Thursday, September 22, 2011

Takama Students Find Their Whale Shark

After a dry whale shark spell, the MCSS team’s fortunes changed on Tuesday 21st September. With two full boats going out, there was a lot of people with their fingers crossed. Amongst them were two students from Takamaka Primary School, Kimberley Marie and Karlos Bouzin, who won a trip with us last year after creating beautiful whale shark and turtle posters.

Kimberley & Carlos at the Dive Centre.....

Our hopes were rewarded with a 3m whale shark who was very inquisitive and wanted to visit all the swimmers and boats. If people stopped swimming, he started to dive, when people swam near him again he’d come back up to the surface. He was accompanied by a few remoras swimming under his belly and about 25 yellow pilot fish darting around his mouth. And all of this in 17.5m visibility!

Kimberley and Karlos were joined in the water by intern Julia who did a fantastic job of leading them to the sharks and keeping them safe as they were not experienced snorkelers. For Julia it was a delight to be in the water with them on their first whale shark experience and joined in their excitement when we saw the playful little shark “Their reaction when they saw the shark was better for me than seeing the whale shark itself!” she said.

Karlos, Julia and Kimberley in hot pursuit!

Karlos: “It was the best day of my life. It was fun. I got the opportunity to see how whale sharks look like in real life. I hope we go again, you know why, because it was so much fun. I love this day!

Karlos and Kimberley with their whale shark....

Kimberley: “When I first saw the whale shark I was very happy. They are very big. It was the first time I’ve seen them. It was fun the whole day on the boat. They have a very long tail and a large mouth! I hope that we go again because I had so much fun swimming in the blue sea.

It was a pleasure to have Kimberley and Karlos join us and we hope for some more days like this the rest of the season!

Happy whale shark faces!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Micro-lighting around Mahe weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee AMAZING

Well after nearly two weeks of really rubbish weather, things look like they are improving at last... Join intern Susie Lilley on her first ever microlight flight:

Weather good to go – check, Pilot Johan– check, Micro-light – check, eyes like a hawk to spot the ‘tadpoles’ that are the whale sharks from up there – erm???

Finally after a week of the pilots not being able to get in the air due to adverse weather conditions, they were able to take off this morning for the aerial survey.

Not only is this V. exciting in itself but I got to be the observer. Pulling into the hanger and seeing the mirco-light for the first time and the thought of ‘am I really going up in that small baby buggy contraption and flying around the whole of Mahe and back’ ????? AM I MAD….

Well yes I am actually, and it was AMAZING!!

Echo Papa Echo with pilots Johan and Dirk...a pretty high-tec baby buggy!

Having put on all my warmest clothes and standing sweltering for approx 5 mins whilst Johan and Dirk do final checks. I get given my lifejacket and told the safety procedures if we happen to ditch into the sea, which after all is what we are doing our surveying over.

I get to climb into my seat. Dirk belts me in (this is nothing more than an airplane belt by the way) I put my goggles on and make sure my headphones are in place and the microphone touching my lips. (so Johan can here me scream obviously).

Then trying not too think too much about ditching in the sea and how on earth I am supposed to hoick my leg over Johans seat back to get into the right position to jump out before we hit the water! Cheery stuff this……

We finally set off past the Seychelles coastguards and out onto the runway, then with a Echo Papa Echo good to go, we take off... just like that! Much quicker than I expected and we are up at 1000 feet in seconds.

Susie abducted by a Mexican wrestler masquerading as our pilot! She seems happy enough!

Well what can I say,…………the view is fabulous, seeing the whole Island for the first time and feeling of wind all around and not being enclosed in an ‘metal container’ you get to really feel like you are flying. This as they say is ‘how it should be done’.

We then start our aerial survey flight around the Mahe. I am desperate to see a whale shark, as I still have an un co-operative back and therefore not allowed to go on the boat trips still.

I spent most of time scanning the water as we fly over it trying to see any ‘tadpoles’ below but lets be honest it would be good to see anything from this height. I have no idea how Johan sees what he does, he spotted a turtle and kept telling me to look at the brown dot on the surface before it dove back down. I’m like “what brown dot?” He tells me it gets easier once you know what you are looking for, this I am not so sure about. However, I did manage to see a fish shoal not long after so my hawk eyes must work, even if very briefly.

