Face Time with Cathys Eels


Face Time with Cathy’s Eels

By Don Silcock

PNG_12_Feb_NI_D16_Land_110-1024x681Possibly not everybody’s idea of fun, but for me it was a most unusual and entertaining way to spend an afternoon – upfront and personal with a significant number of large and hungry fresh water eels.

“Cathy” is Cathy Hiob, a former Air Nuigini air hostess who has retired back to her village of Laraibina, some 90 km from Kavieng, down the east coast of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea.


22 years of flying with the national airline has provide Cathy with a seemingly endless string of one-liners, which she really seems to relish using with the many visitors who come to see her flock of fresh-water eels.

In fact, you get the distinct feeling that you are part of a very well-rehearsed routine, as you sit chatting with her in the shade of one of the many trees in the village. But, as amusing as the banter is with this feisty lady with the shock of white hair, the one-liners are just the warm-up act for the star attraction.

For in the village stream are some 10-12 large fresh-water eels and Cathy, together with her trusty assistant, has trained them on a diet of Besta tinned mackerel to appear on demand when they hear the feeding pot being rattled.



The training has worked extremely well – too well in fact, as I subsequently learned when the last tin of Besta had gone and the eels disappeared as quickly as they had appeared.

Unfortunately this occurred just as I was getting the hang of being surrounded by large slivering eels, each equipped with an impressive set of teeth.

The usual routine is to stand in the stream and let the eels swim around your feet as Cathy’s assistant doles out the Besta, but I really wanted to get a close-up underwater shot of the eels feeding, so total immersion therapy seemed to be the be the way to go.

I carefully positioned myself at the feet of Cathy’s assistant, shivering slightly in the cold fresh water and feeling strangely vulnerable…

The first tin of Besta was opened and the feeding pot suitably rattled and within seconds I was surrounded by what appeared to be a seething mass of eel flesh!




Clearly caught up in the overall excitement of the moment, Cathy’s assistant opened tin after tin in rapid succession, as the eels gorged on the mackerel. Then, just as I felt I was getting the hang of this veritable feeding frenzy the last tin was gone and the eels disappeared as quickly as they had appeared!

We tried all sorts to bring them back, even offering our lunch of fresh tuna to tempt them to the camera dome, but all to no avail as the Besta appears to be the only thing that will do it for them!

So… on my next trip to New Ireland and thanks to the usual superb support of Dietmar and Angie Amon of Lissenung Island Resort, we embarked from Kavieng with a case and a half of Besta’s very best – enough for at least two eel banquets!

Cathy was at the exuberant best when we arrived and we sat with her under the tree for the obligatory chat and one-liners – no repeats I noticed…

Then after detailed instructions regarding the timing and rate of dispersal of the Besta were carefully explained to Cathy’s assistant, I positioned myself amongst the eager eels and the feeding began.

The phrase “herding cats” came to mind as I tried very hard to get a good image as the eels slithered in and out of the viewfinder and lumps of mackerel were dispersed and consumed at an alarming rate!

All in all, quite an usual and very interesting way to spend the last day of your trip to Kavieng and let that nitrogen return to where it came from.



About Don

Don is a Bali based photojournalist and underwater photographer who travels extensively in South-East Asia and China.

You can read more about Papua New Guinea, and many other places, on his website http://www.indopacificimages.com


Children of the Spills


 By Katie Gavenus


My sister was born in Homer, Alaska on 9 February, 1989.  I remember nothing of her arrival, although it must have been a pretty life-changing event for me as an only child used to basking in the attention of my parents in our small cabin overlooking Kachemak Bay.  I do remember, however, the events that unfolded less than two months later.  At two and a half years of age, I experienced a strange feeling of dread looming.  Although I lacked the cognitive abilities to understand what was going on, I could sense the fear, anger and sadness of my parents and their friends.


