Friday 10 December 2010

Walvis Bay Strandings Network

This month, the Walvis Bay Strandings Network finally got some much-needed strandings equipment. In 2009, the Namibian Dolphin Project received a Walvis Municipality Environmental grant to support the network in this way. DDP Industries in Walvis Bay made up the stretcher, and very kindly sponsored the production of a second one also. The equipment also includes buckets and blankets to keep beached animals wet and protected from the sun and wind.
In my final week in town, I carried out a short training session with some of the network's volunteers, to familiarise them with techniques for getting a stranded animal into the stretcher easily (using our inflatable dolphin!), and the important things to remember in the refloatation process. For example, once a stretchered animal has been brought to the water, it needs time to get used to the water again and to start to use its swimming muscles again, before removing the stretcher support.
The strandings gear is looked after by Strandings Network members and anyone who finds a stranded whale, dolphin or turtle in the Walvis Bay - Swakopmund area should contact Sandwich Harbour Tours or Mola Mola Tours in Walvis Bay. Many thanks to the Walvis Bay Municipality, George Wolfaardt at DDP Industries, Simon Wearne, John Paterson, Naude Dreyer, Francois du Toit and all the network members and volunteers who have given freely of their time for stranded animals. Keep up the good work!

Thursday 2 December 2010

So long, and thanks for all the (big) fish!

The C-PODs, now less mussel-encrusted than when they were retrieved, went back in the water today at Aphrodite Beach and Pelican Point. We now have over a year and a half of data on patterns of dolphin habitat use at these two sites, which will provide huge insight into seasonal patterns in habitat use by Heaviside's and bottlenose dolphins.

As my month of fieldwork draws to a close, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank the many people and organisations who have helped me and supported the project.There are some people here in Namibia, and especially in Walvis Bay, without which I could not achieve what I come here to do. These people give freely of their time, resources, company and advice, and always renew my faith in human nature by their generosity. My great appreciation to the following people and organisations –

Sandra Knop – du bist ein Stern. Gert Le Roux and the team at Namib Diving – for your invaluable assistance over the past two years; also Andries of Alucraft Construction for providing a boat at short notice. John and Barbara Paterson, Jean-Paul Roux at the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Jeanne Meintjes of Eco Marine Kayak Tours for your local knowledge, enthusiasm, and for many kayak trips and providing me with wheels!, Francois du Toit, Katja and Naude Dreyer, Heiko Metzger and family. Baie Dankie!

Monday 29 November 2010

Namibian Dolphin Project gets airborne!

by Ruth Leeney

Are there whales using all of the coast? What habitats do Heaviside's dolphins use apart from Walvis Bay and Luderitz? At what time of the year do turtles start using Namibian waters? These and many other questions
have crossed my mind, and been asked by others, so often since we started our research here in 2008. One excellent means of addressing some of these questions is to survey coastal waters from the air. Aerial surveys allow for a large study area

to be covered in a relatively short period of
time, and in a wider range of sea conditions than are suitable for boat surveys. An aerial perspective makes it much easier to detect and identify whales and dolphins since they can be visible even when they are beneath the water surface. When the Bataleurs, an organistion of volunteer pilots interested in conservation, provided me with the opportunity to run an aerial survey along the coast, I was delighted.

Early morning conditions were misty on the coast and we discussed the survey plan as we waited for the horizon to clear. Shortly after 9:00, we were on our way, with calm seas and surprisingly clear waters as our Cessna 182 survey plane headed south at 300 ft. Immediately we started to see small groups of Heaviside's dolphins. In fact, there were a surprising number of Heaviside's dolphins south of Walvis Bay. This is one of the focal species we study in the bay and in Luderitz, but we have not been able to study them outside of these two regions. Today I realised that they use a far greater part of the coast than I thought. Having refuelled in Luderitz, we set off south again and very soon afterwards, sighted our first whales - a mother and calf southern right whale. Another four right whales were seen north of the border. Further south, the coast becomes ravaged by diamond mining and is a really shocking sight.

We flew the entire coast from Walvis Bay to Oranjemund (at the border with South Africa), thus covering the southern half of the Namibian coastline. Total sightings came to 63 Heaviside's dolphins, two dusky dolphins, six southern right whales and two ocean sunfish. No turtles were sighted - the water is likely still too cold for them. Many thanks to all who made this possible: Joan Cameron and the Bataleurs for organising the survey; Nico Louw for his time, flying skills and the use of his plane; John Paterson and Francois du Toit for filling the observers roles.

