the main bar and restaurant is not bad at all.  It was confusing to figure out what rooms to reserve.  The Big Game Lodge has “king cottages” and rooms like Queen superior, double deluxe, like a hamburger menu.  Just know that you don’t need the cottages, really, if you are an average diver and photographer.  The cottages are basically in the exact same place as the main hotel rooms.  For convenience, definitely get a ground floor room, not a second floor room.  The ground floor rooms have back patio doors so getting your gear and cameras out of the room and to the diving area/boat area is far easier than having to navigate the extra 100 yards and stairs to a second floor room. 

I wish that there was an alternative to the Big Game Lodge for lodgings on Bimini.  When I arrived, I was the last person, since I had stayed back at the airport to make sure that our bags were reported missing.  (As a former trip leader, I do these things even when I am not leading a trip).  Once I got to the Lodge, everyone else had checked into their rooms, and I was told that there were no ground floor room and my second floor room would not be ready until 3pm.  This was noon.  I wandered around, checked my room, saw that it was still not ready at 3pm, and then went back and asked for a ground room again.  Voila!  Miraculously, now, they had plenty of ground floor rooms available.  I would have been most unhappy with a second floor room. 

I booked my room at the Big Game Lodge six months earlier.  When I checked out, I discovered that they are now imposing a $35 per night “resort fee” which is ridiculous.  Their room rates are increasing as well.  All this means is that you will be paying an exorbitant $200 or so per night for a very basic hotel room.  At least the internet worked pretty well. 

Maybe there is an alternative to Bimini to see great hammerhead sharks consistently, somewhere?  At this point, I'd rather not have to go back to Bimini for a number of reasons. It was a real hassle to get to because the airline is so unreliable.  Silver left most of group's luggage so I had only a GoPro for the one and only day of diving.  The Fast Ferry, from what I gathered, is not reliable also.  The hotels in the FLL and Miami area were all booked up and super-expensive -- I think because of the Miami Boat Show and because February is a high month for folks going out on cruise ships.  These days, if you can’t rely on your island airline to get you back in time for your flight home, you are in deep sh*t because you forfeit your space and dollars on  your flight home and rebooking will cost you all the more hassle, less choice on seats, and more dollars for the last-minute booking.  All bad. 

Lastly, I'd should mention that when I got back home, I called Silver Airways and cancelled the flight back that I had with them later that week.  I told them the reasons why I did not wish to take that upcoming flight, and the agent immediately refunded my ticket cost.  I later wrote Silver Airways and asked that they refund my checked baggage fee, since the bags arrived late.  They never replied.  I disputed the charge with my credit card company, and after a few weeks, the credit card company refunded my account for this $25.  Small amount but a satisfying outcome. 


A Good Deal on Buying American Airline Miles

To my fellow travelers:

Don't feel obliged to read the nerdy, long airline frequent flyer notes below.  But you might find it interesting if you fly a lot.

American Airlines is selling miles in what seems like a pretty good deal.  The best deal is 160,000 miles for $2950.  Another good deal is 110,000 for $2065.  Both come out below 2 cents per mile.

The website where you can buy these miles and bonus miles is (deadline April 30, 2015):

https://buymiles.aa.com/en/buygift?c=SOLO_EML_EN,US_BUY


Some background:

A couple of years ago, my travel agent recommended that I buy American miles that were on sale (80K miles for $1800).  I bought some but was always a bit confused why these would be a good deal.  I kept pestering my agent, and he said that buying those miles would be a good deal in some cases, not such a great deal in some cases.

I've only recently started using my United miles for award travel (eg buying a ticket outright using only miles).  I've always hoarded miles and already had a lot of them.  I'd usually try to use my miles to upgrade to biz class (buy a coach ticket and use the miles to upgrade).  That way I'd pay for a coach ticket and get the FF miles for flying along with the elite miles towards elite status.  In years past, this was a good deal.  I'd travel from SFO to New York for $300 in biz class, using perhaps 20K miles to upgrade the $300 coach ticket (both legs) to biz class.  Using miles to simply purchase an award ticket seemed wasteful.

