Sunday, September 27, 2009

Half way through the season….

It’s the last few days of September already, so we are half way through our monitoring season for 2009.

So far we have been beset by poor weather meaning that the micro-light has been unable to fly and that sea conditions have been too rough to get out. However, despite this from 10 monitoring trips we have already notched up a creditable 96 encounters with 48 sharks, 22 of which had been seen in previous years and 26 were newcomers; this compares very favourably to our results from last year where for the entire season we had 198 encounters from 30 monitoring trips with a total of 68 sharks.

Ciara spotting for the team on a young shark

The interns are all doing well and have really mastered the routine skills and are becoming skilled photo-ID specialists using the I3S software… with all the sharks we’re seeing they are getting lots of practice! One 2005 shark is becoming a confirmed favourite with the interns as he’s been seen the most often (6 encounters on 5 monitoring trips) and has been nicknamed Umberto because of the U shaped pattern on his right side.

Tori is going for the vacant Copepod crown now that Katie has left; she managed to notch up her first copepod sample from a new and very cooperative shark that pretty much exhausted everyone with a 31 minute encounter…. Great fun and he didn’t seem to mind Tori picking copepods off his nose!
Tori collecting copepods off this very cooperative shark

Gareth (alias Laser Boy!) is really getting into the nitty-gritty of his Masters project which is to develop an accurate method for measuring whale sharks using a laser-metric approach. His third generation of laser mounting frame with three plane adjustment for each laser is undergoing testing at the moment… just hope these lasers won’t leave a permanent mark on the kitchen wall!

There have also been more than a few nice surprises so far this season with a visit from two humpback whales with a calf, as well as the frenetic Manta day that Gareth talked about in his post.

Dr. David has also been busy collecting biopsy samples on most days; while spearing a whale shark with a pole spear may sound pretty barbaric, few sharks seem to react to loosing a small pellet of skin and ‘blubber’. Also, most have been resighted again either on the same day or on multiple days afterwards and so this doesn’t seem to disturb them too unduly.

As October approaches, so does the time for satellite tag attachment and all the team are keen to see which sharks will be chosen for this season’s pop-up satellite tags. The tags are deployed towards the end of the season to try to monitor the sharks’ movements as they leave Seychelles for pastures new. So far Seychelles sharks have been tracked towards East Africa, Mozambique, Sri Lanka and the St. Brandon shoals (towards Mauritius) and so seem to have a wide range!

So its fingers crossed that the weather improves and holds for the last five weeks of the season… there’s certainly plenty of sharks that need our attention!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bye Katie & Good Luck!

Today was a bit of a sad day for the whale shark monitoring team as Katie Brooks left us today to start her Masters course at York University. Katie has been one of our team leaders and the Intern Coordinator for the programme for the past three years and this was her fourth year working with the whale shark programme. She also survived team leading in Djibouti this year so has definitely earned her stripes!

After a fair bit of persuading she finally agreed that if she wanted to continue to do this sort of work she really needed to up-grade her scientific knowledge and credentials and so back to Uni she goes!

She will be attending an MSc course in Marine Environmental Management that is especially suited to people who don't have a "traditional" scientific degree but
have relevant experience and a passion for marine conservation… she has plenty of that!
Katie and volunteer Mark Smith logging encounter photos on a wet and windy afternoon

She will be sorely missed by staff and interns alike and the contest is now on to see who will be the ‘Copepod Queen’ (or King?) to collect copepod samples for genetic analysis… She has however left a lasting legacy as she has already planned her birthday party in absentia where everyone is going to dress up as Katie for the evening… should be interesting!

So for now its no more big spotty sharks, no more flying and back to Uni you go!!!

Bon Voyage Katie!

Our very best wishes!

We know you will do well, but come back soon!!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Whale shark sandwhich.....

Not the edible kind.... more of a descriptive kind!