Friday 26 November 2010

Just checking....

by Ruth Leeney
Walvis Bay, 8 am. I get an email saying there are two bottlenose dolphins well into the lagoon - it looks like they're going to strand near to where the mass stranding occurred last year. John Paterson and I dashed to the lagoon, and met with Francois who had been keeping an eye on them as they swam in circles. As we got there, they had turned around and were heading northwards at quite a fast pace, towards deeper water. Good timing too - the tide was going out. I guess this pair of bottlenose dolphins were just keeping us on our toes and checking that the chain of communication in the Walvis Bay Strandings Network does indeed work. Thanks to all the local folks involved in getting the word out this morning.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Sunday, 21st November

Today, I tagged along on a marine wildlife trip on Zeepard, run by Heiko Metzger. There are lots of box jellyfish (class Cubozoa) in the waters around Lüderitz at the moment.

Perhaps as a result of this, a sunfish was our first sighting of the morning. A big fin flopped on the surface, suggesting quite a large Mola mola beneath, but it did not reveal any more of itself and made a swift departure from the scene. Sunshine turned to thick fog at Diaz Point and then back to sunshine again. There were lots of bow-riding Heaviside’s dolphins and several of them also breached and even back-flipped a number of times – more than I have ever seen in Lüderitz, or even in Walvis Bay, before.

There were many Heaviside’s dolphins in Shearwater bay, several hundred metres from where one of the C-PODs is moored, which is always good to see! Towards the end of the trip, Heiko decided to explore over on the other side of the entrance to the harbour, where they sometimes see minke whales. Instead of a minke, we encountered a juvenile humpback whale. At first it seemed disinterested in the vessel and kept its distance, but after ten minutes or so, it fluked and then only minutes later, breached about 100 metres ahead of us! A while later it started spyhopping, though a little far away from us, and then started to nudge around some kelp for a while as it swam in our direction. It eventually surfaced very close to boat, twice, affording everyone a close-up view before it decided we were rather boring and swam off. Thanks as always to Heiko and Stefan for letting me join the trip.

Fieldwork in November

by Ruth H. Leeney

It has been almost a year since I have been in Namibia, so I had some catching up to do. After a few weeks of office work, emailing, meetings and observations in Wavis Bay, I headed south to fulfil my usual duties with the acoustic monitoring gear deployed there. The project has been carrying out acoustic monitoring for odontocetes at two sites in the coastal waters of Lüderitz for a year and a half now, and I’m looking forward to seeing what patterns in habitat use start to emerge from the data.
Having arrived I spent the afternoon and evening downloading data from the two C-PODs and their associated temperature loggers, and resetting the instruments for redeployment.
Early on the following morning, I boarded the RV !Anichab to redeploy both C-PODs and allow the time series of acoustic data to continue. I had much help from the crew with sorting out the moorings and getting the heavy anchors over the side as we deployed each mooring. I’m very grateful to Jean-Paul Roux for organizing this trip on the Ministry of Fisheries’ research vessel.

Thursday 2 September 2010

by Stefanie Rowland, UK. Oceans research Intern August 2010:

When I got off the plane seemingly in the middle of the desert I never dreamed that this barren land would supply some of the best experiences and memories of my life in the space of a few short weeks. On my first full day in Walvis Bay we were blessed with gorgeous weather, so headed out on the boat. The early start was a bit of a shock, but was definitely worth it, when in the space of one morning we had two species of dolphin coming up to us and bow riding! To cap it all off two humpback whales had been spotted – a mother and calf! They surfaced so close to us that I could feel the spray from their blow hole! I thought that things couldn’t possibly get better than that, but I was oh so wrong: in the space of two weeks I’ve travelled north to a national park, where we ventured into the desert to play on sand dunes; seen amazing scenery ranging from ocean to desert to scrub land; been up close to a dead humpback whale (the smell wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be!); had some practise at driving the boat; had a go at some photography; travelled south for two days (with a stopover in the capital); seen loads of wildlife including springbok, orix, seals and a family of warthogs! It’s not all glamour though, some days can be cold on the boats and you can’t be squeamish about getting covered in all sorts, from seawater to barnacle juice, but it has most definitely been worth it, I’ve learnt so much from being here and had a lot of laughs in the process.

