Monday 21 December 2009
By Ruth Leeney
Having deployed 2 C-PODs in the Lüderitz area back in August as well, I had hoped to get down to the south, retrieve the units, download their data and get them back out in the water as part of this trip. As my schedule became more restricted, Jean-Paul Roux at the Lüderitz offices of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources was invaluable in helping out. He organised the retrieval of both units, to have them waiting on land for me when I arrived. Unfortunately, only the C-POD with the surface marker buoy, deployed in Shearwater Bay, was retrieved, so hopefully, efforts in the new year to grapple for the Guano Bay POD will be successful. For now, at least, the first ever acoustic monitoring dataset for this region has been collected - the C-POD logged over 100 days in an area known to be used by small groups of Heaviside's dolphins, and plenty of detections are evident in the data.
The Shearwater Bay C-POD was re-deplyed in the same spot on the 19th of December and will continue to collect habitat use data in this area. I hope to see some seasonal patterns in these data start to emerge, as well as the interesting diel (day-night) patterns already evident!
Many thanks to Heiko and Stefan Metzger on Zeepard for their assistance in the field, and for the 'lekker' place to stay, and to Jean-Paul for his ongoing involvement with this project.
Wednesday 16 December 2009
By Ruth Leeney
December in Walvis Bay. Turns out the sun actually shines here sometimes! I have come back for a short visit, to check up on the C-PODs Simon and I deployed, with the help of Johann from Levo Tours, at the end of August. It has been just over 3 months, so the batteries are reaching the end of their running time, and after that long in the often-wild waters of the Namibian coastline, I thought it wise to check that the moorings were also still in place and were holding up well against the storms!
The project's 2 C-PODs at Pelican Point were retrieved last week. After we received a report that the surface marker buoy from this mooring had gone missing (thanks to all our local friends who were on watch in our absence!), a team from Namib Diving went out to the location and grappled for the gear, in and around the deployment location. The waters at Pelican Point have almost zero visibility and are thus not diver-friendly, so we really appreciate the time and effort they put into finding this gear for us. Three months' worth of data were downloaded from each C-POD and at first look, there are plenty of Heaviside's dolphin detections throughout that time period! More details will follow on our findings from this, our first long(ish)-term acoustic data set. Meanwhile, the PODs were spruced up a bit (in the rich waters of Walvis Bay, 3 months is ample time for an assortment of encrusting organisms to make any unsuspecting POD their home), given new batteries and re-set for more data collection, and with the help of Kurt and Darius from Namib diving, I redeployed them at Pelican Point today, whilst numerous Heaviside's dolphins surfaced a few hundred metres away. We also stopped at Aphrodite Beach, to retrieve the third C-POD, which will be re-deployed shortly. A solitary Heaviside's dolphin, about 500 m west of the Aphrodite Beach, was perhaps the first of this species that I have seen in this area, perhaps mirroring the more dispersed pattern of this species in summer, observed by Simon last year. A huge thank you to Gert Le Roux and the staff at Namib Diving for helping me get this done in a short time window.
On another note, the dusky dolphin which live-stranded in Walvis Bay on the 3rd of December generated a bit of press for the Walvis Bay Strandings Network which we have been working to re-invigorate over the past 18 months. John Paterson oversaw the successful refloatation of this animal and by passing the story on to the Namib Times, generated some good press for the Strandings Network and helped to spread the word amongst local people about what action to take, and who to contact, in such a situation.
Tuesday 15 December 2009
Interns will take part in all project activities and learn a whole host of field and data management skills. Having extra hands to help out will allow us to do more things and get more days at sea and include some extra dimensions to our field research.
For more information on the programme, please see:
If you're a Namibian biology student and interested in working on the project, please contact me directly to talk about internship and potential student projects.
s_elwen AT yahoo . com
Thursday 10 September 2009
Although we towed Nanuuq all the way through the desert (see pic) from Walvis to Luderitz, the wheel bearings couldn't deal with the dust and we had to leave the boat in Aus (100km from the sea at 1600m altitude!!) for more than week while the problem was sorted out! Luckily we still managed to get the hydrophones deployed in two known Heaviside's hotspots at Shearwater and Guano Bays. We couldn't have done this without the phenomenally generous help of Heiko Metzger of Zeepard tours (see pic) and the knowledge and support of the local Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources scientists, especially Jean-Paul Roux.
