Friday, January 29, 2010

Seychelles Satellite Pop-up Tags Set New Records

During the 2009 monitoring programme two Pop-up Satellite Archival Tags (PATs) were deployed on whale sharks in Seychelles and we are happy to report that both have detached pretty much on schedule!

The first of these was attached on the afternoon of October 9th to a female shark of 5.5m off Bay Lazare which had been swimming quite happily with the monitoring team for 29 minutes.

Poppy one of very few female whale sharks in 2009, photo Torri Kentner

She was swimming slowly and showed no reaction to tagging. This was the first female shark tagged with a satellite tag in Seychelles and so we were keen to see if she behaved differently to the other sharks previously tagged here. Because she was a girl with a pop-up tag she was immediately named Poppy by the team and has drawn a lot of interest as so few female sharks were found last year.

Poppy being tagged by David, photo Torri Kentner

Poppy's tag came off on January 10th at around 13°S 54°E about 400 kilometres off the East coat of Madagascar well South of Seychelles; this is the second time a Seychelles tag has been recorded from this area.

The start and pop up location for Poppy's tag, red dots show tag drift after release. Map courtesy Maptool at

During the course of the 94 days of deployment Poppy dived to a maximum depth of 1304 metres an new record for the Indian Ocean (the I.O. deepest dive to date was 1286m) where her tag recorded a minimum temperature of just 4.6°C!

The second shark tagged was a large (8.5m) male shark named Chompy who was tagged on the 21st of October off Anse Capucin, South Mahe.

Chompy a large male whale shark missing part of his left gill covers, photo Luke Riley

Chompy had been so named because he was missing the gill cover to the 4th & 5th gill slits on the left side, probably chomped as the result of an argument with a boat propeller.

Chompy with his PAT tag safely attached, photo Ciara McCarten

Chompy's tag came off on the 17th of January at 4.6°S 55.8°E to the East of Mahe and South of Frigate on the Seychelles plateau, although no whale sharks have been seen around Mahe for a while now.

The data from his tag shows that there have been several days during the deployment where depths in excess of 300 metres have been recorded indicating that he had in fact left the Seychelles plateau and returned here again on several occasions.

The start and pop up location for Chompy's tag, blue dots show tag drift after release. Map courtesy Maptool at

The data from these tags has not yet been fully analysed and we are sure they will provide further valuable information on the life of these giant sharks.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dispatches from Djibouti #7: The end of the expedition

Seeming all too quickly, the 2010 Djibouti Whale Shark Expedition was coming to an end, two weeks of intense whale shark activity but a lot of fun as well. The last night aboard was a celebratory affair as always, with the activities being recorded by a seemingly robotic camera that ‘Mr. Gadget’ Hussain had unleashed for the evening.

The team on the last night aboard Deli captured by Mr. Gadget's robotic camera...

The following morning was a bit more subdued but everybody pitched in for the final whale shark session and were rewarded with a real flurry of sharks, many of which were ram-feeding to the delight of the photographers.

Ram feeding shark on the last morning, photo Hussain

There were however some reminders about the vulnerability of this aggregation as one particular shark displayed a series of fifteen propeller cuts along his right side.... this group of sharks is known to exhibit more scars than are found in any other known aggregation and remains a great concern to its long term viability.

A nasty set of propellor cuts was a reminder of these sharks vulnerability, photo Luis
The morning session completed, everyone set to the task of packing their gear away for the trip back to Djibouti. One final group photo on the front deck of Deli brought together the whole week two team, the crew and the expedition’s supporters from Djibouti and then it was time to leave.

Boarding the ‘magic bus’ which transferred us to the hotel signalled not only a return to land, which felt pretty strange to a lot of people, but also the start of a little post expedition trip to Lac Assal, apparently the lowest lake on the planet.

This allowed people to put the area of the expedition into a bit more of a geographical context as the bus trip across the rugged, parched mountains took us past deep ravines to the shores of the Ghoubet with its remarkable volcanic plugs and lava flows, where we had been working just a few days before.

