Those of you who have been to Misool Resort in the last couple of years will have surely noticed a little stilted platform standing in the tranquil waters off of South Beach. Now, you might think that this is just a nice little structure the resort installed for resting snorkelers, paddleboarders, or kayakers. Or, maybe it’s a place to have a special dinner with your loved one! Nope, none of those ideas are correct. All wrong.
“Then what is it, Alex!?”
I’ll tell you, that beautiful little structure is a fancy sea pen for a very special type of shark!
Many many years ago leopard sharks used to cruise in the waters of Raja Ampat, from the very north and beyond, all the way down to the south in Misool. They were abundant. As they are a very docile species of shark that tends to spend the majority of their time resting on the bottom and doesn’t shy away from humans, their populations were decimated as a result of unregulated shark fishing and bycatch.
Now, with the different MPAs (marine protected areas) in place and strictly enforced around Raja Ampat thanks in part to the Misool Foundation and other marine conservation agencies, these sharks stand a chance at recovering. However, as the leopard shark population was essentially wiped out in this region, there is just not enough of them to naturally repopulate. For example, prior to working for Snorkel Venture, I worked as an underwater videographer on a liveaboard for five years. I would average about three-hundred dives a year all around Raja Ampat. Not once did I, or any of the thousands of guests we took diving ever catch a glimps of a leopard single shark.
So, since there is very little hope for the leopard sharks at repopulating the waters around Raja Ampat naturally, some seriously awesome humans have now involved themselves and created something called the StAR Project. There are a ton of moving parts in the StAR Project as it involves over seventy-five different conservation organizations, forty-four aquariums, and government agencies from fifteen different countries.
Snorkel Venture is actually very proud to be contributing funds to two of the conservation organizations who have partnered with the StAr Project via our Snorkel For Good campaign where 100% of the proceeds go to the Misool Foundation. We also have our Every Trip Program where $100 from each booking made goes to one of five different charity partners, in this case, Thrive Conservation. Thrive Conservation is one of the Indonesian conservation partners in the StAR project. So, thanks to all the rashguards and tours you’ve all purchased, we are all able to help this amazing mission along.
Oh yeah, what does the StAR Project do? Well, to oversimplify a very complex procedure, they take leopard shark eggs from different aquariums around the world and hatch them in tanks at two different locations in Raja Ampat—one of which is Misool Resort. Once hatched, they tag them and then house them in larger indoor tanks until they reach fifty centimeters. They then put them in that fancy sea pen you were all speculating about until they get to eighty centimeters. This whole time there are multiple Shark Nannies and Shark Mannies hand-feeding these little beauties small snails and chopped-up bits of fish, five-to-six times per day! When they reach eighty centimeters they are then released into the protected waters of Misool and Raja Ampat! The sharks are tracked and monitored through the internal acoustic tags they have been fitted with. And then, if everything goes to plan, the baby sharks grow into mature adult sharks, reproduce with one another naturally, creating a genetically diverse population of leopard sharks throughout Raja Ampat, and then all is right in the world. Easy!
While this is obviously a gross oversimplification, the initial trial run of this project, which involved just a couple of eggs, as opposed to the hundreds they have in mind for the future, was an absolute success and now all the parties involved are working on the next phases which will ultimately result in the introduction of over five-hundred shark eggs over a ten year period!
On my last visit to Misool in March this year I had the unique opportunity of being able to get in the sea pen with the very first baby leopard shark ever to be re-introduced to Misool. Mali was the shark’s name, the same as my Mom’s, just spelled differently. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d seen larger leopard sharks in the wild, but I’d never seen a baby before. Fun fact, leopard sharks are my most favorite sharks in the world. They are stunningly beautiful animals with enormous tails which are nearly as long as their polka-dotted bodies. Anyway, I’d only ever seen photos of baby leopard sharks, which look entirely different than adults as they have black and white stripes instead of spots! Actually, they are often called zebra sharks as a result of their spots.
As I entered the sea pen with the shark nanny (best job ever), it took me a while to locate the juvenile shark as it was much smaller and much better camouflaged than I would have imagined. She was casually resting on the bottom, as leopard/zebra sharks are known to do, and was only about as long as my forearm is if you start at the fingers. Kyra, the Shark Nanny, swam over to Mali who proceed to just sit there. Kyra then pulled out some small fish bits and snails and quite literally put the fresh food right up to her mouth, which the little shark promptly sucked in. As leopard sharks primarily eat mollusks and crustaceans, they have much smaller mouths on the bottom of their face with more of a crushing plate design—for those of you worried about the shark nanny’s digits being within such an immediate proximity to the little shark’s mouth.
We spent about an hour feeding her snails and fish. At times the little shark would swim a lap around the pen and then settle on the bottom again, ready for more food. Mali was stunning! While she still had the zebra stripes, she was also beginning to develop her spot pattern. Baby leopard sharks are seldom seen, even in places where leopard shark populations are stable, so to have one swimming right above my head is absolutely an incredible experience, but to have that one as one of the first ever leopard sharks to be introduced into the wild is just unreal.
After the feeding, it was time for her weekly measurement and weighing, which involved both the Shark Nanny and the Shark Manny, who’s name is Agi, working together. Agi would gently grab the shark and swim outside the pen with the little shark. He would then turn her upside down which puts the shark in what is known as tonic immobility, she was then measured and weighed and then released back into her sea pen where she’ll wait for her next round of snails and fish.
While I had special permission to enter the sea pen, as snorkelers we can all still visit the baby sharks in the sea pen, all you have to do is snorkel out to the little pavilion where they live and you can watch them through the mesh barrier. They are in only about eight feet of water and the pen is maybe one-hundred yards from South Beach’s shore. If you’re lucky you can catch the shark nannies/mannies feeding them! In a few years’ time, I think it’s very likely that wild adolescent and sub-adult leopard sharks start to present themselves on our snorkeling safaris in not only Misool, but all around Raja Ampat!
Note: In early July 2023, Mali was safely reintroduced to the wild from her sea pen on South Beach to the calm waters and reefs of the North Lagoon at Misool Resort!