William Winram and The Watermen Project made an expedition to the Revillagigedo Archipelago to assist in scientific research of the pelagic marine animals in the area.
The Revillagigedo Archipelago is a diving paradise. A remote island chain made up of four islands—San Benedicto, Roca Partida, Socorro and Clarion—the Revillagigedo Islands are colloquially known as ‘Mexico’s Little Galapagos’ for their remarkable abundance of marine life. Located over 400 kilometers (250 miles) southwest of Cabo San Lucas, on the southernmost tip of the Baja peninsula, the journey can be harrowing. But those who grit down and bear it are rewarded with an oceanic utopia filled with a plethora of pelagic species. On any given day one can spot countless species of fish, manta rays, sharks, dolphins or even whales.
The fact that the surrounding waters are a magnet for the largest pelagic marine animals is one of the reasons why it was chosen as the destination for an expedition by The Watermen Project, which took place from December 18th to 26th, 2016. Led by William Winram, the champion freediver-turned-ocean conservationist and Deepblu Brand Ambassador, the expedition sought to contribute to scientific research of the marine animals in the area.
The Hammerhead Expedition
For the December 2016 expedition, The Watermen Project was supporting the research of Pelagios Kakunja, a Mexican ocean conservation organization led by Dr. Mauricio Hojos. Pelagios Kakunja focuses its research on sharks to “generate information for regional management of marine protected areas and the implementation of conservation strategies,” according to its website.
While dubbed a hammerhead expedition, the actual objective was multi-pronged.First, the team wanted to place tracking tags on female specimen of the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark, allowing scientists to track their migratory patterns to help inform conservation policy.The second scientific objective was to take biopsy samples and photographs of giant oceanic manta rays for use in genetic research and identification efforts.
The Watermen Project team was made up of Winram, three freediving instructors who have trained under Winram in the past, and three members of the Young Ambassador Program, which was created to provide mentoring and instruction to young scientists interested in using freediving to contribute to ocean conservation and scientific research.
To help with the funding for the trip, several eco-tourists were invited to join as well, whose fees helped to fund the excursion. In exchange, the participants observed the research activities, had their own opportunities to scuba dive and snorkel with the Watermen, and learned about the marine megafauna and other species they would encounter below.
Before setting sail for Revillagigedo, the Watermen team gathered in La Paz, Mexico for a pre-expedition training and teambuilding session. The Bay of La Paz serves as a feeding aggregation site for juvenile whale sharks and its calm waters made it a perfect location to gather the team members and refine their techniques before diving in the open ocean, where weather conditions such as current, waves, winds and visibility can be unpredictable.
Up close and personal with a whale shark at La Paz. Photo Credit: William Winram.
Winram took this opportunity to observe everyone in the water, making suggestions and adjustments to how they dive with an eye to correcting things that may become a liability in the rougher waters of the open Pacific. They practiced diving on a line to practice diving vertically and to warmup their bodies’ freediving reflex. According to Winram, it is extremely important that the divers use good technique when attempting to tag and photograph big animals up close because “noise and sudden movements can startle animals at depth.” He added, “a sloppy duck dive can make a lot of noise and scare an animal away, which is the last thing you want to happen when you are trying to get close enough to tag them.” Diving at La Paz was also allowed the divers to take pictures and shoot videos up close and personal with the whale sharks.
After five days of diving and training, the team made their way down to Cabo San Lucas, where they boarded the Nautilus Explorer, a liveaboard dive boat that would take them to their destination far off in the Pacific.
Hide-and-Seek with the Hammerheads
Over five days, the Watermen team dove at several different dive spots around the four islands in the archipelago, searching for female scalloped hammerhead sharks. Hammerheads are common visitors to the Revillagigedo area and they tend to travel in schools of 50 to 100 or more. The Pelagios Kakunja scientists were particularly interested in the migratory patterns of the female specimens near the end of the season.
The mission proved trying. When diving at the Boiler at San Benedicto Island, the team encountered poor visibility and an unpredictable current. A plan was hatched to have Young Ambassador Inka Cresswell scuba dive into better visibility where she could direct the other divers from below. On that dive Cresswell did not encounter any hammerheads but was paid a visit by a pod of dolphins.
Lots of dolphins and sharks engulfed them when while finning against the current around Socorro Island, but no hammerheads. At Roca Partida, a massive seamount that serves as a navigation stop for migratory species, they did spot hammerheads swimming below 40 meters, which complicated tagging efforts. While Winram is perfectly capable of diving and tagging at that depth, the problem was that the sharks were not schooling in one area. Instead, they were actively moving around the seamount. Ensuring a close encounter for Winram required luck; he must be diving in an area and at a depth where they happened to be swimming simultaneously.
Winram only got within tagging distance of a hammerhead three times after hundreds of dives. When he did encounter them, the next challenge became finding a female candidate to tag. Each time he got close, it turned out to be a male shark so he had to abandon the tag. “Frustrating but necessary,” Winram wrote in a Facebook post.
One of the reasons the sharks proved so elusive was the irregular current in the area. Sharks need current to breathe, and when the current is not consistently strong, they move around a lot to generate their own. “It’s the opposite of what happened on our expedition in 2013,” recalls Winram. “A strong current allowed me to dive to a cleaning station where sharks would continually swim to.” The team tagged ten sharks that year.
Moreover, the constant changing of diving locations posed a challenge for safety diver Philippe Beauchamp. “You constantly have to adapt to changing conditions: visibility, current, swell,” he said, “keeping your diver in sight under difficult conditions is very exhausting!”
Spotting Manta Spots
Even though the team did not tag any scalloped hammerheads, Winram still considers the expedition a success. For one thing, the manta ray leg of the project produced several accomplishments. During a second diving session at The Boiler, the team found conditions and visibility to have vastly improved. Hundreds of tuna fish and at least three giant oceanic manta rays came swimming by. The team managed to take several biopsy samples from the mantas and photographs.
The samples are being used for stable isotope and genetic analysis by Pelagios Kakunja. The photographs of the manta rays are contributing to global photo identification efforts, as the spots on the underside of a ray are unique for every specimen, which allows scientists to identify individual rays.
A manta ray and a waterman from above. Photo Credit: William Winram.
In addition, team members were able produce a rich collection of photographs and video footage, which can be used for promotional and educational purposes. “We were able to achieve all of our filming needs and now have a collection of 4K-quality film we can use to promote The Watermen Project’s programs and educate the general public,” said Cresswell. The content was used to create a series of short vlogs for social media and a short film to promote the research efforts of The Watermen Project.
For Beauchamp, the level of team spirit was one of the biggest successes. “I feel that we have a core group of incredibly committed and capable individuals and it makes me excited for future projects.” The expedition also was a worthwhile educational experience for the members of the Young Ambassador Program, offering them the opportunity to develop their freediving, photography and videography skills.
There will be many more expeditions to come, as The Watermen Project’s members continue their mission to use their breath-hold skills to contribute to scientific research and raise public awareness of ocean conservation issues.
By: Ryan Patrick Jones, Community Editor at Deepblu
About The Watermen Project:
The Watermen Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ocean conservation with a focus on sharks, whales and other big pelagic fish. In general, The Watermen Project supports all activity aimed at marine conservation. It contributes actively to scientific and empirical research which aims to study the marine environment for the purpose of protecting and conserving it, in order to preserve and improve its biodiversity. More specifically, all activity aiming at protecting all species of large marine animals, such as whales, sharks, etc.