Monday, September 23, 2013

This weeks contribution is from our intern Freya.... starting with a cautionary tale for all team leaders...

A wise man once told me that a blog should come from within. I have decided to follow this advice and write a blog from the heart which just happens to include this photo, one that means a lot to me and the interns (make of it what you will). Be careful what advice you give Savi! 
Scholar Savi models the latest fashion in shorts..... but who's shorts were they?

On a more serious note, today it has officially been one month since I waved goodbye to my teary parents at a little train station in Devon and began my travels to the warmer waters of the Seychelles. Time has flown by since arriving here and in one month I have already started ticking off my bucket list (swim with whale shark…check, fly in microlight…check, complete a 7 year olds triangular puzzle…check, finish G.I.Sing before 10am…if only). We are almost half way through the season already and it looks like the sharks simply missed the turning for Seychelles last year, because this year the plankton is blooming and the season is booming! We have already had plenty of successful trips and the whale sharks wide grins are rubbing off on clients and interns alike after every encounter.

A very smiley shark, with friends..

For us interns the morning involves entering data from the day before (or even the day before that, which adds to the fun!) or being down in the dive centre taking bookings, helping clients and enjoying the occasional bit of banter with the divers. But the real fun doesn’t start until the afternoon where the tension in the house is palpable from 11am onwards while we await that all important phone call from the pilot. We’re all praying for those three magic words ‘sharks were spotted’ or ‘there are sharks’ or even ‘we’re going sharking’ (in fact any combination of three words implying we will be seeing sharks). And once they’ve been uttered the house becomes alive with excitement and anticipation. But for us interns it’s not over yet. Even if a boat does go out the ultimate question is, who will be on it? A question that can only be answered one way…the plankton pot (a small, plastic pot burdened with the fate of 5 eager interns). We all place our names into the pot and draw one out to decide who will be on the boat in the afternoon, a truly heart stopping and not at all bias (the pot favours Matt) experience. Once the mornings antics are over and we’re out on the boat, it’s an exciting race to find the sharks before they dive and collect all the data we need (made all the more fun by sea sickness, crazy skippers and me always choosing to sit on the wet side of the boat).

Me getting wet on the boat!

About three weeks have passed since my first boat trip and shark encounter. A trip where everything I had been taught in training week went out the window and I simply stared in awe at the shark (and some charming devil rays who decided to show up). Since then everything is coming together and I’m finding it easier to keep my head in the water and get some ‘science’ done. Everyone is becoming more comfortable with the sharks and as the season progresses we’re getting the chance to try our hand at spotting (every whale shark monitoring enthusiast’s dream). Not only does spotting involve leading a group of clients on the experience of a lifetime, but one is also tasked with sexing, identifying, sizing, and most importantly actually keeping up with the shark. 

Me enjoying one of my first sharks

This week I was spotter for the first time, which just happened to fall on our busiest day so far. With a total of 21 encounters I was in and out of the water like a… waterproof yo-yo? I wish I could say it was easy and the sharks turned left then right for ID photos and then dipped upside down and politely displayed thier claspers. But no they didn’t, and no it wasn’t easy… these sharks were on a mission. Almost every shark I was in on wanted to give me a work out, and by the end my legs had turned into jellies like the ones ruthlessly stinging me as I swam to keep up. However towards the end the sharks started to feel sorry for me with my obvious lack of fitness (and gills) and did occasionally slow down for moments before jetting off again. Thankfully I managed to break through the wall (mentally, physically and literally…there was a wall of fusiliers blocking my path) and sex, size and photograph most of the sharks, something that would have been a miracle on my first encounter where I forgot to turn the camera on in my excitement. 

The wall of fusiliers ..... very frustrating when you're trying to get ID photos!

If the boat doesn’t go out and all the data entry is finished we sometimes get the afternoon off to see more of the island (namely Sunset beach 50m down the road). Last week however, we broadened our horizons and hiked to Anse Major. Ironically getting to the start was more of a hike than the walk itself, but luckily the buses in Seychelles are spacious and air-conditioned…We all enjoyed the idyllic viewpoints and were representing MCSS along the way!

Body language.... spelling MCSS

At the end of each day, whether it involved spotting, hiking, G.I.Sing or sunbathing we’re all knackered and look forward to an evening chick-flick (especially James) and a nice early bed before a new day spent connecting the dots in the whale shark mystery!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Intern Alison describes her first weeks on the programme... so far so good!

