Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Djibouti Post Script

Well the 2015 whale shark expedition to Djibouti is now over and as in previous years before we head back we try to get the team to see some of the highlights of Djibouti before they leave and this year was no exception.

The team trip to Lac Assal which according to Wikipedia is “a saline lake which lies 155 m (509 ft) below sea level in the Afar Triangle, making it the lowest point on land in Africa and the third-lowest land depression on Earth after the Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee”. 
One of the hot springs feeding the lake (complete with thermally tolerant fish and algae!)

The lake is fed by several geothermally heated salt water springs and as there is no outflow from the lake, and evaporation is high, it is pretty salty… in fact its salinity is 10 times that of normal sea-water making it the second most salty body of water on the planet! So as you can guess Savi and Freya just had to experience this for themselves resulting in some hilarious arm and leg raised floating stunts.
Freya and Savi lying on top of Lac Assal

Following the trip we continued on to the DECAN Cheetah Refuge for a little bit of Djiboutian terrestrial wildlife with Dan and Erica where Freya became personally acquainted with several large cats and a chatty little monkey… we did check her bags in case she had smuggled him out!
 Freya and friendly monkey, not sure who she was calling for him!
Freya petting the oldest Cheetah in the refuge, with a very loud purrr....

Sunday our day of departure, was pretty unusual as it included a fast speed-boat ride back to Arta to try and deploy the satellite tag which we had been unable to do on the last day of the expedition due to lack of sharks. This time we were successful and the tag was firmly attached to a four metre male shark leaving us in a very happy mood for the return flights from Djibouti.
Tagged at last, a four metre shark wearing the latest designer accessory!

As a nice post-script to the trip, we heard from Dan the manager at Dolphin Tours that Barny our rescued hawksbill turtle had shed all of his main barnacles, with a little help from Erica and five days of fresh-water immersion. 
 Barny's barnacles before treatment
Barny's top shell after treatment
And his tummy is also now largely barnacle free!
As his buoyancy was also back to normal and he could now swim and dive easily, he was declared fit for release by David Robinson (Dubai Turtle Rehab Project) and so on Tuesday he was released off Turtle Point at Ras Korali where he joined his fellow turtles.
Erica carefully releasing Barny at Ras Korali
Barny exhibiting his newly found freedom from barnacles and buoyancy control
So now it’s down to the desk-work of running all of the 311 encounters through I3S to see which sharks we had this year while we wait for news from our satellite tagged shark!

Our thanks as always to Dolphin Excursions for their kind sponsorship of our places aboard the MV Deli and to the crew of the vessel, for their hard work and positive approach to protecting whale sharks in the area. Our best wishes also to Captain / Cruise Director / resident Ornithologist  Vincente who retires after this season after many years of adventure in Djibouti aboard the Deli, and to Manager Dan and Divemaster Erica, who will be leaving Djibouti to start a married life together in Colorado….

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Djibouti, Week two

So here we are in week two, and unfortunately I find myself with ample time on my hands to begin writing this blog. It’s day three back aboard the Deli and unbelievably we have only seen a handful sharks. This is unheard of in the history of Djibouti trips and we are all wondering where these guys are hiding! Every session we set off with the hope of finding our spotty friends, but so far we are coming back to the Deli cold, wet and sharkless. However all is not lost and the team has been keeping occupied with the other marine wonders that Djibouti has to offer. Savi and I were lucky enough to come across a pair of friendly bottlenose dolphins, who played with us for ages! They were very chatty and we wondered what they were saying to each other.. it was probably along the lines of “Who’s that weirdo in the green fins trying to swim with us?” “I dunno, let’s go hang out with the other one, she seems cool”. Savi oblivious to their confusion about him and his fins went as far as to say that he now ‘likes marine mammals’, which is a life changing revelation. 
 Our dolphin buddies
We also came across some friendly camels while the sharks deserted us. 
As we rolled into day four things were not looking good and with still no sharks we were slowly slipping into madness. Scientists without work to do can get a little weird. With a last flicker of hope we donned our whale shark looking goggles (something invented during the period of aforementioned madness) and headed to Ghoubet, a location that in past years has had very little shark activity…we were getting desperate. You can probably guess what happened, and as is always the way with whale shark research it was unexpected and unpredictable. We had come across a group of actively feeding sharks in Ghoubet, where we least expected them to show up. These guys like to make it really hard for us to study them don’t they! We got to work and the encounters were once again racking up. 

