Wednesday 7 November 2012

Mission: Hopefully Possible – recovering an (almost) lost C-Pod

By Aurora Nastasi:

In early July this year, we put a CPOD hydrophone down at Sandwich Harbour – the goal being to investigate how frequently bottlenose dolphins go into the lagoon there, compared to Walvis Bay where there are far more human impacts.  However, it’s a really challenging environment to put in a mooring for this type of instrument, as it’s very shallow, with a sandy bottom and lots of tidal movement.

Two weeks ago when we went back to recover the instrument (a mighty trip in it’s own right – taking 8 hours on the boat and >80L of fuel to cover the ~150km there and back) we discovered the buoy barely peeping above the surface. Over the 2.5 months that we left it down there, the entire mooring had become buried by the flood of sand that is moved every day by the tides. The power of Nanuuq’s 120 horsesbarely managed to pull the rope free, but couldn’t move even a centimeter of the weight or its blanket of sand, no matter what direction, no matter how tight the ropes were. Nanuuq had to surrender to the power of nature.

Mission impossible – Plan B. After much deliberation, we decided that the best way to rescue the CPOD was to drive to Sandwich Harbour along the beach as close as possible to the mooring, and to carry and small boat and diving equipment to dive it out. So last Friday, we (Simon, Nico and I) set off on our ‘mission impossible’ with the precious collaboration of Gert and Andries from Namib Diving and Marine Services.

Two 4x4 cars carrying all the proper equipment and a 4 m aluminum outboard with a 30 Hp engine left Walvis Bay towards the stunning dunes of Sandwich Harbor. Once there, surrounded by hundreds of birds and a couple of lazy seals, we quickly arranged our short sailing trip to the buoy to complete the mission as soon as possible in order to come back before the high tide would have obliterated any trace of the road we drove in on. Unfortunately, once on board we found out that the engine didn’t work properly (40km of bouncy beach driving isn’t great for engines it seems) and had to row all the way to the buoy. Simon dove and Nico snorkeled above him while Gert and Andries remained on board as support. In less than 5 minutes the rope was cut and the barnacle encrusted CPod was set free.

We were very happy to succeed in rescuing the CPod but a surprise which made our day even more special was about to come: on the way back to Walvis Bay, a group of at least 20 bottlenoses was slowly swimming (and maybe feeding) along shore, so close to the beach that we could have touched them if we had wished to. We grabbed the cameras and took as many photos as possible as there were many marked animals as well as moms and calves. The tide was arising fast and we had to go back very pleased for completing the C-Pod mission and to have had a further chance to meet dolphins from land…
Aurora :)




Tuesday 30 October 2012

Giving a talk in Windhoek tomorrow about some of our work this year in the Namibian Islands Marine Protected Area which was funded by the Nedbank Go Green fund of Namibia. 17h30 - 8th Floor, Mutual Tower

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Just say no to trash!

Nico and Aurora attend International Beach Clean up day for the Namibian Dolphin Project.

'Just say no to trash!': This is the first message coming from the Ocean Week that has started last Saturday. In fact, in spite of the cold and rainy morning, more than 100 Walvis Bay residents attended the Beach Cleaning Day, which was organised by the NACOMA project as the first event of the Ocean Week. In addition, there were representatives from the Army, press, the Ministry of Fishery, conservation projects (NDP, CETN) and lots of passionate school kids from elementary to high schools attending the event. It is particularly to the school childred that the message of 'Just say to no to Trash' is directed.

Under the banner of this message, Mrs. Sue Roux (CETN – Coastal Environment Trust of Namibia) welcomed all the participants in a crowded chamber at the Municipality and presented some of the terrible effects of pollution worldwide; yellow rivers, plastic seas and marine animals wrapped in nets or intoxicated by oil were some of the striking images shown. After the introductions, groups of children and adults spent their morning together cleaning the coastline of the town: from the pump station in the south to Langstrand in the north.

