International expedition to Eastern Tropical Pacific
Thomas Leszkiewicz was “humbled” by a trip he recently took to an uninhabited coral atoll to help tag sharks and survey marine life as part of an international scientific expedition to the Eastern Tropical Pacific, ETP.
The Pincourt man, 28, who has a degree in biology focusing on marine ecology and restoration, was one of ten eco divers allowed to participate in the expedition to Clipperton Island. The coral atoll is under the jurisdiction of the French government. To get there a group of three scientists , nine team members and 11 eco divers boarded an 87-foot vessel, the Quino El Guardian, and embarked on a five day sea voyage. The expedition ran from Jan. 28 to Feb. 11. Leszkiewicz says the mission’s mandate was to gather enough scientific evidence to support the push to make the Clipperton atoll a Marine Protected Area, MPA. In order to do that the scientists needed to prove spatial and genetic connectivity of sharks in the marine corridor. Simply put, they attempted to gather evidence to show certain marine life regularly migrate to Clipperton. The ETP, which runs along the Pacific coast from Mexico to Peru, includes such islands as the Galapagos, Revillagigedo and Cocos, all of which are MPA islands. “That was the whole purpose of the trip. If all the islands are protected but one, what’s the point?” Leszkiewicz noted. <ParaStyle:ST> Experience <ParaStyle:R> Heading the team was lead scientist Dr. Eric Clua, from France. Clua was additionally given the task of replacing a French flag that had flown on Clipperton but which had, over time, succumbed to the elements. The entire expedition was sanctioned by the French government, which issued permits for the research. Dr. Mauricio Hoyos Padilla, a great white shark expert featured on a Discovery Channel Shark Week episode while diving (in a cage) with a 20-foot great white estimated to be a least 50-years old was on the team, as was Sandra Bessudo, a marine biologist and the director/founder of the Malpelo Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving marine diversity in Columbia. Leszkiewicz was invited by underwater photographers Michel Labrecque and Julie Ouimet, owners of N2PIX, while his portion of the trip was sponsored by his employer, Sherwood Scuba. The Vaudreuil-Soulanges resident also received financial help from Michel Poirier, owner of IGA stores in Hudson and Saint Lazare, as well as the Auberge Willow Inn where Leszkiewicz worked for many years.
The team lived on the boat, but spent long hours in the water. The eco divers were tasked with surveying marine species and taking underwater photos. “We dove three or four times a day. At night we’d compare pictures and Eric would record every detail.” Though they didn’t see many adult sharks during the day, that wasn’t the case in the dead of the night. “In the middle of the night you’d go on deck and the boat would be swarmed by adult sharks attracted to our lights. It was magical,” Leszkiewicz recalled. Meanwhile, he was on the receiving end of a solid shark slap while helping the team tag an adult shark. “I was holding her tail while the the researchers tagged her but she started thrashing and when I lost my grip her tail caught me right across the face,” Leszkiewicz noted. “I was kind of dazed for a second but I got to name her after that,” he added, saying he dubbed her The Slapper. The purpose of tagging sharks was to learn if they migrate to Clipperton. “That’s how we prove spatial connectivity,” he explained. Leszkiewicz has always been passionate about saving sharks. He says those who fear them don’t really understand the mighty creatures. “Sharks are a keystone species and have a lot of weight in our ecosystem. It’s very important for us to protect them.” In addition to several shark species, the group dove with giant manta rays and saw other marine life. They also saw what happens when garbage is dumped into the ocean. Much of the deserted Clipperton atoll was strewn with debris that had washed up on its shores. As the youngest member of the expedition Leszkiewicz was dubbed El Nino, or the boy. But he says the experience left him with a thirst to learn more and to keep following his passion.