For me the difference in this week has been the number of multiple encounters I’ve had. It has been incredible. In my last blog I tried and failed to put into words how amazing it is to swim with one whale shark, so as you can imagine I won’t be great at this. All I am going to say is it is an out of this world experience and show some pictures to give you an idea of what we see when in the water with these giant creatures.  

During these encounters we have been getting all the data we need to help build a better picture of the Djibouti aggregation, which Savi and I have been loving! We’ve been analyzing photos of lasered sharks to get more accurate length estimations, we’ve been IRISing sharks and seeing which ones have returned from past years, and we’ve even squeezed tagging a 4.5m male into the morning before our flight. With our total number of shark encounters reaching 311 it’s a lot less than previous years, but better than expected given the poor season in Seychelles. However, don’t fret as this doesn’t necessarily mean that shark numbers are falling, it may be that they are simply harder to find.
Quick tangent... during one session in Ghoubet we came across an odd looking floating object, as drove closer we noticed that it was a tiny juvenile hawksbill struggling at the surface. He was covered in barnacles, which prevented him from diving down. I got the go ahead from David and jumped in to save him. We carried him in the boat for the rest of the session and after we had got all the sharks we took him back to the Deli. He is now at the front of the boat in a tub of fresh water, which will kill off the barnacles and he will be fit and ready to be released back into the ocean in a week or two. His name is Barney and we love him.
Me saving Barny

Barny in a tub of fresh water beginning barnacle removal therapy!

It’s now the last day aboard Deli, our trip has come to an end and it is with a heavy heart that I write this final chapter. It’s been marvellous hanging out with the MCSS team and whale sharks for 2 weeks and I wonder how I will adjust to life without waking up by jumping into the ocean with the world’s largest fish every morning. I have had the best time and would like to say big thank you to David for inviting me along, to Savi for being an amazing team-mate and to Dolphin Cruises and all the staff aboard the Deli, who helped to make this trip an amazing success. Finally I will end this blog how I started my very first one for MCSS with words from a wise man who summed up our trip to Djibouti with three insightful words.. ‘Food, Sharks,Wow’!..

The team: Erica, Savi, Dan, Freya and David

Oh, and we saw a Manta Ray!!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Happy New Year to all our visitors! If its New Year it must be Djibouti time and once again we are in this rather amazing little country at the North East corner of Africa. David is accompanied this year by Savi Leblond and Freya Womersley, team members from the Seychelles programme..... This is Freya's first impressions of Djibouti:

Instead of celebrating New Year with fireworks, the clinking of champagne glasses and a dramatic countdown, this year I found myself snoozing 38,975ft up in the air brutally awoken by the pilots New Year announcement and the half hearted ‘woo’s’ of the other passengers. As I entered into 2015 and away from the cold UK I was filled with excitement because I knew who I would be spending the beginning of my year with; the largest fish in the ocean and my favourite spotty friends… Whale Sharks!! Oh and did I mention that I was on my way to Djibouti!
My journey begins

Where’s Djibouti I hear you ask. I thought the same thing when I was asked to join the MCSS team for this year’s season. It’s a small country in the North East of Africa bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eretria and every November through February it becomes a place where whale sharks aggregate in huge numbers to feed in the plankton rich waters of the Gulf of Tadjourah. Since 2006 David and the team at MCSS have run expeditions here for two weeks each year to record, observe and monitor these sharks. Until I actually arrived here it was a place of myth and legend where all your Whale Shark dreams come true. I had heard tales of epic encounters with sharks coming at you from all directions, of fighting your way through swimming crabs to get your ID shot and of vertically feeding sharks displaying there white tummy’s and creating whirlpools as they gorge on plankton. I thought these were exaggerations and that no such place could possibly exist. Oh how I was wrong…

