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.

No comments: