Saturday, January 22, 2011

A turtle on a whale shark boat?

Yes you did read the title correctly.... Team leader Abi March describes an unusual incident last week:

One afternoon during lunch we observed a young green turtle swimming under one of our smaller boats. She seemed to be trying to get something off her shell by rubbing herself on the propellers. Closer inspection showed she had a barnacle on her back, which can sometimes burrow under the shell and cause discomfort.

Abi and Sophia, about to get that barncale removed, photo Hussan Al Qallaf

Boat skipper Wadah picked her up and luckily for her we had turtle expert Warren Baverstock, the aquarium manager of the Dubai Burj Al Arab hotel, onboard, Warren also runs a large turtle rescue programme so knew exactly what to do....

Warren injected the barnacle with lemon juice which would kill it and then eventually fall off. In the meantime, Sophia, the name given to the turtle by Captain Vicente, was given a temporary home in a tub of fresh water aboard the main boat. She was monitored by the team and given clean water and was even tempted by some food.

Warren attends to that barnacle, photo Abi March

Sophia was kept overnight, sleeping at the foot of guest Lucy Gower’s bed, who kept a watchful if but sleepy eye on her. Just before lunch the following day Warren checked Sophia’s shell and picked off the dead barnacle.

Everyone was delighted at her recovery and even though we’d all grown quite fond of little Sophia it was lovely to see Wadah return her to the sea, swimming off a little lighter.

Sophia heads back to her home less one annoying barnacle, photo Abi March

Week Three….

The third week of the 2011 Djibouti Whale shark expedition was the busiest in terms of participants. The monitoring team team were joined by Mathilde Le Jeune, Dorothee Milon and Damien Flageul, eco-volunteers from Megaptera, as well as two returning ‘Djibouti veterans’ Laetita Muth and Warren Baverstock ; two British divers Lucy Gower and Sue Sutherland joined Hussain Al Qalaf on his second week to complete the group.

As with the previous two weeks there were to be some surprises in store…. And as ever Hussain and his camera were there to record them all!

A super Djibouti moon shot by Hussain

Work-wise the MCSS team had been doing well and the photo ID results had been worked-out up to the 10th of January with a total of 92 individual sharks identified, just four short of the total recorded in the 2010 and so looking good for the expedition this year.

Over to the three hard-working team leaders to give you their impressions….

From Ciara….

So we have come to the end of our three week expedition in Djibouti and it has proved to be a wonderful experience for all some even deciding that they hate their jobs and that they want to do more work in marine conservation. Whale sharks do have that effect on people.

Ciara, a whale shark and one of the ever present swimming crabs, photo Hussain Al Qallaf

Our third week lived up to everyone’s expectations with fantastic people again and beautiful sharks to match. Here is a tail about three sharks who caught my eye this week…..

One shark in particular got everyone talking this week. We came across this 4m male on the afternoon of the 15th it was such a shock to myself and my boat when we jumped into the water to see that almost all of the left side of this shark appeared to be a golden colour. This spurred much debate on the boat all afternoon as to what it could be.

Goldie the whale shark, photo Ciara McCarten

It wasn’t until we returned on board that the Dr David had the answers…. MUD!!!
We all accepted that “Goldie Looking Shark” had indeed been rolling around on the bottom somewhere in the area picking up this gold coloration to its body. Sharks do do the strangest things.

Another shark that sparked our attention this week was not quite for such pleasant reasons. One shark which was spotted had been badly and very recently hit by a boat leaving a very deep scar to the area behind the gills slits on the left hand side. Many of the sharks in Djibouti are badly scarred majority of which appear to be by boats in particular propellers which can cause a lot of damage to these sharks which tend to be on the surface in this area. This shark does appear to be healing which is good news as there is a definite improvement from when it was spotted in week one to when it was spotted in week three. Hopefully if we see this shark next year it will be nicely healed without a care in the world, as long as it stays away from boats.

