Thursday, January 29, 2009

Watch out for the real shark lovers

"Lady" - our most elegant Caribbean Reef Shark companion for many years (Bahamas)

(Photograph: Wolfgang Leander, 2000)

My dad recently wrote a post, Watch out for the real shark enemies, which stirred up a conversation boiling down to the Discovery Channel not portraying the sharks with a fair "lens", and only concerned about their ratings at the expense of these magnificent animals.

It was because of this post that Geert Droppers from
Protect the Sharks Foundation contacted me and asked if I had seen the documentary Gimme a Hug. To date I had only seen the trailer, Geert was kind enough to send me the full version. To get access to the complete version - donate here.

This is definitely the type of production and story that the Discovery Channel needs to include in their programming during Shark Week. The film is about Cristina Zenato and her interaction with Caribbean Reef sharks while in a tonic immobility. Everything about the documentary is serene, calm, and melancholic - from the music to the cinematography to the way Cristina interacts with the sharks (and breathes through her regulator).

Asked what was Cristina's cutest moment with these sharks, she said it was when she kissed one on the nose...The documentary truly shows sharks in a different light - in a normal crazy experiments, no stupid hosts, no dummies being "attacked" - just sharks being sharks - BEAUTIFUL.

Geert - excellent film, the only thing that is missing are two free divers (or at least one old one) hugging Tiger Sharks... :-)

Rare "Prehistoric" Shark Photographed Alive

A Japanese fisherman was able to photograph a Frill Shark (I had never seen or heard of this species before). Apparently they live in the depths of the ocean and this one may have come to shallow waters because it was sick.  

On the bright side, I do not think this species has to worry about being finned - they live to deep and seem to lack dorsal fins (pectoral ones look small).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A distant memory

This Shark became the inspiration for the OceanicDreams logo

I have been in the Galapagos twice while my parents lived in Ecuador - they were fortunate enough to go about eight times. My first visit was in 2003 and I was complete mesmerized by the marine life: sharks, seals, large schools of fish, mantas, rays and the list goes on. Before that I had only seen the pictures my dad had taken and the stories my parents told me.

Unfortunately the Galapagos are also plague by the demand of shark fins - illegal fishing does happen in the park area and outside - sure you can point the finger and blame the Ecuadorian government (Yes, I am sure they could do more), but it goes well beyond that - in fact just waving your index or middle finger around and shouting is probably counterproductive. The large issue at hand is still the demand for the end product. Instead, solutions, plans, recommendations should be brought forth that will put food on the table the fisherman and their families and serve as an alternative income source.

The diver operator we used, Scuba Iguana, has done their part. Most of the guides, instructors, captains were former fisherman (and finners)...Scuba Iguana invested in them, certified them to become guides and dive instructors - not only that, but these former fisherman have fallen in love with the same animals they used to hunt...their passion shows and ironically their own well being now depends on the survival of sharks.

I have added a collection of Galapagos photos on flickr - it is likely that most of these sharks have been killed. When my dad and I returned to the Galapagos in 2005 to one area that was teeming with Galapagos sharks - we did not come across one - very sad indeed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Watch out for the real shark enemies...

Shark legend "Doc" Samuel Gruber freediving at Tiger Beach
(Photograph: Wolfgang Leander)

Click on the image to enlarge

Shark Diver recently posted a blog that was somewhat disturbing. I have obtained some background information on this from another source, and am afraid to say that the production company that is aggressively pursuing the subjects they have put together as their shoot list for 2009 is the same company that sold the Discovery Channel a misleading and rather sensationalistic film about tiger shark "attack behavior" shot at Tiger Beach late in 2007.

I saw that film, as did millions and millions others, and felt thoroughly disgusted by the "experiments" these folks did with the tiger sharks.

