Sunday, January 22, 2012

Week Three and its all over again....

Expedition leader Gareth Jeffreys posts the last blog from the 2012 Djibouti expedition and as always, its sad to have to wrap things up... but there's always next year!

The third and final week of the Djibouti whale shark expedition has come to an end, and we unfortunately have had to say goodbye to our north African whale sharks, as well as the skippers and crew of the Deli Valetta, for another year.

The team for week three aboard the Deli

This week we had a full boat to see off our trip, with both new and familiar faces joining us on board. David Robinson returned for his second year (and he certainly hopes it won’t be his last) while some of the new faces to the Deli were in fact well known friends of the MCSS. Peter Verhoog of the Save Our Seas Foundation, came to see what we were up to as the Foundation were part sponsoring the expedition again this year; also aboard was Dr. Jennifer Schmidt of the University of Illinois, who assists the programme with genetic analysis. They were joined David Dixon, a very experienced British diver, Benoit Pardigon, an attorney from Paris and Gabrielle Methou for the last thrilling encounters of 2012.

A night encounter under the flood lights of Deli

Also with us for a few days were Yannick Aubry, of the Sheraton, Djibouti and cinematographer Rene Heuzey, both keen to be involved with the project to help with the protection of the species here in the Djibouti.

The week didn’t disappoint either, and the whale sharks certainly put a smile on everyone’s faces with encounters taking place both day and night throughout the final phase.

MCSS Expedition leader Gareth Jeffreys surfaces during a night encounter

And so it was certainly a sad moment when the Deli left her mooring on Friday morning to embark back for port.

This did not however detract from some much needed relaxation time, and the annual excursion to Lac Assal (the lowest point in Africa and second lowest in the world I have been reliably informed) performed miracles to some aching joints with a 15 minute floating session in, or more aptly, on top of the salt rich waters. Which was a wonderful idea at the time, but not quite so wonderful come the trip home for those without a spare pair of shorts (Ben)!

A little salty relaxation for the team at Lac Assal

Usually this would have marked the end of our time in Djibouti before working through all the data over the coming weeks back in the Seychelles, but this year Michel Vely and Daniel Jouannet of Megaptera, together with Rene Heuzey and Bertrand LaFrance of DECAN, the Djibouti Cheetah Refuge, had arranged for a whale shark conference to be given to the people of Djibouti the Saturday of our return. And so it was that we were able to present to all those that attended our findings from the nine years of study so far and inform them of the remarkable gift they possess and what actions will be needed if they are to preserve it.

Michel Vely and Gareth presenting the research findings

Judging by the number of people in the audience and the interest shown from all, we came away positive and confident for the future of whale shark protection in the Gulf of Tadjoura.

It therefore just leaves me to say a massive thank you to all those who joined us over the three weeks, to Yannick for his extra support, to the hard working and ever helpful crew of the Deli, to the Megaptera team, to the Save Our Seas Foundation, and last but certainly not least, to the sleep deprived but very satisfied members of the MCSS.

Gareth Jeffreys, expedition leader

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Djibouti Update

Week three has drawn to a close and the team have all reached the mainland safe and sound. A fuller report from team leader Gareth Jeffreys will follow will shortly, once he's been able to stop the ground form swaying underneath his feet!

But in the mean time Gareth has passed on the important statistics for the last week which yielded a further 369 encounters which makes the total of 1077 over the three weeks of expedition. The total number of individual sharks identified is not yet known as the photo ID process will continue for several weeks once the team get back to base in Seychelles.

Also, Gareth managed to deploy two satellite tags, one on a five metre female and the other on a five meter male, so fingers crossed we will hear more about their exploits over the coming months.....

More from Gareth and the team shortly.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Week Two... the story continues!

Week two in Djibouti has been another odd week of mixed results, with shark numbers starting off well with over twenty encounters for each boat on the first session but then started to fall again, coinciding with a lack of arrow worm numbers. But by Wednesday the arrow worms had returned and over 150 encounters logged. The grand total at the end of week two was 391 encounters. MCSS team member Darren Whitehead describes his week....

Just a little update from the MCSS field team here in Djibouti. So after a steady start, the week was full of ups and downs in the plankton levels and the disappearance of our beloved whale sharks for 24hrs. An evening plankton tow by Gareth and myself revealed the return of the arrow worms, an essential food source high in protein and a favourite of the juvenile sharks surrounding the waters of Djibouti.

The plankton net showed there was a drop in plankton abundance

Next day, as the sun rose over the mountainous backdrop, we headed out to one of the known aggregation sites with a newly found glint of hope from the successful plankton hunt. We were on constant lookout for our sharks when suddenly, out of the glare of the sun, the ever-graceful shadow appeared in the water in front of our boat. As we made our way over to be positioned alongside the shark a smile lightly rose from either side of my snorkel, as I knew what was in store for us today.

The sharks started appearing all around us rising from the deep and swimming almost together along the shore searching for plankton blooms to consume, gliding through the waters satisfying their healthy appetites with this newly found buffet.

As we made our way along the bay our skipper began yelling “ 4! No 5! Make that 6 sharks!”. We had reached the whale shark highway. Once hitting the water we were immediately greeted by two sharks gulping the water along side each other; shark after shark passed and circled, each getting its fill of this endless food supply.