Intern Tori Kentner, a graduate of York college of Pennsylvania, takes up the posting today with her take on a very interesting afternoon....


Yesterday was 'nautical'!

It started at 8am in the office, working up the data, and reliving the thrills from the previous day. After writing up sheets and using I3S to photo ID the sharks we realized we had 9 encounters with 6 different sharks. As exciting as that was it was time to gear up and get on the boat for another day of whale sharking.

For the last few weeks we have been taking out one boat but on this lucky day a group of Norwegian navy men chartered a second boat for themselves. For us interns this was great news because it meant that we would all be on the boat and very busy.

With our pilot Johan circling over head we made our way to find whale sharks. I was on the boat with the navy men and we were particularly lucky because we had a few large male whale sharks nearby. On a few occasions the sharks came up to the boat right on the surface, impressing us with their size and giving everyone aboard a great view.

Near the end of the trip Luke was leading a group with one shark and a second swam by the boat so I quickly suited up and jumped in the water taking the rest of the snorkelers with me. I was both excited and nervous. It was my first time being totally responsible for getting all the science done and also taking care of the clients. I quickly took an ID shot of the right side, sexed the shark and counted the remoras and pilot fish.

Before I could get around to the left to take an ID photo my shark and Luke’s shark met up in a whale shark sandwich. Luke’s larger shark swam over top of my shark wrapping its pectoral fins around it giving it what could be described as a hug. Everyone watching seemed to be in total awe of what was happening. Both sharks soon dove and swam out of sight and the amount of excited chatter back on the boat was intense.

Thinking the day couldn’t get any better we soon got news from Johan that there were two adult humpback whales and a calf swimming in the area.

As we watched the whales a peacefulness came over the boat interrupted only by “oohs and aahs” as the whales slowly porpoise. Both boats watched the whales swim and porpoise for about a half hour before we had to call an end to a great day.

P.S. Hi Mom!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Island Life....

Tank Girl just had to have the next word and so here's a post from intern Dominique Rhoades describing how she's settling into the island way of life.... ________________________________________

Wednesday night bazaars have become a weekly tradition where we stock up on the best and cheapest food around, with a special mention of the veggie samosa’s and banana and bread fruit chips.

Driving around Mahe is mayhem, I’ve learnt not to look at the road when on the bus as it’s too scary – better to look out the window at the nice sea and mountain view!

We are going to attempt all the hikes on Mahe, and have already started with an easy one along the cliffs to a secluded beach.
The volunteers also made a Whale Shark game to play in the evenings, which we hope to market soon!

Myself, Abi and Tori decided to explore some of the other islands while we were waiting for good weather to start Whale Sharking… Cat-Coco Ferry - Possibly the most treacherous ferry crossing in the world, sea sickness all around but that didn’t stop us sitting the bad weather out!

The team braves it out on the open deck of Cat Coco... why were they the only ones?

We got the first ferry of the day to Praslin Island to go to the Vallee De Mai, which was unlike anywhere I’d ever seen before with huge trees and Coco De Mere’s everywhere… Lots of Big spiders, lizards and snails… We could hear lots of birds but very rarely saw them as the vegetation was so dense......quite expensive entrance but understandable as the major income for the island and very impressive!

The next place we wanted to visit was Curieuse Island, with its Giant Tortoise sanctuary and mangrove swamps, and history of the old leper colony. As there are no scheduled boats to get there we had to find someone with a small boat and haggle a price to be taken to, and picked up from the island… We managed to get there without too much
trouble but were still a bit apprehensive about being left on the island – what if he didn’t come back for us?! The Tortoise Sanctuary was amazing, with them all roaming free and grazing down to the beach – they were all numbered for a new census and they even had a 3 legged one, which although I saw walking I’m still not sure how he managed it! We got to see the babies too, which are kept in pens until they are 5 years old so they don’t get attacked by rats or crabs, we were allowed to hold them. We walked along a raised platform through the mangrove swamps that cover Curieuse and must have seen about 300 crabs of all different sizes and colours and then after visiting the Doctors House, who lived on the island for 2 years to help the leper’s, we waited on the beach for our lift back to Praslin… And true to word he did come back for us!