We are officially into week three of our whale shark season and while strong winds, rough ocean conditions, and buckets of rain have kept our shark encounters to a minimum, things are still going along swimmingly (sharks, swimming… get it?). However the sharks don’t seemed bothered by the dismal weather. It has been a bit frustrating to know our pilots have seen several sharks every day they have been up in the microlight , but we just can’t get to them because it is impossible to get to the sharks by boat. Well, at least without having everyone on the boat become violently seasick. At least we know there are sharks out there, compared to last year when they had the complete opposite problem- beautiful weather but no sharks! Our team leaders kept us busy during the bad weather with I3S practice, a computer program designed to identify whale sharks we see on our encounters by matching the spots with shark photos kept in the MCSS database.  So far we’ve done pretty well identifying the sharks we have seen, and have discovered some old MCSS whale shark friends have returned for a visit, and have even indentified eleven new sharks this year. 

 One of our spotty friends, complete with entourage of remoras...

But enough about computer programs, however interesting they may be. The weather has been slowly getting better and we have been able to spend more time with our large fishy friends. The last two days could definitely be considered a success with over 20 encounters with several different sharks. Some sharks have been just too quick for us land-dwelling humans to keep up with. The spotter will have just enough time to snap an ID photo or two while the rest of us are finning and puffing away to keep up, but the shark will keep swimming effortlessly until it disappears into the big blue. Other sharks however are a bit more cooperative and let us get a good look at. One of today’s sharks was a bit more than cooperative and hung around with our swimmers for more than 50 minutes! He was a curious little guy. And when I say little, I mean 4.5 meters long (Not really so little!)  He seemed to be unaffected by the presence of swimmers with him, and even put on a bit of a show for the group by circling them, chasing some bubbles created by the snorkeller’s fins, and coming up to the boat to check it out. 

Getting up-close and personal with the boat.... sharks don't read the encounter rules!

The shark gave the interns a good opportunity to properly photograph both sides, determine the sex, count the remoras and pilot fish, note any scars (this guy had some interesting black spots on his tail) and have a bit of fun too.  Either way it doesn’t matter if you swim with these giants for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, it’s such an incredible and unforgettable experience. 

The past few days have been a big learning curve learning to work with bad weather and still trying to collect all the data we need, but I think we passed the rough weather test and every other condition will seem to be a piece of cake in comparison. Just don’t forget the number one rule of unpleasant weather: don’t forget to take a sea sickness tablet before you get on the boat! 

The weather seems to be improving every day and all of the interns are crossing our fingers the weather will stay nice enough to see more whale sharks. After all, it’s not every day you get to swim with the biggest fish in the ocean!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Through the Fire and Flames...Err, Fusiliers and Plankton?

High winds and rough seas have curtailed activities for a few days but team Scholar Savi Leblond is getting pretty fired up with the season thus far...

Poor visibility, churning waters, high cloud cover and sea sick tablets; these are the things that make a whale shark season come alive. As we all know, last year was a testing season and I have been asked back as a scholar to ease interns into the 2013 season. I wasn’t expecting to see what I have so far and on the 9th of September I was aflame with adrenaline. 

Although the afternoon whale sharking trip started off with a rest on the leeward side of Conception Island, Johan noticed a sudden apparition of whale sharks in the much rougher, more southern waters of Therese Island. The first shark spotted by Johan went AWOL into a school of what seemed to be excited fusiliers, however we pressed on to linger beside them as if waiting for visual confirmation from the fusiliers themselves. We were joking about a whale shark emerging through the fish causing the famous “fish halo” you would see from the air, our skipper Yannick pointed to his left and muttered what we thought to be a sarcastic “shark”! Sam turned her head and with exhilaration reiterated the word and before I could think of anything else, equipment was slapped on and I was in the water. 
 A solid wall of fusiliers... and a sharks in there somewhere?

Surrounded by these swarming fish trying to clear some out of the way for a proper shot, I managed to get glimpses of different parts of this actively feeding shark. I had not seen such feeding practices but it is clear to both underwater and on boat observers that “thrashing about” are the most accurate words for description; caudal tail vigorously floundering on the surface, head out of the water as it “chomps” on the surface, confused fusiliers making more than a splash attempting to continue their feeding ritual which so happens to be rudely interrupted by this mystery lad. 

 This chomping business gets pretty hectic!

A brief (brief is quite the understatement in this case) window of opportunity presented itself and I snapped left, right and sexed our male friend before he started using his body parts to its full potential disappearing out of site forward and downwards in the poor, green 4.5 meter viz. As I breached the water with the end of encounter symbol flashing my crossed arms to the boat, I noticed an excited, flailing James to my left with his face in the water. To my surprise, a giant grin was vertically hurling its way to the surface thusly adding to our encounter numbers (though after I3S’ing the shots, these two encounters were the same male enjoying his plankton feast). With this fellow quickly ram feeding what seemed to be one last time, he then 180’d downwards with no third appearance. With both encounters lasting a total of only 2 minutes, only a few words were heard when clients, interns and I reached the boat; fast, feeding, got the shots!

