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The Truth Behind the SeaWorld Orca Show “Ban”

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

On Monday, November 9, animal rights activists celebrated the light at the end of the tunnel for captive orcas as SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby announced the company’s intention to phase out theatrical killer whale shows at its California park. But while many media outlets have interpreted Manby’s statement as an eventual end to SeaWorld’s controversial orca shows, the truth behind the SeaWorld orca show “ban,” is not quite so hopeful.

In talks with the company’s investors, Manby stated that 2016 would be the final year of SeaWorld San Diego’s Shamu Stadium performances, in which captive orcas dive, jump and even beach themselves on command. But rather than ending captive orca shows altogether, the park is merely going to replace its traditional shows with a new orca experience that Manby promises will focus on the whales’ “natural environment.” The content of these new shows is as yet unclear, but one thing is certain — the change does not signify an end to the whales’ captivity, or even necessarily to their role as performers.

SeaWorld’s decision to change its orca shows is not the result of concern for the whales’ wellbeing. Instead, Manby admits that the change is in direct response to consumer criticism, and an attempt to mitigate the damage caused to the company’s reputation by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which focused on the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau after an incident involving one of the company’s captive whales. The documentary and continued fallout have been the source of major problems for the company. Since its release, SeaWorld stock has lost half of its market value, with attendance figures at the San Diego park dropping by 17 percent in the past year alone.

Orcas in captivity usually live in a barren environment.

Orcas in captivity usually live in a barren environment.

Although SeaWorld has dismissed the allegations of mistreatment presented by Blackfish as propaganda and emotional manipulation, the company is nevertheless attempting to clean up its image in order to stay afloat. In his talks with investors, Manby mentioned refocusing on conservation in an effort to re-brand the company and win back public favor. With the need for good PR rather than the desire for improved animal wellbeing as the motivation behind the new orca shows, it is difficult to believe that the orcas’ situation will significantly improve.

Manby states that the aim of the new shows is to be more “naturalistic,” citing guests’ desire for an orca experience that showcases “the activities the whales tend to do in the wild.” He points out that orcas “jump in the wild, and splash in the wild,” hinting that these behaviors may play a role in future shows. However, the reasons for which orcas breach, spy-hop or slap their pectorals in the wild are not the same reasons for which they perform these behaviors in captivity. Replicating “wild” activities in captivity is a contradiction in terms, especially as the orcas will return after each show to the very same holding pools that they live in today.

Jared Goodman, director of animal law for welfare organization PETA, summed the situation up succinctly, comparing SeaWorld’s latest move to “no longer whipping lions in a circus act, but keeping them locked inside cages for life.”

Blackfish is not the only thorn in SeaWorld’s side, nor the only factor behind Monday’s announcement. California lawmakers have also begun putting pressure on the San Diego park to end orca captivity. In 2014, State Assemblyman Richard Bloom proposed an Orca Welfare and Safety Act in California, the goal of which was to make it illegal to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance or entertainment purposes” within state boundaries. In the same year, SeaWorld San Diego applied to expand its orca environment, but was told by the California Coastal Commission that construction could only proceed if the park agreed to end its captive breeding program.

Earlier this month, California congressman Adam Schiff targeted SeaWorld directly, announcing his intent to introduce legislation that would force the San Diego park to end the captivity of orcas completely. Schiff greeted Manby’s recent announcement with limited enthusiasm, pointing out that “as long as SeaWorld holds orcas in captivity, the physical and psychological problems associated with their captivity will persist.” That the announcement was made in a direct attempt to alleviate the tide of opposition currently gaining momentum in California is made obvious by the fact that the changes will not be implemented at SeaWorld’s other parks. In Texas and Florida, orcas will continue to perform as they have done for years.

In reality, the changes lauded at the beginning of the week as a great victory for captive orcas are limited at best. The motives behind them are questionable, and yet, they may be a step in the right direction. SeaWorld has proved that public opinion carries real weight, and that the efforts of campaigners and politicians dedicated to captive-orca welfare are capable of reaping tangible results. As the tide continues to turn against captive cetacean shows, fewer people will support them. As financial gain was the motivation upon which the captive orca industry was built, financial loss — not a concern for animal welfare — may well be the cause of its demise.

