Monday, September 22, 2014

The Birthday Week

Intern Tom recounts the exploits of a very wet, shark free week in Seychelles....

Well this week hasn't been the most exciting of weeks shark-wise, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't been a good week. In brief, we’ve been diving, getting a lot of rain and wind, data entry, and celebrating an interns and one of the pilot’s birthdays. 

Friday, we dove in the afternoon to replace more of the acoustic receivers that we have been working on. It was great to once again be in and underwater doing something useful to the scientific aims of the Bay Ternay Nation Park. 

 Tom & Jo replacing a VR2 receiver
Tom inspecting a very crusty VR2
All sorts of marine life, well it is a Marine Park!
Following a full day of diving we heading out for a Friday night on the town, but that did not stop us from continuing with data entry the following morning. Luckily we had the afternoon off so all the interns headed to Eden Island to watch the South African and Australian rugby games and get a bite to eat. Saturday night we spent watching movies. David was nice enough to let us use the projector which is good because 1) we are running out of puzzles to do and 2) we are in the middle of the rainy season and our activities are limited since every activity on Mahe is outside. 

That brings me to Sunday and Monday which were monsoon days and I mean monsoon! The rain started late afternoon on Saturday and continued till Tuesday with very little break. I even had to make the trip down to the dive shop by bus through it, which involved placing the booking folder into a plastic bag that in turn went into my bag which went under my coat, oh and it still nearly got wet… So sadly there was no boat work, or outdoor activities that could be done. 

Tuesday the sun came back out, but the dive center was short on boat captains so we couldn't go out. I had a day off and so when I had heard that there was no boat work packed my bag and went for walk. From the house I heading north along the beach road and before I knew it has managed to walk past North Point, which isn't exactly to close to the house. I then took a path off the road that was less of a path and more of a water runoff, but was well rewarded when I found that it lead to a secluded beach so stopped to have some lunch there. I then went further on to find another nice spot to relax that had a natural rock pool large enough for at least 10 people but completely calm and facing the large waves breaking before you, a must return to spot. The rest of the interns went to Sunset Beach and had a relaxing beach day. Tuesday was also Kyle’s, one of the pilots, 27th birthday so we went out for pizza and drinks and then got some beers and sat on the beach. We were sitting in a circle and Amber said ‘I have a game we can play called charades. In Florida, we play at the bar and it's an app on my phone where you pick a category and then hold the phone to your forehead so everyone can see the word and give you clues to guess it’. So you can picture both MCSS interns and employees with a iPhone stuck to their forehead yelling words and making gestures to guess music, movies, fairytales, harry potter, animals and of course science. It was quite entertaining and we spent about 1 1/2 hours doing this before we decided it was time to head home and get some sleep. 

We’ve been getting calls of crown of thorns starfish hotspots so we had to go out that day and do some eradication. Crown of thorns decimate the reef in large numbers because they eat their size in branching corals daily. They also have venomous spines so not many things can eat them. So when calls come in of hotspots they need to be acted upon as soon as possible to ensure that they are found and removed as quickly as possible! We went to two reef sites and did about hour long dives to ±15m and had a skewer which was a piece of rebar with a handle. When we found one, we would just stab it in the center and after you got a few on your skewer, about 3-4 depending on how heavy they were or 8 if you found too many in a spot without the basket. But they can get very heavy especially the 30cm ones which were easily over a kilo or two which adds up if you have too many on! We would swim over to a plastic laundry basket attached to a buoy at the surface with a snorkeler following it and deposit the crown of thorns as carefully as possible not to get stabbed with a spine. When the basket was half full we would signal to the snorkeler following us to haul it up to the boat and we continued this until we hit our air/time limit. 
 A bucket full of COTS
Jo disposing of the COTS in special collection bins
At the second site, Amber was depositing her starfish into the basket when Michaela swims up and shows her the four she had on a skewer. . . then Michaela points to her knee which is bleeding and full of sea urchin spines (our second sea urchin injury to date) so Amber had to grab her skewer and sent Michaela to the surface.
Michaela's battered knee!
Poor Michaela who was limping around had to have hot wax poured on her knee and then peeled off repeatedly.  She took it like a champ!