At least the fusiliers were pretty chilled...

Though encountering a whale shark is exciting in itself, these encounters were far more exciting. Rather than a lazy whale shark gliding through the waters, we observed and recorded the whale sharks doing what they came here to do; feed on the plankton buffet. The day ended when Johan mentioned one last whale shark before the winds and rains forced our pilot into refuge and on a tricky flight back to the airport. As we looked out at the rough seas, it was hard to discern the white caps from the shoals of fish as well as TWO whale shark caudal fins swiveling out of the water. Without a moment’s thought I was in the water chasing one with the interns chasing the other. Naturally both teams are out for the science, not just for a rousing game of hide-and-go-seek. I needed pictures and I needed them ASAP if this shark repeated all actions of our last encounters. 

 Shark and remoras exit stage right...

Swimming with the surge, through the swarm of fusiliers and the occasional species confused remora, I was well aware of how big this animal was and how powerful it can be. With the best of intentions to keep to the encounter code, the flick of the caudal tail was much wider than expected. Out of my periphery I noticed the whale shark with mouth open, ram feeding the surface of the water, gills alarmed and pectoral fins curved; it was no behavior I had seen for myself before. My shark receded into the depths and when I looked up I was overrun with a bit of concern. The interns with hands high in the air were following their whale shark at an alarming speed straight to my location. As I look down prepared to move every which way, I noticed the shark was well into its diving and quickly out of site before long. 

Its week 2 of whale shark season and all interns are well trained on all activities in the water as well as in the office. With smiles all around after 5 successful trips (one day involving two boats), it’s safe to say that clients are spreading the word; interns are not regretting this step in their lives (except James when he has to G.I.S); team leaders are doing a job well done and we have one very happy David knowing his spotty friends are back with a vengeance. The weather has taken a turn for the worse but fingers crossed its only for a few days and we are back in the water with these hungry buffoons soon. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Matt's view on whalesharks

And now a post from Intern Matt Leaper:

There really is no way to describe the sensation of awe that overcomes you when you first slide off the side of the faintly bobbing boat to plunge into the salty water below, look round and find your entire vision suddenly filled with the streamlined shape and unmistakeable spotty patterns of your very first whale shark. It was a moment that I had been forever dreaming of, watching the television documentaries enviously and hoping that one day it would be me in the water with the fish that holds the title of world’s largest. And after years of having to stay out of the water and behind a school or university desk, sometimes it felt like it would never come.
But suddenly, there I was and there it was. Me and the shark, within five metres of each other. At long last.
 The shark was a five-metre long male, making it a juvenile and only a quarter of the size that whale sharks can actually grow if they live long enough, but I really didn’t care that it was comparatively small because to me, it was still vast. Easily larger than any other animal I’ve ever seen, not counting whales that I had seen only from the surface on boats.

It cruised past with a grace that belied its great size, beady eyes staring unblinkingly ahead as it studiously ignored the humans that had suddenly entered its water world with it. I immediately had to start kicking my fins hard to keep up, but the shark seemed to be moving effortlessly forward with mere lazy sweeps of its giant tail. However, one thing that did seem to intrigue it a little was the boat that we’d come in, for it swam very close to the white bottom of the craft and curved in a slow, calm circle around it.
The feeling of euphoria and triumph within me, combined with the overwhelming wonder of the massive fish before me, made me temporarily forget that I was actually supposed to be doing something with it. It was on an important conservation internship – I wasn’t just here to gape at it through the mask and snorkel like the tourists around me. But fortunately one of the main things that I had to do was take photos and that was something that I could set to with a will. And so I did. I did my best to photograph the specific portion of the shark that would help to identify it – the area behind the gills and above the pectoral fin which is unique in every shark. But while I was swimming furiously to keep up, I couldn’t resist taking many, many more of various other angles.  

After about ten minutes or so in the water, the shark increased its speed slightly and was soon lost to sight, but I felt no disappointment. I was too overcome by what had just happened to feel sorry that it was over. I ended up climbing back onto the boat with what I am quite sure was a ridiculous grin plastered over my face and collapsed onto the seat, laughing like an idiot. Simply put, I was stunned and ecstatic. Could it possibly go any better than that?