I don’t think Johan or Dirk need worry about me taking over from them anytime soon as my spotting skills leave much to be desired. Hopefully next time the sea will be clear and calm with exceptional visibility and I can really show them how good ‘hawk eye Lil’ really is, ahem!

Flying through the clouds is exhilarating and the reflection of the micro-light as we fly over them is a marvel in itself. As we head back down around the top of the island towards Beau Vallon we have to climb height to go over a bank of clouds to around 6500 feet, the view gets even more amazing but its does get a wee bit chilly at this height.

The microlight's shadow in a reflected circular rainbow on the clouds below... so cool....

We are still scanning the water below in the hope of seeing anything but really I am leaving it up to Johan at this height. He does assure me he can still spot the whale sharks from here but I am just enjoying the scenery now before we start heading back towards the airport.

Therese Island and the Conception channel a stunning sea-scape

Unfortunately we were not lucky enough to see any whale sharks on this trip but even still the experience was brilliant. What can I say?

Can I do it again? Soon please………

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In The Doldrums Cabin Fever May Set In...

Well what a miserable week we’ve had; the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone has been upon us….but instead of the Doldrums we have had wind speeds gusting to 42 knots and lots of rain whichhas kept the microlight firmly on the ground and the interns largely in the office. The interns have been busy though, going back through our aerial data to digitise the sightings of other species so that these can be readily accessed by other projects…. But it’s not like working with whale sharks!

Intern Leah Meyer describes how the interns have kept going…

The majority of the last few days of the whale shark season have been spent here at the MCSS office. Team leaders have been kept busy with two Maritime Training Centre students and three students from the International School Seychelles. Whale shark excursions have been cancelled four days this week due to poor weather conditions. This gave us interns time to catch up on crucial data entry for the previous whale shark encounters. Once that was done we've used our time and manpower to enter data in spreadsheets for other MCSS programs. It's amazing to realize the amount of scientific data the MCSS processes and analyzes on a daily basis that extends beyond the whale shark program!

After a day or two of having all 6 interns sitting and working together, we seemed to develop the beginning stages of "cabin fever." Luckily there are a few regular things to do on the island. The easiest way interns can get out of the house and remain sane is by heading to the beach.

We live next to a resort with a well maintained beach and also have steps that lead straight down to the ocean if we feel like a snorkel. Heading into Beau Vallon and walking along their beaches is a nice alternative to where we live in Glacis. At the Berjaya hotel where the Underwater Centre is located (the dive shop we use for our whale shark encounters) they have a group giant tortoises! One day the interns were taken on a quick field trip to pet these enormous animals. It was so cool seeing them so close!

Leah getting up-close and personal to the local wildlife...

On some Wednesday nights MCSS staff and interns go into town and wander the "bizarre bazaar" so dubbed by Abi. We always know we can get a good meal on Wednesday nights because the variety of fresh local food is everywhere.
Leah exploring Seychelles culinary delights!

Chapatis, spring rolls, mango salad, and banana cake are MCSS staples. I was able to try fruit bat curry for the first time at the bazaar, which reminded me of a very bony lamb. They really have a great assortment of everything!

Bizarre Bazzar food seems to be a good antedote to cabin fever!

Something else MCSS staff enjoys doing to ward off cabin fever is to head down to La Faya and shoot pool. For only SR5 (the equivalent cost of a 1 way bus fare) we are able to play. Gareth and Mark have impressed locals with their pool skills while the female interns manage to embarrass themselves most of the time. On those nights it's just fun to spend time together in a setting different from the office or boat.

This week, intern Julia coordinated a Rugby World Cup 2011 raffle with the help of Abi. Twenty people consisting of interns, MCSS staff, pilots, Maritime students, and Underwater Centre skippers contributed SR5 and drew the name of one country competing in the Rugby World Cup. Whichever person draws the name with the Rugby World Cup champion wins the SR100 prize! It's little competitions like these that keep working at the MCSS fun and interesting.