In the past years, the rules have changed.  United now charges a cash fee along with miles if you manage to get an upgradeable coach ticket.  For example, I booked a flight to Shanghai in the fall, and the coach ticket cost something like $1200.  I would have had to use something like 50K miles each way to upgrade, and pay something like $600 each way.  When I totaled up all the costs, the resulting upgraded ticket cost almost the same as paying cash for a biz class seat (I estimated miles to cost about two cents per mile).  United has basically taken away any discount in upgrading using miles.  You pay the equivalent in miles and cash.

This year I found that it was difficult to find a decent coach fare back from Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) in February.  I looked into buying a United ticket using miles, and their website was surprisingly easy to use and book award travel with.  I booked an award ticket in biz class that was not a bad deal (about the equivalent of $700), considering the one way coach ticket cost $650.  I got back to FLL early and was able to cancel the existing award ticket with no fee and replace it with a last-minute Saver award ticket that was equivalent to paying $250 or so.  I was pretty happy about the whole thing -- being able to cancel an existing flight with little to no cancellation or change fee and booking a last-minute new flight at a reasonable price -- and actually felt that being an elite member with United had paid off.

It's a big game, but I think that if you can buy miles at less than $0.02 per mile, it's a decent deal.  If you buy the maximum miles in the AA deal being offered now, the miles cost as low as I've seen since my travel agent alerted me of the possibilities in 2011.  The miles are about 1.84 cents per mile. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Science increasingly must make its most important cases to nonscientists"

I wrote earlier that I was tired of seeing so many tags on just about every animal in the sea.

Grant Johnson wrote:
"...Regarding the tags, just recently, the Great Hammerhead missed being protected under the Endangered Species Act in large part because data on the species is "severely lacking." Objectively speaking, what is more likely to result in better protections for this species, thorough data on their life history, habitat usage, and migrations, or beautiful photographs and videos of unmarked individuals? I think it is the former.

"No disrespect intended, I just find this divide between researchers and divers to be very bizarre when the ultimate goal of both groups is often so similar.  "

His complete comment is in the original blog post, below.
I, too, find the "divide between researchers and divers" to be bizarre.  But it's not all the public's fault.   Scientists know that they are terrible at publicizing science, but I've been involved in Pew meetings where the researchers sit around and complain endlessly about being misquoted by the popular press; and then complained that they did not have the time to talk to the media.  Many scientists who talk to the media are indeed misquoted, their explanations simplified -- but that's part of getting the message out.  Their peers often vilify scientists who try to get the word out to the popular media.

Mr. Johnson's attitude, that research studies are more important than images and video of animals, is undoubtedly shared by most scientists.  I tend to disagree with his attitude, but I have no doubt that the vast majority of researchers believe that their work and research is far more important than getting the word out to the popular media.

In fact, I vehemently disagree.  I'm a member of that popular media -- and the "general public" -- and believe that the films and photographs that wildlife photographers, filmmakers, and writers have produced have been vastly important to the movement to save the marine environment and marine species.  Ideally scientists and the media can work together, but given the disdain that scientists have for the media and general public, I don't see that scientists can complain when their work is misinterpreted.

As a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, one of the things that I wanted to photograph was shrimp farms.  It was just me, a single and lowly photographer.  I went to Thailand and other places in Asia and finally got some folks to show me around; most of the folks involved in the business did not want to help me since they did not want to be portrayed in a negative light.  It was depressing work, and I asked for help from folks in the Pew program.  The impression I got after attending a couple of meetings of these eminent scientists was that the talk was mostly about who was boning who -- just like high school.  The last straw was when I learned that there was a field trip to head out to some shrimp farms -- and the Pew person in charge of connecting scientists to the media had not thought to invite me -- even though I had asked her for help several times.  She was far more interested in whispering with another female scientist about her love life, which seemed to be blossoming during one of these meetings, with a famous male scientist who was a popular media darling at the time.  

When my fellowship ended, I wrote the program the letter below.

Sometime in 2004:
Dear Pew Fellows:

I am writing this to a few of you who seem to have an interest in working with the popular media to get marine conservation messages out. 

The overwhelming messages that I heard at the recent Pew Fellows meeting were:
1.  Things are getting worse, not better. 
2.  Scientists need to get their message out. 
3.  Scientists are terrible about getting their messsage out.  They need help. 

