Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Happy New Year To All!!

We wish all our visitors a safe, happy and prosperous 2009!

We will not be able to add new posts to the blog over the next few weeks while the team is out on the research expedition to Djibouti, but we will update you as soon as we are able!

In the mean time have a great New Year!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Djibouti expedition draws near

As most people get into the pre-Christmas rush of last minute card writing and present buying scattered around the world a dozen or so people are getting excited about another activity to take place shortly afterwards, the whale shark expedition to Djibouti starting on New Years Day!

Both of the two weeks of the expedition are now fully booked with the team from MCSS and Megaptera being joined by cameraman Dan Beecham and photographer Thomas Peschak from the Save our Seas Foundation as well as a total of some six eco-volunteers. Life aboard the Deli is going to be pretty hectic from the sound of things…

The expedition is going to be targeting the Arta area in the Gulf of Tadjoura which is the gulf on which Djibouti city is located just past the southern end of the Red Sea. This gulf is an inlet of the Indian Ocean caused by the fault line of the northern end of the great East African Rift Valley that transects Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The area is geologically and volcanically active as evidenced in 1978 by the eruption of the Ardoukoba volcano. The seabed shelves steeply from the coast of the Gulf dropping to 100 m depth around two km offshore and to around 450 m depth in the centre of the Gulf of Tadjoura. The volcanic lanscape is dramatic if somewhat stark and the volcanic activity has narrowed the gulf down to form the ‘Devils Goblet’ and then pinched it off entirely leaving Lac Assal completely land locked and evaporating away. The surface of this lake is now 450 m below sea-level and the evaporating seawater has left vast salt pans with dramatic areas of salt crystal structures; this is a must for all visitors to the area and a half day trip has been planned.

The whale sharks in Djibouti are interesting in that they spend a lot of time vertical feeding and at night are drawn in to feed on swarms of tropical krill that are attracted by the boats lights...

Five whale sharks feeding on tropical krill at night... not quite sure how we would get the photo IDs done on this lot!

Off special interest to the whale shark team is the fact that very deep water is close to shore. This feature coupled with the fact that on the previous expedition in 2006 the aggregation of sharks was found to be composed of very small sharks, with several of just over 2 metres, may indicate that this area may be a nursery ground for whale sharks. The rationale for this is that globally the number of neonatal (less than 1 metre) whale sharks seen is tiny, less than 15 records, this despite the high level of fishing in coastal areas. This has prompted the idea that when first born the 65cm pups stay
in very deep water to keep away from other predators and only come into shallow waters when they are around 4 m in size. Djibouti with its aggregation of very small sharks may thus be an area close to where the youngsters are.

While our team aren’t able to get to those sorts of depths, an ROV can and the BBC Natural History film unit just happen to be in Djibouti at the same time and happen to have an ROV! Their main aim is to explore the beginning of the East African Rift but having heard of our expedition and the potential of this being a nursery area they are going to see if they can find any baby whale sharks at the same time!

So this really is going to be quite an adventure... we will post news to the blog but as there is no internet connection it will probably be once we get back to civilisation...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

2009 Seychelles Programme Internships

The Seychelles monitoring programme is recognised as one of the largest whale shark monitoring programmes in the world (see comments on BBC Natural World); the programme integrates eco-tourism with research activities and in so doing captures an enormous amount of data both about the sharks, their behaviour and the environmental characteristics of the habitat. In view of the large amount of data that is now being captured a structured approach is necessary with respect to volunteer participation. Also, as it is very time consuming to train new applicants part way through the season, the programme will be run with 6 internships being offered on a full-season basis.

The 2009 internship programme will last for 10 weeks from 24th August to 31st October. The first week will be an orientation and training week, week two will hopefully be getting some practice whale shark trips and helping the pilots set up the micro-light aircraft, and as of week three (Sept 7th) the monitoring activities proper will be implemented.

The six interns will work as two teams, one for each monitoring boat, and each team will be supervised by a team leader who in turn will work under the project leader. The two team leaders have worked with the MCSS programme for two years and both have considerable monitoring and volunteer organisational experience. The interns will be accommodated at the MCSS premises on the coast at Glacis, NW Mahe on a self-catering basis. The property has two bedrooms set out dormitory-style for a maximum of four persons each and each bedroom has an en-suite bathroom facility enabling male - female separation. There is a large living-room and kitchen for communal use with washing machine and all usual amenities. There is also a large veranda connecting the living accommodation to the MCSS office. Wireless internet service is available throughout the premises.

The interns’ training and duties will cover the full range of activities associated with the MCSS whale shark monitoring programme including:

- The Seychelles whale shark programme:- findings, achievements, why it exists
- Study area orientation and geography
- Basic whale shark information and biology
- Whale shark data collection:- filling out forms, writing up data, the systems and spreadsheets
- Photo identification:- sorting and filing images, pre-process preparation, matching software
- Laser-metrics: measuring sharks using underwater laser with digital photography
- Snorkel training and water skills development for whale shark activities
- Communications training:- between micro-light and boat and between boats
- Boat operations:- logistics, protocols and safety
- Micro-light aerial survey support and data handling, software use
- Environmental monitoring equipment use, data capture and handling

The costs of the internship programme, inclusive of shared accommodation and training is Euro 2350 per person for the ten weeks. These costs do include utilities (power and water) but exclude food costs, private local travel and international travel to and from Seychelles, all of which are the intern’s responsibility.