In those days and weeks of early spring, it seemed as though the whole town was anxiously waiting to discover its fate.  In fact, we were waiting, waiting to see if any of the more than 11 million barrels of oil that had spilled from the oil tanker Exxon Valdez would reach the pristine shores, critical habitat and fishing waters of Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet.  When I think of that waiting an image comes to mind.  It must be a collage of my own memories, the stories of my parents and my experiences later in childhood.  I see myself with my family – Mum, Dad, baby Erika – along with other fishing families.  We are standing at the old scenic lookout, gazing out at Kachemak Bay.  Instead of looking at the glittering blue glaciers or snow-capped mountains like the tourists do when they stop on the way in to Homer, our attention is directed to the mouth of Kachemak Bay.  In this memory, we are nervously searching, hoping not to find evidence of the deathly blackness coming towards our Bay.


The oil did eventually come into Kachemak Bay, although it was a tiny amount compared to what was fouling the waters and coastline in Prince William Sound, the Gulf of Alaska and areas around Kodiak Island.  With the oil came the dead and dying animals – sea otters, seals and birds – too many to count.  I can recollect just a piece of my first experience with these animals.  My mum helped me to choose a treasured baby blanket to deliver to the sea otter rehabilitation effort.  We drove to the middle school, where they had set up a temporary location for sea otter cleaning.   People in gloves and raingear were using dish soap and water to remove oil from the luxurious fur of the otters.  If you asked my mum, she would tell you that we quietly walked past otters waiting patiently and peacefully in cages to be cleaned, fed, or released.  These otters were cuddled up in blankets like mine to keep them warm and comfortable.  I know these details from my mum’s stories.  When I close my eyes and think of that experience, however, I don’t see anything.  I just hear the haunting screams and cries of sea otters.  My mum didn’t hear them, but I somehow did, and that memory has stayed with me.


I am grateful though, that at a time when many Alaskans were feeling helpless and hopeless, my parents empowered me to do something.  While donating my scrap of a baby blanket may not have had a significant impact on the oiled otters, I know it had a tremendous impact on me, and it is something that I have remembered to this day.  When the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill occurred in April 2010, I was both saddened and angered by the news.  Another rich and diverse ecosystem thrown into disarray, another fragile fishing economy gone awry, another set of communities devastated, and another group of kids who have learned dread and despair far too young. I felt that awful sense of helplessness.  When I was two years of age, I donated a baby blanket.  Now that I am a young adult, I have the power to do something more.


In early 2011, I embarked upon “Children of the Spills,” an oral history project that aims to connect these two generations and regions affected by oil spills.  Children of the Spills is an effort to compile the stories of young people affected by oil spills, focusing on young people in Alaska who grew up in communities disrupted by the Exxon Valdez disaster and children in Gulf Coast communities that are now affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  By empowering young people in “oiled communities” to share their memories, stories and childhood artwork, this project strives to both broaden the public understanding of the long-term effects of oil spills and to assist communities as they work to protect and support their children growing up in the wake of an oil spill.  My belief is that the experiences of these young people will help to illuminate ways in which children can be nurtured and encouraged to build positive paths forward after an oil spill.


In the past few months, I have travelled to the coastal Alaskan communities of Cordova, Seldovia, Port Graham, Kodiak and Homer to gather the stories of people who were children at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  I have come to greatly value the innate worth of simply sharing these stories.


“Everybody has a different story with the spill, but it’s nice to hear people who have similar stories, and you go, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of what happened to me.’  Kind of like a therapy group almost. Which sounds kind of corny, but that was a big component to my emotional suffering from that, it was kind of feeling like a little bit alone, because our lifestyle was alone.”  – Micah Ess.


Ess was twelve at the time of the Exxon Valdez event.  He had spent most of his childhood up until the spill with his family on a houseboat in a remote part of Prince William Sound where they trapped shrimp.  Growing up on the houseboat, Ess remembers living in a bulky life jacket and becoming well acquainted with the local flora and fauna.  Ess was able to recognise the individual whales and seals that frequented the area around the houseboat, and he came to view them as close friends.


He and his family were in Homer at the time of the oil spill and waited a few weeks to return to their houseboat.  Remembering the trip as being unnaturally quiet, Ess neither saw nor heard any of the animals he had come to know as childhood friends.  The biggest shock though, was to find the houseboat full of oily material stored there during clean-up efforts.  Seeing their ruined home, Ess and his family immediately headed back to Homer.  They never returned to their home on the water, and eventually sold the houseboat.  You might expect to hear anger in his voice as Ess recollects these injuries.  Instead though, he tells his story with grace and strives to learn from his experiences.