If the Pew Fellows program is serious about solving marine conservation problems and recognizes that the popular media is an important part of the solution, then it needs to enlist the help of the popular media in a fundamental and integral way.  It needs to marshal the expertise of the few Pew Fellows that have experience or interest in working with the popular media.  It needs to enlist the participation of freelance filmmakers,  photographers, writers, film producers, directors, and programming executives.  It has to extend its effort well beyond the selection of scientists who are understandably absorbed in their culture and their areas of expertise and cannot direct their attention and energy to effective communication in the media.

The Pew program and its Fellows need to develop a mutual working respect for those in the popular media.  Perhaps most importantly, it needs to recognize that getting stories in the popular media takes a professional, committed, time-consuming approach.  Getting the message out will not be effective if  delegated to "afternoons after I've finished my morning writing."  The Pew program needs to fund and support those Fellows who can tell or present media stories, and the Pew Program should make "getting the message out" a top priority.

Here's an example.  A recent article in Time magazine discusses how the hit CBS drama, CSI, has dramatized and popularized forensic science.  Forensic scientists are rolling their eyes about the dramatic license taken in the series, but this show has increased awareness of forensic science.  Forensic science schools report a dramatic increase in interest and enrollment.  This is part of what we need: a new series about the oceans, with compelling characters.  The series will certainly will hype and over-dramatize science. 

Any scientist watching such a series will roll their eyes and cringe in embarassment, as DNA is analyzed in minutes rather than weeks, and the characters encounter adventure after adventure and make definitive statements like "the bluefin tuna fishery is crashing!" rather than "if we look at the attached reports and graphs, there is a 90% probability that tuna stocks are in serious decline.  We recommend further study."

There needs to be a push to get marine science into all aspects of the popular media.  There should a computer simulation game called "SIM Coral Reef," just as there is a "SIM City."  There should be several television series on marine science, featuring buff women and men who would otherwise be on Baywatch, and having plots that are only a small cut above Baywatch (which was the world's most-watched series in its day).  We need to continue to preach to the converted, continue to hook up scientists with the media, but we need to take a far more proactive approach to getting our stories out in far more outlets.  We need to realize that we have compelling stories to tell and sell to the popular media.  The Pew program is ideally situated to help marine conservationists do this.  In my opinion, however, it has failed miserably and spectacularly so far in getting any kind of message out to the masses. 

I could say a lot more, but this is sufficient for an initial communication.  I am happy to discuss these issues and ideas with anyone.

As a final note:  At the end of my Pew project, I anticipate having a library of still images (probably 700 "prime" images) and 60 hours of high-definition television footage depicting good and bad marine scenes.  I am seeking funding or some way to administer this library of images.  If any of you know of entities that might be interested in working with me to obtain funding to administer this library, I'd like to hear about them.  I and Larry Minden at Minden Pictures (the world's best natural history picture agency, representing photographers like Frans Lanting, Jim Brandenburg, Flip Nicklin, Mark Moffett, and others) agree on the need to develop an infrastructure to post and administer high quality images on the web for use by nonprofits and other entities.  We have experience running photo licensing businesses and know the amount of work and the intricacies of running such a business.  We are the people to make this sort of thing happen.  We just need the funding in order to make a library of images available to nonprofits, among other things. 

Norb

Norbert Wu
----------------------------------------
Norbert Wu Productions
www.norbertwu.com

A web gallery of some of the images that resulted from my Pew fellowship can be seen at:
http://www.norbertwu.com/galleries/pew-web/index.html


Lastly, the June 2010 issue of WIRED magazine had a great commentary on this issue:
http://www.wired.com/2010/05/st_essay_sciencepr/

...
“Scientists hate the word spin. They get bent out of shape by the concept that they should frame their message,” says Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences program that helps connect the entertainment industry with technical consultants. “They feel that the facts should speak for themselves. They’re not wrong; they’re just not realistic.” By and large, Dash says, “scientists have withdrawn from the sphere of public culture. They have contempt for the lighthearted fun of communication.”