Here we have the Discovery Channel with their hugely popular Shark Week. Over the years, the quality of these features, presented as entertaining and at the same time 'educational' documentaries, has been going down alarmingly. So much so that a group of dedicated shark conservationists decided to approach the Discovery Channel executives toward the middle of 2007 with a view to induce them to stop portraying sharks in the best of "Jaws" tradition.

Preceding the meeting with some top people of the Discovery Channel in April 2008 was a petition directed to them - the message was crystal clear.
Click here to read it.

The impression the shark delegation had after the meeting was that, yes, the Discovery Channel would endeavor to give the sharks more of the credit they so much deserve now that the general public is slowly beginning to realize that many species are being hunted down to the brink of extinction.

Unfortunately, the 2008 Shark Week features were already 'boxed', so everybody was hoping to see an improvement in this year's Shark Week.

While we have no idea what will be shown in 2009, we can expect that it will be pretty much more of the same. One of the titles will be
"Deadly Waters" - what else is new?....

The production company in question has only one goal in mind: Shoot something as catchy as possible, never mind the accuracy of the "documentary", never mind the truthfulness of the message on which they base their "experiments". This company will do almost anything to show the sharks in the worst possible light because they know, the sharper the teeth, the juicier the deal they will get.

What is really deplorable other than
wilfully misleading the public, perhaps as many as many as 100 million TV viewers around the globe (!!), is the fact that it is they who attack the sharks without any mercy thus thwarting the conservationists' relentless efforts to de-demonize the sharks.

By vilifying the sharks these irresponsible producers implicitly perpetuate the old saying: Only a dead shark is a good shark, whereas we, the ludicrous "green nuts", are desperately trying to spread the message that all sharks are good, especially the ones that are still alive...

These producers, and others like them, not the majority, are definitely the bad guys; they are the real enemies of the sharks.

So, what about the Discovery Channel? Are they also the bad guys? I wouldn't go as far as that judging them - but they are certainly
not the good guys they could be.

If they were, they would not buy "documentaries" without closely scrutinizing them in a professional manner. But maybe they don't know better. Well, could that really be?? Hard to imagine...

What the Discovery marketing pros have to do is to keep the attention level of their viewers high because of the advertising business they depend on (it's all about ratings, ratings, ratings), hence the hype they are convinced is needed without really giving the negative aspects of distorted information much thought.

That, I believe, is the crux: How to find the right balance between suspenseful entertainment without falling in the trap of cheap sensationalism, and imparting solid, enlightening facts which in my view do not have to be dry at all if presented in an engaging way, both artisitically and technically.

Two suggestions come to my mind:

First: As a test, the Discovery Channel should show one feature of sharks focusing exclusively on their beauty, their paramount importance as apex predators, and the imminent peril of extinction many species are facing mainly due to the ever growing appetite of the Chinese and other Asians for their fins.

A "Sharkwater" type of documentary without the irritating ego element that devalued the otherwise praiseworthy movie. No attacks, no blood, no gaping jaws - just the serene world of sharks to gauge the reception by the viewers.

I simply refuse to believe a priori that blood draws more attention than beauty. It is an assumption that would need to be corroborated.

Second: The Discovery Channel should intensify the dialogue with knowledgeable shark people, and involve them in an ad hoc advisory committee for the specific purpose of screening the Shark Week features offered to them by independent film and TV production companies.

If we want to make -
and see - a difference, all of us in the shark world - writers, film producers, photographers, shark dive operators, media pros, researchers, aficionados - have the responsibility and the moral imperative to respect the sharks, depict them how they really are, and be as little invasive as possible when entering their realm, be it for recreational or scientific reasons.

One last thought -

It is perfectly OK to make good money with sharks while furthering their cause; it is not OK at all to make money exploiting them in any way.

Cocos Island advances to 2nd phase of the N7W campaign

Cocos Island and several other shark sanctuaries are up for nomination to become a New Seven Wonder of Nature...please cast your vote as this will bring direct attention to these locations.

