Whale Shark Mexico
Whale shark Mexico is a Mexican NGO started in 2001 by Dení Ramirez. Dení had been studying whale sharks for many years before, through her master’s and PhD, and realized the need of protection for these beautiful giants. eco-activewear
Based in La Paz, Whale shark Mexico is leading research on the populations of whale sharks in the Gulf of California and in the Revillagigedo archipelago. The project aims to understand the structure of these populations and to prove their fidelity to these regions through a continuous monitoring with photo identification. Committed to protect this endangered species, Whale shark Mexico collaborates with many institutions to put its data and science to the service of whale shark’s conservation.
After huge efforts during years and years, Whale shark Mexico has achieved, alongside the Mexican government and local scientist, the creation of a protected area for whale sharks in La Paz. This success allows the animals to benefit from a higher surveillance and regulations in the area where they feed.
The team keeps conducting this monitoring and leads research as well on adult whale sharks, cruising the region of La Paz every spring. Whale shark Mexico seeks to understand these giants’ migration and is one of the only projects to practice ultrasound on these females, supposed to be pregnant.
Dr. DENÍ RAMÍREZ
Founder Whale Shark Mexico
What does a normal day at WSM look like for you?
“The most enjoyable days are being in the ocean collecting whale shark data. During the whale shark season we do 2 trips per week, normally from 9 to 2 pm. Once we find a whale shark, we record the geographical coordinates and jump into the water! We take photo-identification pictures to record the individuals we see. Fascinatingly, each animal's pattern of spots is unique like a fingerprint, and doesn’t change, even as the shark grows. We have discovered a great deal about the Whalesharks over the years, the most important part of our research is the number of returning sharks. Each year around 60% of the same individuals return to la Paz Bay. Imagine swimming with a shark one year, and having the opportunity to swim with the same one again a year later! Our research shows that they love it here in La Paz Bay! They stay here feeding for months, before moving on to other bays in the Gulf of California, and further areas including Revillagigedo archipelago in the Pacific ocean off the coast of Mexico.
Following the identification photography we determine whether they are male or female by looking down at their pelvic fins, males have reproductive organs called claspers which are externally visible, while females don’t. We then measure the length of the shark and record and scars or injuries that the shark may have. We also collect information on any other protected animals in the area and if we find any nets.
The next day, in the office one of our trained volunteers enters the information recorded and submits the pictures into the photo-identification catalogue. Numerical data is then entered into an excel spreadsheet of the season’s data for further analysis. At the end of the season I conduct the analysis, and submit the report to our sponsors and the government, our data has helped to the generation of rules for the refuge of the Whale Sharks in La Paz bay, and every year we present our results and recommendations to the government to enforce management of these rules. Another part of my work is to give educational talks both locally, as well as presenting our research at conferences, and the submission of grant proposals to develop our research further".
Why did you choose to become a marine conservationist?
"I am originally from Mexico City, and there is no ocean there! But my parents were divers and during our holidays we used to camp on the beach! I remember one time we saw a sea turtle laying her eggs. It was awesome yet sad, because the local people took the eggs. That experience touched me very deeply! We also used to go diving in Cozumel where my brother and I would snorkel, following my parents from the surface while they were diving below us. When I was around 7 years old, I did my first dive with them in Chankanaab, Cozumel. It was amazing to stay underwater for such a long period of time! My brother and I used to play around the underwater sculptures there. It was a paradise of beautifully coloured fish, I even saw a huge ray! From that moment on, I would tell people at school that I would become a marine biologist, with my own research boat, like Jacques Yves Cousteau. And now, I am a marine biologist and I have my own boat!
Eventually, my parents divorced and the diving and camping trips came to an end. When I was 17, my brother, my friends and I drove from Tepoztlán (near Mexico City) to Cancun and Cozumel, and finally I returned to Chankanaab. It was so sad to see the changes there! The reef was badly damaged, there was pollution, and there were very few fish. I wanted to be a marine biologist so badly, so I could have the knowledge to protect the ocean! Today, thanks to better management, Chankanaab is healing.
I first swam with a whale shark back in 1998, during my first semester of my career, and it was the most amazing experience I have ever had in the ocean! They just fascinate me! I remember we also saw a giant manta ray and mobula rays, all of them feeding in the same area. The visibility was terrible and one whale shark appeared out of nowhere, right in front of me and I jumped! It was great! I started to read about whale sharks and I realised that we had very little knowledge about them. I wanted to learn more and contribute to the knowledge base about the species, like one of my mentors and role models, Dr. Eugenie Clark, known as “the Shark Lady,”.
Because whale sharks need so much food (they eat tons of tiny plankton) there are generally other animals in the same areas feeding, while the whale sharks are grazing in the ocean’s living pastures. I realised that if we protect the whale sharks and their habitats we are also protecting many other species”.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?
“When I was a child, my role models were my parents, they were adventurist and divers, I got my best experience on the ocean with them! And of course Jacques-Yves Cousteau. I always would say, “I will be a marine biologist like Cousteau and have my own research boat, too!” During my career, I have been fascinated by the evolutionary theories of Dr. Lynn Margulis, and her Gaia theory. “Gaia principle proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the plane”. I do believe that everything is deeply connected and if we all can release that we can change our relationship with our planet. And of course, Dr. Eugenie Clark, the “shark lady,” has been one of my main role models! I love sharks in general, but at the beginning I was drawn to whale sharks and mantas. All sharks are beautiful creatures and so important for the ocean! It is so sad that we have fewer and fewer sharks. I’ve been in the water with tiger, bull, oceanic black tip, and hammerhead sharks. I even had an encounter with a mako shark! Being with sharks is amazing! There are so many things we still don’t know about them and Eugenie has played a key role in gaining knowledge about sharks!"
What advice would you give someone trying to work in marine science?
"I realised that in order to preserve the ocean and all the life within it, our actions must be connected: science, government, people, community, and education. It is precisely this combined effort that I have been trying to engage through Whale Shark Mexico. I aim to generate the Science and knowledge needed to protect the ocean, and use this information for management and conservation. It is essential to work with the government and community, and to share this knowledge and conservation through education. It is so important to involve children, as they are our next generation, and will need the knowledge of how to protect this world. I try to do this and I feel I’ve been very successful in reaching and connecting government, community and children and that makes me feel that I’m helping to make the world a better place!”.
What legacy do you hope to leave?
“I think that the first part of my legacy will be to impart knowledge of Whale sharks for future scientists and conservationists, when I started there was no information about them around the world and now I am a whale shark expert. I created the baseline for Whale Shark research on both coasts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Gulf of California, my work has been used to create 3 marine protected areas for the whale sharks and these have been the greatest rewards for my work. Outside of my work in Whale Shark Mexico, I have helped to begin whale shark research in Peru and Venezuela. My colleagues and I are developing a law to protect whale sharks in Peru. I have also helped others develop research and conservation projects across the world, and provided a role model to the women that started whale shark conservation projects in Madagascar and Hawaii, giving advice and support along the way.
I believe that this model of generating science and implementing it in the protection of Whale Sharks at an educational, community and government level can work globally. My hope for the future is that these marine protected areas will continue to provide sanctuary for these Whale Sharks and other beautiful creatures. I have now been studying whale sharks for 20 years, and I hope that Whale Shark Mexico can continue to protect them, even without me one day!”.