Each group was provided with gloves and recycling bags to sort glass, plastic, metal and paper. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) kilos and kilos of trash were collected: nets, clothes, cans, glass and plastic bottles, thousands of metal lids, cigarette' packs, tires, buoys, newspapers, toys, car windows, bricks, wires and much more were found along Walvis Bay beaches and lagoons. The very same areas used by jackals, flamingos and herons! Besides the amount of litter removed from the shores, one the most important goals of this event was to make as many people as possible aware that Namibian beaches are unfortunately not only made of sand and that trash has an high impact on everybody's life and on our Earth. Hopefully the kids who joined the event learnt that each one of us is responsible for his own trash, and that disposing of it in the proper way does make the difference... and in doing so, it won't be necessary to wake up early on Saturdays to clean beaches anymore!

A big thanks to the NACOMA project for organising this day as part of a global initiative.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Summary of our 2012 winter season in Walvis Bay

First off - a quick nod to Yamaha South Africa - who gave us a great deal on a set of 60HP four strokes this year making them (just) affordable to the project.  These new engines have allowed us to have more and longer sea days, use about 30% less fuel and range much further from home with great confidence. A good investment all round I'd say.

From 00:00 hours on the engines on 08 March 2012 to 309:00 hours today (06 Sept 2012)! All that with not a moments trouble (except for that time we kinked a fuel pipe, but that was entirely my fault, so lets not talk about that).  That's a lot of time on the water - so a big thanks to Yamaha SA for the help.

So - I'm not even going to summarise what we did in Luderitz this year just the 2 months here in Walvis Bay (perhaps next week).  This is the project's FIFTH winter here in Walvis and we have a great time series of data on Heaviside's and bottlenose dolphins and a growing body of data on humpback whales. Turning these thousands of photos, GPS points and pithy observations into scientific papers and hopefully some popular articles will be the focus of our next few months.

July 2012 - 
Team: Simon, Tess, Ryan Reisinger, Meagan Gary, Julie Coffey, Alex Sasso, Jeremy Day and Georgios Cambanis

- 19 sea days
- 16 with Heaviside's
- 9 with bottlenose
- 9 with humpback whales (a record in my experience here)
- 109:06 hours on the water (at an average of 05:44 per day)
- 966.2 km at sea.
~8600 photos taken!
Strandings: 1 dessicated Heaviside only

August 2012:
Team: Simon, Tess, Nico Tonachella, Aurora Nastasi, Meagan Gary, Julie Coffey, Sam Warnock, Alice Affatati and Sabrina Ergun

- 18 sea days (lots of bad weather unfortunately, so some short days but some much longer ones to compensate)
- 15 with Heaviside's
- 11 with bottlenose
- 5 with humpback whales
- 83:57 hours on the water (at an average of 05:48)
- 986.8km at sea.
~8400 photos taken.
Strandings: none (strangely)

So - remarkably similar months all round!

Here is where we went in the last two months, including our trip to Sandwich Harbour:
Each dot is recorded 1 min apart and so they represent what the boat was doing at any time
Yellow - Searching
Dark blue - Humpback whales
Bright blue - Heaviside's dolphins
Red - Bottlenose dolphins

Even at this level, habitat partitioning between the species is rather obvious.

You may notice that according to the marine navigation chart and Garmin chart plotter - our boat is in fact a hover craft.  Amazing how much the coastline changes down there as the sand dunes are eroded by the ocean.

A great big thank you for Tess and myself to Ryan, Nico and Aurora for helping keep things together! and especially a huge thank you to all the Oceans Research Interns for coming all the way to Namibia to help us out!

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Friendly whales

By Alex Sasso. Oceans Intern July 2012.