When second stage voting ends on July 7, 2009, the top 77—as determined by the votes cast worldwide—will include the leading 11 nominees in each category. As in the first New7Wonders campaign, these 77 sites will be considered by the New7Wonders Panel of Experts for inclusion in the 21 Official Finalists. The N7W Panel of Experts, led by Prof. Dr. Federico Mayor, former Director-General of UNESCO, will
announce the 21 Official Finalists on July 21, 2009.

Calling all voters who voted in the first phase—cast your vote in Phase 2 now! Each voting stage in the Official New7Wonders of Nature campaigns is distinct from all others. This means that people who voted in the first phase can vote in this second stage—it is important to keep participating as the competition narrows!

Go to

You can also add your own widget on your blog, website, facebook profile, etc.

Thanks for you support and stay tuned for more news on Cocos Island!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Manatee Update

Manatee belly rub

Go to A Cotton Thought (Amanda's blog) and check out what Jeff wrote about the trip and see some of Amanda's photos...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Three times a charm...can you connect?

Photo by: Wolfgang Leander, Crystal River, FL (2007)

I finally got the full manatee experience in Crystal River, FL – I had been here two times before to have only seen a hand full of these friendly sea cows with limited interactions. But today was different – today was amazing.

This time I came to Crystal River with Carmen, Amanda, Jeff and Tibu as well as the cold temperatures. As I checked in last night, the hotel manager told me that there were a ton of manatees – I had my doubts and thought that she was just giving her regular speech.

Turns out there were manatees everywhere we looked and the interactions were fantastic – including belly rubs. The tactic was pretty simple, let them approach you, scratch their “flipper pit” area and they will turn over exposing their big bellies for a full body massage – a connection definitely develops.

I would say that the only negative part of the day was to see how tourists behave in the water (clumsy, noisy, clueless, and disrespectful to the environment and manatees) – no wonder they get bitten by sharks ;). It was awful to see how they approached the animals.

The scene for some reason made me think about people that claim to be experts about sharks and have an opinion about one thing or another – but actually do not ever observe or interact with them in their own element…and it made me think about people that can connect with sharks – they can usually also connect with other animals quite easily, and it shows.

On a final note – it was great to spend time with Amanda and Jeff and talk about sharks, photos, diving…they are definitely people that “connect”…looking forward to Amanda’s photos, the ones I saw on her display (small) – look excellent!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Good News for Bimini and The Bahamas

Lemon Shark, Bahamas (2008)
Photograph: Wolfgang Leander

Congradulations to the Bahamas and those involved in creating a marine sanctuary in North Bimini - read the complete Washington Post article.

Writes Juliet Eilperin: "The Bahamas government has created a marine reserve off the island of North Bimini, preserving critical mangrove habitat and a shark nursery that had come under threat from a resort there.

The reserve, which will be protected from most fishing and other "extractive activities," is home to endangered species such as the Nassau grouper and the Bimini boa, as well as a vibrant nursery for lemon sharks.

The decision -- approved by the Bahamas cabinet Dec. 29 but announced last week -- is a setback for the Bimini Bay Resort and Marina, which has been clearing some of the island's mangroves to build a hotel, a golf course, a casino and two marinas, some of which have already been constructed.

Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham had initially considered establishing the reserve in the late 1990s, but his party lost power in 2002, and the development proceeded. Ingraham's party won back control in 2007."

So long, Guy...

Guy Bentley Meeker (1945 - 2008)

Guy died on December 20, 2008 - he was only 63.

About an hour before he passed away, Lyn, his former wife, sent me an e-mail to ask me where I could be reached by phone so I could say 'good-bye' to my dying friend. As I was not online, I could not read the message immediately.

I had Guy's number, so I tried to call him at the hospital, heart pounding, hands trembling, absolutely devastated, and not knowing what I would say to him while the phone was ringing.

After a little while somebody answered; it was not Guy but Melissa, his daughter, who told me that her dad had died about 45 minutes earlier.