It didn’t even occur to the AAAS panelists that someone might find that here’s-the-data-we’re-right attitude patronizing—and worthy of skepticism. “Until scientists realize they need us, we can’t help them,” Bush says. “They have to wake up and say: ‘I recognize it’s not working, and I’m willing to listen to you.’ It’s got to start there.” Science increasingly must make its most important cases to nonscientists—not just about climate but also evolution, health care, and vaccine safety. And in all of those fields, the science has proven to be incapable of speaking for itself. It’s time for those with true passion to get over the stigma, stand up, and start telling their stories.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Is Tagging of Wildlife Always Justified? What If Tagging Studies Disturb Animals So Much That They Die or Leave Their Nests?


I wrote in a previous post that I had seen great hammerhead sharks at Bimini with tags all over them.  I wrote:

The older hammerhead sharks all had numerous tags on them; one or two had 4" squares of flesh ripped off behind their dorsal, probably from "researchers" who had caught them and glued tags on them, which then ripped off. I used to study marine biology, even was in the PhD program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. But I am now sickened and opposed to the constant, unending tagging of large marine animals.


I went through my video footage and have posted a couple of frame grabs showing one of the sharks.  I wish I had a better shot of the wound of the shark, looking down on it.





Since that post, I've received a few comments from researchers. 


Here's the comment from 182436hike:
"the shark he is talking about is an animal we have known for a year it has a nasty patch on his back. This animal was only tagged with a Casey external national marine fisheries service tag. That would never have produced such a mark. My guess is prop scar turned bad due to shark suckers. I guess this guy had no idea great hammers are endangered and the station founded the (dive) site."


Here are my thoughts on this comment: 
The open wound on the shark was rectangular, with straight edges.  I have strong doubts that a prop would have caused such a rectangular wound, with such straight edges.  As for the comment that the station found the dive site -- great, but what does that have to do with the issue of tagging and this rectangular wound?  Same with the issue of great hammers being endangered.  OK, so great hammers are endangered.  Does that mean they need to get stuck with three or more tags?  There's really no other way to count and identify them?  What about photo studies, like Rachel Graham suggests (her comment below). 

I  always hear researchers say things like "the only way we can get rid of lionfish in the Caribbean is by studying them."  Really?  I doubt that any amount of study of the lionfish population in the Caribbean is going to stop their spread.  If you really want to get rid of all lionfish in the Caribbean, then just put out the word that they taste great and they will help with erections, cure cancer, etc to the 1.3 billion people in China.  Those lionfish will be quickly exterminated, believe you me.  So will all the lionfish in the Pacific too.  Yes, I am of Chinese ancestry and yes, I am opposed to shark fin soup as well as a lot of other things.  


As for tagging: Like anything else, too much of something can make that -- not a good thing. My strong opinion is that there's been too much tagging now.  The acclaimed underwater filmmaker, photographer, and writer  Howard Hall wrote a good piece about the subject of tagging at:

 http://wetpixel.com/articles/howard-hall-tagging-a-celebration-of-science

Here's the concluding paragraph and a later comment from Mr. Hall after his article:

"A post-graduate credential often qualifies marine biologists for permits allowing the tagging of endangered animals as well as species in marine protected areas. As sport divers we generally celebrate these programs and accept the damage done to wildlife as a justified sacrifice in an effort to conserve ocean habitat and species. And I am sure many of these programs are critical in that regard. But I also suggest that, as members of the sport diving community, our acceptance should not be blind."

"Thanks for all your comments. After forty years watching the decline of wildlife in our oceans, this particular hypocrisy has become especially irritating for me. I read the report Melvin mentions about sea lions targeting salmon that are tagged with transmitters. An unforeseen consequence of tagging. And I would love for Tony to write about humpback fatalities due to tags. That should get the blood pumping. And it is great to hear the Rachel has moved from tags to photo IDs.
I'm presently at Tiger Beach. Earlier this year researchers caught and landed over forty tiger sharks, cut them open, and installed transmitters in their peritoneal cavities. A few of these sharks still come back to Tiger beach and you can see the stitched up incisions. Other sharks have disgustingly infested holes in their dorsal fins from bolt tags implanted years before. Just lovely."

Back to my thoughts: 
Tagging of marine life has reached ridiculous levels. I've seen images of researchers fishing and landing great white and tiger sharks, then lifting them on small boats to tag and otherwise manhandle them -- in the name of science. Who knows how many of these animals die after being so severely stressed? 