For more information please download the information file (on the MCSS web site so may be slow!) and if you wish to apply please download and complete the application form.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Seychelles whale sharks on BBC TV

On Tuesday 18th November BBC2 aired the first screening of the whale shark episode in their series the Natural World, as many of you have contacted us to let us know!

This episode documents the work of Dr. Mark Meekan in trying to unravel the mysteries of the whale shark and includes several sequences filmed here in Seychelles with the MCSS whale shark programme in 2007. While the sequences may be brief a number of our key people are on the film and it does portray the Seychelles programme well describing it as the “largest whale shark research programme in the world" with "massive tourist integration". So all of the interns who worked with us in 2007 can be pretty happy with their contribution to the filming of this episode.

The episode was made by the Big Wave production company and includes much underwater footage captured in Seychelles by Rory McGuinness, who proved to be both an exceptional cameraman and an accomplished diver, keeping up with the sharks while pushing a massive video camera in front of him. There’s also a sequence of a whale shark having a poo which seems to have captivated the press!

The episode certainly ranks as one of the most important pieces to raise public awareness about whale sharks for many years and will doubtless be syndicated onto the various TV channels in due course. For those of you who didn’t see it the episode is to be repeated on Sunday 23rd at 8.00pm and is also available for download through the BBC Natural World iPlayer (only available in the UK).

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Another late season surprise!

We recently received a series of whale shark photos taken by Frank Steinberg back in April of this year when on a diving expedition to Aldabra and the Southern Islands of Seychelles.

While it is always nice to receive photos of whale sharks from visitors, the fact that they were taken off Astove island some 800 miles south of Mahe makes them all the more interesting. Also, the outer islands of Seychelles seldom record whale sharks even though our tracking studies do indicate that whale sharks from Mahe do make the journey South West towards Mozambique.

Frank Steinberg's photos of the whale shark swimming over the edge of the Astove wall with two large mottled remoras clinging to its back

Frank’s shark was around 4-5 metres in length with a bite out of the trailing edge of the left pectoral fin. It was accompanied by two very large remoras that were firmly fixed to its back… like the sighting of the shark these were unusual as they were the large mottled brown Remora remora species rather than the slender striped Echeneis naucrates which are the common remoras found on whale sharks around Mahe.

Frank was also able to get underneath the shark as it swam along the top of the famous Astove wall and got a few shots from below which confirm that the shark was a female, also unusual as most sharks found around Mahe are males (see the side bar for this seasons statistics).

The photo series yielded both left and right identity shots which Katie Brooks eagerly fingerprinted through the I3S photo ID programme and then ran against the Mahe whale shark database…. and it’s another new shark! We are now waiting for the arrival of Simon Pierce’s database from
Mozambique to see if this has been seen in his area at all.

We wonder if there are going to be any further end of season surprises?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Last minute shark…

Well although the monitoring season has finished the local population of whale sharks don’t seem to have heard the story and there are definitely still a few hanging around to the delight of visiting divers.

One such lucky group were the divers from Dive-Crew, a UK based dive-tour organisation who had been persuaded to visit Seychelles by their leader Colin Miles in the knowledge that they might just get a chance to see a whale shark. The 25 divers knew that they were outside the peak period but as diving was their main objective they were happy with the potential for an opportunistic sighting.

And on the 12th of November during a dive on Grouper Point with Dive Seychelles they were lucky indeed as a 5 metre whale shark came in to visit them! Steve Sparkes was the one with a camera at the ready and managed to capture some good images that everyone in the group wish they had!

After a somewhat belated presentation on the MCSS whale shark programme by Dr. David, Steve was happy to pass on the images for identification. Katie Brooks was more than eager to run them through the I3S system, partly to escape from double checking data from this season, but also to see if this was a known shark or a new one…. And to everyone’s surprise it turned out to be a new shark and became the 38th new shark identified in 2008.

The key identification area that confirms this as a new shark sey.2008.038 !

And so although the season is formally over there are still a few sharks around to distract the team members from the end of season ‘housekeeping’ chores!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Jean-Michel Cousteau visits the MCSS team!

On the very last day of operations for the 2008 whale shark season, the MCSS monitoring team members had a surprise visit from renown marine conservationist Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Jean-Michel was visiting Seychelles aboard the Regent and had arranged to dive with the Underwater Centre / Dive Seychelles; David and Glynis had known about this well in advance and had arranged with our micro-light pilot Johan that he would stay on an extra week to see if there were any whale sharks around for Jean-Michel’s visit….

