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.


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