At the entrance to the Skeleton Coast National Park:

Team photo at the Ugab River mouth in the Park

John Paterson (the former head ranger at SKNP and now Albatross Task Force), took us up to a place called Oasis on the edge of the dune field...stunning.
Some of the cetacean skulls we were measuring and collating at the little Museum at Mowe Bay

Passing time during another puncture on the way back south from the park

Photographing dolphins in Luderitz -

Thursday 12 August 2010

One of our own

For the first time in my career as a marine mammal biologist, I saw one of my study animals dead. I've seen loads of dead whales and dolphins since I started along this path and I've identified lots of whales and dolphins photographically. But Walvis Bay is the first project I've worked on long enough, that I've got to see and get to know some of the animals as 'individuals'. We have regular of Heaviside's we know but it's the bottlenose population here (~80-100 animals) that become like old friends after a while. The majority of them are easily identifiable and I've had a particular fondness for the mothers in our population, which are frequently seen together, so it was a little sad finding one of them dead on the beach.

Animal T-017 was first seen by us in June 2008 with a small calf and on several other occasions during out pilot study.

She wasn't seen at sea during the summer field season of 2009 but was one of the 19 animals which stranded in the lagoon in March, were tagged with seal flipper tags and rescued. She was actually tagged twice on that day, the first time was unsuccessful and left a partial hole, the second time went all the way through. Since this time she has hardly been seen at all in the bay area.

She was seen in the winter field season (Aug 2009) with her tag still in her fin, not seen in the summer of 2010 and only once in the current winter season.

Then, a dolphin was reported dead on the beach north of Swakopmund a few weeks ago and when we went to investigate, it turned out to be one of 'our' bottlenose dolphins, T-017.

She was fairly decomposed, and had a few shark bites along her belly. It's impossible to tell if these occurred before or after death, but judging from their size are probably from a bronze whaler shark which are common along this coast.

So..we've lost a mother from this population. We kept the skull and from the teeth, it may be possible to age her one day.

Friday 30 July 2010

Just wanted to add a little thank you to our friends atWe managed to break the plug pins on the sponsored 420S Chart plotter a little while ago, and also had a older hand held GPS unit that was giving us some trouble.

Jason, Mike, Fraser and the crew at Garmin in Cape Town speedily sorted them out for us and everything is in 100% working order - thanks guys!! We'd be lost without you .

Days off in Namibia

By Lucille Chapuis - Oceans Research Intern July 2010.


Etosha National Park… a small taste of Eden

Although we enjoy greatly the aquatic fauna of Walvis Bay, we were quite happy when Simon accepted to let us have 3 days off in a row, which allowed us to visit the one of the world’s greatest wildlife reserves: Etosha National Park, 20 000 sq km of inland protected habitats, around the Etosha Pan, a huge flat and saline desert that is transformed in a lagoon during the rainy season. Having spent a night in a camp site near the park, we leave on an early morning and enjoy the sunrise entering the gate. Only a few minutes later, giraffes, zebras and springboks are already shining in our eyes… The time flows as we explore the bush and grasslands and discover their inhabitants: grass eaters like blue wildebeests, impalas, oryx, steenboks, jackals and ostriches are very abundant. The predators and the bigger ones are of course more difficult to spot. We face up to the challenge and with our budding biologists nose, we find a horde of 40 elephants having a communal bath in a waterhole, a leopard chilling under a bush, one lioness and her three cubs sipping quietly some water from a pond, as well as an immense and solitary elephant crossing the road nonchalantly. We rushed through the exit door under a beautiful “Etoshan” sunset, in high spirits and satiated. We drive back to Walvis Bay on the next day, looking forward to meet our sea-friends again. This week-end was just a part of our epic journey that we interns have been undertaking here for more than three weeks, experiencing an untouched, although elusive, “wild” wilderness.


Saturday 24 July 2010

Stranding season continues..

It seems to be a season of many strandings. On Wednesday this week a humpback whale was reported to us by Neels Dreyer to be stuck in shallows of the harbour in front of the fishing factories. The NDP team and John Paterson (Albatross Task Force) responded promptly and got on site to find several divers from Walvis Bay diving already in the water trying to guide the animal out to sea. After a little discussion with the TunaCor security officers to assure them we were there on legit business, John, Gwen Penry and I got our wetsuits on hopped in the water with the divers to help with the rescue attempt.