In the morning things looked hopeful as the one and only whale shark found on the aerial survey was in the North-West sector; however, by the afternoon the shark had disappeared. This didn’t deter Jean-Michel from paying the team a visit in the Conception Channel, after his dive on Shark Bank, and pilot Johan did a low-level ‘fly-by’ to welcome him.

Jean-Michel Cousteau meets the MCSS whale shark team leaders, from left Luke Riley, David Rowat, Jean-Michel and Katie Brooks.

After the boat ride back to the dive centre Jean-Michel was introduced to the Dr. David and to team leaders Katie Brooks and Luke Riley, where he was interested to learn about the programme and the broad reach of both intern participation and the work we do. There is another Seychelles visit planned in 2009 and so we may get another chance to find a whale shark for Jean-Michel then!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

As the season winds down and the whale sharks are beginning to disperse to more plankton rich waters, and the interns migrate back to colder climes, so the tempo of activities is also slackening off….

So slack in fact, the pilot Johan decided to stop-off at one of Seychelles under-visited beaches on the way back from an afternoon encounter support patrol… justifying the break as due reward for a very taxing afternoon with no sharks until the very last 15 minutes of the patrol… time for a quick spot of scenic photography!

COP on Grande Anse, Mahe, where COP's tyre tracks compete with horse hoof-prints for importance, while pilot Johan swelters in his red flight-suit....

And so it was that the COP visited Grande Anse, Mahe, for an hour or so and hardly a soul came to see what the strange apparition was that had landed on their beach…. In fact apart from the hoof prints of horses from the local stables, COP’s tyre tracks were the most notable sign of activity on the beach!

Johan soon dispensed with the flight-suit for a few scenic photos!

Johan managed to convince two young girls that he and Katie weren’t from outer space and so they returned to collecting ‘tec-tec’ clams (a local delicacy) from the shallows while Johan and Katie took a few photos of COP in the stunning scenery.

And then it was time to take COP back home, landing on the big concrete beach the is Seychelles International airport, where COP is hangered… so much for idyllic beaches!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

MCSS supported whale shark monitoring programme in Djibouti January 2009

From the 1st to 15th January 2009, a whale shark monitoring programme is being run once again in Djibouti. This is a follow up expedition to the first research visit in 2006, which scientifically documented this aggregation of juvenile whale sharks.

A juvenile whale shark in the Djibouti aggregation feeding at the surface

The expedition is being organised by the Non-Governmental Organisation Megaptera (better known for their work on humpback whales but who were the initiators of the original Djibouti whale shark programme )
with the assistance of Dr. David Rowat and the whale shark research team from the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles.

Two weeks of scientific expedition are planned to study whale sharks in the waters of the Gulf of
Tadjoura, Djibouti; participants will assist in the collection of data on these placid giant sharks (photographs or videos for photo-identification, tissue sampling for DNA analysis, compilation of the data, photo-identification matching with previous years, etc ....).

The expedition will be based aboard the beautiful DELI, a two-masted live-aboard dhow of 26m. In the first week 1st to 8th January 2009 there are 4 places available; while in the second week 8th to 15th January there are 5 places available.

Costs per person are €900 for a single week or €1600 for the both weeks excluding air-fares; costs include airport to vessel transfers as well as a visit to Lake Assal, the lowest lake on the planet. For further information concerning this exceptional experience please contact us at .

Monday, November 3, 2008

October 31st, the official end of the 2008 Season but also Halloween….

October the 31st has arrived which marks the official end of the 2008 whale shark monitoring season in Seychelles; official end as this is the point at which we normally stop monitoring but this year has been different in many respect and we are in fact continuing with activities for a further week.

Many of the intern team had already arranged to stay on for a week or two and the low numbers of sharks over the season has made them keen to carry on for as long as possible. Our micro-light pilot Johan has also agreed to extend his visit by a week and so the programme will continue at least until November 7th.

Unfortunately, two of the team had tickets which couldn’t be changed with Tomo Moritomo and James Tutty leaving on the 2nd of November and so it seemed appropriate that the end of season BBQ should be held on the 31st October….. which was also Halloween!

We had never held a Halloween party and were not sure how the interns would react but they were enthusiastic to say the least!

The complete 2008 whale shark monitoring team, although you would hardly recognise them!

Before things really went to the ghouls and vampires Dr. David thanked all of the team for their hard work during the season and presented them with a certificate and an in-water photograph of them during the season designed by Katie Brooks (one of the team leaders). Katie also catalogued the team’s achievements:

Shark statistics

139 in-water encounters with 64 individual whale sharks
28 sharks identified from previous seasons
36 new sharks identified this season
60 sharks sexed (46 male and 14 female)
15 tissue sample biopsies taken

Aerial Survey

88 microlight flights completed
Over 8000 km flown in 175 hours and 33 minutes

Boat Trips

50 boat trips operated with 451 guests
44 hours and 38 mins spent swimming with whale sharks

Luke Riley, the other team leader, showed a short DVD that he had compiled for all the interns which captured their activities and achievements over the previous 10 weeks which will also serve as a memento of their visit to Seychelles and contribution to the monitoring programme.

