Saturday, October 1, 2016

Monitoring Updates

Seychelles whale shark programme update 
The Seychelles whale shark monitoring programme has not run since 2014 due to the very low numbers of sharks being encountered thus not generating enough funding to support the activities. Opportunistic sightings are being recorded and currently we have 8 sightings noted so far this season although no aerial surveys have been carried out due to financial constraints. 
One of the Bay Ternay visitors!
Of these we have been able to get photo ID images from North Island and GVI for three sharks one of which, from North Island, was a shark previously known from 2012 (sey.2012.011) and the other two from Bay Ternay were both new individuals, the most recent being on the 19th of September.

Djibouti Monitoring Programme Update

The two week Djibouti monitoring programme was run again this January with support from Dolphin Excursions  aboard the MV Deli for four team members. For the last two years the team has comprised the Chairman Dr. David Rowat, staff member Savinien Leblond, volunteer whale shark team leader Freya Womersley and the volunteer divemaster that runs the whale shark project with Dolphin Excursions in Djibouti, this year it was Christy. For some time we have known that the whale sharks leave Djibouti in late January and so it was unfortunate that this year they left around three weeks early and so very few sharks were encountered. We managed to achieve 16 encounters with 6 individual sharks over the two weeks. 
One of our magnificent six!!
Luckily in the previous two months Christy had recorded 86 encounters with 33 individuals of which 26 were previously identified sharks and only 7 were new sharks, a record resighting rate of 79%! The oldest resighting was of a shark first recorded in 2006. 

During this season we did host a CNN film crew who managed to get in the water with one shark and were able to produce a short documentary which has been aired several times. 

Surface feeding shark
Accordingly the next Djibouti expedition has been scheduled for December (Dec 3-9, 10-16) to ensure we are present at the peak again. This coming season we will be collaborating with the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Saudi Arabia as well as supporting a PhD student from the University of Insubria, Italy and taking water samples for bio-genetic studies at University of Copenhagen.

Djibouti Week 2 January 2016 with Savi...

Here we are at week 2 of the Djibouti Whale Shark expedition as we’ve waved goodbye to David Robinson and turned our backs onto the shockingly quiet week 1. Our levels of hope have been on an intense rollercoaster ride as they soar with each whale shark encounter and plummet to the depths each day we are sans spotty fish.
The 'fake shark' made up by highly trained pesky surgeon fish!
This week has brought us quite a few surprises however as we have learned to lower our expectations as we take the spine crushing skiff rides up and down the Djibouti coastline. One particularly gloomy afternoon we had reached the point of where the yellow buoy used to rest and decided to make our way back down the coast towards the Deli. It’s usually at this point when all hope is lost, the fins, mask and snorkel come off and we hang our heads low accepting whale shark defeat. ‘twas a few minutes later whilst dazed and feeling a bit lost that I spotted something up ahead; It was a familiar sight yet felt strange at the same time. This wasn’t a plastic bag shark, it wasn’t a turtle, it wasn’t some seaweed, and it wasn’t those pesky surgeons pretending to be a whale shark; It was an actual whale shark with caudal fin breaking the surface of the water as it was swimming and feeding! After a few seconds of shouting “It’s a real shark!” and letting that moment sink in, I realized I was completely naked in terms of swimming gear and was rather unprepared for the first whale shark encounter during a searching session. Donning all appropriate sharking material and slipping off the skiff into the water, Freya and I set off to photographically capture this animal.  A male of approximately 2.25m (later ID’d to be Mr. 2016.002) was a fast little shark zipping around the roiling seas (well maybe not roiling but it was still windy with sea state 3 seas). We swam with him as long as possible but after many seawater snorkel filled breaths we let him disappear into the greenish waters.
Yes its a real feeding shark!
The following day was but an exceptional one as we received an exciting phone call in the late morning. Christi, the whale shark intern and dive instructor at Dolphin Services, had taken two clients from the Deli to search for our whale shark friend along the coast of Acacia beach. Two had been spotted and we quickly set off for our second search session to join them in the glory of whale sharky goodness. We met up with Mr. 2016.002 who was happily chilling along the shoreline occasionally suction feeding on the remaining arrow worms and other delights in the water column. He was, as David would put it, “a happy chappy” and we were accompanied by the 2nd whale shark! Mrs. 2014.056 had come along to join the fun as she too was cruising the coastline (a bit faster than the feasting male and not munching as often). It was such a spectacular site when these two crossed paths as they carefully avoided each other as if previously rehearsed. Freya and I were naturally wearing our biggest of whale shark grins enjoying this multiple encounter. 

The next few days did not bring the throngs of sharks we believed we would encounter given the trickling start of individuals appearing. We’ve exhausted our search options as we’ve turned to three sessions a day, manta tows and even the weather permitting drone assisted search! Alas, with the water visibility being up to 13m, its clear that the food abundance has drastically decreased and the sharks have found some exclusive buffet to which we are not invited to. 

Though these two weeks have been rather shark quite, we as a team have been quite productive in digging up past data and looking at spatial distribution, shark associations and scarring patterns of the Djibouti aggregations in preparation for the 4th International Whale Shark Conference in Quatar this coming May. We’ve also had time to snorkel and see other favorites of the Tadjourah Reefs such as the blue spotted stingrays, green and hawksbill turtles and even a visit from a devil ray! Despite the whale sharks missing their appointments this trip has been pretty fantastic and we must extend our gratitude once more to Dolphin Excursion Services and the Deli crew for putting up with our whale shark obsessed team of misfits. Until next time!
Farewell Djibouti, until next time!

Djibouti Week One January 2016 with Freya..

The Night Shark

So it’s day three here on the Deli, and so far we’re off to a slow start. After five trips out in the skiff, we haven’t come across a single caudal fin… even with a team of experienced spotters on board (and Savi)! We are all still very hopeful that our spotty friends will join the party soon so we can start getting some individuals identified and added to our shark database.  However don’t fret, it has not been a completely dry start and last night we had a very exciting surprise…

We had installed a powerful LED light at the back of the boat earlier in the evening to see if we could attract some plankton and ultimately a whale shark. After a very quite day, I was secretly unoptimistic so didn’t get too excited about the prospect and after hours of watching fusiliers and a couple of swimming crabs squabbling under the light we decided to call it a day and go to bed.

Obviously the key to spotting sharks is lying on your back with your eyes closed, because that’s exactly when one appeared and it was around 10pm, just as Savi and I had fallen asleep on the deck, that we were swiftly awoken to cries of ‘whale shark!’.

We woke immediately when we heard the commotion and stumbled out of bed to check it out. As we peered over the back of the boat, there it was, the first whale shark I have seen in almost a year, lit from above in a sea of darkness. After the initial awe wore off it was all systems go. In a sleepy haze I grabbed a torch and fumbled around the deck trying to find my equipment whilst not waking the crew. The next challenge was safely leaving the boat as the usual stepladder was raised. This involved clambering under the rails and onto the adjacently parked skiff, not the most graceful of actions but at least it was dark! Once we had made it off the boat we were in the water like a flash, as we didn’t know if the shark would stick around.
The night shark!

We managed to get the left side, but as it dived fairly pronto we were unable to sex it. The encounter only lasted a couple of seconds but it was an unforgettable experience swimming with the worlds largest fish at night, something I never thought I would be lucky enough to do.

Fingers crossed that that was not the last shark we will see, and let’s hope the next couple of days are a bit more productive before we all lose our minds!!