One of the nastiest wounds we saw this week, witness to the damage caused by boat propellers, photo Ciara McCarten

My third shark of interest this week is one which has been spotted over the three weeks a new shark this year that we have aptly named hook eye due to the fishing hook and meters of line hooked into his eye and trailing down its body. We first thought about pulling the hook out however due to the fact that the hook was barbed this would be too difficult. So we settled as a team on cutting off the fishing line trailing sown his body so to reduce the drag as it already seemed to be attracting a lot of algae and life.

Hook-eye with the offending line trailing from it, photo David Robinson

So it was then our mission and each boat went out with scissors on board so that if we saw him we could do the job, at this point however it seemed hook eye had miraculously disappeared and was nowhere to be seen. Until finally on our last day I spotted him in the water and dashed back to the boat to get the scissors and carefully cut off all the line, this does mean however he will be harder for us to spot in the water but at least he’s swimming along happily with less discomfort.

Well I could go on forever about all the sharks I have seen this week however that wouldn’t leave anything for anyone else to write about.

And now from Gareth….

The 2011 Djibouti whale shark expedition is now officially over with only a few stragglers left at the Hotel in Djibouti City all looking forward to some home comforts after three very rewarding weeks at sea. The season was an undoubted success once again with so many of the people joining us on board now hooked on large spotty fish.

Those who were new to whale sharks all got their own special experiences to take away with them; be that multiple sharks vertical feeding together, a friendly shark politely trying to nudge you out of the way when your back is turned, a night snorkel with a whale shark, or the sheer magnitude of up to 60 encounters in a single day. No one left disappointed.

Vertical feeding sharks were always popular, photo Hussain Al Qallaf

This was also true back on the boat when it was time to sort our photos, write up the information collected from the day and then id and measure each individual shark encountered. Amazingly this didn’t appear to curb anyone’s enthusiasm, and everyone’s willingness to get stuck in meant that even those long evenings spent in front of a computer screen were thoroughly enjoyed.

A night snorkel with whale sharks and a whole lot of food, Gareth Jeffreys

The trip also contained many non-whale shark highlights; swimming with dolphins proved very popular in the final week when a pod could be seen on most trips out, together with ospreys hunting around the boat (although they were not as popular when perched above us on the top of the masts) and gazelles and camels grazing by the shore. A leather-back turtle was also spotted but the picture evidence was lost when it was pointed out the lens cap was still on.

The end of the expedition was consequently seen off in some style, including a magnificent paella cooked over a fire on the beach and everyone exhausted from dancing, very energetically, in to the small hours of the night.

Captain Vicente overseeing the beach Paella, photo Hussain Al Qallaf

A big thank you must therefore go to everyone involved, the crew, the guests and the MCSS team but most of all to the whale sharks!

And last but not least, Abi's point of view coming shortly...

There was definitely something in the water in week 2 of our expedition. Plankton tows showed that something to be arrow worms galore, a favourite food of the whale shark, so our friendly giants were there in force.

Night time plankton tows were full of larval fish, photo Hussain Al Qallaf

We had some great vertical feeding action and many encounters with multiple sharks. A highlight for me was an evening visit from the sharks. Photographer Alexis Rosenfield brought an underwater filming light which was set up at the back of the boat. Within no time plankton attracted by the light was filling the illuminated sea.

Soon in came shoals of juvenile fish feeding on the plankton, then of course the biggest, spottiest plankton lover swooped on in. It was spectacular to watch the whale shark from the boat as it came to the surface, light glistening on his head and the small fish dancing around his immense gaping mouth as he began to feed.

Abi and night feeding whale shark, photo Hussain Al Qallaf

However, even more impressive was the sight beneath the surface. With others I donned my snorkelling gear and braved the crab infested water. It was an incredible sight, coming out of the darkness to find the vertical feeding giant. He gulped away, each time opening his mouth the fish scattered as the water was sucked in. He was so close to the light, at times he mouthed at the bulb, obviously getting a hot dinner!

A whale shark trying a spot of hot plankton, photo Abi March

Later that evening he was joined by two more spotty friends, and with the crabs and other fish, they all dined on plankton well into the night.

The gauntlet of swimming crabs was also attracted to the lights, photo Abi

Friday, January 14, 2011

Week Two: Return of the Arrow Worms

Week two saw some Djibouti whale shark programme faithfuls re-joining the team with Luis and Flora Correira and Hussain Al Qalaf arriving. These keen photographers were hoping to update their image libraries with even more impressive photos this year and so we hoped to oblige.

Team leader Gareth Jeffries tells his side of the story….

Week two started fairly slow in Djibouti terms, averaging around 10 whale shark encounters per boat per session; this appeared to coincide with a lack of chaetognaths or arrow worms found in our plankton tows, but the week ended in some style….

Good viz but few sharks marked an unusual start to the week, photo Hussain Al Qalaf

The morning of the last full day started as it meant to go on. Sitting on the boat in the middle of the bay just 20 metres from shore, sharks could be seen in all directions. Each group that went in to the water were coming back with multiple encounters to record and sometimes with so many sharks they didn’t come back to the boat at all.

Multiple shark encounters were the norm for the last few days, photo Luis Correira

43 encounters (from just one boat) later, all had a great morning, and despite the sharks having more energy than their snorkeling companions (although Mark was making a sterling effort with the stereo-video system) everyone was excited to see what the afternoon would bring… and it didn’t disappoint.

After a frantic break trying to make sense of the quickly scribbled encounter sheets and hundreds of photos from the morning, we set out again and were immediately greeted by multiple sharks ram and vertical feeding all across the bay.
In the water it was apparent what the sharks were there for, the sea was thick with arrow worms: they had returned and so had the sharks. Three, four, or five sharks could be seen feeding and swimming together at any one time. Which made getting ID pictures somewhat precarious when positioning yourself in between them all; the sharks’ focus definitely wasn’t on avoiding you. Its surprising how easily a four metre fish can sneak up behind you!

Not sure what the swimming crab is doing in there, but the chategnaths were just being hoovered up by the gulp-ful! Photo Luis Correira

Passing on the information to the poor recorder back on the boat wasn’t easy either, the conversation would last all of ten seconds before the next group of sharks were spotted and you were thrown in to the thick of it again.

All of this made for a lot of hard work for everyone come the evening but with the sun setting as we headed back to our boat it was work we were very happy to have.

Time for a spot of vertical feeding... photo Luis Correira

Seeing a whale shark swim by you at speed and then suddenly stop, pivot on its pectoral fins and vertically gulp at the surface when reaching a particularly thick patch of these apparently tasty arrow worms is quite a sight in itself, when you witness so many doing this you know you’ve been very lucky indeed.

The perfect end to a perfect day... photo Gareth Jeffries

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Week One... from Abi

A belated post on week one from team-leader Abi March... belated because we had whale sharks to monitor!

Abi and one of her vertical feeding friends! Photo Simone Caprodossi

If you are a regular follower of the blog you’ll be aware that ‘whale sharks are very beautiful and spotty’ and after a successful first week in Djibouti I whole heartedly agree.

This week Dr David and I were lucky to have an excellent team on our boat, David Robinson and Simone Caprodossi from Dubai and videographer JB, a regular in Djibouti. By the end of the first afternoon Simone had doubled his total whale shark sightings, it wasn’t too hard as he’d only seen one previously. By the end of the second day, he’d lost count of how many whale sharks he’d now seen.
A Djibouti whale shark happily ram-feeding accompanied by a bunch of pilot fish friends, photo David Robinson

All the team, with our skipper Awad, were brilliant at spotting the sharks from the boat. In the water, photographers David and Simone could not only take stunning shots but also the crucial ID and scar photos as well as recall important information about the encounter. David in particular proved his observational skills to be excellent in descriptions of the giant spotty sharks and accompanying fishy friends.

Just like the team, the shark encounters were phenomenal. One morning I was swimming with a 4 metre male shark with a 1 metre cobia underneath him, I was taking photos when I spotted a turtle swimming alongside him. Later that morning Simone had the same shark and watched him barrel role, performing a huge ‘O’ shape, swimming upside down in a complete loop.

