One big lady reveals the mysteries of her underwater journey
One of the best ways to stay in “live” constant contact with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, and stay up to date on research from the Guy Harvey Research Institute, is to follow GHRITracking.org. For the past several issues of this magazine, we’ve been providing snapshots of some of the creatures we’ve been tracking.
For this issue, we wanted to present Rio Lady. She represents whale sharks (the largest fish in the sea) and some very impressive migration tracking. This animal represents one of the longest tracked creatures on the planet — more than 20,000 miles.
As you look at the incredible 4-year, 17,000-mile track on the next two pages, you really understand how international these animals are. Spending part of her time in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, you notice all the territory she passes through. This is why it will take a concerted effort on the part of so many countries to protect pelagic creatures.
There’s so much more about this impressive 26-foot shark named Rio Lady. Consider this: 12 years ago, in 2007, she was tagged and tracked by the Georgia Aquarium and the Mote Marine Laboratory. Rafael de la Parra, the executive director for Ch’ooj Ajauil AC, tagged her in the waters off Isla Mujeres, Mexico. She traveled more than 9,621 miles in 600 days and went as far south as St. Peter and St. Paul’s Rocks off the coast of Brazil. These islands are in the middle of the Atlantic, halfway between South America and Africa. That track is proudly framed on the wall at the Georgia Aquarium.
In her latest track, from 2018 to the current day, Rio Lady is swimming her way through a lot of territory. She was tagged for the second time off the coast of Isla Mujeres in August of 2018 during the annual whale shark aggregation. During the summer, whale sharks from parts of the Atlantic gather to feast on tiny creatures in the productive waters off the coast of the Yucatán.
Speaking of adventurous, Rio Lady was tagged for a second time by Rafael from Ch’ooj Ajauil AC. Rafael is great to be on the water with, and yes, I’d call him a whale shark whisperer. He’s devoted his life to watching out for these big animals and what it will take to protect them. Rafael is also a family man, and they are on the boat to help them with the tagging — or to make sandwiches for a day on the water.
To tag a whale shark, Rafael swims alongside the animal with an air-powered drill (from his dive tank). He methodically places the tag while swimming, which is no easy task. Whale sharks may seem to swim around lazily, but when you’re in the water with them, they are moving fast, and so is Rafael.
He prepares the equipment and the tag aboard the boat, then jumps in for the tagging. The tag itself is connected to a tiny float to prevent it from sinking. Rafael lines everything up to put the tag on the dorsal fin. The process doesn’t hurt the animal in any way; think of it like getting your fingernail clipped.
Once the tag is attached, the float is disconnected and the shark is on its way.
GHRITacking.org has several actively tracked whale sharks, and the tagging with Rafael continues to this day.
Meanwhile, Rio Lady continues her record voyage. The good news for scientists is that she should be back off the coast of Isla Mujeres in the summer of 2022. If Rafael needs to, he will replace the tag again and Rio Lady will continue to reveal her mysterious life in the open ocean — and continue being a very big ambassador for life on our planet.