Following the great rift further inland we first stopped at one of many fumeroles where the hot sulphurous air escaped from the earth’s core below, before we arrived at the great salt perimeter of Lac Assal.

Abi & Laetitia peer into a fumerole....not sure about the wisdom of sticking you head into a volcanic vent but there you go...

Here local artisan’s scour the area for geodes and Gypsum and salt crystals to sell to the few visitors that make it to this remote area.... they also do a nice line in salt encrusted goat and antelope skulls if you’re into that sort of thing! Not sure how well that would look on a mantle-piece in London!

Salt crystal skulls anyone?

And then it was done... The 2010 Djibouti Whale Shark Expedition was over . For the next few days the group waving farewell at the hotel got smaller and smaller as the participants flew off to their homes or next adventures, from Paris to Bangkok, Manchester to Seychelles, Mauritius to Kuwait and a whole list of places in between...

Meanwhile plans are already being made for Djibouti 2011..... What are you going to be doing for the first two weeks of January 2011.... fancy checking out a few whale sharks?

Dispatches from Djibouti #6: Separators week 2

For the new volunteers joining in week two, the concept of separators (see previous post) had to be instilled and so their early shots provide a nice introduction to the new arrivals, as with this shot of Abi and Warren on the way to their first encounter of the week, photo by Luis.

Abi captured this shot of Marylene in a rather composed mood on the way to her first encounter:

While second Djibouti expeditioners Luis and Flora knew well what to expect and posed for this between drop shot by Michel....
Newcomers Dareen and Christine also seemed remarkably calm.... why does Michel only take separators with girls in?

As week two rolled on those that had been on the boat for the previous week were beginning to get pretty well versed with this ‘separator’ business and so some of the shots were becoming quite novel, as in this shot of an inquisitive helicopter checking out one of the tenders by Hussain.

Self-portraits also came more into the fore as separators... Hussain by Hussain!

Although he also captured the serious work going on as Perry from IFAW Germany checks how Abi is doing with the recording of his encounter, photo Hussain.

Even odd marine life became the subject of separators.... in fact swimming crabs became a bit of a obstacle course at some times...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dispatches from Djibouti #5: Separators week 1

What are the separators I can here you ask, and well you might, but for those involved with whale shark photo ID they are the key to making life simple! They are a photograph of anything non-whale shark that separates one sequence of images of a single individual shark from those of another... as whale sharks are in-water they tend to be of things that aren’t and so often provide an amusing (and often unflattering!) review of the activities during the week.

What better way to review the expedition... here’s week one:

Which all started out with a briefing on the schedule by David and to which Laetitia and Virginie listened with some degree of apparent apprehension, photo by Hussain.

Key to making everything work was synchronising everyone’s watch AND camera to the same time which turned out to be ‘Ciara time’ as she set up the lasers first of all, photo Hussain.

On the boats the weeks started calmly enough with people composing themselves somewhat for the between encounter separator shots, Virginie by Laetitia.

But as the sharks kept coming so things hotted up and between encounter sessions became somewhat more frenetic as people scrambled to give the recorders photo details before the next encounter started: Laetitia, Jeanette and Martin captured here by Hussain.

However, on both the boats the team leaders managed to maintain a certain degree of composure throughout the whole proceedings.... Ciara by Hussain and Abi by Michel.

And of course we got a fair few top-side shots of the photographers, as here ‘Mr. Gadget ‘Hussain is captured complete with his spy video camera mounted to the top of his SLR dome port, photo by Michel.

The first few evenings were leisurely affairs for some with picturesque sunsets at anchor of Arta, ideal for a between day separator of Virginie and Jeanette, by Hussain.

The evenings and nights were a time to get the data sorted and properly recorded and Abi, Ciara and David spent many a long hour in the ‘office’...

For others, as night fell the lights of the boat attracted visitors to feed on the plankton cloud that aggregated there on many evenings and gave hours of amusement to those prepared to stay and watch... crabs evading surface gulping whale sharks being a top attraction....