A Barrell-rolling whale shark! Photo Simone Caprodossi

Late in the afternoons is a particular favourite for whale sharks dining, getting in the water you are greeted by the amazing sight of stationary sharks vertically feeding. Its breath taking to watch these gentle giants opening their mouths and gulping, suspended effortlessly in the water.

Afternoon is vertical feeding time for Djibouti whale sharks, photo David Robinson

However, it’s also a favourite time for the lethal swimming crabs; waiting to get back on the boat can be an uncomfortable time, getting pinched from all angles by these critters.

Seeing double.... which one should I photograph first? The photographers dilemma! Photo Simone Caprodossi

Multiple encounters also became the norm, getting in with one shark, suddenly there were loads swimming past, like a busy road junction, coming by in all directions. It was hard to photograph but definitely worth it. On one occasion David had happily been swimming alongside a ‘small’ 3.5m shark when a 5m shark came past and barged the smaller one out of the way, all the while feeding as he went.

If the next 2 weeks continue as the first then 2011 will be a lot to live up to. There was no better way to spend New Year’s Day than swimming with whale sharks and it’s a great feeling to have seen whale sharks everyday this year! Like shoes, a girl can never have too many whale sharks, and so Djibouti is certainly the place to be.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Happy New Year & Djibouti 2011… week 1!

First of all a HAPPY NEW YEAR to all our readers!

We hope that 2011 brings you peace and success in your endeavours!

Our apologies for the break in posts over the last few months, overseas travel and a personal bereavement rather overtook things but we should be back up to speed from now.

Its’ January and the first week of our Djibouti field season has just been successfully completed, so there is a lot to tell you about . The first week has been pretty hectic with lots of whale sharks, thousands of swimming crabs and some of the most unusual whale-shark monitoring apparel to date, not to mention a film crew from French TV…

Abi’s view just before launch….will these socks set new trends in whale shark attire?

As such, I’m happy to introduce the first post of 2011 from Ciara McCarten, one of our team leaders in the Gulf of Tadjourah monitoring one of the most intriguing aggregations of whale sharks discovered so far!


The first week of 2011 Djibouti expedition got started with a roaring success. On the 31st December at 12 noon we were all set ready to go and desperate to get on to Deli our boat for a week spent chasing whale sharks around Djibouti waters. W

A young Djibouti whale shark with attendant yellow pilot fish, photo David Robinson

We had a great group this week and everyone was extremely eager to participate as much as possible so all we had to do was find some sharks which as always in Djibouti was not difficult, and as soon as we anchored up just outside of Arta bay we were off on our first afternoon session. It took only a few minutes of searching before we saw the dorsal fins popping out of the water and then the mayhem began with everyone desperate to get in the water and the team leaders desperately trying to remind people to take separator shots so that the evenings work would not become a photo sorting disaster.

So after a few hours spent chasing sharks and a great deal of excitement it was time to head back to the boat and settle in for a few new year celebratory drinks and a great big chocolate cake much to mine and Abi’s pleasure. Although we did manage to stay awake to ring in the new year with a toast and a few photos if was off to bed soon after as we all wanted to be fit and ready for the next day.

SO the week went on in traditional Djibouti manner with lots of shark chasing, ID pictures, biopsy samples, masses of swimming crabs and a film crew which possibly slowed down the science on mine and Gareth’s boat but was an experience all the same.

Size matters in the competition for food, or was it to get in the photo? Image David Robinson

Dr David even performed for the cameras while putting out a satellite tag on a small 4.5m male swimming in Arta bay area so we will be interested to see where this sharks heads off to after we leave Djibouti, as he has been spotted for the last couple of days swimming quite happily with the tag still well attached.

Late afternoon directional sunlight was great to backlight the sharks, photo Simone Caprodossi
SO now back in Djibouti city there are just a few things to get ready before we set off again for another week with a new group and hopefully lots and lots of sharks and not so many swimming crabs….!

Abi and friend… a quick self portrait!