The rugby World Cup sweepstake board

By working hard and balancing that with enjoying what the island of Mahe has to offer, MCSS interns have done a good job warding off cabin fever.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Seychelles International School Students First Whale Shark Encounter

For several years MCSS have hosted students on work attachment from educational establishments in Seychelles; this week we have three International School Year 11 students who have just completed week one of their two week work assignment. Anthony Hayman, Felicia Gaitanou and Jasper George-Gilbert, together with two Maritime Training Centrer students, Rebecca Hoareau and Dainise Quater, have had a busy week which consisted of attending lectures on the Seychelles whale shark monitoring programme, whale shark anatomy and aerial surveys, presented by Dr David Rowat and further presentations of Turtle Monitoring Method and Coastal Development presented by Project Coordinator Georgia French. In addition to learning the theory, they have had an opportunity to put their newly acquired knowledge into action by helping to conduct plankton tows, beach profiling on Beau Vallon, turtle monitoring on the beaches in the South of Mahe and kindly help us to trial our kite for aerial surveillance.

Birds-eye view from the Kite-Cam during practice off the beach

Anthony, Felicia and Jasper were particularly lucky this week by having the opportunity to encounter two whale sharks (obviously obeying the encounter code) during the kite test. In their own words, here’s what they each thought of the experience which appears to be the highlight of their first week…

Felicia’s account:

The International School students enjoying their first whale shark encounter

On the second day with MCSS I was able to experience swimming with a whale shark and this for me was my first time to see one. It was really unexpected as the aim of going on the boat was to fly a kite off the boat with a camera to be able to survey a specified area from an aerial perspective. It was when the kite was finally in the air that we got the call from the pilot of the microlight plane that there was a whale shark in the Conception Channel! Quickly the kite was pulled in and off we went to find the whale shark. The microlight was able to direct the boat towards the shark. When we were about 100m away, we put on our gear and swung our legs over the edge of the boat. Once arrived, a spotter would jump in and lift their hand when everyone else should get in the water. Seeing the shark for the first time was scary as he kept opening his mouth which was huge and it was as if it could swallow you up. On seeing the second whale shark I realised that it was a peaceful animal not meaning for any harm as we were able to stay with it for 15 minutes which was great! At that moment I appreciated what a peaceful animal the whale shark really is and what a lovely experience it was to actually swim with such a big and powerful animal!

Felicia and Anthony discussing their first whale shark experience...

Anthony’s experience:

Firstly, I would start by saying that the reason I chose to do this course with the MCSS is because I love everything about the ocean. All ocean life really interests me especially after completing my open water dive certification.

Starting this course, none of us ever expected to swim with a whale shark or even see one, we only thought that we would encounter turtles, but the MCSS, being who they are, took us out to go and fly the kite with a special fitting for a camera so that we would be able to survey a certain area from a bird’s eye view.

The Kite-Cam view of the team launching the kite at sea

On the same day our microlight pilot took off to go and see if he could spot any whale sharks. It took us all a lot of hard work to get the kite up and flying and just as we did, we then received a radio call from the pilot saying that he had a visual of a whale shark not far from our location, so we quickly pulled in the kite and headed off to Conception Channel. On the way there, our good friend Gareth told us the procedure of how to get into the water and how to get out safely when a whale shark is around. After the explanation, the pilot gave us the direction and approximate distance to where the shark was.

When we got near our ‘spotter’ Gareth got into the water to look for the whale shark. The spotter puts his hand up when it is safe for us to get in and follow the whale shark. Getting into the water for the first time not knowing what will happen ended up being the best experience of my life. Being able to swim with one of the animals and to be able to do this four times in one day was really amazing and I hope to go and swim with whale sharks again. So many thanks to our friends at the MCSS for the really great experience...

Jasper’s Description:

Jasper recovering from his swim with the world's biggest shark....

I didn’t expect to swim with whale sharks within the first week of starting work experience with MCSS, but as it happens I was in the water with two on the second day. We hadn’t planned to see the whale sharks while on the boat outing, we actually planned to fly a kite of the boat with a special camera fitted so we could survey the surrounding area from an Aerial point of view. After releasing the kite off of the boat which took a painstakingly long time, we were contacted by Johan, one of the skilled microlight pilots that spot whale sharks. He told us he spotted a whale shark in the Conception Channel. We pulled in the kite and off we set, excited but nervous.