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Dive Site: Kona, Hawaii

Sunday, November 8th, 2015

Hawaii’s Big Island is nothing short of a tropical paradise, from its golden beaches lined with swaying palms to its interior, lush with emerald volcanoes and plunging, frothy waterfalls. The district of Kona on the island’s western shore is particularly renowned amongst scuba divers for its spectacular dive sites. Here, clear blue seas and unique marine environments combine to offer divers encounters with some of the underwater world’s most sought-after creatures. From tiger sharks to humpback whales, from turtles to pods of spinner dolphins, Kona is home to an impressive array of big marine species, but its most famous resident is the manta ray. Manta diving off the Kona coast began in 1991, when local dive charters decided to capitalize on the fact that the rays were coming inshore to feed on the plankton attracted by the bright lights of coastal resorts. Since then, the Kona coast has maintained its reputation as one of the most reliable places in the world to see these magnificent animals. While divers can spot mantas on many of Kona’s dive sites, the manta-diving industry revolves around two specific spots that give divers the best possible chance to see the rays, either on scuba or as a snorkeler. Manta Village, located near the Sheraton Resort in Keauhou Bay and Manta Heaven, in Garden Eel Cove near the Kona International Airport offer divers a great chance for encounters.

The rays flock to each of these dive sites at night and, for the most part, the two sites offer much the same experience. Both are in shallow water just 25 to 35 feet (7 to 11 meters) deep, and both experiences use strobes after dark to illuminate the plankton in the water, which in turn attracts the mantas. The difference between the sites is the number of rays that attend the nightly feeding sessions, and the reliability of their appearance. At Manta Village divers can expect to see between one to five mantas on a single dive, whereas Manta Heaven has been known to attract schools of rays numbering over 30 individuals. However, Manta Village offers more reliable sightings, with mantas making an appearance on 90 percent of dives while no-shows are more frequent at Manta Heaven. Either site has the potential to deliver the experience of a lifetime. Typically, your manta adventure will begin at sunset, so that the sea is alive with all the refracted colors of the waning day as your dive boat makes its way to the drop point. As the sun goes down, you’ll be briefed and told to gear up so that when the last of the light fades away, you’re ready to enter the water. Both divers and snorkelers are equipped with a powerful dive light, and it is with these in hand that you take the plunge into the nighttime sea.

The ocean after dusk is a completely different place than the one we know during the day. The velvet blackness of the water around you is all encompassing, save for the glare of your torchlight and that of the divers around you, and the soft luminous glow of the light stick strapped to your cylinder. Everything seems magnified, the sound of your breathing rasping through your second stage, the sudden colors of the bioluminescent organisms in the darkness around you, the silvered gleam of your bubbles as they drift upwards towards the lights of the snorkelers at the surface. The dive site is shallow, so the descent is short. At the bottom, a ring of stones delineates the circle formation that you and your fellow divers will maintain throughout the dive. You settle onto your knees and shine your beam upwards as instructed by your dive guide, and the microscopic plankton upon which the mantas feed are illuminated like motes of dust caught in a sunbeam. You don’t have long to wait for a manta — within minutes the first, and then the second arrives on the scene, the whiteness of their bellies standing out in sharp contrast to the black water around them. They drift, arch and roll with effortless grace through the torchlight, sometimes only inches above your head.

Throughout the hour that you spend underwater, more and more of them join the ballet, which takes place in the pool of light illuminated by your torches. Although these are the smaller of the two manta species, these reef mantas are truly deserving of their reputation for hugeness. From wingtip to wingtip, many of the Kona mantas measure over 12 feet (3.5 meters), and to see them up close is unforgettable. It is also a true privilege, especially as this species is now classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Mantas have been protected in Hawaiian waters since 2009, and to support manta tourism there is to emphasize their value as an economic resource to other countries around the world. The Kona mantas are the subject of considerable research, which has identified over 200 individuals in the district’s waters. There is no peak manta season in Hawaii, meaning that you can encounter these incredible animals off Kona’s shores year round. All that’s left to do is book your trip.


