Sunday, January 2, 2011

Industry Trends ZIBS - Zero Impact Baiting System

When news and images of wire and chain wrapped Tiger sharks from S.A appeared in email boxes across the industry, a quiet storm erupted.

At hand was an issue over best baiting practices for commercial shark diving operations vs several long-standing friendships that jumped to the defense of images that would give even a hardened shark conservationist pause.

We posted our thoughts here asking for all parties to consider actual baiting changes in the region.

Regardless of how the images came to pass, either by baiting system design flaw, or protocol flaw, images and videos like these diminish regional operator’s moral authority. The authority we need to effect conservation change for sharks when speaking with other use groups such as fishing interests, poachers, and regional governments. What many were asking for was a new way of doing things, a new bait system that could be copied worldwide and one that had a zero percent animal impact.

In short, thinking outside of the washing machine drum.

South Africa’s Tiger Industry Primer

The S.A commercial Tiger diving industry has a long and storied history and this is by no means a complete record. Developed over a decade and a half ago for film crews and photographers by a Mark Addison a number of operators soon followed.

Grant Swinford -Aliwal Dive Charters

Graham Powell – Sea Fever

Roger Dengler – Private Operator

Brian Viviars – Umkomaas Lodge

Walter Bernadis - African Water Sports.

In 2003 Mark started developing a baiting system that was called a “baited drift drive”, this required grid work to determine which tiger sharks frequented/dominated a certain area which in turn directly related to which tiger sharks would visit the dive and at what point.

Mark’s staff shared this information and baiting technique in 2005 with other operators, who started “Tiger Diving” with this new technique. By 2007 all operators in the region were using Marks baiting technique.

Some of the early Tiger divers baited animals by tying tuna to the reef and then hiding out in underwater caves with one or two safety divers equipped with a broom stick to see what would happen.

From the "old broomstick days sitting in cave" when divers didn't understand the nature of the Tiger sharks, to today, the industry has certainly changed thanks to the early pioneers.

We interviewed Allen Walker this week to discuss his improved Tiger baiting system “ZIBS” and get the back-story behind this remarkable industry innovation. An innovation that came from near tragedy, and one that has a bright future worldwide.

Zero Impact Baiting System is the first of its kind in South Africa representing a unique and industry generated evolution to sustainable baiting practices.

Enter Allen Walker

As a S.A dive instructor and someone who does underwater photography “as a hobby”, Allen is passionate about the ocean. He’s been diving the Aliwal Shoal/Rocky Bay area in S.A for 11 years, with Tigers for the past 10 years as a dive client. He is also behind the S.A dive website Dive Culture . Allen is an independent diver and not a shark diving operator, he has been diving with Blue Wilderness for one and a half years. Prior to that he has dove with every shark dive operator at Aliwal Shoal/Rocky Bay.

Allen is the innovator of the world’s first “Zero Impact Baiting System” – ZIBS.

Tell us about the system

I have been on the numerous Tiger dives where the drift baiting system is used basically “washing machine drum (to hold bait and create scent trail) and cable (to attach to buoys on the surface)” and I have never seen a shark wrap happen, even over 50-60 dives on it, that was up and until recently. This in my opinion was caused by a change in protocol. So two things had to be done: the first was to ensure the cable could be released from the system quickly and that bait could no longer be tied to the stem, this was easy and it was implemented by Mark. The second was to design the ZIBS as I could see there was a potential for problems and there was room for improvement, I decided this was my challenge to take on.

So it was all about trying a different methodology, from PVC to cable, looking at when a Tiger grabs hold of the cable and why, where does it wrap and what could you do to change things around? I watched a lot of video footage and looked at photographs. We had to also think about potential damage to the shark’s jaws, the skin, teeth and eyes. The new system could have no sharp points and it had to be “soft” so it could not break teeth but high grade stainless to ensure longest possible life cycle. We were starting with the original foundation and building from there. It took us a month to design and build the whole system, from stem to bait ball; the actual problem was the bait ball itself.

What do you mean?

We had to find someone who could build and manufacture a fiberglass reinforced sphere about 8mm in thickness, the same stuff you use in a sturdy white whitewater kayak. The reactions I got from local fabricators were interesting once they discovered what we were up to. We had to explain to the fiberglass guy it was a round ball for a Tiger shark “bait ball” that could handle 1-2 tons of bite pressure. The reaction, as you can imagine, was "you’re mad," and as it turned out no one could build anything that was larger than a 300mm sphere, so we had to start from ground zero and find a sphere to mold.

Where did you find a sphere mold for the Bait Ball?

We found a solution at the gym with those Ab Balls, the kind that women work out on, and at 850mm the sphere was the perfect size. So we used the Ab Ball as the template for the new and improved Tiger baiting ball.

So, you got the ball, the manufacturer, Tiger season is just around the corner?