Gareth, the team leader, taught us the safety procedures on how to get out of the boat safely and quickly. He then explained how he would get in the water and raise his hand to indicate when it was safe for the rest of us to get in. The whale shark was very curious at first, always trying to swim towards us, which is very scary when it’s your first time in the water with one. Images flashed through my mind of me being sucked into its mouth. But I calmed down after a while and I was able to admire its true beauty and take in this once in a life time opportunity.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Science Can Be Fun Too....

Intern Mark Rutherford describes his experiences of the first few weeks...

It has been nearly 3 weeks now since I arrived on Mahe Island, and the whale shark season has officially been open since the 1st of September. It has been an exciting learning curve for the interns joining the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles. Our days have been filled with seminars on whale shark biology, conservation efforts and the work of the MCSS; training sessions for snorkelling and free-diving, underwater photography and laser metrics (for measuring shark length); and the many detailed procedures for the data processing required back in the office. This is essential to collate all the information we collect on each whale shark encounter and to identify each shark.

Mark with one of the early season whale sharks

Our first in water experience with a whale shark was very memorable- it was up close and personal. It took some nerve to step off the boat, into the deep blue ocean, with only snorkelling gear, whilst a 30ft shark circled the boat. Once in the water, however, I quickly relaxed. It was obvious immediately that these are gentle giants, interested in no more than peacefully feeding on tiny plankton. Their colouring and markings are beautiful; the swirls of dots and lines on the dorsal surface remind me of Native Australian art. They are extremely effective camouflage, as these large creatures disappear from view as they glide away beneath your gaze. Generally, if the encounter code of conduct is being observed, the sharks are not disturbed by the curious humans swimming next to them. In fact, as happened to me, the smaller juvenile sharks will sometimes follow the bubbles created by your swim fins, and you can circulate around your fellow swimmers with your new playful companion. That was a special experience.

'Inspector Gadget' attaches the camera platform to our Flowform kite

An interesting diversion to the day to day work with the project was an afternoon flying kites on the beach. Gareth (MCSS team leader, nickname ‘Inspector Gadget’) is trialling an aerial platform to tow behind the encounter boat, to carry a video camera. This will radio feed to a monitor on the boat, so a large area of the sea can be surveyed for spotting sharks and other fauna. Initial tests on the beach proved the kite flew well, but the platform for the camera suspended beneath the kite swung so wildly, the picture feed could cause sea-sickness even standing on dry land!

Expert kite-flyer Mark tames our Flowform 16...

A further refinement was required, by simply attaching a second kite tail to the platform itself. This did the trick of stabilising the camera to provide a steady picture. A session on the boat to fly the kite at sea then followed. However, launching a kite, with a camera platform delicately suspended beneath, carrying hundreds of dollars of video equipment, from the back of boat rolling in the swell, in a strong wind, is not an easy as it sounds... In fact, it’s very tricky! With the willing help of 3 recruits from the Year 11 at the International School Seychelles, and 3 interns, we managed to launch the kite without getting hopelessly tangled. The video results are very promising, with more testing and refinements underway. Like they say, ‘science can be fun’!

Following the successful boat launch of the kite, and even more importantly, its safe retrieval, we were lucky enough to find two whale sharks to swim with. For the ISS students, their first experience of getting in the water with these rarely seen Seychellois natives was very exciting. Big grins were in evidence on the boat ride home.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

This Is Not a Drill……..

Another intern's insight into Boot Camp, this time Samantha West relives their first live encounter...

It was the day before Whale Shark season officially began and our final practice session before taking clients out on the boat. The afternoon began with gathering all the equipment needed for a typical Whale Shark encounter including, the Secchi disk, plankton net, CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth meter), GPS and radios and of course recording sheets, fins, masks and snorkels. After loading everything onto the truck we headed to the Underwater Centre at the Berjaya Hotel Beau Vallon to get on the boat. With our trusty skipper Mervin we were shortly on our way to Conception Channel, North of Mahe, where we would be met by our micro-light pilot Johan for some whale shark encounter scenarios.

Last minute knot tying practise with Gareth and able assistant Honey, the team mut!