So with just a week left to go to the final wrap up for 2008, the remaining interns hope that Johan can find a whole bunch of sharks for them to round off the season in style, while Dr. David, Katie and Luke lay plans for 2009!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Update on Sammy the whale shark…

On Friday the 31st October, the Times Newspaper in the UK reported that the Government of the United Arab Emirates had ordered the Atlantis Resort to free the captive whale shark.
Sammy the whale shark in captivity at the Atlantis resort, Dubai. Photo courtesy Claire, Free Sammy facebook group

The 4 metre female shark was captured in August and has been in captivity in an enormous tank in the foyer of the Atlantis Resort at the Palm Jumeirah development in Dubai. The order to release the shark comes just a few weeks before the planned lavish opening party of the resort on November 20th reputed to be costing some $35 million!

The Government’s order is somewhat of a milestone for marine conservation in the region and is undoubtedly partly due to the huge amount of negative publicity generated by concerned Dubai residents and local conservationists, as well as the success of the Save Sammy facebook site.

As of this moment there has been no official confirmation that the order to release Sammy has been carried out but we will let you know as soon as we hear!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tomoko Moritomo's view of whale shark internship!

Join Tomo, our Japanese intern, who worked on the whale shark programme at Ningaloo as she describes life as an intern here in Seychelles; for the English version please scroll down...

磁石で引っ張られるかのように、あっという間に体は空高く引き上げられた。Microlight に乗った。正直、空中の乗り物は苦手だが、眼下に広がる風景は、緊張を一瞬にしてほぐしてくれるほど美しく、そして刺激的なものだった。


The view from the microlight above the west coast of Mahe



  私が心奪われたのは、そんなジンベイザメの小ささよりも、むしろ限りなく広がる大洋だった。豊富な栄養分を含んでいることを想像させるようなたっぷりとあ ふれんばかりの水をたたえた大洋。そう、ジンベイザメはその中で生きているんだ。当たり前のことかもしれないが、その光景は、ジンベイザメと彼らを取り巻 く環境の関わり、本質的なつながりを強く意識させるものだった。

船上で行われるCTDや プランクトン採集、サッキーディスクといった環境モニタリングから得られるデータの一つひとつは、ジンベイザメ(ジンベイザメの分布)と彼らを取り巻く環 境の関係への興味を大いに駆り立ててくれるものだが、上空からのその光景はその一つひとつの情報をより全体的な視点で捉えさせてくれるものだった。

今 年は、ジンベイザメがなかなか姿を現さない。セーシェル周辺にはもういないのか、それとも私たちの目の届かない深場に隠れているのか。彼らを取り巻く環境 に何が起こっているのか、正直私にはわからない。しかし、環境を観察することは、そのなぜに答えるアイデア(ヒント)を示してくれる。

午 後のフライトでは、ボートのために、ジンベイザメを探すことに専念。目をこらして探すも、なかなか見つからず、さらに雨も降ってきた。気分も下がり始める 頃、雨雲と雨雲の雲の切れ間から突然、虹の輪が現れた。それは、美事な円を描き、輝くほど鮮やかな七色。息を呑むほど本当に美しい光景だった。

こ れまで同じ状況下で数え切れないほどその美しい姿は上空に現れていたのだろう。しかし、それが誰かに見られることはきわめて稀なことだ。その瞬間に居合わ せた偶然がたまらなくうれしかった。予期せぬ自然の偶然の出来事に触れることは、体中にじわじわと染み渡るような暖かい喜びだ。

ジ ンベイザメと出会うということもまた、同じだ。たとえホットスポットがあろうと、私たちが水中でその姿に出会うということは、ジンベイザメが水面に姿を現 し、パイロットがあるいは船がその姿を確認できる場所にいる、そして私たちがそんな瞬間に居合わせる偶然の出来事なんだろう。


このプログラムを通して行った環境モニタリングやMicrolight からのサーベーは、より広い視点で対象を見ることの面白さを教えてくれる貴重な体験だった。

Tomo hard at work recording the afternoon whale shark encounters

My body went straight up into the sky like a flash, as if pulled up by a magnet. I was on the micro-light. To be honest, I don’t like any aircrafts but the view stretching out below me was so beautiful and exciting that it made my stress melt instantly.

On the morning survey, the pilot logs environmental data and the locations of not only whale sharks but also other interesting creatures in a particular area.

We found a whale shark as soon as we took off. The sight from the sky fixed my attention, there was such a contrast between the size of the shark and the ocean surrounding it. The whale shark was tiny like a drop of ink dripped into the vast ocean, so small it was barely recognisable.

I was so impressed by the ocean spreading out without limit rather than the tiny size of the whale shark, it is no wonder that the sharks live in it. It was this sight that has made me acutely aware of the relationship between the whale sharks and their surrounding environment and that they are essentially linked.