Although we're naturally somewhat nervous about the moorings being pulled up, dredged, trawled, entangled in propellers or washed out to sea, we're quite excited about getting the data back from them in a few months time!
Thursday 20 August 2009
Trevor and my student Theo have left, headed back to
Ruth has now arrived from the
The C-PODs (http://www.chelonia.co.uk/about_the_cpod.htm) are very new instruments and replace the older, simpler T-POD. Last year we borrowed some T-PODs from Simon Northridge at
Other than that, all has been going well. We’ve had a few days off the water with bad weather (or bad decisions on my part, but the weather forecasts here are about as good as throwing a dice) but the data is coming in. Lots of sightings of bottlenose dolphins, including some great jumping and socialing on one day which is always fun to see and photograph. Heaviside's dolphins have been a bit scarce and whales too have been few and far between this year. There have only been 4 humpbacks since I got here and 2 right whales were in the bay last week but we missed them unfortunately.
Tuesday 11 August 2009
The winter field season has started again. I’m rather behind in updating the blog as you’ll notice from the date! Have been pretty busy and doing most things on my own for the first few weeks.
In summary – Unfortunately Pedro, who we used last year as a phenomenally generous loan from Pelican Tours, wasn’t available any more. However, the project is making good head way and we’ve managed to secure our own boat this year which makes us more flexible in terms of time spent at sea and when and where we launch. She’s a nice little boat, which I’ve called Nanuuq (which is Inuit for polar bear – I wa trying to avoid the more obvious dolphin based names). As a new acquisition which had been standing for a while in the previous owners driveway, she has unfortunately taken a fair bit of teasing back into shape. New batteries, spark plugs, had to get most of the safety equipment, winch strap broke after seeing too much sun in the last few years, dirty carbs…lots of frustrating little things like that to keep us busy.
Ruth couldn’t make it out for the beginning of the season this year due to work commitments, so I started this season by roping in a colleague of mine from the University of Pretoria, Trevor McIntyre to do some skippering for me. Trevor is doing his PhD work on elephant seal foraging behaviour in the southern ocean. He’s using data from electronic tags attached to the seals on
We had a few good days out to sea in between all the boat mechanicing. There were some really dominant east wind conditions here to start the field season, which made for hot, dry sandy mornings with katabatic winds howling down off the desert. But these conditions always drop in the afternoons as the southerly winds fight back, often resulting in a warm, calm truce out in the bay. Nice for us to get out in the afternoons a few times as its almost impossible during the rest of the year due to the strong winds in the afternoons – and it’s really lovely to be on the water in just a t-shirt in this part of the world!! The Heaviside's dolphins have been as fickle as always, some days they’re all there and super boat friendly, while other days you can barely find a single one.
Thursday 4 June 2009
These findings are very relevant at the moment as it has just come to our attention that Namport (the port management authority) are planning a vast expansion to the current harbour for a container terminal. Obviously we’re concerned over the effects this will have on the environment and wildlife in the bay. See details on the Namport webpage and register as an “IAP” (interested or affected party) to voice your concerns:
On a different note, one of the projects we’re trying to get up and running in Namibia is a “strandings network” which we think is very worthwhile and needed for both conservation and science reasons. You may recall the stranding of a live humpback whale in February and of 19 bottlenose dolphins in the upper lagoon in March. Recently there was an even bigger mass stranding of 50-odd false killer whales just outside Cape Town. The perceived lack of organisation and the decision to euthanise animals which it was not possible to rescue has met with serious criticism from some quarters. However, knowing many of the people who were involved in the Cape Town stranding, I’m confident they made the best decisions possible at the time, it was clearly a very difficult situation . It is important to keep in mind that events such as this, although tragic, are natural occurrences that have been happening for thousands of years without human interference. Either way, we hope that by developing a network of trained people who can coordinate events and make decisions in the event of further live strandings of animals, Walvis Bay residents can be confident of the best response in these situations.