The whale was clearly unwell, covered in cyamids (whale lice), had a broken dorsal fin (probably from hitting into the jetty, it definitely wasn't a propeller cut) and was clearly disoriented, swimming at an angle, holding its head up and only going in circles. With much pushing we occasionally got the animal out of the shallows but it kept turning back to come lie on its belly. We attempted to the tow/guide the whale out of the shallows with help from the Walvis Bay diving boat, but although it got out a little way, it again came back.

The WBD boat had to leave but we got in two more boats from Mola Mola Tours and Henning DuPlessis (a local oyster farmer). These larger boats were more successful at pulling the whale further out of the jetty area, and eventually managed to get it past the moored ships. With some great driving by Rudi Hass and Eddie of Mola Mola and Henning - they managed to keep the whale from turning back to the shallows and guided her out in the deeper central bay area (last photo).

Once in the deeper water the whale paused to reoriented it self and seemed to wake up and head off strongly northwards. We were all hopeful that it was going to make it but unfortunately, on Thursday, the whale was reported re-stranded on the west side of the bay near the pump station.

The decision was taken at this point to let nature take it's course. Strandings are sad, but natural events and you can only perform so many rescue attempts (which are quite stressful for the whale) before admitting defeat.

I've put in some photos below, most taken by Lucille Chapuis, (one of our July interns) of the rescue operation in the harbour.

A big thankyou to Walvis Bay Diving, Mola Mola tours, Henning du Plessis and Tunacor for their help.

Sunday 11 July 2010

By Caroline Budden.

Hello! My name is Caroline and I am currently an intern at the Namibia Dolphin Project. I arrived here on the 1st of July from the UK. The view as I flew from Johannesburg to Walvis Baywas beautiful and consisted of miles of desert as far as the eye could see. I was met at the airport by Simon and after meeting the other interns and staff, I was soon feeling settled in and started learning how to grade dolphin photographs. This is important as only high quality photos are used to identify individual dolphins. The next day, on land survey duty, I caught a glimpse of my first bottlenose dolphin, which surfaced about 10m from shore. After teasing us with two short appearances, it then promptly disappeared. On my next land survey a few days later, we came across a whole group of bottlenose dolphins close to shore. We watched them wave riding, took as many photographs as we could and spent the next few hours tracking them from the beach to monitor their social interactions and general behaviour. This proved to be more difficult than it sounds - you don’t realize just how fast they can swim unless you are running alongside, trying to keep up with them!

On our day off, myself and the other interns went kayaking with wild seals at Pelican Point. The seals were adorable and were very intrigued by us and our brightly coloured kayaks. They were constantly swimming over to take a closer look and there were even a few attempts to steal our paddles! We saw a number of jackals as we drove through the desert and were amazed to witness a stand-off between a jackal and a fully grown seal. The jackal won the fish prize in the end but the seal didn’t give up easily!

While out on the research boat we encountered a whole group of Heaviside dolphins, inccluding two mothers with calves. I will never forget the sight of a baby calf swimming alongside the boat right beside me. However, the highlight of my first week here has to be the sight of a humpback whale surfacing about 5m away from the back of our boat. The noise of it blowing out as it surfaced made everyone on board jump with shock, especially as we were all expecting it to come up about 500m away in a completely different direction. I have had so many incredible experiences here in just a week and I am eagerly looking forward to the next few weeks!

Tuesday 22 June 2010

If you're on Facebook, check out the Namibian Dolphin Project page for more photos from out current field season.

Here are a few of the small humpback whale that stranded alive near the desalination plant north of Swakopmund last week. It died soon afterward we first saw it, and we returned to collect some samples from the animal for further study.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

The blog is going to start filling up again! We haven't had much internet at the house where we base the office, and it's been a pretty hectic start to the season. Dolphins coming and going as usual, but we've got the hydrophone in at Sandwich Harbour again (Thanks to Ingo of Pelican Tours for lending us his dinghy!) and we've seen at least two known Heaviside's again, including the animal that was injured so badly last season by a boat propeller - and he's completely healed (you can just see the scarring on his body below)!
This season we're a much bigger team than normal and we've got 5 interns working with us here through Oceans Research. This has allowed us to start a new project collecting data from shore on the bottlenose dolphins (so there is no bias from the boats at all), as well as get more info from the tour boats themselves and get that back log of data under control! We've also had a few strandings and well, there's lots going on. I'm going to let the interns put it in there words from here on:

Namibian Dolphin Project by Melanie Ngo

The interns arrived on the 1st of June and I am one out of the six that get to experience this wonderful opportunity. For the past few weeks, we have done a lot of work on shore and on the water in Walvis Bay, Namibia. We are having an amazing time with the Heaviside dolphins and the bottlenose dolphins each time we are at sea and on land. It is and will always be a thrilling excitement every time we encounter these animals, no matter how many times we have seen them before we enjoy their company out at sea. When I see the expression on Simon’s face every time we spotted the dolphins, it reminds me of the face kids make when you bribe them with candy and he has been working with these animals for a couple of years now.