A bird biologist told me a story about researchers counting roseate spoonbill nests in Florida. Roseate spoonbills suffer from reduced/changed habitat. They are easily stressed and will leave their nesting areas. Researchers are concerned about their population. A study was proposed and funded, and researchers studied a population in one roosting area by rousting the birds off their nests, banding the parents, counting eggs and chicks, etc. They stressed the birds so much (not hard to do at all) that all the birds left the nesting area, their nests, and their eggs and chicks. In the name of science, these researchers managed to very quickly destroy one of the few remaining roosting sites preferred by these roseate spoonbills.

I am not a bird expert so some of my facts may be off-course, but I believe the basic premise that researchers disturbed a bird species enough that they left an uncommon nesting site. Here's what I found from a quick read of Audubon's archives:

http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/birds/birds0107.html

"But a great many nests have failed on the other keys. Since the late 1970s spoonbills in the bay have re-nested if things have gone wrong, and I see signs that some failed nesters have moved over here to try again. Let's hope."
Attempts by many of the bay's breeding pairs to nest or re-nest often fail, as (despite Lorenz's hopes) they did this spring. 


Here's the more reasoned comment, from Sean:
Anonymous Sean said...
Your blog post seems to have made its way around, and unfortunately not for the better. I'd like to make a few comments. Bimini is like most of the other Bahamian Out Islands. It can be frustrating coming and going at times but those of us used to traveling here have very few issues. It isn't like traveling to Nassau (as you've mentioned) or Freeport. They don't land 747s here and I think that is a great thing. The real Bahamas are places like Bimini, Cat Island, Andros, etc. Not exactly remote, but not exactly urban centers either. Bimini is easy to travel to, situated just 48 miles from Miami and 52 miles from Fort Lauderdale, you can come over by boat in a few hrs with good weather. Something you can't easily do in Nassau. Besides Florida, you can also catch flights daily from Nassau on Western Air or Sky Bahamas. I highly recommend this option. With a 9am flight and a 4pm flight on Western you can often travel from home to Bimini in the same day. Flamingo Air makes daily trips from Freeport making it another travel option. In reality Bimini is one of the easier islands to come and go from, by boat or plane. You just have to know where to look or have guides that actually know the islands.

...snip...

You mentioned that you were in a PhD program. I would expect someone with your education to research something before posting utter nonsense. I hate to say this but many of us got a good chuckle out of your comment. We all know exactly the shark you are talking about, or at least a couple that fit your description. The holes you are referring to are clearly bite marks from other sharks. They have been well documented this year and there are many pictures of them in various stages of healing. There are no tags being placed by "researchers" that are being glued on their backs. The actual tags have been placed by the Bimini Biological Field Station (SharkLab), who are the ones responsible for discovering this amazing site. They do this in the water, free diving, so as to not have to physically catch these relatively delicate animals. They have been placing tags on these animals long before any commercial dive boat came to Bimini. Thankfully many of the boats and divers support the research efforts. A number of them donate to the lab and have even purchased tags. One dive boat provides all the dive gear for the Shark Lab to deploy and collect the array of underwater receivers that is listening for and recording the presence of these animals.

The PEW Trust and BNT were both driving forces behind creating the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary and both support the Shark Lab. PEW just held an important shark meeting at the Big Game Club, because of the Shark Lab's role here in Bimini. It involved other Caribbean nation governments in the initial stages of a push to widen the protection of sharks from the Bahamas to a larger Caribbean wide area. International agreements like CITES, which we all hailed as a success with their recent additions, including hammerheads, rely heavily on scientific information and stock assessments. Without this information species listings are doomed to fail. It would be nice to see more people like you support the research efforts, especially in this case as you are diving in an established research site. I understand that the tags are often unsightly and I can respect that as an amateur underwater enthusiast myself, but there are bigger issues out there then your own personal images. I have no issue photoshopping out tags (and sometimes I do) so I would think someone of your reputation would be vastly better than I.

My comments:
Sean, thanks for the suggestions on how to travel to Bimini.  For some reason, everyone I spoke to recommended Silver Airlines as the best way to get to Bimini.

