Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Djibouti 2010!

Well it’s that time of year once again and while most people are looking forward to their New Year’s eve parties a small contingent are beginning to make their way towards a tiny corner of north east Africa named Djibouti, to take part in what is becoming the annual whale shark monitoring programme.

So what’s so special about Djibouti? Well apart from the fact that its one of the few places globally where whale sharks aggregate seasonally, Djibouti’s claim to fame is that the sharks found here are significantly smaller than in the aggregations found in most other areas with an average size below 4 metres.

The programme has its origins with the volunteers of Megaptera who with help from MCSS formed a local non-governmental organisation, the Marine Conservation Society Djibouti (MCSD) to research and conserve the whale shark aggregation. MCSD has now merged with DECAN, a land based NGO who are known for their work on rescuing Cheetahs and other wild-cats in the area, and who still support the whale shark programme.

Luke, Katie (last years team leaders) with David at the DECAN Cheetah Sanctuary last year

This year Dr. David Rowat from MCSS will be assisted by two new team leaders Abi March and Ciara McCarten who volunteered to assist having completed the Seychelles internship programme this past summer. As such they will be helping to teach the skills needed for photo ID and environmental monitoring to participants in the programme.

This year there is a large contingent of participants from the Arabian peninsula in the form of Jonatahn Ali Khan and his team making a documentary for Shark Quest Arabia along with various members of the newly formed
Arabian Whale Shark Research Programme who will be learning the field skills they need to monitor whale sharks in their own areas.

The first whale shark research expedition to Djibouti back in 2006 was an interesting mission with a surprising number of sharks encountered; the second in January 2009 was mind-blowing in the sheer number of sharks found.... but an Italian trip just two weeks later found very few sharks...

So there are no guarantees and its difficult to tell exactly what we will find but we will do our best and try to upload updates to our blog as we get the chance!

So fingers crossed...... Djibouti and 2010 here we come!!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Best Wishes Of The Season!!

Arabian Whale Shark Research Programme Conference & Workshop

The Arabian peninsula has long been known for whale sharks and the Straits of Hormuz, the pinch-point between the Persian (Arabian) Gulf and the Gulf of Oman has long been a seasonal hot-spot in the region. Local film-maker and conservationist Jonathan Ali Khan became transfixed with the plight of sharks in general around the Arabian peninsula and as a part of a new documentary series researched the status of whale sharks in the region only to find that very little was known…. And so the concept of a regional group to coordinate information on the whale shark came into existence.

After many months talking with people from the Indian Ocean region and with David Rowat from MCSS in particular, the idea to form an Arabian Whale Shark Research Programme (AWSRP) with a regional conference and technical workshop came into fruition. In a matter of just a few months Jonathan was able to motivate sufficient support to organise the conference: the principle sponsor was the Save Our Seas Foundation with the venue host and sponsor being Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort, Fujirah and with support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Emirates Diving Association (EDA), the Kuwait Environmental Research and Awareness Group (KERA), Scuba Dubai, Al Boom Diving and Wild Planet Productions.

The meeting was held on the 11th & 12th of December with the overall aim to create an event that would act as a platform of communication and as a forum of discussion between researchers studying Arabian Sea whale sharks to determine relationships and connections between Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean whale shark populations. In order to present the current status of whale sharks, researchers and conservationists from all relevant Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean hot-spots, including Oman, Djibouti, Maldives, Seychelles, India, Pakistan/Baluchistan, UAE and Kuwait attended the event

The meeting was held under the patronage of His Highness Shaikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the Crown Prince of Fujirah who attended the opening ceremony and introductory speeches. His Highness is a scuba diver and was keen to support this initiative which was being launched form this forum in his Emirate.

Participants at the AWSRP conference at Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort, Fujirah

Dr. David Rowat from MCSS delivered the keynote presentation setting out what was known, what was still unknown and how an AWSRP could potentially assist in completing both the Indian Ocean and global picture on the species.

The National Newspaper from Dubai wrote: Dr David Rowat, the chairman of the Marine Conservation Society in the Seychelles, said the regional database would yield valuable information that could fill a “knowledge gap” about the creatures. “It has been suggested that the Arabian region might be important as a pupping [birthing] or mating ground but, as yet, we do not know,” he said. “It is too early to say. It is certainly a missing piece of the jigsaw and that piece could be important.”

There was strong support for the formation of some type of network with national information gathering and collating facilities; so far, the Emirates Diving Association, Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, and the Kuwait Environmental Research and Awareness Group have agreed to help set up such structures with the end goal of developing a database of whale sharks from the region that would also contribute to the global database on EcOcean.

Brad Norman, originator of the Ecocean database, was quoted by the National Newspaper: The data, Mr Norman said, could help scientists in a number of ways. “You can start doing the science on finding the actual number of whale sharks visiting an actual country. And, if we continue this from year to year, we can get an idea of whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing. This is a way of tracking whale sharks by using a non-invasive method.”

So the Arabian programme is off to a good start and we look forward to lots of interesting results from them in the years to come!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gemma’s Shark…. A late addition for 2009

Over the last few weeks or so we have had a number of reports of a juvenile whale shark appearing around the Bay Ternay - Matoopa point area of the North West of Mahe… this isn’t unsusal as we often have a few stragglers hanging around and this little shark seems to like the area.

Despite the reports, the shark was elusive and no-one seemed to have managed to get photographs until the 25th of November when Gemma Jennings, a staff member from GVI, encountered it at around 2.30pm off Anse Major, near to Bay Ternay where the Mahe GVI team are based.

Having heard David’s talks to the volunteers at GVI, Gemma was keen to do her bit and managed to get the right hand side image to run the photo identification programme on. Just coincidentally David was coming onto base later that week to give a talk to the volunteers about whale sharks and so was able to collect the images to run them against the current database.

And…. Gemma’s shark is a new one to the Seychelles catalogue and now has the identity of sey.2009.050 which was in fact the 47th new shark for 2009 bringing the total of sharks identified in 2009 to 89 individuals.

There’s still a few weeks of 2009 to go and so there may yet be some more late additions… maybe a Christmas Shark?