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When Science Copies Nature

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

They say that practice makes perfect, and with millions of years of evolution under her belt, Mother Nature exemplifies that old adage. The natural world is brimming with examples of extraordinary adaptations, some of them so incredible that they must be seen to be believed. Nature’s genius continually provides inspiration for science and technology, and the practice of copying natural mechanisms and reproducing them synthetically is so commonplace that the term “biomimicry” was coined to refer to it. Biomimicry, or biomimetics, literally translates as the mimicry of life, and it has proved a useful tool for product developers in a wide range of industries. Inspiration can come from an almost limitless supply of natural sources, with biomimetic inventions including velcro, which copies the sticky pads that allow geckos to climb smooth walls; and the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train, which borrowed its aerodynamic shape from the beak of a kingfisher. The marine world has also proved to be a goldmine of inspiration for new inventions, all of which seek to give humans some of the advantages bestowed upon other animals. Here are three examples of how ocean creatures have influenced the way we live.


As befits the marine world’s apex predators, sharks possess many evolutionarily advantageous traits and characteristics. One such trait is their skin, made up of countless tiny, teeth-like structures known as dermal denticles. These denticles seamlessly overlap one another, and have tiny grooves that align with the flow of water past the shark’s body, making them masters of streamlined efficiency. This concept was the inspiration for a range of competitive swimsuits that reduced drag and therefore improved the user’s race times, and which proved so successful that they were banned after the 2008 Summer Olympics for giving competitors who wore them an unfair advantage.

Sharkskin has also inspired several other inventions, this time based on the inability of bacteria, algae and barnacles to attach to the skin’s rough surface. When researchers noticed that sharks remained free from such pests despite spending their whole lives in the water, they realized that if such a power could be harnessed, it could prove invaluable in increasing the efficiency of cargo ships and other ocean-going vessels. A film that reproduces a similar texture to the dermal denticles has now been developed for use on the hulls of ships to prevent them from fouling so easily, to reduce drag and to make them more fuel-efficient. The same concept has also been used to develop hospital surfaces, where the repellent nature of dermal-denticle technology helps to prevent the buildup of dangerous bacteria.

Humpback Whales

Like sharks, whales are magnificent examples of natural design. Some species are able to dive to depths of almost 9,850 feet/3,000 meters, while others can expand their mouths sufficiently to engulf a shoal of fish in its entirety. Product developers have found humpback whales’ irregular tubercles, which create a bumpy surface along the front edge of their large pectoral fins, most inspiring. According to a joint study conducted by scientists from Duke University, West Chester University and the U.S. Naval Academy, these tubercles considerably increase a humpback’s efficiency, helping to minimize drag by up to 32 percent. They also help to increase lift by a further 8 percent, perhaps explaining why humpbacks, as the only whale species to possess these pectoral tubercles, are also the most acrobatic of all their brethren despite averaging an astounding 79,000 pounds.

These observations have led to the use of tubercle technology in manmade products, ranging from industrial fans to surfboards. Renewable energy is perhaps the field in which the discovery has proved most valuable. By attaching mimicked nodules to wind-turbine blades, the turbines function with decreased noise and drag, with faster direction changes and with an increase in power output of up to 20 percent.

Peacock Mantis Shrimp

The amazing peacock mantis shrimp is surely one of nature’s most surreal creations, with its Technicolor appearance and a set of abilities that wouldn’t look out of place on a sci-fi super villain. Impressively for a creature that grows no bigger than 7 inches/18 centimeters, the peacock mantis is the inspiration for several advances in human technology. The first relates to its unique eyesight: whereas human eyes utilize three photoreceptors, peacock mantis shrimps have 16. They are also capable of detecting multispectral images, ultraviolet light, and circularly polarized light. This last ability in particular could influence the next generation of revolutionary hard drives and multimedia players, to which end scientists are currently trying to harness the mechanisms that enable the peacock mantis’ incredibly advanced eyesight.

The other peacock mantis trait currently inspiring biomimetic invention is its club, which it uses to strike and stun its prey. Despite its small size, the peacock mantis packs the most powerful punch in the animal kingdom — a blow from its club reaches speeds of over 50 miles per hour, and has an acceleration rate equivalent to that of a .22-caliber bullet. It is for this reason that this species is a problematic aquarium pet; the 1,500-Newton force generated from its club can shatter a glass tank. Incredibly, the peacock mantis’ club suffers no damage despite inflicting such powerful impacts approximately 50,000 times between molts and it’s this resilience that scientists are hoping to harness by copying the design of the club’s cell structure. If accomplished successfully, the mantis shrimp could be the inspiration for hi-tech car and airplane parts, and for military body armor that would not only be the strongest, but also the lightest yet invented.