At that moment I knew what I would have told Guy.

I would have said to him: "Gayo, I love you very much - don't worry, my good friend, you will have a safe trip."

Guy was one of my very best friends, and I have not even a handful of true friends.

Ours was a solid friendship that did not require any rituals to keep it alive. Before the advent of the internet we hardly wrote to each other, and later, our e-mail correspondence was not very intense either. Sometimes we would not see each other in years, not even use the convenience of a telephone - yet, we always knew where we were.

Guy and angelical Melissa, Nassau (1974)

I met Guy in the Bahamas in April 1974, on a dive boat. He was with his family: Lyn, Bentley, and Melissa ('Missy'). We immediately became friends; the kids were great little people, and I got to love them very much - I am sure they must have sensed that at 33 I felt like having children of my own.

Guy with cute little Bentley, Nassau (1974)

Bentley, who was seven at that time, once told me: "Wolfer, you are such a nice man with kids, you would make a great father." Tiny Bentley was already then an outgoing and talented communicator.

Those were the 'glorious' seventies as Guy would say - he absolutely loved them, and when we would later talk about our good old days in the Bahamas, his eyes would nostalgically gleam...

Guy and I were both boyish looking, cigarette smoking, long-haired international bankers in Nassau - we had nothing in common with the contemporary breed of investment bankers. Making tons of money was not our raison d'etre. Our generation had other values.

We did some syndicated off-shore loan business together, but it was the human bond that was so much more important to us. We would seldom talk shop but discuss the essential things young men, married or not, normally talk about....

I spent almost every evening at the Meekers; they all received me as family, and to this day they consider me a close friend. So much so that Melissa and Bentley invited me to join them and Lyn at a family memorial service for Guy to be held in Nassau in February. Next to Paradise Island they will return Guy to the sea where we both dived for the first time together almost 35 years ago.

What I admired most about Guy was that he never, ever spoke bad about anyone. If Guy did not like someone, he wouldn't say anything about that person. In that respect he was very much like my son Felix - both great souls one finds rarely in a world of envy and malevolence.

Guy: I am infinitely sad, and as I write this, a little over one month after your death, I simply cannot imagine you not being at the other end of the phone, asking me: "Hola, chico, what's up?". But since there were so many periods of time during which we had no immediate contact with each other, I consider the time that will separate us now as but a brief interim.

Well, then I guess I shouldn't be really depressed, should I? You are not really gone; you are just leading the way, and in doing so you have an edge over those you left behind for the time being.

So long, my good, good friend. I love you. Soon we will be together again, and then we will have an eternity to discuss, roguishly smiling, all the essential things old men normally talk about....

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Power of Shark Photography

Interacting with a Tiger Shark in Aliwal Shoal (South Africa)
Photograph: Felix A. Leander

I don't want to start, or continue, the seemingly never ending discussion of how humans should interact with animals in the wild all over again. As far as I am concerned, my limited knowledge is about sharks, and my respective opinions can only be personal, and as such highly subjective.

A few people in the "business" have been rather critical of my 'special relationship' with tiger sharks lately. Why? Well, I have an idea but I shouldn't speculate....

Instead of "defending" my way of interacting with large sharks,
here is a link that I want to share with you.

What is telling about the photograph taken by Amanda Cotton are the comments.

The basic tenor of the comments is -

Surprise at the visual "proof" that one can be close to sharks, even touch them, without being eaten, at least not right away :-), which should make the viewers think that sharks can't be all that dangerous after all which, in turn, should make them more sensitive and sympathetic to the grave plight of the sharks.

Thus, shark photographs that carry a strong message can have a palpable educational impact - an essential element, actually
the most basic element in shark conservation.

One last word to clarify my position: Hugging sharks is NOT for everyone; I DON'T encourage anyone to do it; quite the contrary: I'd say "Don't get too close to them; don't let them get too close to you."

