Sunday, December 18, 2016

Djibouti Week two

As Savi so aptly put we were ‘pleased as punch’ to have had a week full of amazing encounters and lots sharky fun for our 2016/17 expedition. Our expectations were exceeded after last season’s low numbers and we entered week two with restored faith, renewed vigour and hopes to top our 2015 season encounter numbers. 
Loading up the Deli for the start of week two
As is the way with whale sharks, however, they weren’t going to make it that easy. On day one we were off to a slow start and even my new found bionic shark spotting vision was struggling to pick out a fin. They were defiantly a lot shyer; with the guys we did spot tending to be a few meters deeper and not as willing to stick around. We hoped that they were still feeling a little timid after a weekend of heavy tourist activity and perhaps they would return to last week’s cooperativity on day two.   
Trying to keep up with skittish sharks.....

PHOTO 2 (Trying to keep up with skittish sharks!)

Sure enough on day two we began to see some more activity. Turtle point seemed to be a hot spot this year with many schools of fish and regular shark visitors. This is where we spend a lot of day two and were lucky enough to find a couple of content vertical feeders that didn’t mind twirling for the camera to have their ID shots taken and display their claspers or lack thereof. We had a few females pop up this year, mainly in Ghoubet where we had more than three in one session. It seems the girls like sticking together! 
Some vertical feeding sharks were a lot more cooperative!
As the days went on we were seeing a few more sharks, but it must be said that numbers were nowhere near as high as last week. There were still some very exciting moments though! Remember our friend that we rescued last week with the fishing line entangled on the left pectoral fin, he seemed to stick around and was sighted almost every day this week. Perhaps it was his way of saying thank you. It was certainly nice to see him swimming normally even with a slightly odd looking pectoral!
Our friend with the damaged but now fishing line free pectoral fin
We were pretty happy that our friends hadn’t completely disappeared but still a bit baffled that numbers can alter so much in the space of a few days. There are still many unanswered questions about these sharks and their movements. As we had a little bit of extra time due to fewer encounter photos to sort we got us discussing possible answers to these questions. David did a presentation to interested tourists, we had Ginevra visit Deli and chat about research and Savi and I considered our individual research interests a bit further. We are all excited about future research directions and will keep you posted!
David giving a presentation to the guests aboard the Elegante
As the week drew to a close were all still in high spirits, as our team always is, despite 15% of encounters when compared to week one. We headed out on out final session optimistic yet realistic, not expecting too much. We had searched the both Turtle Point and Acacia with one encounter of a small 3.5m female so decided to call it a day and head back to Deli. As I began to take off my fins the skipper spotted a tail fin. It was in a fairly unusual location and Savi and I were in the water like a shot, knowing that this would likely be out last encounter. It was a memorable one, possibly my favourite of the trip as we were able to spend about 10 minutes with this 5.5m male which was well over our 1 minute encounter time average. He was very chilled and happily fed as we swam alongside him. Savi and I gave each other a little wave and both relished in the presence of this docile giant together. 
Freya on her last whale shark encounter for several months to come....
So, here’s to another superb Djibouti season with some fantastic experiences for the team and a new batch of encounters for the database. We wish Ginevra and the guys at Dolphin all the best for the remainder of the season, and look forward to returning next year. Let’s hope the sharks play nicely while we’re gone, but for now it’s home for Christmas. 
Its beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.... Advent calendar aboard the Deli
The Djibouti expedition has now completed and the team is packing up ready to fly home, we had a total of 268 encounters over the two weeks, the exact number of individual sharks is not yet known as we are still processing the photo IDs but we have 18 new sharks already identified and we haven't finished the first week of encounters.... We have also had a bunch of repeat visitors so we loo forward to updating you all over the coming weeks.

In the mean-time, our best wishes to you all for the coming festive season and New Year!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Mad Friday!