Tuesday 7 April 2009
Luderitz was a sweet and successful end to the season for me, which has been rather stressful due to all our funding issues. But all things considered, it worked out pretty well, mainly I must say due to the fantastic support the project has received from the Namibian community. I'm going to try list a few of the key people to whom I really owe a vote of thanks:
Ingo, Isolde, Dougie, and Alan at Pelican Tours - the loan, launching and recovering of Pedro was invaluable for our work in Walvis Bay.
Naude, Megan and Neels Dreyer of Mola Mola Safaris - for being proactive and organising so much relating to the whale and dolphin strandings. For helping us out with cheaper fuel and a venue for our fundraiser talks in Feb.
Catamaran Charters and Eco-Marine kayak tours - for donations to our research costs this season.
NACOMA, and Rod Braby especially - for being so supportive of the project and helping us find ways to rescue out funding situation.
Namibia Nature Foundation, Rachel Malone and Chris Brown - for fighting so hard when our funding was pulled out that they seem to have rescued the situation for us and all the other projects funded through the same granting body.
John and Barbara Paterson for housing us and being so helpful with the strandings and our research all the other little things that we are always needing.
I'm back in Pretoria for a few months trying o process some of the data and publish and few papers, but we're still working on some grant applications, mainly to buy some hydrophones so that when we're back in July for the winter season we'll be running at full tilt. With all the work we've put in over the last year the project is now reasonably set up to run for the next two years.
The two main items that we still need to fund are a set of C-POD hydrophones (grant in progress) and getting our own research boat which will allow us more freedom for longer days and different launch sites and allow us to broaden out goals and work considerably. Anyone reading this who might be able to help us fund or find a research boat that will be used for marine conservation in Namibia - please get in touch with me!
Three days home and I'm looking forward to the winter season when more whales are around. There is very little known about humpback whales from Namibia and we're currently collaborating with the Wildlife Conservation Society who are working in west Africa and with other researchers from the University of Pretoria to share data we collect on this species from Namibia.
Wednesday 1 April 2009
We have left Walvis Bay and are currently in Lüderitz for a few days as we hope to develop LDZ into a secondary field site. Due to its latitude and slightly jutting out position on the west coast, the weather here is normally very windy and makes small boat based photographic work like we’re doing in WB almost impossible. If our grant comes through, we hope to deploy some hydrophones as well as run a few visual surveys and collect skin once a season to investigate the structure and separation of dolphin populations between here and WB and later with South Africa.
I’ve never been to Lüderitz before and I’m glad I made it out here this season despite the continued car problems (my car is still stuck in Windhoek!!). It’s a very interesting little town, and is really isolated being ~400km from the border to the south and from WB to the north and about 800km from the capital with very little in between other than vast expanses of sand dunes.
I've put a few pics at the end of this post. A big thanks to Jean Paul Roux of MFMR who, although he’s not in town this week put me in contact with Günter Behrens (who runs yacht tours of the bay). Within hours Günter had helped sort us out with a boat to get us out to the dolphins, and great accommodation right on top of the hill that we’ll hopefully be able to use longer term!
We went out to sea on Tuesday morning trying to squeeze in a few hours before the notorious wind picked up. What can I say? Dolphins galore! I managed to get seven skin samples in an hour and a half. It took us 3 weeks to do that in Walvis Bay – it’s a combination of the dolphins mood (whether they’ll bow ride the boat or not), where they ride the boat (affected by the shape of the boat hull) and the fact that the dolphins here are really abundant and boat friendly! On Monday afternoon we’d been out to Dias Point and Guano Bay to look at the site from shore and saw at least 30 dolphins within a km or two of the land and some animals were only meters from shore – what a fantastic spot for dolphin watching. We also saw a brief feeding frenzy with about 40 gannets diving onto fish and a several groups of Heaviside’s dashing over to join the fun. Other than one or two brief observations of surface feeding in Walvis Bay, I’ve never seen Heaviside’s dolphins do anything that could be described as definite feeding behaviour. In South Africa where I did my PhD research the animals seem to be feeding offshore in deep waters at night and when inshore are mainly socializing and resting.
It’s fascinating seeing all these differences in behaviour along the coast. Unraveling the links between prey type, prey distribution, and competition from seals and other dolphins (for instance, there are no bottlenose dolphins hogging the nearshore environment in Lüderitz or South Africa) and how these factors affect dolphin behaviour is one of our key goals. We hope that by studying these processes will be able to understand the mechanisms behind habitat choice and thus be able to better predict how dolphins are likely to respond to a changing environment.