Our trip begins in the city of Djibouti where we spent most of our time sorting out equipment, getting spreadsheets up to date and organizing ourselves for our first week of sharking. We then headed to the port to board our boat for the week, an interesting drive through Djibouti where goats crossing the road and trailers full of camels were a common sight. During each week our base is the live aboard ‘Deli’, a beautiful and authentic wooden yacht that wouldn’t look out of place in Pirates of the Caribbean! The journey from port to our first anchoring spot was idyllic; mountains lined the gulf and as we passed we encountered schools of Dolphins and chatted with the other voyagers about their marine adventures. 
The beautiful MV Deli

After getting ourselves settled at Ras Korali our first anchoring spot, we were straight to work and ran our first session that afternoon. I didn’t know what to expect, and after a slow season in Seychelles I was worried my shark spotting skills were not up to scratch. It was time to find out as we had spotted our first shark within minutes. I jumped in and it all came flooding back to me, much like the water swiftly flooding my snorkel as I was smothered by a wave (at this point I’ll mention that sharks don’t care if it’s a sea state 4). I got my bearings and looked around. There it was, a huge shadow silhouetted in the distance. I stared at it in awe, I just stared, I cleared my snorkel and then I stared some more… and then it was gone. Just like that I had lost him, he was travelling at lightning speed like Savi on his way to the diner table. This was a fast shark and I needed to catch him up and do some science. So I took a deep breath and after a few seconds of frantic front crawl I was by his side, and thankfully he seemed to be slowing down. There I was, swimming alongside the world’s largest fish, my trip had officially begun. 

It’s not just me who wants to hang out with these guys!

Science time! Left ID shot,,check, sex.. check, right ID shot.. check, any scars, any other fauna, behavior.. check, check, check. I had done it; my first Djibouti shark and all had gone to plan. So I decided to relax and just hang out with him for a bit to take in the momen…’FREYA STOP SWIMMING WE’VE DONE THIS ONE’, the sweet dulcet tones of Savi called over the waves. Wait what? Why would I ever optionally stop swimming with a shark?! Turns out this guy had A LOT of friends and they all needed to be recorded, so we were back on the boat and ready for the next one. There was no time to hang out with each one, and that was the point when I finally understood why we have an ‘observers leave’ column in our spreadsheets. The rest of the session was a whirlwind. I was in and out of the boat and seeing more sharks than I had all season in Seychelles, and all in our first afternoon. My initial worries were dispelled and I was once again living the dream with my big ol’ spotty buddies. A dream that would be slightly sweeter if it was easier to get back onto the boat… 
Me struggling to get back onto the boat....

If you haven’t experience it before, there are no words that can describe being in the water with a whale shark, I’ve tried many times but I can never seem to do it justice. It is quite simply magical. To be able to glimpse these creatures’ mysterious lives and swim along side them for an instant is incredible and I will remember these moments for the rest of my life. The stories are true about Djibouti and it is an amazing Whale Shark haven. Savi and I are having an incredible time observing them but what makes it so special is that we are getting data that will aid the conservation of these animals so they can be enjoyed and appreciated in years to come. 
Savi and big spotty friend...

Me with my happy whale shark face...

Just cruising with one solitary pilot fish...

....and a surface view!

After each session on the boat there’s time for a quick shower and change before we get straight to organizing encounters, renaming photos and editing ID shots before our next session. This can be tricky with more than one spotter and multiple encounters, but we get it done and enjoy looking at each others photos and the occasional glass of rum! It’s then Savi’s favorite time of the day and we all sit down to an amazing meal cooked by the Deli’s chef before heading to our cozy cabins to get rocked to sleep. The days are long, we are bruised, battered and always just a little bit tired but we are having the most incredible time learning more about these sharks and watching them in their natural habitat. Bring on next week with more sharks, more fun, less sleep and more work as David hasn't even begun to crack the whip yet’! Wish us luck!
A spiky little customer!
Dolphins are always a welcome addition!

Even when we don’t see sharks, which has only happened once! Djibouti still delivers. We’ve been playing with Dolphins, Turtles, and of course the swimming crabs.