We (some more gracefully than others) lifted ourselves back on board the boat with our hearts pumping and smiles gaping and made our way back to the Deli. With the sun slowly setting behind us, I noticed a familiar sight in the waters below, a whale shark vertical feeding in the waters beneath. Watching this graceful female pirouette in the water was the icing on the cake for such a wonderful day.

Whale shark vertical feeding on the plentiful arrow worms

The day that followed was once again full of encounters as plankton levels continued to stay high in the bays next to our research vessel.

The participants in Week Two...

Now as we move into our third and final week in Djibouti we hope for another week jam-packed with shark action and moments of sheer delight!

Until then …

Darren, MCSS

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Djibouti Week 1 With A Terrorist Turtle!

Laura Jeffreys describes her first week as part of the MCSS team in Djibouti....

Our first week in Djibouti consisted of peaks and troughs in terms of whale shark encounters ending on an exceptionally high peak!
Our boat, base and floating home 'Deli'

We went aboard our boat, the beautiful Deli Valletta and cast off to start our Djibouti Whale Shark Scientific Research mission on New Year’s Eve. During the journey, the Captain Vicente and Gareth Jeffreys gave the all important briefings in order to prepare our helpers/researchers for the unique experience ahead.
The team for week one posing on the fore-deck

To join the team, we had Ann Stanley who had just been travelling in Ethiopia, Erika Domont, a Megaptera representative and Gabrielle Methou who is so keen to help, she is coming for the entire three weeks. In the afternoon, we all went on a skiff as a group to get to experience a whale shark encounter. As part of the research we need to collect a lot of information: left and right photo-id; sex; estimated size; number and type of other fish; scars and behaviour. We appreciate that this takes time to pick up and the team had the afternoon to practice on six encounters. It is a steep learning curve in Djibouti and on New Year’s Day, we had a total of 75 encounters.

Over the next few days from 2nd to 4th January, we experienced the trough of the whale shark encounter and only hit double figures (12) on 3rd January. At one outing, we actually saw more activity on land where cows, camels and goats were trying to cool off next to the sea. Two camels were even dipping their legs in the sea. This did correspond to the drop in plankton levels from the science Darren has been collecting. However, we did get to have a good explore of the Bay of Ghoubet.
Whale shark chaos.... not to mention loads of plankton and swimming crabs!

On 5th January, there was a turnaround in events and the outlook was looking positive and tiring! On two skiffs in the morning exploration, we had 56 encounters. In the afternoon, the encounters nearly doubled with a total of 97 of which Gareth alone had 54 encounters. It is very hard to describe the whale shark chaos in the afternoon. Ann described it as a 5 lane highway with no traffic lights and everyone going in a different direction at great speed! You would be collecting the science from one whale shark and then another four would be on top of you expecting you to get out of the way fast. The plentiful plankton made the visibility poor and so you did not see the whale sharks until they were just ahead of you. The spirits were very high amongst the team and no one could quite believe how crazy it had been, even Gareth who had experienced Djibouti last year.

The final day of the first week, we were sharing Acacia Bay with seven tourist boats and even a kite surfer and collected data from another 45 encounters. Erica had an unusual encounter when she saw a turtle actually biting the right pectoral fin of a whale shark and then swimming off. At 11am we needed to head back to change over the team and restock for next week’s trip.
Erica photographs the 'Terrorist Turtle'

To summarise, there was a total of 317 whale shark encounters with an average estimated size of 4.25m. We have to wait for Gareth to confirm the actual sizes from his lasers. The MCSS team are used to the Seychelles juvenile male whale shark population so it was interesting to see more females in Djibouti. As you can appreciate, there is a lot of data to crunch and we have yet to identify half of the whale sharks. However, we can tell you that we have seen whale sharks from every year we have been in Djibouti (since 2003). We have identified 61 different sharks of which 16 are ‘new’ sharks to our Djibouti database.

We are looking forward to week 2 of our whale shark adventure and will update you next week.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Happy New Year & Welcome to Djibouti!

A Happy New Year to one and all!

And Djibouti 2012 is officially underway, with the first of the three week expeditions arriving back in port as we post this report.

The first week was one of great contrasts for the team with the week starting off really well with four sharks on the afternoon of arrival at Arta and a respectable 43 encounters between the two survey boats the following morning. But after that the sharks appeared to move off and despite the extended survey all the way to Boutres (just before the entrance to the Ghoubet) only four sharks were encountered and very little plankton.

However things started to pick up on Wednesday night when an 8 m shark visited the boat at night, followed by four others feeding under the lights of the boat.

Back at Arta the sharks and plankton were back in force with 130 encounters and 61 different sharks had been identified by I3S photo-identification by close of play on Wednesday. Things were really hotting up on Thursday with plankton tows full of arrow worms and sharks vertical feeding all over the place; Gareth clocked up a commendable 54 encounters of his own that afternoon! Needless to say they are now a bit behind with the photo ID!

The team also recorded an interesting case of turtle brutality when one team saw a turtle on an encounter this morning, which proceeded to swim up to the whale shark and bite it on it's pectoral fin! Guess that’s a new ‘threat’ to whale shark management!

The team are working hard on the data and have totaled 317 encounters for the first week; although they haven't completed the photo-identification yet, they have promised to send a post and some pictures in the next day, so watch this space for updates….