The problem is NOT touching sharks per se; the problem is how to react to an unexpected move or, worst case, how to safely handle a burst of aggressiveness against the diver / snorkeller. If you have no or little experience with sharks, chances are that you won't do the right thing to fend-off an agitated shark.

RTSea Blog post, eco-tourism, sharks, and conservation

How are sharks, conservation, and eco-tourism intertwined? Read RTSea's latest blog post (great read) to get an idea...particularly interesting is the section on baiting/association of people and food as well as the part of the attitude-towards-sharks spectrum.  You may recall we covered RTSea's documentary in the past

I am not sure where exactly I fit on this spectrum - probably leaning towards the "fuzzy" side - fully understanding that sharks are predators and can be potentially dangerous.  

I myself have called them dogs (and the smaller ones puppies) and have seen various photos and videos (including documentaries) that make a point that humans and sharks can interact...speaking of course of our own photos and interactions and a trailer to a documentary that I recently saw called "Gimme a hug" (which I am very much looking forward to - refreshing to see a documentary title that does not include the word deadly.  And listen how slowly Cristina breathes through the regulator - peaceful!).  

And this leaves me with another thought: Not sure what the difference is between my dad hugging a shark or Cristina Zenato doing it - aside from the chain suit...a question that can only really be answered by people that dive and have spent a lot of time in the water with sharks.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Amanda Cotton - Welcome to the blogosphere

Yesterday Amanda Cotton launched her website and blog featuring her photography - but what really caught my eye - aside from her stunning images - was the EDUCATE section of her site.  I believe that Amanda, through her photos and actions, will make a difference.

Be sure to visit both - you will not be disappointed...

I am looking forward to the weekend as I am heading up to Crystal River to dive with the manatees and Amanda - should be great to catch up.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Maldives is a step closer to protecting whale sharks

Photo by Wolfgang Leander

The Maldives have moved closer to protecting the whale sharks in their area in an initiative spearheaded by the government in cooperation with scientists, diving professionals, and representatives of the local community...may become a working model for other shark diving hot spots such as Aliwal Shoal and The Bahamas.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bimini Sands becomes Bahamas' first 'Shark Free Marina'

Patric Douglas' Shark Free Marina concept really seems to be taking off, add another to the list - Bimini Sands Resort and Marina becomes the first marina in the Bahamas to be 'shark free'.

Recap of the 'shark free' marina initiative.

Would be great to one day see all the marinas in the Bahamas become 'shark free' (and anywhere else where sharks and sport fishermen cross paths)...for sharks as well as the Bahamas - plus as a Bahamian it would make me very proud!

Yes, I was born in Nassau, spent half of my childhood there, being so close to the ocean I learned how to swim before I could walk, my first word was "boat", and I spent many sundays at the Poop Deck, a popular restaurant overlooking the harbor, getting free cherries from the bartender... :-)

Hats off to Bimini Sands and Patric!!!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Creativity and Shark Conversation

My old man just forwarded me an email from Jeremiah Sullivan from Neptunic with a link to an advertising blog featuring a anti-shark finning campaign created by Shark Project and Y&R - great direct mail piece that will undoubtedly create awareness...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Loblaws and Great Canadian Superstores sells shark fin soup

It has been a long time since we have heard anything from Rob Stewart - almost three months of silence on his blog...I think this is also the first time since all the movie fanfare that he has talked about something else than awards, show times, or parties.

So this definitely deserves a repost:

"The Great Canadian Superstores (owned by Loblaws) are now selling canned shark fin soup in time for the Chinese New Year. After Sharkwater’s release in Canada, Galen Weston, the CEO of Loblaws, brought me out to dinner with his wife Alexandra, and expressed his great interest in supporting the cause…..

Selling shark fins en masse; supporting the destruction of sharks, the oceans and the ecosystems we depend on for survival is how Loblaws supports the cause. Its outrageous that its happening in our own backyard… after we already know shark populations have dropped more than 90%.

Help us fight this, and show Loblaws and Galen Weston that this was a bad decision… and lets get shark fin removed from Canadian Superstores. There’s still time to turn this around.

1. Sell your loblaws stock. Now!
2. Write letters to:
3. And call Galen Weston’s corporate office:
(416) 922-2500"

Rob - lead this effort - you already have the connection!

To touch or not to touch - THAT is not the question, not for me.

Photograph: Paul Spielvogel

Some folks think I shouldn't touch sharks because one has to "respect" wild creatures. Sure, but why would I show "disrespect" while hugging them? Look at the image - see the smile on "Olga's" face? :-)

Others think that man-shark interactions in baited situations make sharks more aggressive toward people as they associate humans with food. That is
complete non-sense; instead, what I have been able to observe was that prolonged exposure to humans sort of domesticates sharks. I can say with some certainty that the effect of being accustomed to humans makes sharks feel less threatened in their presence.

Then there are those who truly believe that I act 'irresponsibly' trying to demonstrate that tiger sharks are as harmless as pussy cats (which they are
not - of course), and that I would encourage others to mimic me and thus put them at risk of getting bitten.

This misconception compels me to make an unequivocal statement: Interacting with sharks the way I do requires a lot of practical experience, an intimate knowledge of shark behavior, and proficiency in the foreign language that is their body language. So, unless you feel very comfortable swimming around sharks, and remain unfazed even when they are agitated, don't do what I do - OK?

Ah, something else: People who know next to nothing about sharks except that they are indiscriminate killers might think that I am a macho dare-devil. Me, a dare-devil and a macho?? Yeah, I wish. Let me tell you - I ain't no Sylvester Stallone, and if you'd invite me to do a bungee jump, I'd frigging chicken out.

I believe I already said it before in one of my blogs, but I'll say it again: I just love to touch, or kiss, what I like which I guess is an innate drive for any human being.

I love the sea, and I love tiger sharks. So, every time I dive, I touch the sea, in a poetic sense; and when I see my beloved tiger sharks I feel the urge of caressing them gently and with all the respect they deserve.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Jews, get out of Palestine!

I don't mind, actually don't give a you-know-what reading that friendly order on walls in Hebron, Gaza or elsewhere in the Muslim world.

But I feel a deep resentment against hypocritical European pacifists who want to teach the Israelis how they should deal with murderous terrorists and a society that cannot (does not want to) control the ruthless killers within.

This best describes those Europeans' mental problem:

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


So I have been a bit quiet over the past weeks - wanting to turn off a bit, collect myself, and honestly just take it easy. 2008 was a hectic and difficult year with the loss of two people that were close to one of each of the Leanders.

Back in July, a close friend of mine passed away - he is someone I think of every day and is someone that keeps me motivated, keeps me living in the moment. Back then I had mentioned that I would be close to him among sharks - and as odd as this sounds, I actually did not think about him during my trip to Tiger Beach. Sure you could say I was not thinking about anything, but that is not true - I was thinking about my family (wife, parents and Tibu), friends, work (believe it or not)...but I did not think about Kevin.

As I came back I realized this - and now I think about him everyday - again.

More recently my dad lost one of his best friends - I will let him decide if he wants to write about it or not - I won't (I too knew Guy well and miss him when I run around Brickell Key).

But I have been working on something on the side for the sharks of Tiger Beach and the Bahamas - the plan is currently with my dad and will go through some "test" - would like to share more, but want something much more concrete.

Finally - OCEAN Magazine published a brief commentary that Patric over at Shark Diver and I wrote about the people saving sharks - or at least say they do...regardless of our article - be sure to check out the site.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Sharks in USA Today with Jupp

Photo by: Paul Spielvogel

I think you remember Jupp Kerckerinck zur Borg - a refresh in case you do not.  Regardless, he just sent me an email this morning mentioning that he got a hit in the USA Today - nice start to the New Year.