The data from environmental monitoring on the boat, such as CTD profiles, plankton tows and the Secchi disk had peaked my interest into the correlation between whale sharks (or their distribution) and the environment. However it was still just data to me, but the sight from the sky has put it all into perspective on a global scale.

Whale sharks haven’t appeared easily this year. Have they not been here or are they just hiding in deep water? To be honest I have no idea, but by monitoring the environment it allows my imagination to find possible reasons why.

( it shows me some hints / idea to find possible reason why.)

During the afternoon flight, we concentrate on finding whale sharks for our boat. The pilot and I had made every effort to find whale sharks but we couldn’t. To make matters worse, it had started to rain. Just as I was beginning to feel down, a rainbow ring suddenly appeared through a break in the rain clouds. It was a perfectly circular, vivid and brightly iridescent. It was an absolutely beautiful scene.

Undoubtedly these beautiful rainbows appear all the time in the right conditions but are rarely witnessed, being there at just the right moment made me so happy. It was so unexpected that I could feel the joy spreading gradually through my body.

To me encountering whale sharks in the water is the same as this. Even though we know where to concentrate our search, to actually get to swim with the sharks requires so many things to be just right, the pilot and boat has to be in exactly the right place at the right time so each encounter is still down to chance.

Even though I have a lot of experience swimming with whale sharks, I have never become tired of it and still I enjoy it. Not only because of their immense beauty, but also that I am part of one of nature’s chance encounters.

Big shark, small (?) David... who's not reading the encounter rules!

It is a great experience for me to be engaged in environmental monitoring and aerial survey through this programme. It has showed me the interest of keeping the environment and marine creatures in perspective.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A new COP on the block!

After the rather untimely modification of our new microlight last weekend a number of people had several sleepless nights trying to organise a rapid solution to suddenly being without an aircraft for the last three weeks of the season.

Local chartering of either fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, even with their generous offers of discounted rates, was simply unaffordable, but our pilot for the first part of the season, David Daniel, knew of a microlight available in South Africa and arrangements were made to bring the aircraft up to complete the season for us.

After just two days David had the replacement aircraft dismantled, boxed-up and had driven it overnight to Jo’burg airport for air-freight to Seychelles. Here the Air Seychelles / Aero-Link team made the impossible happen by getting both the microlight and 7 metre long wing on to the next plane out to Seychelles, arriving late Wednesday night!

The new aircraft is released to customs and the 'lads' take it to the hanger...

Customs at Seychelles airport were very accommodating and early on Thursday morning the new aircraft was being unpacked and re-assembled at the hanger of the Islands Development Company who graciously allow us to use their facility.

And so it was that 'many hands make light work' or in this case make a microlight as the team pitched in to re-build the aircraft that David Daniel had so carefully disassembled a few days earlier.

By late afternoon the work was finished and the COP had arrived! Resplendent with a yellow and blue wing the aircraft was ready to take to the air the following morning and hopefully find sharks for the team and our visiting groups, who had been waiting patiently since Sunday for some positive news!

A happy, if somewhat grubby and tired team pose proudly around the completed plane.

And so Friday morning dawned and the COP was definitely on the block when pilot Johan managed to get the team onto an absolutely perfect shark (which had been recorded in 2007) that stayed with them for over two hours!

The first whale shark apprehended by COP, a repeat visitor from 2007

In the afternoon Johan again showed that the COP had the pace to get the job done and delivered six encounters with four different sharks. And an interesting bunch they proved to be, thanks to the I3S programme and the diligence of the intern team! One had been tagged in 2005 and then photographed without its tag in 2006 and 2007; another was a 2008 shark, first seen on October 6th (in fact this was the shark from which Katie had collected the copepods) and had been seen many times since; while the other two had been recorded in both 2005 and 2007….

So it was back to business for the team, thanks to the hard work and determination of a lot of people! A warm welcome to the COP!!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Quiet in Seychelles but storms brew in Dubai over Sammy the captive whale shark

Whale shark monitoring here has hit a bit of a hiatus as our microlight aircraft sustained some serious damage over the weekend and a replacement is being air-freighted out to complete the rest of the monitoring season. The lack of aerial support is severely hampering monitoring activities and pilot Johan is keen to get things back on track by this Friday if all goes according to plan.
Sammy the whale shark in the Atlantis Aquarium dubai, photo courtesy Free Sammy Facebook group

Meanwhile, storm clouds seem to be gathering over Dubai at the moment over the fate of a juvenile female whale shark that has been in captivity in the Atlantis Aquarium for over a month now. The shark was caught after fishermen who were collecting fish for the aquarium found the shark to be in trouble in shallow water behind a breakwater in Jebel Ali; the shark was taken by the aquarium to ‘recuperate’ but so far there are no signs of it being released.

The shark was named Sammy and local newspaper the Gulf News has described a ‘tsunami of support’ to have it released with a ‘Free Sammy’ campaign running on its on-line edition (click the image left). You can even download a ‘Free Sammy’ badge from the site.