“When you’re out there and you get kind of taken without any warning, it is a wonderful lesson in looking for the good and to seeing what’s next.”


Makena O’Toole was three years of age at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and he always knew what was next for him.  He grew up in a fishing family in Cordova and saw his family and friends struggle with the financial and emotional toll of the disaster.  Yet, he tries not to dwell in the anger.


“The biggest thing I think that we can take from what we learned here is to move on.  Get over it.  If it’s not something that you can continue to make a life out of there, then you need to leave.  If you can, then you need to get over it and don’t let yourself be put on hold for twenty years listening to false promises or false hopes because that doesn’t help anybody … it’s just not worth it.”


O’Toole didn’t let himself be put on hold.  In high school, he was the first Cordova kid in a long time to risk buying the permits, boat and equipment necessary to get into commercial salmon fishing.  “I think that it was just always something that I wanted to do” O’Toole explains as he recalls a story of himself as a toddler, waking up in the middle of the night to proclaim “My daddy’s a wisherman and I’m gonna be a wisherman too.”


O’Toole has worked tirelessly to become the fisherman he always dreamed he would be, despite the effects of the Exxon Valdez event.  Although he loves Cordova and Prince William Sound, he cannot support his family on the money he earns fishing salmon in the summer.  Because the Prince William Sound herring fishery no longer exists, something many blame on the oil spill, he has to spend his winters and springs fishing elsewhere.  O’Toole has had to travel thousands of kilometres and target a wide range of species to simply make a living on the water.  He has fished for a number of species including squid in California, sea cucumbers in Southeast Alaska and cod along the Aleutian Chain of Alaska.


The impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill are as varied as O’Toole’s catches.  The oil itself touched over 1600 kilometres of coastline, yet the effects spread even further, forever changing ecosystems and economies, communities and children.  For many people, one of the most devastating effects of the oil spill was the curtailment of important subsistence activities.  This problem was especially grave in places where subsistence was the cornerstone of both traditional culture and practical survival.  In the Traditional Native Village of Port Graham, Elder Simeon Kvasnikoff remembers the pain he felt when he took his young children to the beach after the oil spill.  He had to tell them not to touch or eat some of their favorite foods, like bidarki, clams and mussels.  Kvasnikoff says “You can see they really wanted the food down on the shoreline, they wanted that food, because they lived with it, they were raised with it … tell your little one ‘you are not to eat the candy that’s there’ they get hurt … I told a lot of these kids here, I said, ‘You want to live?  Don’t touch anything on the beach … they’ve got oil and oil kills.’” A number of people in the villages like Port Graham feel that this oil may have killed some of their subsistence traditions forever.


Through the oral histories I’ve collected, I’ve learned much about the lasting effects of the spill on the cultural, social and economic fabric of many towns and villages.  I was surprised to learn though, that in some ways it seems the resulting clean-up effort may have had equally disastrous consequences.  Referred to by some as the money spill, the clean-up effort divided communities, introduced strangers to remote areas and delivered a surplus of cash.  There was fighting within communities for the lucrative boat and individual contracts in the clean-up effort.

Those that didn’t receive a coveted contract were left struggling not to lose their home or boat, or both.  With the fisheries closed in numerous places during that spring and summer, a clean-up contract was the only hope for many to maintain fiscal solvency.


Many of those that were awarded contracts became “spillionaires” and yet, the influx of money often created more problems than it solved.  As the cash flowed in, a number of communities saw a dramatic rise in alcohol and drug abuse.  Some people spent the money on expensive boats or renovations, only to see the fisheries crash in the following years and their investments squandered.


Consequently, in the aftermath of such a crippling technological disaster, confusing clean-up effort and drawn-out litigation process, it was inevitable that jealousy, anger, frustration and bitterness developed.  Surely it did, but the young people I have interviewed have been able to learn from the oil spill and move forward as much as is possible.  For some, the oil spill serves as motivation for the work they are doing now, whether it be fisheries management, community counselling, environmental education, or campaigning for protection of important fishing areas and wild places.  For others, the oil spill serves simply as a reminder to cherish what exists now and plan wisely for the future.