Pics below of the light house at Diaz Point, a Heaviside's dolphin that was swimming around in the bay just in front of the lighthouse, a rather bad shot of the brief feeding frenzy (it was far away) and a map of the area.
Wednesday 18 March 2009
On Monday , 19 bottlenose dolphins (roughly 1/4 of our entire study population of 70 odd!!) got themselves stuck up the inner lagoon on a dropping tide and were stranded for the entire day! Where was I? 400km away in Windhoek for the day with car problems! The bottlenose dolphins have been stuck up this lagoon as well as in Sandwich Harbour on several occasions before, but to my knowledge, never this many animals at once.
Megan Dreyer of Mola Mola tours called me with the news and I although I couldn't be there, many other people were able to attend including many of the owners and guides from the tour companies, John and Barbara Paterson, Caroline Weir who has been working with me for a few weeks and Heidi Skrypzeck from the Ministry of Fisheries. The community was amazing - it's great to see so much interest in marine wildlife and we can only hope that this type of event has positive knock on effects for marine conservation initiatives in general. The only downside was that at times there were too many people in the water with the dolphins and more central control and guidance was needed. The development of a more formalised 'strandings network' will definitely help in this regard. Working with the local community to develop the existing network and help with training, communication and networking is one of our goals for this project.
Back to the dolphins - it seems they had trapped themselves in the shallow end of the lagoon on a dropping tide but were otherwise healthy individuals. All the people that attended did a great job of keeping the dolphins cool and wet and generally calm. Of 19 animals identified from photographs (including 3 calves) after the fact, all were released successfully as the tide came back in with the exception of the smallest calf which unfortunately died in the afternoon (probably from stress given the situation). Most animals were reported to be generally very calm. Only one animal was extremely agitated all day and kept falling on it's side and battling to breathe. In the end this animals also was released.
On Tuesday, the day after the main stranding event, one animal (tagged with number 203 by the Ministry during the stranding and given number T-012 from natural marks in our catalogue from last year) restranded far into the lagoon. Unfortunately we were at sea at the time and although we tried to find a group of bottlenose dolphins which had been reported in the bay so that the stranded animal could be released in their vicinity, we were unable to track them down as they seem to have passed around the point into very rough waters. Going through my catalogue now - we identified this animal (T-012) as a mother last year, but I can't match the animal we had identified as its calf to the photographs from Monday (calves aren't very well marked at all so it's very difficult to re-identify them without a continuous set of images as they grow). It is possible that this animal was the mother of the calf that died. Bottlenose dolphins have been reported to show very clear mourning behaviour including carrying dead calves around for several days after they have died and this may explain why it came back to the lagoon after the initial rescue.
Naude Dreyer (Mola Mola / Sandwich Harbour tours) and John Paterson were able to attend and coordinate a rescue. The decision was made to relocate the animal out of the inner lagoon area. With help from Namport (the port authority) the dolphin was moved (across several hundred metres of knee deep mud) using a cargo net, ground sheet and air mattress onto a pickup and moved across to the north side of town an released just north of the harbour breakwater (since we couldn't find any other animals). Upon release, the animal took a minute or so to orient itself and then shot off northwards. Although we were only a mile away at the time of release in Pedro, we were unable to find the dolphin at all and we all hope it won't re-strand. We're still at sea for a few more days this season and I hope we can reward all involved with at least a confirmation of this photo of this dolphin swimming free again.
This evening, (48 hours post stranding), Naude called me to let me know that he had seen 3 tagged animals in a group of 6 down near Sandwich Harbour this morning. They were feeding, chasing fish and moving very rapidly southwards in a fairly rough sea. So, other than the one calf death, it seems that all the other animals are none the worse for wear after their misadventure.
Photos below by Caroline Weir showing a few scenes from the stranding and a shot of animal T-012 (tag 203) that restranded the day after the event and Wally (Mola Mola / Sandwich Harbour tours) looking after the very stressed animal and trying to keep it upright so it could breathe properly.