Then it got tough. Our original manufacturer failed in the attempt to build our first ball. After we provided him with the metal brackets, money and design specs, he just folded shop, and would not return our calls. He vanished with everything. Then we had to go back to steel manufacturer to replace all the brackets and bolts and find another fiberglass guy. By now the holiday season was fast approaching and shark season was weeks away, middle of November through April and May, so we were under the gun.

The new manufacturer was great and made it all in one day, with one mold. The interesting thing we discovered is that fiberglass and drill bits do not go together. To create the scent holes we went through seven high tensile drill bits as they either blunted extremely quickly or kept on getting stuck and broken in the 8mm fiberglass shell. It was brutal work.

How many scent holes did you drill in the end for a ball that size?

To get it right, we finally drilled 400 to 500 holes so we could get a good scent flow through the water column. The guys who built the sphere delivered it to us and said "you are absolutely crazy, you go through all this effort to build that perfect sphere only to drill holes into it, fill it full of bait and attract Tiger sharks – Happy Holidays!"

What were the logistical problems, and your primary technical concerns?

Testing in the water, we were very happy with the products look and design. Getting it out there was the challenge. We had to consider the space on the boat, the stem had to be foldable and workable, the stem also needed to be weighted, the stem "aha moment. “ We created an anti-wrapping stem that that folded into a v deterring the shark from further action. Unlike the cable, which could get wrapped as we have seen, the stem does not; each section is linked in a way to prevent wrapping of the animals.

Additionally each section on the stem is designed to quickly and effectively to be lengthened and shortened depending how you want your ZIBS to ride in the water. This system was also designed for one or two bait balls if you need it. Sometime the Tigers stay deep; they will only come up if they see something interesting. This system allows for a deeper bait ball at 10-18meters and another at 5 meters closer to the surface. Even the size of the scent holes had to be small enough that sharks teeth could not get hung up on them i.e no purchase points!

Did any regional shark diving operator attempt new bait systems?

As you know I am not an operator, but as far as I was aware yes, other operations had been working on new solutions as well. Rob Nettleton from Off Shore Africa Dive Charters - took a marker buoy and made a new bait system with that. Walter Bernadis from African Water Sports took “poly-cop” piping, basically pvc tubes, and made a bait system with that, the guys were all developing their own systems. We discussed these on occasion, I was however not happy with it, I just wanted to look outside the box; the ZIBS system, in my opinion was the way to go. I got all my input from Mark Addison at Blue Wilderness. I would call him up and ask about bite radius information, animal behaviors, and depth information.

So each operator has his own system right now?

There's only one ZIBS in use right now by Blue Wilderness, the other operators have to fabricate their own ZIBS and I have provided African Water Sports and Off Shore Africa with a new design stem from the ZIBS design and I will put them in touch with the contact who can build the “Bait Ball”, may even get it done for them, they are both great guys in their own rights.

As for the other operators, they would need to get everything manufactured, I am happy to help with the design.

This whole effort sounds expensive, who paid for it?

If you want something done you just got to step in and do it and that's where my focus as a diver, photographer, and part time conservationist was for this last six weeks, ultimately Hans and I sponsored the new ZIBS system.

What’s the future of shark diving in South Africa?

Personally, there is a whole lot of different techniques and diving operations in S.A, as much as we say sharks might be dangerous, we are really changing the mindset of divers and non divers worldwide, but most importantly future generations of South Africans. The mindset of your average S.A just does do sharks, being out there with them opens minds and changes perceptions. Even children at 6-7 years old who get introduced to sharks is a step in the right direction, he will soon be an diver and most of all he is going to tell all his friends how cool sharks really are! Immediately you have changed their whole thinking on sharks. Once they get to meet sharks they will want to conserve our S.A heritage, our sharks.

We have taken another step to making the S.A shark diving experience even better, from early the days of baits on reef with divers in caves with sticks to today, we have learned and grown and continue to evolve. Blue Wilderness is already working on further improvements of ZIBS and even alternate baiting methodology. Watch this space.

I want to offer some thanks to a few of the people who helped make the Zero Impact Baiting System a reality.

Mark Addison for sharing his knowledge, I would not have had a base to work from without his input. Gail Addison for ensuring I got the help I needed and her support of my project. Ralph from High Tech Packaging for all the steel fabrication, twice, and to Jaap from Link Africa Projects for all the brackets and clips and the nitty gritty to put this thing together. Eugene for helping go through seven drill bits and to drill 400 to 500 bait holes, Hans and Jacqy mates of mine who offered funding and support, and finally to my wife who watched me get totally absorbed with this project. Now that it is done, she has threatened to ban me from diving if I get too involved again, I might still test her resolve on that, I know she will always support me.

And to Wolfgang, yeah you did keep on reminding me. South African sharks ultimately benefit from this innovation and in the end we're here to be site stewards, animal stewards, and look at South African sharks through the lens of sustainability.

My final wishes:

  • The Natal Sharks Board will remove all their archaic nets and drum lines from our oceans and stop legally killing our heritage!
  • That all the other operators in the world will step up to the batting plate and be counted, I see a number of bad baiting techniques used by all of them and I also so a lot of them take a pitch or two.
End of interview.