For this particular child of the spill, hearing all of these stories has helped me to come to terms with my own memories and frustration.  I believe that the stories can do the same for others, which is why I will be taking them with me this spring when the project travels to the bayous of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi to work with young people affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


I don’t plan on stopping at any ExxonMobil gas stations though, and I know from my interviews that I’m not the only Alaskan who has been boycotting Exxon since long before I could drive.


Documentary & Conservation Photography


Documentary & Conservation Photography

By Richard Pearse

Marine science and conservation photography fall into two camps, compelling visual storytelling and documentary record, and the use of either depends on the audience to which you want to appeal.

Compelling Visual Storytelling

Compelling visual storytelling relies on photography of the subject animal in its natural habitat.  Often the interpretation of an image is dependant upon the person’s understanding of that animal, whether they are scientists, conservationists, fishermen, government regulators, ecotourists, or the general public.  We may refer to these persons as ’stakeholders’.  They work to understand the subject animal, its role in the wild, and any threats it may pose or to which it may be subjected.


It’s this dynamic between the animal and these people that needs to be captured to make a compelling story to the broader public.  This imagery should be very dynamic visually, with engaging depth of field, bold colour, captivating action of the subject animal, its natural behaviours (feeding, mating, etc.), interaction between the animal and the ’stakeholders‘, perhaps satellite tagging of sharks or turtles, and the provision of medical attention to injured animals.


This is the place for some experimentation, some interpretation in the photographic, a chance to provide an impression of the subject animal that is striking and easily differentiated from standard documentary imagery.  Using no flash or flash from one side of the animal’s face or head, can add a lot of depth to an image while maintaining an illusion that very little if any fill flash was used – the subject will look more natural in its environment and keep the focus on the subject – not the photographic ’tricks‘ used.


Documentary Photography

Documentary record photography is very dependent on following a methodical, rigorous and consistent process that yields easily reproducible and comparable results that can be quickly analyzed.  Animals such as sharks are typically photographed as cadavers in bright daylight, on their side with fins out from the body – the length of the animal is parallel to the lens, and the subject is photographed with a scale.  This angle allows for easy documentation of subject length, overall size, colouration, sex and any distinguishing marks or scars, etc.  A wide angle lens of 10-20mm focal length is ideal for this work.  Typically, the eyes, teeth, mouth, gills and fins will be photographed in more detail, again parallel to the lens, and sometimes perpendicular to the lens as well.  The use of a 60-105mm macro lens is great for this work, along with multiple light sources to minimise distracting shadows.  Additionally a brief written record must be provided detailing where, when and how the photograph was taken, along with any specifics about the subject animal.  This written record, referred to as an image caption or legend, is essential to the viewer getting the full benefit of the image.


The Audience

When would you use one type of photography or the other?  It depends completely on your target audience.  The compelling visual storytelling is more likely to appeal to and be appreciated by ’stakeholders‘ including conservationists, government regulators, ecotourists and the general public.  Documentary photography is an absolute must when the audience is comprised of scientific peers, and can also be very beneficial to government regulators and fishermen.  Generally, the compelling visual storytelling will have some appeal to everyone, and will greatly benefit scientists in getting their work seen and understood by the widest audience possible.



An Interview with a Scientist: Dr Roger Kirkwood



By Sebastian Mynott & Dr Roger Kirkwood

Who are you and how did you get here?

“Im Dr Roger Kirkwood and I’ve been here on Philip Island for 15 years. In that time seal research has been a major part of my work here. Just before that I did my Phd on emporer penguins through the University of Tasmania and before that I had worked my way up through the food chain to working on fur seals and whales for Tasmania Parks and Wildlife. Before that I held several fisheries positions and [I was an] undergraduate in James Cook University in Townsville.”