Monday 9 March 2009
We were out almost everyday last week trying to make the most of having three of us on the boat. Caroline Weir of Ketos Ecology (www.ketosecology.co.uk) has joined me for a few weeks on her way through to an offshore job in Angola and overlapped with Tess Gridley for a week, who has just left for Plettenberg Bay in SA to collect more bottlenose dolphin whistles with Vic Cockroft's lab down there. Just want to say a quick thanks to Tess for coming through and helping me out and I'm sorry we couldn't get you more whistles - you'll just have to come back in winter when they're more abundant! This was the first external collaboration for the project and I hope we'll be able to support many more in future - I certainly learnt a lot from having an acoustics person on the boat and we're currently working on trying to get a paper out of what we have recorded, so it was a productive visit.
We've had a few good dolphin days out there with the Heaviside's in particular being more abundant in the last week, but they were scarce at the point again today. Saw our first dusky dolphins today in the middle of the bay - just a small fast moving group of 3 which we unfortunately lost quite quickly. In my last post I mentioned the bottlenose feeding in the lagoon. When we launched the next day the dolphins swam right past the slipway and we got in a really long focal follow on them all the way around the south of the bay, around the point and down to Donkey Bay where we left them. They were feeding quite a lot in the bay but largely just pottering along once they got past the point. See photo of them feeding in proximity to some local fishermen and a great shot that Tess got near Donkey Bay of a younger animal jumping.
Monday 2 March 2009
Highlights of the last few days? On a long survey up to Swakopmund yesterday, we resighted the small, scarred humpback whale I mentioned in my previous post, and only a kilometer from where we saw him on the 17th! I've never known a humpback whale to stay in one place for so long. Although it is 'out of season' now and they should theoretically be feeding in the southern ocean, so it's hard to tell what is motivating them right now. Although there was a large group of birds circling it when we first saw it, we didn't see anything that could be definitively described as feeding behaviour from the whale.
After a slow start to today with a some dark, choppy weather and impossible to find Heaviside's, we managed to track down the bottlenose dolphins (thanks to the tour boat skippers). They were in the inner lagoon, where they had been seen yesterday afternoon. This is right next to the yacht club where we launch and the Raft which is a great local pub with a lovely sea view and wonderfully cheap beer (which, given the current water shortage in Walvis Bay is the cheapest thing in town to drink).
The bottlenose dolphins in Namibia come into ridiculously shallow water. We spent the whole morning sitting inside the inner lagoon in water that was only just deep enough for the boat and trying to get recordings of their whistles without dragging the hydrophone (or the boat) on the sea bed. The lagoon is a RAMSAR site so boats aren't allow to go in - but it's so shallow and full of sandbanks you couldn't even if you wanted, although the dolphins managed it. The dolphins were feeding on some of the hundreds of mullet that were schooling in the lagoon and we got some great shots of them pinning the fish against the shore using a 'pincer' manoeuvre. One or two animals would chase a school of fish along at the surface (it was so shallow there was nowhere else for them to go) and a third animal would circle around to the front. As they the dolphins met, all the fish would jump out the water (see pics). I've never seen such obvious cooperative feeding before so it was a great sighting for me and we got some good data from this group, both behavioural and acoustic.
Wednesday 25 February 2009
In the short term however we've been approaching local companies in the hope that one or a few of them will be interested in supporting marine research and conservation and help us out with fuel money for the rest of this season. I guess the recession isn't all bad news - petrol is half the price I'd expected it to be this year, so the bill is a lot less than it could have been!
On that note - we're having a little fundraiser event next week, Tuesday the 3rd, down at the Anchors at the Walvis Bay yacht club jetty. 18h00-19h00. Tess will be talking about dolphin communication and her PhD work, I'm going to give a little presentation on our work here and John Paterson of the Albatross Task Force will be talking about sea bird conservation in Namibia. So please come along and support local research and conservation initiatives!
In between all the fun and games of emergency fund raising, we've managed to get out to sea a few more days and collect some data - although it's been unfortunately quiet out there (as the tour boat skippers told me last year that it would be). The Heaviside's have been scarce or skittish, and when we found the bottlenose, they have been in very small groups. But we had a nice behavioural follow along the Long beach area over the weekend (they didn't do much - it's not all Blue Planet out there I'm afraid).