In total we killed 82 crown of thorns between 6 of us! The starfish are then deposited on shore in special bins to be disposed of. Stabbing sea stars was probably the most fun dive day we have had thus far, even though it was torrential down-pouring. The second dive site was especially nice with loads of swim-throughs, caverns, tunnels, and amazing sea life so it felt good knowing that we had done our bit to help. Sadly though I found another hot spot at the end of the dive, which meant we do need to return and as soon as possible!

Thursday and Friday were acoustic receiver days. We only have one more shallow receiver to replace now before we can start tagging turtles. Yep, you heard me correctly, we are going to tag turtles!!  

Oh and finally that other birthday you may be wondering about. Friday was my 23rd birthday so everyone from MCSS went out to celebrate. We drank on the beach and then went to a South African bar in Eden Island, my god did Kyle and myself feel at home. We met some of the people great people and bumped into others we met around before and had an absolutely brilliant night. A huge thank you to everyone for making it such a great night and a great birthday as well! Saturday was a bit of a no event day, especially for myself as the night went on till 7am which is apparently normal for here..

Let's hope for no rain today so Kyle and Amber can hopefully see some sharks! But sitting here, writing this and looking out the window I fear that today is not going that way as the heavens have reopened and left the sky a blanket of grey :( 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Amber's first weeks...

This week its intern Amber's turn to write a post for the blog....

Week one of whale shark season started off strong with 7 sharks, but none were spotted the later part of that week. Sunday we had the afternoon free and Jo took us on a hike to the 2nd highest mountain in Mahe and the view was absolutely breathtaking. We also took the 3 dogs along which made it interesting.

Boris, Sid and Dora’s big adventure!  

Monday, I was off and decided to get up at 6am and do the turtle walk with Pete and Vanessa. Vanessa surveys year round for turtle nests on 14 beaches on the island. There are two species of turtle, the hawksbill and green sea turtle. Right now they are surveying Mondays and Fridays and next month it goes to Monday, Wednesday, Friday with November and December being the main season for nests and hatchlings. There are 6 main beaches towards the south of the island that they walk every survey day and then they alternate between the 4 on the west and the 4 on the east as well, so Monday we walked 10 beaches including the west side and then we had an awesome lunch at the Banyan Tree resort. No nests were detected, but we did some beach erosion surveying and I got to walk the 10 most beautiful beaches I've ever seen!

Pete and Vanessa doing the beach erosion surveying

Walking the beach looking for turtle tracks

This past week we have been catching up on a lot of data entry both from the past week and past years of behavior recordings. When the pilot sees a shark, they will circle and keep visual for up to 5 minutes recording all of the shark’s behavior. The pilot will also note information on environmental conditions, any other species in the area, and whether there is influence on the shark’s behavior by a boat or swimmers in the water. We have been listening to these recordings and entering the pilot’s comments and sharks behavior with the time and duration of the behavior into a spreadsheet for Jo to later analyze for her project. It has been really interesting to see how a shark’s behavior changes from just a morning spotting with no boats or people in the area to an afternoon sighting with a boat and up to 8 swimmers nearby. It is also helpful to hear the recordings from the pilot’s perspective when they are radioing to the recorder on the boat. We have all been recorders now and understand how important and difficult the job can be to clearly relay messages from the pilot to the boat captain while the engine is running and you have all the excited guests looking at you to get them in the water with their first whale shark. I think we can really learn from analyzing these recordings and hopefully improve our skills as recorders. 

So the bad news is we didn’t see any sharks this week, but the good news is we have been diving all week and replacing acoustic receivers in Bay Ternay. Acoustic receivers will ping off a tracker when the turtle swims by and when the receiver is switched out every year, you can download the data from it. We've also started placing marine mammal acoustic gear out for Pete's project. 

Tom, Jo, Freya, and me replacing an acoustic receiver in Bay Ternay

So, while we aren't swimming with sharks, we are able to learn about MCSS’s other projects and get more hands on experience in other aspects of marine conservation. 