Whale sharks in captivity cause very mixed reactions; on the one hand having these sharks in tanks does allow many more people to see them and thus serves a function in raising awareness. The very young whale sharks reared in Japanese aquaria have also provided some of the only evidence about neonatal whale shark growth rates. However, on the other hand these are free ranging wild animals that eat plankton and they tend not to fare well being kept in aquaria conditions. Of concern are the recent deaths of two of the captive whale sharks in the Georgia aquarium in the USA; such deaths do little to raise public awareness and only serve to increase pressure to allow these sharks to go back to the open ocean.

If you want to learn more there is also a face-book site for supporters of Sammy at

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Our first whale shark copepods!

When Mark Meekan from AIMS in Darwin asked us to keep an eye open for copepods on whale sharks we thought he was kidding as none of us had noticed them on any of the sharks we have here… but going through some front-on images (photo left by Tony Baskyfield) it seemed that they may in fact be on Seychelles whale sharks too.

Copepods are small crustaceans and the ones found on whale sharks look a bit like miniature horseshoe crabs. They are not parasites as such but can be considered more as commensals because they feed on algae and bacteria that grow on the whale shark's skin. The ones found on whale sharks (Pandarus rhincodonicus) are apparently only found on whale sharks and they aren’t able to move very far themselves and so get carried from place to place by their host shark.

Because whale sharks breed slowly, probably taking some 20 years to reach maturity, their genetic differentiation can be masked by the fact that sharks from different areas can move very large distances during their lives. By comparison, their hitch-hiking copepods breed rapidly and as they only occur on whale sharks their DNA can be used as a biological marker tag to differentiate between populations of whale sharks that visit different areas….. If copepods here in Seychelles have the same DNA markers as those from East Africa then it would indicate that the Seychelles sharks also visit East Africa, or vice versa…

So much for the science-speak…. What about these copepods on Seychelles whale sharks? Well according to Mark they are easy to collect “just wipe them off with a gloved hand or pull them of with a pair of tweezers….” OK sounds like a great job for Katie! Or not quite… Rather not quite so easily! The first shark we found with copepods seemed completely unfazed about Katie trying to remove them and in fact he seemed to think Katie was a large cleaner fish and appeared to welcome the attention… But come-off the copepods would not and a very miffed Katie returned empty handed.

More extraction power was needed and so on the next trip a pair of surgical forceps were secured ready for use, but as you probably imagined, the sharks on this trip were copepod free! Finally we found a young male shark with both a slightly curled left pectoral fin (photo right), as well as a nice collection of copepods on its top lip.

So Katie went into action again, this time successfully collecting three with the aid of the forceps!

Our first collection of whale shark copepods (Pandarus rhincodonicus); photo and copepods Katie Brooks

So, that’s the first of what we hope will be several copepod collections… We just need to find a bunch more sharks now so Katie can prove she is Queen of the Copepods, or is that shrimps to you and me?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Charlotte’s back and so are the sharks??

This weekend saw the arrival of our largest specialist group of the season (photo left) with Charlotte Caffrey from AquaFirma UK…. While we had been able to get our previous specialist group onto two whale sharks for some long swims, conditions were still ‘too good’ for many sharks to be around…. Light winds, calm seas and 20 metre visibility meant no plankton and no whale sharks!

After a formal presentation from David on Saturday evening the group was left with no doubts as to the fickle nature of wild animals in general and whale sharks in particular… Sunday morning dawned with light winds and a few scattered showers which gave micro-light pilot little to worry about apart from finding some sharks for Charlotte and her group! Stacey, one of the group members, was to be the observer for the morning with Johan and so the hopes of both the group and all of the intern team were on her shoulders!

Luckily Charlotte or someone in her group has the ‘whale-shark-mojo’ as Johan and Stacey found not one but two sharks within accessible range and so the group eagerly rushed off for an early lunch and to kit-up for the afternoon.

As the monitoring boat got into the area David saw a tail fin disappearing and a local taxi-boat confirmed that there had been a whale shark swimming around for a few minutes… Johan was overhead in the micro-light quickly but the shark had disappeared. After waiting for about 10 minutes David decided to run the first plankton tow and just as Luke lowered the net in to start the radio crackled into life with Johan barking directions for a shark! Although the boat rushed at full speed to the area the shark had again disappeared and so the waiting game started again… after a 10 minute hiatus David again called for the plankton tows to start and again as Luke got on the swim platform with the net, Johan called in another shark… a long way away!

The boat rushed to the location to find a small whale shark swimming leisurely on the surface and the first half of the group got into the water with the shark; after about three minutes Luke halted the first group and the shark was hand-balled to the second group…. and then after a similar period the first group were dropped back in and the shark hand-balled back to them until it dived away into deeper water.

The young shark that welcomed the AquaFirma group seemed quite comfortable with the company! Photos Luke Riley

First shark! At least they had all seen one! The plankton net was made ready once again but didn’t even get onto the platform before Johan called in another shark, a long way off back where the first one had been seen… This time it played ball and group two got in with this new shark while group one geared up to hand-ball it, but Johan had other ideas with another, bigger, shark surfacing some 200 metres away. It was rude to ignore it and so Tomoko took group one in with the larger shark and the two groups slowly started to head towards each other as the two sharks swam on a near collision course.