There are many other instances of marine life influencing biomimetic products, including the ability of mussels to adhere to wet rock and the streamlined flight enabled by a manta ray’s wing structure. That cutting-edge science and technology so often looks to the ocean for inspiration is proof of how amazing the underwater world really is, and how lucky we as scuba divers are to be able to experience it firsthand.

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Dive Site: Cocos Island, Costa Rica

Friday, November 6th, 2015

As divers, we know that the ocean is home to some magnificent spectacles, and over time, some of them have become legend, immortalized by iconic images. One such image is that of thousands of scalloped hammerheads, their distinctive silhouettes tattooed against a rich background of endless blue as they move like shadows across the sun. For many divers, the splendor of schooling hammerheads like these is the holy grail of underwater spectacles, and once, they were not such a rare sight. But the relentless targeting of these sharks by the finning industry has pushed them to the brink of extinction. Listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, there are just a handful of places left in the world where divers can still see these magnificent animals in their natural environment. Of these, the most famous is a tiny volcanic island named Cocos, 340 miles off the western coast of Costa Rica. Accessible only by liveaboard charter, Cocos Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site recognized by Jacques Cousteau in 1994 as “the most beautiful island in the world.”

Protected as a marine park since 1978, Cocos is a significant center of biodiversity, both on land and beneath the waves. Its productive waters are home to at least 27 endemic fish species, while impressive shoals of large game fish including tuna and trevally represent a level of productivity seen in few other places on Earth. Cocos is most famous for its sharks, with regular sightings of Galapagos, tiger, silvertip, whitetip, silky and whale sharks awaiting those willing to make the 36-hour boat trip to the island. There is one sight above all others that draws divers here, though — the schooling hammerheads that have come to define the island’s diving. The hammerheads’ tendency to congregate at dive sites such as Baja Alcyone, Dirty Rock and Punta Maria is explained by Cocos’ underwater topography, which creates the perfect conditions for the sharks. The island drops away steeply into deep water, the depths punctured occasionally by dizzying submarine pinnacles. Perennially strong currents keep the visibility clear and help create upwellings of nutrient-rich water around these pinnacles; it’s here that divers can see the hammerheads, not singly or in pairs, but in the thousands.

The hammerheads come to the island’s pinnacles to feed, socialize and visit the cleaning stations at dive sites like Dirty Rock. Because of the strong currents, divers access most of the pinnacles via a shot line to keep them on target. At depths of over 100 feet (30m), the top of the pinnacle ridge is a world bathed in blue. This is frontier diving, in a place so untouched it’s easy to forget that elsewhere in the world fish are disappearing from the oceans and reefs are being destroyed. On days that the hammerheads don’t appear, there are plenty of other sights to see on the pinnacles, from winged squadrons of spotted eagle rays, to a silvered Galapagos shark cruising in the blue or a swirling, pulsating shoal of trevally suspended cloud-like over the reef. When the hammerheads do come out to play, all other distractions fade away until sheer wonderment at the sharks swirling above is all that’s left. When seen from below, the school seems to be made up of sharks upon sharks, endless layers of alien silhouettes filling the blue expanse. It’s that iconic image come to life, and in that moment it is hard to imagine anything more magnificent.

It is important to remember that Cocos Island dive sites are not for the faint-hearted, nor for the inexperienced. Strong currents, plunging depths and the close proximity of many of the world’s largest shark species can make for some intense dives. It is recommended that visitors have at least 25 hours of underwater experience, and due to the depth of most sites, divers must have completed a Deep Diver course in addition to their Open Water at the very least. Hammerheads can be seen year round at the island, although they occur in greater numbers during the Costa Rican wet season, which runs from June to October. The wet season typically coincides with rougher seas and can affect visibility, and yet the hammerheads favor this time of year for the elevated level of nutrients (and therefore prey fish) in the water. It is also possible, however, to see the hammerheads from November to May, when drier weather means calmer seas and better visibility. Whenever you choose to visit Cocos, one thing is for certain: you’ll never forget the thrill of witnessing one of Nature’s greatest spectacles unfold before you.