I am always happy to provide amusement.  But I don't believe that such a rectangular wound was caused by bite marks.  Are you sure that other researchers have not been pulling "your" sharks out of the water and gluing stuff on them?

As for photoshopping out tags, I am incredibly unskilled at using Photoshop.  I spend enough time at the computer already, and have never found the time to become very good at using Photoshop.

I was a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation about 10 years ago, and I met many of the folks who are now involved in policy-making.   Therefore I understand the importance of research efforts and stock assessments, but I don't agree that tagging and intrusive methods are always the best way to do such research.

Rachel Graham has a relevant comment after the Howard Hall article.  Here it is:

Excellent article Howard. Thank you. As I incorporate tagging into my research I always ask myself if the tagging is necessary to advance our understanding of the species or its conservation. In the case of whale sharks, I started out using conventional tags in 1999 but realised after 3 years that the tags often got fouled and broke and therefore were useless for inter-annual population and even long term migration or site fidelity studies. Around 2002-2003 the unique fingerprint of its patterns of dots was clearly providing an alternative to conventional tagging ( I had started taking ID shots in 98) and I stopped all conventional tagging thereafter and focused primarily on satellite/acoustic tags to provide information that the spot patterns could not provide, e.g. behavioural, migratory, environmental preferences. The knowledge gleaned from the tagging gave us incredible insights into whale shark movement patterns, environmental preferences, site fidelity, population size and more that underpinned management and conservation strategies necessary in the context of a burgeoning tourism. I agree that tagging has its place but there must be a strong justification for using it and only if it will provide key information for conservation that non-invasive methods cannot provide.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Great Hammerhead Shark Video Clip, Bimini, Bahamas

I just returned from a grueling trip to Bimini, Bahamas.  Bimini is the closest of the Bahamas Islands to the US.  It is only 60 miles from Miami.  Ironically, it's the most goddamn difficult island of the Bahamas that I've had to get to.  I've flown to Nassau in one day, filmed scenes for a commercial the next day, and flown all the way back home from Nassau on the third day, easily and without stress.  This trip was nowhere near as easy.  It was one of the most stressful trips I've had to take, because these days, if you miss your connection, you are sh** out of luck with the airlines and have to find a way home by relying on the largesse and professionalism of the airline that is supposed to fly you back. 

There is no reliable way to get to and from Bimini.  I'll write more, but I wanted to post a clip today.  I finally got back to my home today after three days of planes, ferries, and automobiles.  More on that later.  Here's a clip:

video


I was scheduled to dive with great hammerhead sharks for five days, but the trip was cut short by weather.  So I had one day of diving with these spectacular animals.  I got to Bimini on Saturday afternoon, flying Silver Airlines from Fort Lauderdale.  Unfortunately, most folks' checked luggage did not arrive with the flight.  (Silver Airlines had not made their scheduled flights for the three days before Saturday.  The small plane was packed with folks who had been stuck at the airport, literally, since Wednesday.  One couple on our trip had been forced to sleep overnight at the FLL airport because there were absolutely no hotels available anywhere within a 100 mile radius or more).

I therefore only had my GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition camera.  I had never used it underwater before -- just for surf videos and stills, and aerials with my drone.  I had no lights.  I had no way to hold the housing well.  But the next day we went out, and the sharks were there.  The good folks leading the trip let me dive with loaner gear but did not have any wetsuits, so I dove with just running shorts (sorry, everyone on the dive -- you saw my very large gut).

I am impressed with the GoPro footage.  This clip was shot at 1080 frames at 60p.  I then conformed it to 23.98 fps, so it is slowed down a bit.  These sharks are spectacular, very cool to see.

Thanks to Joe Romeiro and Bill Fisher of 333 Productions for organizing the trip, to Mike Black and Jamin Martinelli for working so hard for our group of divers (doing EVERYTHING needed), and the Bimini Big Game Lodge for being so understanding when we got weathered out.  And hey, I have to thank United Airlines for getting me back home relatively easily when my plans changed.  I usually complain about airlines, but United Airlines did good.