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sophies First Few Weeks

The first of this seasons contributions from our intern... Here is Sophie’s post from her first few weeks in Seychelles:

Welcome to the underwater world of the 2014 MCSS Whale Shark interns team! Our team this year is made up of five very friendly international people!

The interns doing the whale shark face (Tom, Amber, Michaela, Megan and me!)

As a team, we couldn’t have anticipated a more exciting experience. Our first few days together were hilarious mainly due to our discovery of the house which was a complete challenge for us at the beginning.  This challenge includes an entry door that never opens, the shower that doesn’t have any water pressure, the ant invasion, sneaky rats or mice visiting the kitchen, mains water that suddenly turns off, things that disappear from the fridge and the funny array of mosquito nets dubbing our bedroom, the “princess room”! Fortunately, we all quickly forgot about it as we looked through the windows and saw the million dollar ocean view lighted in the sun and surrounded by Frangipani trees.

Showers are now taken outside (better pressure) with the sunset view on the bay, and Sid and Dora keeping an eye on you! I can’t dream of a better shower!! Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention that Sid and Dora are our two lovely house guard dogs that like to go for walks with us; however, you better hide your shoes because if you leave them outside during the night, the shoes and anything hanging on the clothes line will disappear! Dora loves to jump the fence as well and follow us wherever we go.

After a nice weekend settling in and trying to get to know everyone in the team (and fixing stuff in the house), we started our training week this past Monday.

It was hectic with a lot of paperwork, spreadsheets, GIS mapping, and photo identification on top of the in water training. A little background first, each individual whale shark has distinct markings (spots and line patterns, and unfortunately scars just like you and me) that can be used by computer software to identify the individual using the white spots on the shark as a fingerprint. The area we use is a triangle formed between the top and bottom of the 5th gill slit and the body directly in line with the pectoral fin. Within the triangle, we mark all the spots and then run it through a database comparing pictures to see if we can find a match. This will tell us if the shark has returned from previous years or if we are dealing with a new shark. We have approximately 550 individual sharks in our database which started in 2001. One of the sharks has actually been spotted 12 years in a row. Pretty cool!! So every time we jump in with the sharks, we have to take left and right photos of the identification area, dive down to determine the sex, estimate the length, look for any scars, and count how many remoras and pilot fish or other organisms are swimming with them and then record this on data sheets when we get back to the boat. It's a lot to think about!

On the Wednesday we got out on the boat to practice the identification photo shots on Wally our fake whale shark which is a 3.8m green canvas with yellow gills. Wally was towed behind the boat at 4m depth with us chasing after it trying to dive down to take pictures. It was torrential downpouring and we were swimming through a soup of jellyfish and stinging zooplankton... What training!

Just an idea of our training conditions that day...

Then the real work started.....

I started my first day at the dive shop under Freya’s (MCSS scholar this year) direction, taking bookings for the afternoon’s first Whale shark trip of the season.  Our job in the shop is to answer the phone, take bookings, inform people about the project and prepare equipment if needed. All of that has to be completed in the morning. Then, around 11am we get a phone call from the pilot saying if sharks were spotted and whether they are at the north or south side of the island.  David then makes the final decision on whether a boat trip goes in the afternoon or not. This is when the rush starts: trying to get all the clients to meet us on time, getting all the gear on board, making radio contact with our pilot etc.

At first it was pretty quiet at the shop until THE phone call of the morning (that you should never miss) informed us that the pilot of the microlight aircraft has seen whale sharks on the south side of the island! Ahh what a rush!  After that call, the phone did not stop ringing with clients asking if there was a whale shark trip going, people walking in asking lots of questions about the whale sharks and, at the same time, we are trying to get all the clients gear ready for a quick boat departure.

Monday, I was the recorder on the boat. The role of the recorder is to take notes of everything: the date, time, location, how many sharks, sharks description, if any scars or others fish are swimming with them. The list is very long! The recorder also has to keep record of the shark’s location using a GPS and keeps radio contact with the pilot who is flying near the boat giving us directions to the nearest whale shark. This is the busiest role on the boat!
 Amber acting as the recorder and...
me ready to jump in the water!