As the afternoon progressed we managed to get into the water with three different sharks and the pilot had sighted another two probably different individuals making this the most productive day of the season so far. And yes we did eventually get the environmental monitoring and plankton tows done…after almost everyone was too exhausted to swim with the sharks anymore!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Not all work and no play!

The last few weeks have been a bit trying for the intern team as whale sharks were scarce and so opportunities to get out on the boats to see them were limited, but everyone pulled together as a team and things went smoothly.

The key to the MCSS programme has always been public participation and while the interns have a number of tasks that they have to accomplish, both in terms of monitoring the sharks and encounters and doing the environmental studies, they also have to involve the public in these activities as much as possible.

Happily, the interns are a very social bunch and are more than happy to involve our guests in all of the activities. Sarah’s diligence in spraying down the plankton off the net into the ‘bucket’ (photo above left) soon captivated youngsters Amy and Harry although who was to blame for the spraying of half of the boats occupants was somewhat of a mystery!

Amy, Sarah and Harry disputing who was the sprayer responsible for soaking half the crew!

Tomoko, our intern from Japan, has become very adept at the environmental monitoring and has no problem with running the CTD casts to 40 metres or more (photo right), however we don’t seem to get many guests volunteering for this aspect!. During the last week of September, our first specialist group of guests arrived with photographer Tony Baskyfield from the UK and we were concerned that the scarcity of sharks would be a problem. For two days we had not been able to get onto a shark; although there had been some aerial sightings the sharks were only staying on the surface for very short periods and we had some very disappointed guests….

For the next three days the water was crystal clear (measured at over 20 metres with the Secchi disk), Tony and his group had some great dives with Dive Seychelles, but no plankton meant no sharks….. and then our pilot Johan located a shark off L’ilot and the team dashed off tout suite! Tony and his group had waited for three days for this new young male shark but what a treat they were in for, with over an hour spent swimming and photographing the inquisitive and curious new arrival.

Team leader Katie checks out the newest arrival to the Seychelles whale shark aggregation, photo Tony Baskyfield

David and the interns heaved a collective sigh of relief and hoped that this would be the start of a return of sharks into the area… the next few days will tell!

Alex Taylor's take on life as an intern!

On numerous occasions I have been asked to write something (anything!) for the blog. I’ve been chewing my nails for hours now trying to come up with something slightly outside of the box and not to mention a little bit witty. Turns out I don’t have much to bring to the table, so I decided to go back to basics and talk about myself, oh and being in the Seychelles for the first time…

I must admit, when I set off traveling a year and a half ago, the idea of heading to the Seychelles by myself seemed somewhat ridiculous. Not only did I expect it to be a bit of a honeymooner’s hot spot, I didn’t think I would be able to suffice on my backpacker’s budget. But here I am, getting involved in the Seychellois way of life and even more so the MCSS internship.

It has to be said, Beau Vallon, where the volunteer’s house is located on Mahe, has proven itself to be quite the hub of action. Not only does it have the famous Bizarre Bazaar on Wednesday nights, which gives us our weekly Creole fix, it also has some of the best snorkeling around, not that I’m bragging, but this is found directly in front of the volunteer’s house! And if that’s not enough to write home about, Beau Vallon is also home to the wild Tequila Boom, where you can unleash your dance moves every Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, not that I know this off the top of my head…

Alex (right) showing that there's more too life as an intern than the local night life!

The Seychelles have really exceeded my expectations, not for a minute have I felt out of place. I’ve been sticking to my budget by shopping at the local markets and buying the local beer (Sey Brew) from the dairy. I also have noticed a lot of other solo backpackers around town, which is refreshing to see; I believe this is because of another volunteer program on Mahe with Global Vision International (GVI).

All in all, I’m having an absolute blast in the Seychelles and would recommend it to anyone and everyone. All I can say now is, fingers crossed for a fruitful Whale Shark season ahead!!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Its an intern's life... Carl's perspective

In every team or group there is always one who's in the wrong place at the wrong time and seems to be forever the one that never gets to see the shark.... for this year's intern team it looked as though Carl Royle was the one who was always doing plankton, recording or waiting for someone to drop out to get to see his shark.... but now his jinx is broken! Join Carl for his first whale shark moment....

I have to admit even though I had signed up for a Whale shark project, I was still unconvinced that I was actually going to see one, let alone swim within metres of one. I think most people who have a passion for marine biology will agree with me when I say ‘that we all share a similar aspiration and that has to be to swim with the world’s biggest fish’!!

Following a period of time learning all the invaluable office based work, it was time to don our mask, snorkel and fins and find ourselves a whale shark. We set off from Anse La Mouche and began our journey to the south of the island. The pilot was airborne, carrying out an extensive search over the nearby shores with the ultimate aim of successfully spotting a whale shark for us.