A last note:
I just saw on Facebook that our trip leader, Mike Black, a terrific and gentle guy, got beat up in Bimini a day after seeing most of our group off the island. If he got beat up by thugs sent by the competition, then that is really monstrous, vile, and shocking.  He may have voiced opposition to the tagging of these sharks. 

The older hammerhead sharks all had numerous tags on them; one or two had 4" squares of flesh ripped off behind their dorsal, probably from "researchers" who had caught them and glued tags on them, which then ripped off. I used to study marine biology, even was in the PhD program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. But I am now sickened and opposed to the constant, unending tagging of large marine animals.


Update 3-3-15: I've received a few comments from researchers.  One of the comments was the usual stuff that you get from any researcher who feels offended or disagrees with something you say.  "You're ignorant, you're an idiot, you are not qualified to say anything, etc."  

Another comment was actually more reasoned.  When I have the time, I'll post the comment and my answers.  Sean, if you read this, please send me your email address so that we can communicate directly and privately. 

As for tagging: Like anything else, too much of something can make that -- not a good thing. My strong opinion is that there's been too much tagging now. My friend and mentor Howard Hall wrote a good piece about the subject of tagging at:

 http://wetpixel.com/articles/howard-hall-tagging-a-celebration-of-science

Here's the concluding paragraph and a later comment from Howard after his article:
"A post-graduate credential often qualifies marine biologists for permits allowing the tagging of endangered animals as well as species in marine protected areas. As sport divers we generally celebrate these programs and accept the damage done to wildlife as a justified sacrifice in an effort to conserve ocean habitat and species. And I am sure many of these programs are critical in that regard. But I also suggest that, as members of the sport diving community, our acceptance should not be blind."

"Thanks for all your comments. After forty years watching the decline of wildlife in our oceans, this particular hypocrisy has become especially irritating for me. I read the report Melvin mentions about sea lions targeting salmon that are tagged with transmitters. An unforeseen consequence of tagging. And I would love for Tony to write about humpback fatalities due to tags. That should get the blood pumping. And it is great to hear the Rachel has moved from tags to photo IDs.
I'm presently at Tiger Beach. Earlier this year researchers caught and landed over forty tiger sharks, cut them open, and installed transmitters in their peritoneal cavities. A few of these sharks still come back to Tiger beach and you can see the stitched up incisions. Other sharks have disgustingly infested holes in their dorsal fins from bolt tags implanted years before. Just lovely."

Back to my thoughts: 
Tagging of marine life has reached ridiculous levels. I've seen images of researchers fishing and landing great white and tiger sharks, then lifting them on small boats to tag and otherwise manhandle them -- in the name of science. Who knows how many of these animals die after being so severely stressed? 
A bird biologist told me a story about researchers counting roseate spoonbill nests in Florida. Roseate spoonbills suffer from reduced/changed habitat. They are easily stressed and will leave their nesting areas. Researchers are concerned about their population. A study was proposed and funded, and researchers studied a population in one roosting area by rousting the birds off their nests, banding the parents, counting eggs and chicks, etc. They stressed the birds so much (not hard to do at all) that all the birds left the nesting area, their nests, and their eggs and chicks. In the name of science, these researchers managed to very quickly destroy one of the few remaining roosting sites preferred by these roseate spoonbills.

I am not a bird expert so some of my facts may be off-course, but I believe the basic premise that researchers disturbed a bird species enough that they left an uncommon nesting site. Here's what I found from a quick read of Audubon's archives:

http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/birds/birds0107.html

"But a great many nests have failed on the other keys. Since the late 1970s spoonbills in the bay have re-nested if things have gone wrong, and I see signs that some failed nesters have moved over here to try again. Let's hope."
Attempts by many of the bay's breeding pairs to nest or re-nest often fail, as (despite Lorenz's hopes) they did this spring.




Friday, February 20, 2015

Thumbs Up to Uber

I am not an early adopter, but I've been hearing from friends that Uber is great (another app that I like very much and was recently introduced to is Waze).