Fortunately, one of the other interns took over for a bit and I got to go in the water!!! This is when I saw my first whale shark!! To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by that first shark. It swam away so fast that the only thing I managed to see as I dropped into the water was his massive tail! But, we were lucky and saw a total of four whale sharks that afternoon. Being able to see these magnificent giants of the ocean just cruising in the blue water without any resistance (while we had to swim very hard to catch up...) is a once in a lifetime experience!!

My first attempts to get a left identification picture (I can do better I think...)

Wednesday went even better than Monday. I had the opportunity to go on the morning survey flight with Kyle, one of our two pilots. That little plane does not look like much; some kind of three wheeled bike with two seats and a triangular kite on top. 

Our little aircraft.....

I was a bit scared at the beginning, but the feeling once we took off was unreal!! My feet were just hanging free, the wind was blowing on my face and looking down was a bit scary at first, but you get use to it. The first whale shark I saw from about 500 feet looked so small, almost like a tadpole in the ocean. We flew all around the island of Mahé to find whale sharks, but only spotted that one shark and several shoals of fish which are also amazing to see from the sky!
 Kyle, one of our two micro-light pilots

For each of us interns, our first flight in the microlight aircraft and first swim with whale sharks was definitely moments that we will remember forever!

Thanks to Amber for her writing advice and inspiration which were of great help.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Its Whale Shark Time in Seychelles Again!

Guess what? It’s that time of year again, and Whale Shark Season 2014 is officially underway. The interns have arrived and been trained, the Microlight is up and flying, all we need now are some big ol’ fish to join the party! Before we get into full season swing let us introduce you to this years team…

The Team Leaders:
Savi and Jo are this year's team leaders... 

·         Dr. Joanna Bluemel, from the UK; Jo is the MCSS Project Coordinator and is analysing the whale shark data generated by the monitoring programme as well as overseeing all of the other MCSS projects.

·         Savi Leblond, is from France & the USA, and returns for a third whale shark season.  After interning and ‘scholaring’, Savi could not stay away from Seychelles and is juggling being whale shark season team leader with his other project as Marine Stewardship Project Leader

These two will be ably assisted by a 'Scholar' from last year's intern team; Freya Womersley, a graduate from the UK aims to help out the interns and team leaders alike to help make this season go swimmingly! 
This seasons scholar Freya... just add sharks!

The successful interns have all been initiated into the team and are officially labeled, ’shark bait’ (hoo ha ha). This year they are from all four corners of the globe:

Sophie Raillard (Shark Bait (or bate?) No.1) is from New Caledonia (a small French island lost in the Pacific). She has a Masters Degree in Protected Area Management and has joined our team to expand her fieldwork experiences in biodiversity monitoring and conservation of protected species.
 Amber Metallo (Shark Bait No. 2) is from the United States, and is currently working on her Master’s degree studying invertebrates and artificial reefs. She also wants to gain practical experience before deciding what career path to go down in future, as well as completing number one on her bucket list…swim with a whale shark, obviously.
 Tom Nuttell-Smith (Shark Bait No.3) is originally from Botswana but has spent much of his life being schooled in the UK. As well as obtaining a degree in Biology and Animal Behavior, Tom has spent time volunteering abroad with the aim to explore and conserve the marine environment.
 Michaela Hadolt  (Shark Bait No.4) comes from Austria and in in the midst of her studies in Vetinerary Medicine specializing in wildlife medicine and conservation. She aims to consolidate her skills in conservation medicine, gain working experience within a team, and of course, enhance her knowledge on our big spotty friends.
Megan Rohan (Shark Bait No.5) is from Australia but has been living in the UK for the past 7 years. Having always had a fascination with the ocean and dreamed of meeting a whale shark face to face she is dropping in on Seychelles before making her way back to Australia!
Here's hoping for a busy 2014 season!!