Week One in Djibouti came to a rather spectacular finish when David’s PhD student Ginevra and her team found an aggregation of five whale sharks which was staying below the surface and had been unnoticed for several hours…
Two of the sharks with Ginevra and her team, photo Luigi de Bacco
Unfortunately Friday is the weekend holiday in Djibouti and so the whale shark area is visited by numerous boats with excited tourists hoping to swim with a whale shark. There were already fourteen of these tourist skiffs searching the area so we knew we had to work fast to get the photo ID shots of these sharks.
Freya in action capturing the ID shots, photo Luigi de Bacco
Guest Jan captures a multi-level whale shark cross-over, photo Luigi de Bacco
So our little team joined Ginevra’s group to get to work. Freya working hard with her Go Pro to get the ID shots, Savi glued to the laser rig to get accurate size images and David mopping up any sharks trying to escape without having their photos taken. MCSS guest Jan was also there with his big SLR camera trying to get images of the whole thing.
Savi in action with the laser measurement rig, photo Luigi de Bacco
Within a few minutes the tourist skiffs had noticed the unusual activity in the corner of the bay and had descended so things started to get very busy very quickly! While our team were somewhat perplexed by the situation with probably more than 20 people in the water; however, the sharks were totally cool about the whole thing and carried on feeding hardly skipping a slurp and deftly swimming between their awkward and eager visitors! Our thanks to Luigi de Bacco, one of the guests aboard the Elegante, Ginevra’s base of operations, for the images in this post.
What on earth is that? Savi, Freya and a shark wonder what has just appeared, photo Luigi de Bacco
So week one ended on a high with a total of 219 encounters recorded, we only have the IDs processed from the first few sessions but already we have 14 individuals sharks photo identified with 7 new sharks and 7 repeat visitors one each from 2009, 2010 and 2014 with four from 2013.

Roll on week two!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Djibouti December 2016

Well this may be a bit unexpected, but here we are again in Djibouti not knowing what to expect considering the dismal numbers of encounters we had this last January. We set off with high hopes as we decided to come a month earlier since shark numbers had been higher in December the last couple of years; let’s just say we were not disappointed!

In the first couple of days alone we were back in our element with sharks popping up all over the place displaying a myriad of behaviours. Anything from vertical, Ram, suction, or active surface feeding to swimming, diving, or just being a delightful happy chappy! 
Just hanging around with a few friends
So nice to be swimming with sharks again!
 We were pleased as punch to discover the sharks had returned as this meant more time in the water and less stressful, aching, sun beating times on the Skiff. The spotters gleefully grasped the sides of the vessel, pulled themselves in and rattled all the information they could  to the recorder before jumping back in for the next encounters. 

Though the week was incredible and we revel in every encounter, just a few stand out for the blog readers. The first of which of which is a night shark!!!! All those exclamation points are necessary as it was everything we had heard, read and hoped it was. 

A massive LED light was hung from the ladder off the back of the Deli which accumulated quite a large amount of plankton all trying to fit in the beam yielding a vortex of tiny critters. After an evening of mirth, laughter regarding the return of the spotted fish, one of them decided to take an interest into the aforementioned vortex. “WHALE SHARK” was shouted and individuals either rushed to the edge of the boat to view the event or to their cabins for a quick change into swimming atire. Long story short, this individual decided to stick around and pirouette up the vortex, very much enjoying the meal until 11 o’clock at night! Photographers and whale shark enthusiasts alike were in the water or on the boat staring and mesmerized as the shark unknowingly put on a show many will never forget. 

The night shark investigates the 'vortex' under the light. Photo Warren Baverstock

The second “important” encounter if you will involves one shark who had a terrible run in with some fishing gear. This line had three different hooks and had wrapped around the pectoral fin of a large shark effectively acting as a cheese slicer. David’s PhD student had alerted us regarding this sharks unfortunate accident so we borrowed a divers knife ready for the next encounter. Freya had gone into the water on a standard encounter only to pop up quickly and excitedly mentioning the first drop of the afternoon session had been the injured shark! Rushing into the water to hopefully aid the shark from further damage to the fin (the hooks were well embedded into the flesh causing the dragging line to slowly tear into the pectoral fin causing significant damage to the appendage) so the first move was to remove the dragging line. 

The injured shark with several of the hooks disengaged and the line trailing from the partly severed pectoral fin. Photo Freya

After many salty water filled breaths trying to keep up with the shark, his feeding/swimming patterns and ensuring safe removal of the damaging line, two out of three hooks were removed as well as all of the line! Sadly one hook remains in the flesh of the shark though the damaging line was removed! We’ve seen some amazing quick healing capabilities of these rather amazing sharks. Anything from a dorsal fin being sliced in half from a propeller having healed completely in a year to abrasions recovering to full strength in naught but weeks!
Suction feeding shark, Photo Savi
Djibouti whale sharks back 'on-song'!!
Long story short, this week has restored our faith in the Djibouti Aggregation and we are on the edge of our seats to see what this next week has in store for us.