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, www.mcss.sc 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!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tension builds for the interns...

Another self introduction from one of our interns, James Tutty

Hi I’m James, I’m 30 years old and from London. I arrived on the MCSS monitoring program just over a week a go. I don’t have much of a marine science background but have always been interested in the sea and am quite a keen scuba diver.

This is my second time in the Seychelles this year as I also came in April and completed a ten week marine life conservation project with Global Vision International which is an NGO which carries out research on fish and coral species diversity and population in the area.

I heard about MCSS on that previous trip and it seemed like an exciting opportunity to learn about these majestic creatures. The prospect of spending more time here doing diving and flying in a microlight was also appealing.

During the first week we have been practicing a mix of water and office based skills which we will be using once the whale shark season begins properly. For the office based skills we have been learning how to record the data we need and where to input it, as well as using the IRIS software which ID’s whale sharks from the placement of their spot which act as a kind of fingerprint for them. We have also learnt about downloading the GPS data from the aerial monitoring flights and inputting the observations of the pilot.

We have also gone into the water most days and practiced our free-diving and swimming at the speed we can expect whale sharks to travel. On Friday and Saturday the microlight was able to survey around the island and our pilot David Daniel spotted a whale shark for us which we were able to locate and photograph confirming it as one that was seen last year.

All in all it’s been an exciting week. Yesterday I got an opportunity to go up in the microlight with the pilot to survey for whale sharks. We managed to see six hammerhead sharks, numerous turtles and shoals of fish. I am looking forward to the coming weeks!

Photo: Pilot David Daniel preps the micro-light ready for the aerial survey around the island.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Rachel and Clara's first whale shark encounter

First reactions of our would-be marine biologists, by Rachel Pool and Clara Anganuzzi

We didn’t get to swim with our first whale shark. The micro-light saw it and contacted us but when we got to the site, the shark swam under the boat. We were really disappointed especially as we had already frantically pulled on our snorkeling gear just seconds before. Then we found one. Hearts in our mouths, we yet again pulled on the gear and waited for the okay from the spotter to get in the water. When the okay finally came, we were frozen by the sight of the dorsal fin that had
seemingly popped out of nowhere.

My first impression was that it looked like a toy. One of those inflatable things that you stick in your pool. Then I wondered how they got it in the middle of the sea without us seeing it. It didn’t move that fast at first. I kept up quite easily and floated around for a bit. Time seemed endless. Then I lost sight of him for a few seconds and the next thing I knew, everyone was swimming in the opposite direction. He looked like a clown. A really big clown.

I thought it was squishy and had to suppress an
immediate desire to reach out and grab it. I was so excited to get into the water that when I did and water entered my mask, I forgot to breathe through my snorkel and instead inhaled a lot of seawater. Not fun. The shark was beautiful. I didn’t think it was that big. It looked like a plastic toy. What was actually five minutes seemed like so much longer.

Photo: Intern James (left) works with Clara (centre) and Rachel (right) to enter the data of their first encounter and identify the shark.... turns out that this is a 'frequent flyer' having been identified in both 2006 and 2007.

Sarah's perspective .......

The first two weeks of life as a whale shark intern, by Sarah Colley

I’m not a marine biologist, good on boats, a scientist, or experienced with computers! So what am I doing here, you might ask? I love the sea and have enjoyed snorkelling for many years. A few years ago, I learnt to dive and with my partner have been to some wonderful places and been lucky enough to explore another facet of our planet – underwater! I saw my first Whale Shark in Belize (It was huge! I was seasick!) and was captivated. The MCSS opportunity came up whilst I was on a 7 month sabbatical from work – I was actually in Japan when I heard from David Rowat that a place as a volunteer intern was mine, if I wanted it. The chance to swim with the largest living fish, learn new skills (remember the non-science bit!), meet new people and let’s not forget the opportunity to volunteer and live in the Seychelles for 10 weeks – It wasn’t a difficult decision!

I have been asked to write a little about myself so here goes: I am 34, from the UK and have many passions in life: including food; film and travel. I work with teenagers at home so this is a far cry from my current career.

Shall I tell you about our first week? It was like an introduction to becoming a researcher, a marine biologist and a Seychellois! And we (all 7 interns- lovely people from across the world) saw our first Seychelles whale shark! Hooray!

Photo: Sarah and Carl (another intern) enter the first whale shark sighting by the team into the database.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Fun Begins!

The training week is well underway and our interns are all shaping up remarkably well. All of the interns had done their ‘homework’ which was reading through a potted history of the whale shark and current areas of research that David had prepared for them as a little light bed-time reading before they came to Seychelles, and so they were at least somewhat aware of what they were about to get immersed in!

The team did well both with their introduction to the data handling with Katie Brooks and also the first of the in-water skill building tasks with Luke Riley. Luke had pressed in to service one of the aerial survey target whale sharks as an in-water photo ID target and the interns soon became adept at free-diving down to take its ID photograph at a depth of 5 m. Once everyone was up to speed on that they moved on to using the laser size ranging system to capture images with a half-metre reference to allow accurate sizing by photo analysis…. So far so good but how would they get on with a real shark?

If this wasn’t enough fun, microlight pilot David Daniel started to introduce them to the sights and sounds of aerial survey around Seychelles, as well as finding a few whale sharks in the process. And yes that meant that we just had to go and see some sharks, especially as some of the interns had never seen a whale shark before.

Assisted by Luke, pilot David located a single shark off the South of Mahe for the team to go out and put into practise all the skills they had learned during the last week, and yes it all worked!

Enter stage left a young male shark that was somewhat shy and preferred to stay some 10 metres or so below the surface….. However, Katie captured his photo ID and the team diligently ran the photos through I3S and discovered he was in fact a repeat visitor from last year, seen on September 23rd and October 1st off the North West of Mahe. At that time he had been measured with a tape measure and found to be 6.8 metres in length…..

Not a bad result for the interns’ first exposure to a real shark!

Two Young Would-be Marine Biologists Join the Team…

At the beginning of Intern training week the group have been joined by two budding marine biologists Rachel Pool (left in photo) and Clara Anganuzzi (right in photo) from the International School, Seychelles.

These two local youngsters have joined the programme for the training weeks with the interns as their end of year work attachment programme where they learn more about life outside of the school environment in an area which interests them.

We hope that the hard work in the training week won’t put them off marine science and so far they have been on the ball and showing the interns that there’s an element of truth in the saying that only children and teenagers really understand computers! However they have also done well in the shark related training….

Clara said “ I didn’t know how much work went into finding whale sharks…” while Rachel “really enjoyed the radio work and the photography work, in and out of the water like taking photos and the I3S photo ID”…

Looks like our interns are going to have some competition here!