We got the ferry to La Digue that evening and rented bikes straight away to explore the island, asking the locals for advice on where to see the next day – we soon realised we had time to see everywhere in a day as the island is tiny!
Next day we got up early and set off on our bikes with picnics and visited all La Diege’s beaches, its working village and Tortoise’s, we stroked the ox’s that taxi people around on carts, did some souvenier shopping as got the ferry back to Mahe that evening! We had a party to get home to – Disney themed at David’s!

Everyone else has been in the micro-light now and I have been spending a lot of time with Johan at the airport waiting for good weather to go in the micro-light… The wait has been quite long so I’ve been entertaining myself with playing in any machine I can find – and no one seems to mind much so I’ve been playing in tanks, with old machine guns, in helicopters and planes! I finally got up in bad weather the other day for 30 minutes but hopefully there will be another opportunity for me to fly the whole island in good weather soon….
It was certainly a short and rainy flight for Dom's first around Mahe!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tank Girl in Seychelles!

Well not quite Tank Girl, but intern Dominique Rhoades was scheduled to be the observer for the morning’s microlight aerial survey but got grounded due to high winds and rain and so she took advantage of the situation!
Our micro-light is currently being hosted for hanger space at the army base at the airport and Dominique just loves the Tank Girl movie and couldn’t resist getting some snaps of her in Tank Girl mode!
She also got a quick chance to pose by the aircraft before Johan managed to get a short flight in between the rains storms which had a somewhat less than tropical aspect!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Manta Diary...

Another posting from one of our interns, this time from Gareth Jeffreys a student at Aberystwyth University in Wales, seems like the male interns are the writers this year! Sounds like they are having fun though!

Saturday 12th September.

Dear Diary,

Today Tori, Abi, Dominique, Ciara, John and me took to the Seychelles
south seas for only the third time to find, i.d. and research more whale sharks but what we discovered was even more astonishing than we could ever have expected. After Katie had assured us and other friends on board that we simply don't see manta rays around these shores a call came over the radio from our microlight pilot Johan there was a whale shark 200m to our right in a heavy bloom of plankton surrounded by a school of, you guessed it, manta rays!

When we arrived, the whale shark had dived but with a little pleading from all of us Luke gave us the go ahead to enter the water, and what swam in to view had to be seen to be believed. Devil rays coming at us from all angles, moving in formation, flying like fighter squadrons as they passed us by. Large pelagic manta rays, over 3m wide, swimming vertically until they touched the surface and barrel rolling continuously back down through the plankton in to the murky depths.

Later, Johan assured us that from the air what we had in fact jumped in on was a school of up to 200 devil and manta rays. An unbelievable experience I doubt I could ever have again.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Best Day Ever

This is the first of our 2009 interns' posts, this one from John Swenson a graduate in Environmental Science from Western Washington University, USA and its all about that first big day with a big spotty fish.....

Every once-in-a-while a person will have an experience that is so awesome it seems completely surreal. The magnificence of one of these experiences is often so far beyond words it is futile to try to explain them to somebody else; language is just not sufficient. Today was full of those moments for me and, despite the futility in trying to do so, I will attempt to describe my day today with MCSS.

It began when I awakened myself at 7 AM for an early snorkel. I swam all around the little cove behind the house and followed an eagle ray for a bit, dove down for a close-up of a lionfish, and saw three one meter long bumphead parrotfish patrolling the waters.