Read more here

A Seal Called Pup



By Rico Besserdich & Doug Perrine

‘Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua’ is the indigenous name for Hawaiian Monk Seals (Monachus schauinslandi) which translates to ’dog running in the rough seas’. Endemic to the Hawaiian islands, the Hawaiian monk seal is a species in crisis. The population has dropped to around 1000 individuals and is endanger of extinction. These few individuals are what is left of a species that existed for million of years.


Read more here

Sharpnose Sharks


Sharpnose Sharks

By Andy Murch

Atlantic Sharpnose Shark

The family Carcharhinidae contains a diverse selection of species from tiger sharks to hammerheads. Many are large, powerful animals that play a vital role in the check and balance of life in the oceans, but there are less celebrated (yet equally important) carcharhinids such as the diminutive sharpnose sharks which live along virtually every continental coastline warm enough to support them. These omnipresent predators can be found from the Eastern Atlantic to Northern Australia and where they occur, they tend to abound.

There are currently seven described species of sharpnose sharks in the genus Rhizoprionodon. However, there is some conjecture among taxonomists regarding the correct number because the Atlantic sharpnose R.terraenovae and the Caribbean sharpnose R.porosus are practically indistinguishable from each other. Vertebral counts officially differentiate the two but some taxonomists feel that vertebral variation is like the differences between eye colors in humans; genetically significant but not worthy of separate species status.

Atlantic Sharpnose Shark Tagging

For the last eleven years Dr Eric Hoffmayer from the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Mississippi has been conducting an abundance and distribution study on the inshore sharks of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Dr Hoffmayer’s longline and gillnet surveys are concentrated around the barrier islands of the Mississippi Sound where shark for shark, Atlantic sharpnoses outnumber all other species combined by nine to one.

Dr Hoffmayer is perplexed by the influx of thousands of almost exclusively male sharpnose sharks into the Mississippi Sound each summer because as habitats go, the sound has very little to offer.

As well as extremely low salinity which tests the sharpnoses’ ability to osmoregulate, the Mississippi Sound is plagued by areas of very low oxygen (dead zones) which are far from ideal for a ram ventilator like the Atlantic sharpnose to be foraging in.

During the oppressive summer months, the water in the sound also becomes extremely warm which adversely raises the shark’s metabolism to the point where it has trouble maintaining a calorific uptake high enough to keep up with its increased energy expenditure.

Dr Hoffmayer believes that this is why male Atlantic sharpnose sharks enter inshore waters with large oil rich livers, but by the end of the summer their livers have shrivelled to a third of their original size. Unable to consume enough food to compensate for their elevated metabolisms, the sharpnoses are forced to use up their internal energy stores. Even their muscles lose a significant amount of their mass which leaves the sharks looking visibly emaciated. Local fishermen call these withered little sharks ‘wormies’.

Sharks generally use a combination of lift created by their forward momentum and buoyancy provided by their oil rich livers to counteract their natural tendency to sink. Interestingly, Atlantic sharpnose sharks must be capable of adjusting their swimming technique so that they can negotiate their liquid world without their natural internal buoyancy aid.

It is a common strategy among some shark species to give birth in coastal lagoons where there is protection from larger sharks and an abundant supply of food that the newborns can feed on until they are big enough to venture further afield. Female Atlantic sharpnose sharks also head towards shore in the summer but they generally give birth long before reaching the relative safety of the shallows. Dr Hoffmayer has a couple of different theories on why this may be.

Possibly, the gravid females need to conserve more of their energy to nurture their unborn young and therefore they may simply not have enough stamina to complete a long shoreward migration.

Alternatively, female sharpnoses may be more stenohaline than males i.e. they may not be able to tolerate the low salinity that occurs in the sound. Sharks osmoregulate by excreting excess salt through their rectal glands as their environment becomes less salty. If they fail to do this they effectively drown through osmosis; the process by which fresh water continuously tries to infiltrate saltier environments. By excreting salt, the osmotic gradient between the shark and its surroundings is minimised and the sharks do not become water logged.

Juvenile sharpnose sharks have very efficient rectal glands and are well adapted to life in brackish water. In fact, they are able to tolerate salinity as low as 16 parts per thousand. Adult males can only handle a salt content above 22ppt so as sharpnose sharks mature they tend to avoid water where their offspring are hiding. As sharks are cannibalistic by nature, this is a great strategy to protect the young sharpnoses from being preyed on by their parents.