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Meeting The Penguins Of Boulders Beach

Friday, October 30th, 2015

 From a distance, Boulders Beach looks like any of the other, equally spectacular, inlets that dot South Africa’s Cape Peninsula. Its ivory sands and deceptively blue waters set a tropical scene that belies the Cape’s frigid water; it’s only as you near that you realize how unique this beach really is. The air is laced with the faint scent of bird guano, and a sound like the chattering of 1,000 gossiping women carries on the breeze. These are the telltale signs of Africa’s largest land-based penguin colony, a phenomenon that allows visitors to come within a few feet of these charismatic birds. Boulders Beach is famous as one of the few places in the world where it’s still possible to swim with wild penguins, and to meet them face-to-face in their own environment. 

The main colony centers on neighboring Foxy Beach, where boardwalks have been constructed to allow visitors to admire the penguins without disturbing them. The penguins are oblivious of the attempts to segregate birds and humans, however, and frequently find their way to Boulders, perhaps as intrigued by us as we are by them. Once known as Jackass penguins, the penguins of Boulders Beach are now more politely referred to as African penguins. This species is unique to southern Africa, and looks quite different from its Antarctic cousins. Adult African penguins are only 2 feet (60 cm) tall, and have a distinctive black stripe across their white chests. Each penguin also sports a smattering of black spots in a pattern that’s unique as a human fingerprint. 

African penguins are amazingly adapted to life on the South African coast. Even in the Cape, the summers can be sweltering. To prevent overheating, all African penguins have a patch of bare, pink skin above their eyes. In hot weather, the penguin’s blood circulates to this gland, where it is cooled by direct contact with the surrounding air. Penguins also share their home with an intimidating array of marine predators. Boulders Beach, for example, opens onto False Bay, famous for its population of great white sharks. The penguin’s monochromatic coloring helps them avoid detection by these predators, though, as their white undersides blend in with the sea’s lighter surface when seen from below. African penguins are monogamous and will mate for life. The Boulders penguins traditionally breed between March and May, when visitors will often see them incubating their eggs. 

The first pair of breeding penguins appeared on Foxy Beach in 1983, and raised their first chick there two years later. In the years that followed, the colony expanded quickly until, by 1997, there were 2,350 adult penguins living on the beach. Scientists think that the success of the first breeding pair caused other penguins living on nearby Dyer Island to follow suit. Purse-seine fishing is banned in False Bay, so penguins here face less competition for the small fish that make up the majority of their diet. Even so, the Boulders penguins are in decline. In 2005, the colony numbered 3,900 breeding adults – but by 2011, this figure had dropped to 2,100. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated problem. African penguins are suffering as a species, with statistics showing a tragic 80 percent loss in global breeding pairs over the last 50 years. 

There are many factors contributing to the gradual disappearance of these loveable birds, and together, they are pushing this species to the brink of extinction. Now officially classified as Endangered, the African penguin is at risk due to habitat destruction, marine pollution, global warming and irresponsible tourism activities. Most of all, the African penguin is threatened by the effects of overfishing. Commercial fisheries directly target many of the species that these penguins depend upon, including pilchards, anchovies, mackerel and herring. There is help at hand, however. The Southern African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) was formed approximately 20 years ago to promote penguin and seabird conservation. 

In particular, SANCCOB provides rehabilitation for penguins affected by oil spills, and was instrumental in rescuing thousands of birds contaminated in major spills that took place off the Cape coast in 1994 and 2000. SANCCOB has become the most successful seabird rehabilitation center in the world, but depends solely on public donations. If you feel moved to help the penguins of Boulders Beach and their cousins elsewhere in South Africa, donating to SANCCOB is one of the best ways that you can do so. There are several other breeding colonies that you can visit in South Africa, including ones on Robben Island, St. Croix Island and Dyer Island. 

If you want to swim alongside these amazing birds, however, Boulders Beach is the place to do so. The beach is just an hour’s drive from Cape Town, along the breathtaking Cape Peninsula scenic route.

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