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.