If further studies show that female sharpnose sharks are restricted to an even saltier environment e.g. 30ppt, then that would explain why they pup in deeper water, forcing their young to run the gauntlet into the shallows.

The sharpnose’s appearance in the sound does not appear to be specifically diet related. Stomach content analysis has revealed that smaller sharpnose sharks consume a lot of shrimp and squid whereas larger animals prefer bony fishes especially menhaden. The sound has a reasonably good supply of all these foods but so does the cooler, metabolically more comfortable, deeper reaches of the gulf.

Pacific Sharpnose Shark Longline

So, considering all the environmental hurdles that the male sharks have to overcome just to stay inshore and the lack of female company, why do so many male sharpnose sharks gather in the Mississippi Sound each summer?

Dr Hoffmayer believes that it all comes down to safety. Sharpnose sharks are a favourite prey of many other requiem sharks and although bull sharks, blacktips and various other large sharks also venture into shallow water, compared to the shark eat shark world of the greater gulf, the murky Mississippi Sound is a relatively safe place to hide. When inshore temperatures plummet in the late fall, the male sharpnoses are forced out into deeper water where seasonal temperature shifts are less dramatic.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic sharpnose shark numbers remain high. This is partly because there is no directed sharpnose shark fishery and partly because Atlantic sharpnose sharks reach maturity after only 2 to 3 years which among sharks is rather quick.

On the west coast of North America the sharpnose story is somewhat different. The Pacific sharpnose shark R.longurio is an important food fish and the focus of a large artisanal fishing effort. Everyday, scores of panga based long-line fishermen ply the coastal waters of the Sea of Cortez in search of sharks. As in the Atlantic, sharpnose sharks are the most commonly caught inshore species but small hammerheads and smoothhound sharks are also taken in fairly large numbers.

Each boat lowers two or three kilometers of braided or monofilament line bristling with 500 to 1000 baited hooks. Catches may range from a few small sharks per set in the summer months to a hundred kilos or more on a successful day during the winter.

Longline Fisherman 001

Little is known about the health of Pacific sharpnose stocks but scientists and fishermen agree that they are probably declining. At present there are still enough sharks to support a modest fishery but this may change if quotas are not implemented soon.

One of the big problems is that the gestation period of Pacific sharpnoses may last as long as eleven months so the fishermen consistently catch gravid females before they have had the chance to spawn the next generation.

One veteran shark fisherman from Mulegé, who recently returned with seven small sharpnoses after setting 1400 hooks, commented that on his best day twenty years earlier he had landed 1700kg of sharks in the same time frame with inferior fishing gear. A decline of that magnitude does not bode well for the future of the Pacific species.

What the long term effect would be of completely removing a once abundant predator like the sharpnose from the ecosystem is unclear but there will inevitably be serious repercussions both up and down the food chain.

Dead Pacific Sharpnose Sharks 001

Iemanya Oceanica is a grass roots non-profit organization based in La Paz that is working with local shark fishermen around Baja. Iemanya is entrenched in a multifaceted shark conservation campaign that includes education and direct assistance to shark fishermen that are ready to look for alternative sources of revenue.

Rather than dictating to fishermen how they should make a living, Iemanya’s representatives ask each fishing village to collectively come up with an alternative business plan that will allow them to stop shark fishing. If the plan is practical and sustainable then Iemanya provides as much guidance and financial assistance as possible to help the fishermen change track.

Time will tell whether the remaining Pacific sharpnose shark population will succumb to the web of long lines and gill nets that crisscross the shallow bays of the Sea of Cortez. Unlike their larger cousins, sharpnoses are physiologically well equipped to bounce back from over fishing because they mature relatively quickly and they can have up to twelve pups each season. Even if their numbers plummet further, if they are left in peace for a few years there is a good chance that they will eventually recover.

Pacific Sharpnose Shark

To find out more about Iemanya Oceanica and other environmental groups working on the front line of shark conservation, please visit elasmodiver.com/protectingsharks.htm