As it turned out, yes, it could! A radio contact from our microlight pilot told us he had another visual a short distance away, and the skipper piled on all speed to reach the site. A mere ten minutes after getting out, I found myself darting back in again to find myself facing a shark once again. As it turned out, it was the same shark as the first time, and the only thing I can say is that it must have been surprised to see us again so quickly because this time it decided to hang around for a lot longer. And this time, it took a lot more interest in us.

One thing that we had been instructed to do was to never swim in front of the shark. Not because it was dangerous to do so but because the shark would most likely dive if its way was blocked and then we’d lose it very quickly. But this shark made that rule very hard to follow indeed because it proceeded to try and follow the swimmers around, interested in our kicking fins and the bubbles that we were producing as a result. I probably ended up swimming away from the shark more than I swam towards it because it seemed to take a particular interest in me. Thank goodness it was a harmless plankton eater or this would have been more alarming, but every time and kicked to the side, it simply turned further to face me again. Even when I turned away completely and kicked hard for about twenty seconds, I turned around to find it was still right behind me. It was very tempting to let it approach so I could touch it, but as this too was against the rules I persevered in getting out of the way.

But this interest in following me was sporadic, for equally often it continued to circle the boat and, on occasion, it started feeding, opening its incredibly wide mouth before my eyes to draw its staple plankton lunch into its maw. It seemed totally unconcerned by our presence and maintained its curiosity throughout an entire in-water session of exactly forty minutes before, finally, it decided that it had other things to do and moved away, losing us once again. I spent the entire journey back up the island with a grim so wide that I could very well have been in danger of my mouth elongating to the same length as the shark’s own.  It is an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my days. And I have many weeks left here in the Seychelles for more.

Not to mention when we got back to the office and analysed the photos we’d taken with the previous sharks in the photo database, we discovered that it was a brand new individual, never before seen in Seychelles waters since records began in 2001. This was an added bonus to an epic encounter, and though he was given the individual title of ‘sey.2013.001’ for the purposes of the database, I decided to give him the unofficial nickname ‘Fergus.’

Perhaps during my stay here in the Seychelles I will encounter Fergus again. I wonder if he’ll remember me and try and follow me around again if I do?

Friday, September 6, 2013

And we're off!

The 2013 whale shark season is now well under way... after a hesitant first day with a shark-less survey flight and a second day with sharks but very rough seas, the team is now getting into the swing of things although having sharks and encounter surveys for three consecutive days is testing their new-found skills a little!

However, in a calmer moment before the storm of back to back encounters Intern Sarah Baker had the chance to share her experiences of the first week:

We had finished our first week of training in the MCSS house and the closest we had got to a whale shark had been with Wall-e, our training shark which we have been practising taking ID photos on. We’ve also been out on the boat doing plankton tows, CTD drops and using the sechi disk testing for visibility.

First training session on the boat, everyone looks very relaxed!

We had an intense week learning all about data collection, spreadsheets, how to radio the micro-light, lasermetrics and lots of fun with GIS! When we’re not learning all of this we have been out snorkelling down at the beach where there are lots of cool fish and rays.

Star-burst group photo of this year's Interns

On Saturday David held a barbeque at his house for all MCSS staff and interns, a few of us went to help prepare the food and got to meet Dennis the Giant Tortoise who took a liking to an James' shoes and followed him round the garden.

On Sunday we went out for training on one of the boats where we got to go for a snorkel off Conception Island where we saw a Hawksbill turtle and 3 white-tip reef sharks. This made a great end to a good but tiring week.  

 Hawksbill turtle and white-tip reef shark (Photo Matt Leiper)

During the week we went to the local bazaar in Beau Vallon where you can eat lots of delicious Creole food and watch the sunset on the beach, although be careful of the local moonshine!

 Sunset from the MCSS veranda

Most of the volunteers have been up in the micro-light this week although not all trips have been successful due to weather conditions. It was my turn on Tuesday and the conditions couldn’t have been better. We saw lots of fish but more importantly the ones we’ve all been waiting to see, 3 whale sharks spotted in the South, which meant that a boat trip could go out in the afternoon.

Overall it was a really good week and all the interns are looking forward to what the next few weeks bring!

The shark identifications are coming through from the first two days of in-water survey and the very first ID of the season is a brand new shark to Seychelles..... Interestingly, the second shark identified is an old friend, once known as Acoustic 4, that was first identified in 2001, this makes it the longest serving member to date in the Seychelles aggregation having been seen over a 13 year time span... Well done team!

Our first ID'd shark of the season, meet sey.2013.001! (Photo Matt Leiper)

 And this is our old friend from 2001, sey.2001.008... Welcome back!