It's been making for a quite interesting (if slightly boring) comparison to the distribution patterns we observed during winter last year - most noticeably we're seeing Heaviside's in quite different places. We had a lovely encounter with a single young Heaviside's dolphin off Bird Island on Monday - we sat with the engines off for a full 40mins recording it and it just quietly circled us and checked us out for the entire time. Was a lovely change from the normal noisy sound of outboards and cries of 'it's behind you!' - usually followed by turning the boat around and calls of 'it's still behind you!'. Challenging little animals to photograph sometimes.
Wednesday 18 February 2009
Just as we got to Windhoek we heard that our main sponsor for the season had just pulled out of funding our project at the very last minute (as well as a few others from the same funding round). This is obviously a major concern for the long term future of this project as this money represented core funding for us for the next 2 years. Luckily the Namibia Nature Foundation are fighting our corner (thanks to Rachel Malone on this) and the issue is not yet finally resolved so we are hopeful that the funders will see the light and support our research here.
On a positive note - we got off to a flying start here. A humpback whale live stranded just last week (while we were en route from JHB!) but unfortunately died ~36 hours later despite valiant rescue efforts by many people here in Walvis Bay. We drove down to the whale on Saturday afternoon and took a few measurements and samples and today Naude Dreyer of Mola Mola tours collected some baleen which had fallen out subsequent to our visit.
This season, Tess Gridley a PhD student from the University of St Andrews in Scotland is helping me out in the field for a few weeks while collecting some data for her PhD work. Tess is working with Vincent Janik at St Andrews and doing a comparative study of the signature whistles of bottlenose dolphins in different environments around the world (photo of Tess in her 'hole' listening to her dolphin recordings). We hope she'll get enough data from the bottlenose dolphins here to be able to include this site in her study. So far so good - we encountered a single dolphin off Pelican Point on Monday and he was surprisingly vocal for a single animal and we got some good behavioural data from him as well. This is a component of the project we're trying to build on from our pilot study - looking at how the dolphins use the bay, e.g. if there are some areas that are used primarily for feeding or resting.
Heaviside's are unfortunately rare on the ground at the moment, this may be related to the very warm sea conditions here at the moment (19-22C!) related to the weaker summer winds in the northern Benguela. I can't tell you how lovely it is to have t-shirt weather at sea again after freezing all winter! We did encounter several animals while running north toward Swakopmund this morning including a very small calf, but they were all fairly evasive and very difficult to photograph.
This highlight of today was a very small (~8m, smaller than the boat at least) solitary humpback whale. This is the smallest humpback whale I've ever seen alone and thought it might be an abandoned calf, although the high number of well healed cookie cutter shark bites on him suggest he may be older than I thought.
This year we're using PEDRO again. The use of this boat, a loan from Pelican Tours is absolutely invaluable to us and I'd like to say a big thank you to Ingo and Isolde of Pelican Tours for really going out of their way to help us out: www.pelican-tours.com
We'll continue for the next few days and hope this funding issue clears up in a positive way and we can progress with the project at full speed. There is so much to do here that I really hope we can maintain this project long term. Please let me know if you can think of anyway to help out at all.
Wednesday 14 January 2009
It's been a while since I last updated the blog, but both Ruth and I have been otherwise occupied (processing last year's data, doing our actual jobs, and finding funding to continue this project - research is an expensive exercise). But there is good news - we've managed to secure two sets of funding to continue the project into 2009 and beyond. We'll be expanding our goals slightly and are planning to be back in the field in mid-February. There are still a few issues that need sorting out and we need to be certain the funding will be available in time for the beginning of the field season, but it's all looking positive, and I'll be updating the blog more regularly again.
Unfortunately, several grant applications were unsuccessful (at least partly due to the recession) and at the moment it looks like we're not going to be able to get the hydrophones (C-PODs) we wanted that collect 24hour data on dolphin presence along the coast. The ones we used last year showed some really interesting and unexpected data and we hope we can find the funding to buy some before the winter field season. But at ~£1200 each, they're not cheap (and they also take several months to put together)!
There are a few other items of equipment that the project needs (other than the hydrophones mentioned above), so if you, or your company, would like to support the project - please get in touch with us.