When I returned a little before 8, Johan was waiting to drive me to the airport for a morning survey in the microlight. He gave the aircraft a quick check-up and we were in the air shortly thereafter. About ten minutes into the flight, Johan was pointing out numerous turtles in the water 1500 feet below us; they looked like specks of dirt to me! Another ten minutes and we saw our first whale shark swimming at the surface of the water feeding. Johan circled down so we could get a closer view and I was awestruck. I have loved and read about sharks my whole life and this was the first time I ever saw one in the wild. And we were 1000 feet above it! Watching the animal move so smoothly back and forth from a bird's-eye view was a real experience.

I must emphasize how amazing it felt to be so high above ground with no enclosure surrounding me. The freedom ... wow. It really is as close to feeling like a bird as a person can be. At one point during the flight Johan let me take control saying, "Just hold it steady. She flies herself," and I steered the microlight for about ten minutes on my own. I panicked a couple times when I would turn a little too sharply, but somehow the plane seemed to right itself quickly each time. Johan described flying as "instinctual." Perfect description. Over the course of the flight we spotted 4 whale sharks near the southern tip of the island.

About two hours after landing, Katie and the other interns picked me up and we drove to the boat so we could search for the whale sharks on the water and swim with them for the first time this season. It wasn't long after we left shore that Johan, who had taken off for his afternoon survey, led us straight to our first whale shark - a 4 meter long male. I had never been in the water with a shark before, but have been fascinated with and studying them for as long as I can remember; I had literally been waiting my entire life for this moment.

When we jumped in the water and I had my first underwater glimpse of a real live whale shark it felt like time momentarily froze while my brain tried to comprehend the splendor of the sight in front of me. The animal was so graceful and, despite its size, so peaceful (Katie described swimming with a whale shark as a "serene" experience). I just floated in the water and stared until I realized the whale shark was swimming away from me and would be out of sight in a moment. I booked it toward the shark just as it dove too deep for us to follow.

John doing his 'Superman' impression, though the whale shark doesn't seem that impressed!

After the first encounter we returned to the boat and proceeded to swim with 4 different whale sharks over the course of about an hour. The animals are the epitome of the term "gentle giant." They are incomprehensibly beautiful.

When the day was finished and we returned to the house, I was writing to my family about how amazing the day had been as Luke beckoned us all out to the deck ... there was a small pod of dolphins swimming about 100 meters off our back porch.

What a perfect ending to a, well ... perfect, day.

………..John Swenson

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

2009 whale shark season gets underway`

The Seychelles whale shark season for 2009 has started if somewhat slowly!

This year’s groups of interns started their two week training programme on August 24th where they were introduced to the various skills and techniques that they would need for the coming season. The training was led by experienced MCSS team leaders Katie Brooks and Luke Riley who quickly had the newcomers working as a team and into the swing of all things whale shark!

Also during the first week micro-light pilot Johan Anderson, with the help of Luke and several of the interns, re-assembled our newly repaired aircraft ZU-EPE fresh from the manufacturers in South Africa, ready for the seasons activities.

Unfortunately, the weather to date has not been cooperative and while we have been able to get ZU-EPE airborne and all checked-out, as of September 9th we have only been able to complete one aerial survey, due to very strong and gusty winds that have been gusting to over 40 knots (74km/h)…. However we did find two sharks on that first survey flight and so we know that the sharks are indeed here!

In the mean time our interns have been fine tuning their skills, attending lectures on whale sharks from MCSS Chairman Dr. David Rowat, and getting down to the wet-work with plankton tows… Good news on that front as the plankton levels are also increasing and so things are looking favourable for more sharks in the coming weeks.

‘Pre-season’ sightings of whale sharks have been interesting with 12 in-water encounters allowing 8 sharks to be identified, 3 of which had been seen in previous years; 6 of the sharks were sexed with 5 being males and only 1was a female, which is the fairly typical ratio found in Seychelles.

Two return visitors first a 2007 shark while on the lower is one from 2006

The season is also looking good with respect to satellite tagging with two MK 10 PAT tags being available for deployment….

We will keep you up to date the activities of this year’s monitoring programme and over the next few weeks introduce you to the interns and what they have been up to!