Friday, January 22, 2010

Dispatches from Djibouti #4.... Thanks to the team

The 2010 Djibouti expedition is now over and it’s time to give a big vote of thanks to the team that made it happen. In particular, the two MCSS team leaders Abi March and Ciara McCarten were the driving force that kept everything (and everyone!) on track and deserve a special vote of praise... all the guests commented not only on how well they organised the boats but also on their in-water skills and seemingly endless enthusiasm for the ‘back-room’ paperwork... Data! Data! Data!

Their special treat of the trip was the visit to the DECAN sanctuary where they got to stroke both a cheetah and a hyena and to pose with a zebra at sunset!

Quick to learn and happy to help was the Megaptera eco-volunteer Laetitia who soon had the day to day routine mastered and was not at all phased by the data entry. She was accompanied on the trip by her favourite teddy-bear and was keen that he should also get to see the whale sharks but this presented some problems as Teddy’s are not renown for being very waterproof. However, Hussain Al Qalef from Kuwait (or Mr. Gadget as he became known) soon developed a Teddy Submersible using a camera housing and dome port and so even Teddy got to see some of the in-water action!

Michel Vely, the irrepressible President of Megaptera, kept everybody’s sides splitting with his non-stop antics and good humour while Danile Jouannet, the quiet brains behind the organisation of the expedition, managed to keep Michel under some sort of control.

Both were more than happy to do their fair share of the recording and data entry duties while both showed that they could also deliver on the in-water tasks as well. Dr. David was in charge of the science side of the expedition and split his time half in the ‘office’ (the large table in the boat’s salon where the data entry tasks were carried out) and half on the boats either recording or doing his bit for the in-water data gathering.

While there was no way that the team were going to be able to keep up with processing the photo ID s from 80+ encounters each day, they were able to keep up with the data transcription. This was only possible due largely to the supply of 100s of extra copies of record sheets that Captain Vincence organised to be printed in Djibouti At the Dolphin Marine Services Offices and that Bruno, Nicolas and the team managed to somehow get transported across miles of desert and mountains to the ship!

Our thanks also to all the crew of the Deli without which this programme would not be possible.... we will be back again next year!

.....more snapshots from Djbouti shortly

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dispatches from Djibouti 2010...#3: Lots of old friends....

As the 2010 expedition draws to an end, the back-log of encounter sheets and photo-IDs is building ever higher meaning several weeks of work for Abi, Ciara and David to complete the basic entry and analysis....

Team-work: Flora and the team getting the photo ID shots; photo Luis.

What is clear is that there are likely to be as many encounters recorded this year as we had in 2009 although there may be fewer individual sharks... the total number of encounters hasn’t been calculated yet but is over 800 for the ten days of monitoring (we had 826 encounters in 2009).

There have been several notable differences this year one of which has been the lack of female sharks encountered, with only 12 encounters being with female sharks so far. There are also far fewer ‘new’ sharks that we hadn’t seen before, at the moment we have 29 new sharks out of a total of 66 identified individuals during the first week (we haven’t got into week two’s IDs yet!) of which 8 were found in the Devil’s Goblet at the Eastern end of the Gulf of Tadjourah. However, having recorded 169 new sharks in 2009 it may well be that we are getting close to having identified most of the site-faithful population now.

We have had lots of old friends re-identified already with four of the sharks identified in 2004 being frequently encountered. The most obvious is #003, also known as Wagner, because of the distinctive ‘W’ on his right side who seems to be in the area almost every day.

This seasons right side ID shot of Wagner (captured by Laetitia) showing his new scars and one sucker fish.

This trip has also produced a number of high quality images from the keen photographers we have had with some stunning images being captured by Daniel, Flora & Luis, Hussain and Warren... I’m sure we will see a number of these published in the coming months.

Wagner doing what he does best... feeding! Photo by Hussain

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dispatches from Djibouti #2: Shiraz comes to visit!

Shiraz, the first whale shark tagged with a satellite tag in Djibouti in 2006, came in to visit the team again this season. His first visit this year went pretty much unnoticed in the flurry of sharks recorded on the second day, and was only really unearthed during the photo ID matching later in the week showed that dji.2006.015 had in fact been seen by one of the teams in the afternoon off the shooting range at Arta, not far from where he had been tagged in 2006...