An hour seemed to quickly pass by and still no luck! The anticipation, adrenaline and excitement was beginning to subside, although I still remained optimistic that today was the day we would have an encounter with one of these bad boys!!

It seemed appropriate by this stage to assist our MSc student, Anna with her plankton tows (Carl with plankton sample at left!). Immediately after the final sample had been collected we had a sighting. With accurate directions from the pilot we made our way to Takamaka Bay. The atmosphere on the boat was intense with each of the intern’s eyes transfixed on the water hoping to see a large, brown, spotty shadow on the surface. The spotter had entered the water; we were waiting with baited breath to see Katie raise her arm to indicate that she had a visual. Seconds later we responded to Dr David’s assertive instructions ‘We have a visual, GO, GO, GO’.

I attempted to swim incredibly fast towards the spotter, possibly displaying signs of selfishness as I was desperate to get a look at this awesome fish and refused to let anybody get in my way. I was metres away from the spotter but more importantly I was 5 metres above my first whale shark.

Carl's first shark, a young male on his second visit to Seychelles, just like Carl!

It was a truly awesome yet surreal moment. I tried to retain valuable information with regards to the number of Remora’s, Pilot Fish, scarring etc, but to be honest this was the one time I was going to enjoy my swim alongside this amazing creature. What was minutes in the water seemed like hours, and I embraced every second of it.

I can honestly say that my first encounter with a whale shark was WICKED!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cable & Wireless Seychelles support for MCSS

Telephone company and internet service provider Cable & Wireless (Atlas) Seychelles have recently confirmed an upgrade of their long and on-going relationship with MCSS.

In 2003, we at MCSS established an office with full-time staff and developed our web site, which was one of the first of the .sc Seychelles domains if not the first. The sites purpose was to support our activities and act as an information resource on marine life and conservation issues in Seychelles. After discussions with Atlas and Cable & Wireless a sponsorship package was agreed giving us business level access to the internet for a set low monthly fee. This was in the days before broadband and we have relied on a dial-up system since that date.

Due to the success of our on-going long-term monitoring programmes, we now support up to eight volunteers or research students at any one time, providing them with direct access and field training experience. Ever since our inception MCSS has advocated the use of cutting edge technology to provide conservation benefits. In our whale shark monitoring programme we have deployed 20 satellite tags onto whale sharks that relay information to us via the internet and with four more tags to be deployed later this season increased internet access was needed!

A whale shark tagged with a satellite tag by MCSS

With this reliance on the internet for access to our data, as well as reference sources and links back to the various Universities our students come from, we were constrained by the dial-up access. Fortunately Cable & Wireless / Atlas Seychelles have agreed to upgrade our access to broad-band status on X‑Net with a similar subsidised package.

X-Net ADSL is now up and running and is already making life significantly easier for both staff and volunteers alike, although the local internet cafes will probably miss the regular visits of the volunteers to check their e-mails!

A big thank you to Cable & Wireless / Atlas Seychelles for their continued support and to their staff for their assistance and getting the X-net system installed!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Boys Are Back In Town!

While many of you won’t know the lyrics of this immortal Thin Lizzy track, heralding back to 1976 (or even who Thin Lizzy was) for those of us old enough to remember it’s a very pertinent song! And no we weren’t referring to the arrival of the Chris Clarke and Dan Beecham from our main sponsor, the Save Our Seas Foundation, although that would probably be fitting as well, we were actually referring to the return to Seychelles of several whale sharks we have seen in previous years!

UT06-088 has been seen every year since 2005, and so is a regular to whatever version of Dino's bar & grill Seychelles has to offer! Photo Katie Brooks

Thanks to the wonders of I3S (or IRIS to us old-timers), this spot-matching computer programme that has revolutionised whale shark identification has helped us and our team of whale shark monitoring interns to be far more productive in assessing the sharks seen around Seychelles. Pretty much every shark we get in the water with has its photo taken and within 24 hours the interns have its I3S identity produced for comparison to every other shark we have photographed here in Seychelles, and then later on it is compared to every whale shark ID’d from Mozambique and Ningaloo, Western Australia…. The marvel of computer ‘Free-ware’ programmes!!

So far this year we have had a total of 16 sharks re-sighted from previous years and by September 22nd of 14 sharks identified, 7 had been photographed in previous years. As most of our sharks are young juvenile males “The Boys Are Back In Town” seems even more apt, although they don’t hang out at Dino’s bar and grill, unless Dino serves plankton by the bucket load!

Of these seven resightings, one shark had previously been seen in 2005, 2006 and 2007; four sharks had been seen in both 2006 and 2007; one in 2005 and 2006, and the last shark had been previously identified in 2003…..

Was this 'the broad who slapped Johhny's face' ? S302 is one of our few females, first seen in 2003 and resighted this September; photo Richard Berry

So it seems that although the season is being somewhat slow compared to previous years, we are getting a lot of site-faithful sharks coming back… lets hope we can find a few compliant ones for Chris and Dan and keep them away from Dino’s!