I gave Uber a try when our cruise ship (well, it was really a ferry gussied up as a cruise ship) docked in the Port of Miami from Bimini.  A fellow passenger and I took a cab from the port to the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami, about one mile away, to pick up rental cars.  The cab driver was surly, never looked at us, grunted at us when we said hi, and then he lied to us -- twice.  The first lie was that he had to take the long way around to the hotel, adding $6 to the $12 fare, because the streets were one-way (I was using Waze so could see that he was taking a long way to reach the destination).  The second lie was when I tried to pay with my credit card.  His cab had a credit card reader in the back, but when I asked if I could use my credit card, he said that the machine was not working.   We ended up paying the cab driver about $15 (thanks, Steve, since I had no cash). 

I had to go back to the Port of Miami and pick up my gear, then get a ride from there back to the same Intercontinental Hotel.   This time I used Uber.  The experience was surprisingly and refreshingly pleasant.  A woman pulled up in a Toyota Sienna; she seemed like a housewife type and was friendly and nice.  I could track her car (Uber gives the time away and the description of the vehicle, as well as the driver's name) as she approached me at my pickup spot, and she called me to confirm where I was and what I looked like.  I did not need to do anything other than use the Uber app to give my destination.  She showed me the right way to get to the hotel, so it took half the time to get there as the cab driver and the cost was $5.  Half the time and half the cost of the cab, and a pleasant experience versus the typical ill-mannered taxi event.   Icing on the cake: I did not have to pull out my wallet and pay cash.  I had already registered my credit card with Uber so I just had to rate the driver and leave. 

I've heard that Uber is ultra-competitive and has used some dirty business practices.  Here's a link that describes some of these dirty business practices:
http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/uber-dirty-tactics-expose-pains-for-sharing-economy

However, my one experience with Uber has been great.  I expect to use them again.  I would do almost anything to avoid having to use a cab.  I don't want to make generalizations, but the cab business and many taxi drivers have crappy attitudes that I just don't need to put up with.

Here are a couple of examples:
1.  I learned this lesson a long time ago.  I was young, poor, and had gone to an Our World-Underwater meeting at a Hyatt in Chicago.  I had a couple of suitcases without wheels (those were the days before wheeled luggage was invented), and I needed a ride from the Hyatt to the subway, about four blocks away.  Not knowing what was going on, I went out a door of the hotel (accidentally at the back of the line of cabs) and kept asking for a ride from each cab in the line.  Each and every cab driver shook their head, yelled at me, and pointed ahead, at what looked like the next car.  Being utterly naive, I thought that the drivers all wanted me to go to the cabs in front of them.  (I also have a hearing disability, so often I can't understand what people are saying).

It turns out that the cab industry has a rule that it's developed, that I ran up against.  I am sure that it works for them, but it sure worked against me that day.  After dragging my bags up the line of cabs and being yelled at continuously up the line, I finally got into the cab at the front of the line.  The driver asked me where I wanted to go, and when I told him that I wanted to go just four blocks to the subway station, he exploded, screaming at me.  He screamed at me for the entire ride.  I actually had no clue what he was mad about.  It wasn't until a few years later that someone was talking about a similar situation, and I figured out what had happened.

What had happened, of course, is obvious now.  The cab drivers at that hotel had their own rule -- they formed a line and no hotel guest could get into any cab other than the one at the front.  The guy at the front may have been waiting there for an hour, only to get a crappy four-block fare from me rather than a nice fare to the airport.

I still feel sorry about the situation, but I would have been happy to get in the back of the cab line rather the front.  As it was, I still remember my confusion and the hassle of trying to get into cabs and then being bitched at over and over again, dragging my bags to another and yet another cab.

2.  This happened for years but seems to have been solved (thanks, Monterey Airport Commission): Whenever I arrived home at the Monterey airport, the taxi drivers there had parked right in the crosswalk where folks coming out of baggage claim had to exit.  I always had lots of bags, and in those early days, I dragged around three coolers (without wheels) most of the time.  If someone was picking me up, the taxis blocked access to the crosswalk and often took up the spots nearest to  the baggage claim exit, so I had to walk around them with my coolers after every trip.  I was exhausted after my trips, and this was really the last straw.  If I had the gall to say something to these cab drivers, they would immediately start screaming and yelling -- very hostile and mannerless people.


Uber, you have a good product.  I hope you do well and that you realize that customers like polite companies that play fair and have good manners, as opposed to the taxi drivers that you are competing with.