Saturday, January 18, 2014

Welcome to 2014....

It’s the first week of January so it has to be time for whale shark in Djibouti! This year we are a week later with our annual expedition which gave the team time to celebrate New Year ’s Day at their  respective homes… but we are here now!

Djibouti once again has not disappointed with lots of sharks around and this year they are thankfully not accompanied by the somewhat irritating and spiteful swimming crabs; apparently the crabs spawned in December and are now almost non-existent in the area.

OK the encounter code says don't swim in front of the sharks but try telling them to stop checking us out!

David’s team this season comprises MCSS senior researcher Dr. Jo Bluemel and MCSS Scholar Savi Leblond (both well experienced in Seychelles whale shark programme) along with volunteer Nicolas Kiechel from Megaptera. Week one has been a bit of a baptism of fire for this new Djibouti team. The concept of one minute encounters and multiple sharks on an encounter has been a bit of a shock to the system; as has being barged out of the way by a young feeding shark while you’re trying to get your ID photos of another! Also the physical exertion of trying to keep up with ram feeding sharks at full tilt and then heaving yourself over the side of a fibreglass boat that seems to grow taller every time you get back to it, certainly take their toll!

Rush hour Djibouti style... now which one was I taking ID photos of?

But week one has been successfully completed and we are back in harbour safe and sound with several thousand images taken of 300+ encounters… it will take some while before we get these run through the photo ID system to find out how many individuals this is, but it’s been busy! Of particular interest is the return of Shiraz, the shark David put a satellite tag on in the first scientific expedition in 2006, so we will keep an eye open for him during the coming week.

This was Shiraz in 2006 with his SPLASH tag attached...

We now have 18 hours down-time at the local Sheraton hotel before heading back for another week with Djibouti’s spotty sharks! 

Here’s  Savi’s perspective on the trip so far…

Djibouti: once thought to be exclusively a large beach with barren land resulting from volcanoes… for a marine enthusiast such as myself however, its ecstasy delivered just not in tablet form. Since 2011, I have been addicted to the world’s largest fish- the oddly elusive whale shark. Intangible to most as it may be, it makes sense for the whale sharks to aggregate prolifically in the Indian Ocean to feast on the plankton, as well as at other plankton heavy locations throughout the globe. 

Though being warned about the amounts of encounters I could not prepare myself for these numbers. Even after 5 days of “sharking” I’m in astonishment at the end of each encounter. One cannot compare the Seychelles aggregation to those in the Gulf of Tadjourah but breaking 100 encounters in two days was a milestone of its own set in the choppy seas of these Arabian waters. 

 One exceptional afternoon with caudal fins, dorsal fins and heads popping out of the water everywhere, the adrenaline starts pumping  and the shark chase begins. Fast, slow, large, small, adorable, feeding, bellends and shy sharks; whatever the description for the individual it’s our job to capture him/her with the digital power at our finger tips. Encounters in multiples occurred as exhausted swimmers clamber back on board the tiny wooden vessel and they rack their brains for the abundant amount of information which has literally zoomed past them. Not a moment’s pause before spotters are back in the water swimming (if not slightly drowning between sharks in Beaufort scale 3-4 waters) capturing all the necessary information (anything from swimming to vertical, suction, ram or active surface feeding, male/female, length, etc…). Long story made somewhat short; 61 encounters were had within 2 short (or long depending on your perspective) hours. 

Through the power of three spotters a session (morning and afternoon), as many individuals as possible are captured and their identity will be learnt throughout the upcoming months as the images are run through I3S. Those avid readers of the whale shark blog are well aware of the system but for those new fans out there, it’s a program whose algorithm allows digital matching of spot patterns which we then confirm visually. I would describe all processes (swimming, capturing data, recording and transcribing before organizing and finally checking) to be quite fun, though others would just slap me across the face for being so naïve to the manpower and hours necessary to complete the tasks at hand (much like the 2 meter male whale shark who didn’t appreciate the high winds and boat being too close who considered slapping me from head to toe with his caudal fin repeatedly to be the optimal action). Then again, we all like our personal space don’t we?

Anyways, after a few sunburns, breaths which involved not much air and more sea water than I would have liked, massive sprint exercises and breath holding exercises (for those sharks who are a bit shy about having a human check out his or her goods) and pull ups to quickly and “efficiently” reach the recorder before having all details flood out of his brain with the copious amounts of sea water; I would like to say that yet again I am in my element once again and am literally having the time of my life. Enough typing and reading now as I’m sure those reading are more interested in the photographs anyways. Here are some to make those readers jealous (err…informed). 

 Dr Jo....Yes I really am happy to be here... just a bit excited at the mo...

This is me at work, lasering these amazing sharks...

Why do you keep pointing those annoying green lights at me?

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