Shiraz with his satellite tag attached in 2006, photo Simon Rogerson

Shiraz was just three metres long in 2006 when he was tagged with a Wildlife Computers Splash tag which was attached by a short tether to his dorsal fin. This tag gave some interesting information on his movements during the following nine days prior to detaching. During this time he made dives in excess of 175 metres and transited across the Gulf of Tadjourah three times from Arta on the Southern shore to Addali and Dat Houdoum on the North.

On our encounters with him in 2006 he exhibited a well-healed but pronounced scarring pattern on his left side, either from an encounter with a larger toothy shark or from a boat strike; this year it was the presence of a large but now quite subtle scar on the left side that announced his visit for the second time on the 12th of January.
We had also seen Shiraz during the January 2009 expedition and it appears that this area is indeed one of his favourite feeding grounds. This year he was happy to pose for the team and Hussain Alqalaf from the Kuwait group of the Arabian Whale Shark Programme was able to capture these fine images of him.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dispatches from Djibouti 2010...#1

Well the 2010 Djibouti expedition started with a bang this year, well literally many bangs as the team assembled at the Djibouti Sheraton hotel on New Year ’s Eve and were treated to a super firework display to greet the New Year.

Everyone was up early the next day and eager to get aboard the M/V Deli and start the trip. We had met up with Jeanette Tsang who was joining us having done the week before aboard Deli exploring the area, and also finding lots of whale sharks so everyone’s expectations were high...

And so it was that on our arrival in the Arta area we were welcomed by eleven whale shark encounters in a short 45 minute period before sunset.... looks like the sharks were going to cooperate once again!

The next day dawned and everyone was eager to find more sharks and by the end of the day we had notched up a total of 73 encounters with a total of 22 individual sharks as identified by I3S photo ID, 12 were ‘new’ sharks while 10 had been sighted in previous years. A notable visitor on this day was a shark first identified in 2004 (Dji2004.020) who seemed un-phased by all the attention he got.
Our 2004 shark(dji.2004.020) photographed by Hussain while David gets the ID shots from the right hand side

Evenings aboard Deli became a flurry of activity with everyone pitching in to help with writing up the day’s encounter sheets while cameras were downloaded, photos sorted and organised into their correct encounters for photo ID matching..... whenever anyone had a free minute! Oh yes and there were the occasional visits of large spotty fish to the side of the boat to investigate the plankton that was accumulating there.

We did make a day trip up into the Devils Goblet (the Ghoubet al Kharab) and the team had a few minutes to relax and the ‘girls’ got to do their Kate Winslet impersonations on the prow of the Deli...

Hussain, Abi & Ciara on the prow of the Deli entering the Ghoubet.
We were keen to see if there were any sharks in there as crew on a passing live-aboard said they had seen lots the day before... it was also an opportunity for people to chill out a little with a dive onto the famous ‘Djibouti Crack’ a geological fault that runs from 35 metres to around 8 meters from the surface and is purported to be the start of the East African rift valley which runs from this point down across Africa; of course the divers were escorted to the site by a curious young whale shark (who was duly photo ID’d).

Results in Ghoubet were mixed with one boat finding only one shark while the other notched up 14 encounters with some 5 individual sharks. Coming out of the Ghoubet through the narrow pass was quite an experience as the seas were getting quite rough but it was no problem for Deli and we were soon safely on our overnight anchorage again.
In what seems like no time at all the first week was coming to a close and so it was back to Djibouti for an overnight at the Sheraton and to meet the team for week two... as we were in port in good time we also took the opportunity to visit the DECAN sanctuary for Djiboutian wildlife where Ciara and Abi made friends with the Cheetahs and a rather daft Hyena who also liked being stroked.

Ciara and Abi meet their first Cheetah up close and personal!

And so week two starts in just under an hour’s time.... just enough time to do some hectic shopping for more stationary supplies and get another 200 encounter sheets printed and then it’s back to the sharks for another week..... there no end to these Djiboutian sharks?