We divided the roles on the boat so that Leah began with radio and recording, with the help of team leader Abi, Gareth (team leader) was spotter and Mark and I were the ‘clients’. Unfortunately Susie was unable to make it due to her un-cooperative back.

Sam in charge of GPS and recording functions... when all was calm!

“Right 10°, 500m” says Johan. We are on our way, after confirming that it was a practice shark. The boat turned off the engines 50m away from the ‘shark’ and we entered the water for a pretend snorkel. Unfortunately the fake shark didn’t stick around for long and we were back on the boat in no time at all. Immediately after returning to the boat Leah gets the message “Left 5° 200m” followed by “This is not a drill…I repeat…this is not a drill”.

The frenzy began, our first REAL whale shark encounter. The radio was swiftly passed to Abi and all jobs abandoned as the three of us interns were getting in the water no matter what. The splash of the water as we were dropped in next to the 9.5m whale shark was quickly followed by an exhilarating experience of swimming alongside the worlds largest fish.

And here he is, sey.2011.004 a new shark to add to the Seychelles database!

The rest of the afternoon also saw us in the water next to a 4m whale shark and conducting some science experiments for later analysis.

Jubilant interns after seeing their first whale shark

It was a day of firsts for me. Not only was it my first whale shark sighting, it was also the first time I heard the sound of Leah squealing through her snorkel, something I wasn’t sure was possible until now.

A day full of screams, laughter, joy and overall an amazing experience. One of many more to come.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Interns Emerge.... Week 1: 22-28 August

Well they all survived, mostly intact! Here's intern Susie Lilley's first ever internet blog... find out what happens during 'Boot Camp'.....

Our first day as Interns started with our first lecture from Dr David Rowat (or Dr D), this was to be our morning routine for the next week.

Our first lecture was on an overview of Whale sharks in the Seychelles filling all us ‘Newbies’ in on all things Whale shark. This was followed by an extremely exhausting (cough cough) afternoon of snorkelling with Gareth, one our team leaders. His main aim was to find out how competent we were are duck diving, as this is required to get the ID shots for each shark....more on this later.

Having shown Gareth our prowess at diving to depths of 5m+ we spent the rest of the time checking out the local wildlife and finding the elusive resident Turtle. With a beer on offer to the first person to see him, the chase was on, however the title of ‘MCSS Turtle Spotting Champion’ was retained by Gareth ‘speedy’ Jeffreys for another year.

The rest of our week followed much the same pattern, with Lectures from Dr D in the mornings covering such topics as Aerial Survey Techniques, Catch, Mark and Recapture including population estimates, Satellite tagging and Laser photo techniques. Afternoons followed these by practical demonstrations on Laser Photography in the bay in front of the office with Gareth– finding our first (pretend) whale shark that let us practice our duck diving and photographing (sounds easy but trying to photograph whilst holding your breath and trying to stay down is a lot harder than you think, and this was just practice on a stationary whale shark) ......eek! Imagine what its going to be like when it’s a real one moving at speed!

Laser Camera used to ID Sharks

Other afternoons were spent in the office working through the procedures and paperwork that we have to do on a daily basis. Learning how to radio to the pilots and fill out the correct information, learn the boat procedures for when both MCSS staff and clients are onboard.

Wednesday is when the fun started, learning how to Identify the sharks using the I3S system. Each shark has its own pattern of spots, stripes and markings, this is the sharks ‘unique fingerprint’ and it is this that allows Abi and the team to discover whether its a new shark is in the area or whether its a returning shark from previous years. This ‘fingerprint’ is taken from a triangle taken from the top to the bottom of the last gill slit to the end of the pectoral fin.

Abi teaching Mark and Sam how to photo ID whale sharks

This fun day was followed up by the Interns first trip to the Bazaar in Beau Vallon, followed by a few rounds of pool at the local hotspot La Faya. This is also the day I annoyingly managed to partially slip my disc and have therefore been office based ever since.......

Relax time at the weekly Beau Vallon Bazaar

Thankfully we had the whole weekend off (our last one for 2 months – eek) before starting again next week when hopefully everyone, except me :-( would get out on the boat for training and get to see their first Whale Sharks up close....