We have taken pictures of the Heaviside's and bottlenose dolphin’s dorsal fin for photo ID, observed their behavior in the water and on land, and observed the number of birds and bird species in certain areas on the beach to look at the impact of beach users. Most of the time, the dolphins are very friendly, socializing with us and each other, they were jumping and spy hopping, swimming alongside the boat, bow riding, swimming underneath and around the boat, overall they are having a good time in their own home. There were a few days we did not go out on the boat due to the weather, but that did not stop us from doing work around the office. We have had long days out on the boat and on land, we’ll come back exhausted, but love every minute of our time with the dolphins and that keeps our energy up for the rest of the day.


Wednesday 26 May 2010

Bottlenose dolphins double their known range!

Dr Jean Paul Roux from the Ministry of Fisheries, who we collaborate with down in Luderitz sent me some photos they captured from shore in April of a group of bottlenose dolphins in Guano Bay (the main Heaviside's dolphin concentration area in Luderitz).

Although they occasionally see bottlenose dolphins down there, they tended to be very poorly marked (undistinctive) animals, and have always been assumed to belong to the offshore stock of bottlenose dolphins (which live in the open ocean off the continental shelf, and don't mix with the local population). The Walvis Bay population has a known range from Sandwich Harbour to Cape Cross (only about ~250km along shore), but with observer effort very low north and south of these points, we assumed they probably did range a bit further than that, there was just no one there to see them.

So this sighting was really exciting as we now have photographic proof of 'our' population of bottlenose dolphins in Luderitz, about 400km south of the known limit of their range! There were about 12 animals, several well marked ones including some of those tagged in the lagoon in 2009 and some of the mother-calf pairs.

We'll be back in Walvis Bay at the beginning of June to work all of June and July and plan to spend some more time in Luderitz in August. This will give us a chance to see if these animals were simply on a summer holiday trip and have come back to Walvis Bay, or if they have 'permanently' emigrated.

Friday 9 April 2010

Slow on the updates recently. We wrapped up the season in Walvis Bay and left town on the 26th March as I had to give a talk up in Windhoek at UNam. I've never been there before, it's quite a small university compared to Pretoria or UCT, but a nice campus. The talk went well, there was small, but interested crowd who asked lots of questions, which is always nice.

Then moved on down to Luderitz to go service the hydrophones down there and collect some skin samples for analysis. I couldn't have done it without the help of Jean Paul Roux at the Ministry of Fisheries. We took out their research ship the Anichab (actually it's "!Anichab", but apparently if you mispronounce the initial click represented by "!", you turn it into a rather rude word, so most folk err on the side of the English pronounciation and just start with the A...). It was a good few days (although pretty windy the whole time), and great having a whole ship and good crew to help with everything. Hauling the hydrophone moorings is a pleasure with a winch, and we got them cleaned up and put back in in no time. I put down another hydrophone just at the northern edge of the Lighthouse bay, to replace the one in Guano Bay that is still AWOL. Biopsying was slow work as the weather didn't play along and the dolphins weren't as super friendly as they usually are in Luderitz, but we got there in the end.

Exciting sighting of the week - 2 minke whales! Apparently there are two or three in the bay which have been around and seen on a weekly basis since December by Heiko Metzger (Zeepard Tours). I've put in a few photos below of hauling and cleaning the hydrophones and the minke whales as seen from the ship and one of JP's pics of me and the !Anichab crew out in the little dinghy trying to get biopsies.

More exciting news - JP just emailed me the other day to say that a few bottlenose dolphins had been spotted in the bay and they all had large distinctive markings. The Walvis Bay population isn't supposed to range so far south (it's ~400km from Walvis), and bottlenose dolphins that have been seen there previously are thought to be vagrants from the offshore populations. ID will tell and hopefully the Luderitz locals can get us some usable photos.. i'll keep you informed.