Whale Shark Research Project

I haven’t actually gone into detail yet about what I’m doing here in La Paz.

The non-profit I volunteer for is called Whale Shark Research Project. The project is headed by Darren Whitehead and Manolo Gonzalez. Darren is from England and has been studying whale sharks around the world for close to 8 years. He just started his PhD program here in La Paz. Manolo is from Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, and got his master’s in marine biology in La Paz. He is a freediving instructor and our boat captain. The project is in its first year here with the main goal to promote conservation through scientific research and education.

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Whale Shark Research Project

My responsibilities as a volunteer include to taking ID photos of each side of the sharks, as well as injuries, and record behavior. The ID photos are the area behind the fifth gill before the pectoral fin. Once back in the office, I use these photos to create a fingerprint for the shark. Each shark has a unique pattern of spots and lines, similar to how our fingerprints are unique to us. I then run these photos in a database to see if it gets a match. I have to check all 50 results, and if I don’t find a match for either side, then it’s a new shark and I help name it. At the end of the season, all of our data will be sent to a global database who will track shark movements across the world.

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Whale Shark Research Project

The injury photographs go into a different database that at the end of the year will be turned over to the local authorities to show them what damage is being done to the sharks by boats who aren’t following the rules (speeding). From previous data, it’s been determined that 60% of the sharks that come into La Paz bay leave with some sort of injury. Some are natural – bites from sharks – but the overwhelming amount is damage from boats. The injuries I’ve seen are abrasions from bumping against boats, lacerations from running into a moving propeller or blunt force trauma from a boat hitting them at a high speed. One of the project’s goals for the year is to manufacture an engine cover so that if a shark or swimmer were to get to close, they would hit the flap instead of the propeller. Darren wants to get a grant to cover the cost and then would hand them out free of charge to all the boat captains.

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Whale Shark Research Project

Whenever the weather cooperates, we go out monitoring. We’ve only been out twice in the past week because the wind has been too high. I miss the sharks!! We typically go out 3-4 times a week, sometimes just to monitor and sometimes we take clients. When we have clients we’ll rent a bigger boat and local captain to give the money back to the community. The clients are typically environmentally-conscious as they pay more to come on a tour with us rather than pay a fisherman $20 on the boardwalk to take them out. We give a presentation on the project and conservation beforehand, then they are able to see research in action.

Our research boat

On days when it’s too windy to go out, we catch up on data entry, or plan activities like orphanage visits and beach clean ups. On free days, I’ve gone to the beach, taken a trip to Cabo, visited La Ventana, or go SUPing (I just joined a club). We inherited a furry friend a couple weeks ago that I usually take out on a long walk down the boardwalk or to the beach in the afternoons. I have yet to visit the sea lion colony at the island, but rest assured I will go before I leave!

Missing these flat days


Our furry friend Pepe

I found out about this opportunity last year while in Australia. I spent two weeks in Monkey Mia, where wild dolphins come to shore to feed. One of the rangers there, Angie, put me in touch with Darren.

If you or anyone you know are interested in volunteering, visit the website to learn more. You don’t need a degree or experience in marine biology to volunteer. The project is open to anyone who is interested (previous volunteers have been festival planners, chemists, pipe layers, etc). You do need to be comfortable being in the water with a 6-18 ft (2-6m) whale shark though!

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