Tuesday was my best trip out on the boat yet and I think it will be very hard to top. It was a beautiful warm morning and immediately after launching we came upon a large group of bottlenose dolphins and worked with them for photo-ID and acoustics for about an hour. Then we made our way out to the point and got a report of humpback whales out at sea. We went to go check it out and found two humpback whales with a few tour boats. The whales seemed very relaxed and were moving slow and gracefully through the area. It was actually very simple to keep track of them because they were only traveling at about 2 knots and stayed on the same course. I kept track of their breathing rate so we knew about every 4-5 minutes they would be resurfacing. We got great photo ID pictures of their dorsal fins (“Flatty” and “Hook” were how we distinguished the two animals) and one decent shot of a fluke. We stayed with the whales for a while and they soon became curious about our boat and the surrounding tour boats. They would surface in front of the tour boats repeatedly, as if to check them out and have their picture taken by the tourists. They even spy hopped a few times, which was really cool. You could see all the barnacles surrounding their mouth. Then they came to visit our boat. They swam directly in front of us. We could see them just under the water and they surfaced only 1-2 meters from our boat. It was incredible and probably only lasted about 20 seconds, but it is 20 seconds of my life I will never forget. To have the opportunity to see such graceful and giant creatures, whom I’ve loved and dreamed of studying my entire life swim within a few arm lengths from me was an experience of a lifetime. 

Once the tour boats left, we stayed with the whales to collect biopsy samples. Simon did the shooting with the biopsy crossbow, while wearing a GoPro on his head (kind of like a nerdy Rambo, still very cool though).), and we got great samples from both animals. The animals had little to no reaction to the biopsy dart, which we were happy about because they were such friendly whales and we really didn’t want to make them upset. After our work was done, I drove the boat home for the first time. It was simple because the water was calm, thankfully! Overall the day was a phenomenal experience and one I hope all future interns with have the opportunity to experience as well. 

Wednesday 8 August 2012

By Julie Coffey, Oceans Intern July & Aug 2012.

This week in Walvis Bay has been full of  unique and exciting encounters at sea. I got my first good look at a Mola mola (sunfish) on Tuesday. You can spot one by its fin lifting out of the water- this one  was about a meter wide and we got some great pictures as he floated just under the surface, they're remarkably boat friendly!

In the office we've been working on photo identification, acoustics analysis, and entering new data. The acoustics data is quite interesting to explore, as you can hear the various whistles and clicks of the dolphins in addition to seeing the representation of sounds well beyond the range of human hearing. Today we were presented with a misty morning on the Namibian coast, but decided to head out despite the lower visibility. We encountered some Heaviside's dolphins by the point but were rewarded further by a humpback whale sighting. After hanging back so the tour boats could enjoy, we followed along parallel to the two adults. To determine the most probable spot of the next surfacing, we timed the intervals of their blows as they travelled. It was truly amazing to be so close to such giant, beautiful creatures! I'd only ever seen whales from a commercial whale watching boat before, but being in such close proximity on Nanuuq was a different experience entirely! I imagine that the thrill I felt as we crested swells in pursuit of the whales must have been similar to what the early whalers experienced. Sentimentality aside, Simon managed to get a good shot at one of the whales so we got our first tissue sample of the day. At some point we managed to swap whales and found ourselves a new individual, but after getting a few photos of him, he headed North along his migratory path and we were back with our original duo. We got another tissue sample from the second whale and then called it a day. 

Monday 6 August 2012

Breaching humpback whales

By Meagan Gary, Oceans Intern July and August 2012.

This past week has been an exciting week for everyone a part of the Namibian Dolphin Project. On Tuesday, we were on our way to Sandwich Harbour (60km south of Walvis by boat), to set up a C-Pod (a device that will record data about the echolocation clicks for months at a time) to record bottlenose dolphin presence down there.  Unfortunately, due to poor weather conditions we aborted after only heading about 10km down the coast as we need really good weather to make it that far and back safely. However, this ended up being a good decision on many levels. 

While we were photographing a very boat-friendly group of Heaviside’s dolphins, a humpback whale was spotted breaching on the horizon. Humpback whale data is important to the Namibian Dolphin Project because the population structure of the humpback whales seen in Namibia isn’t fully understood. The whales that pass by Walvis Bay are on their way north, probably to Gabon, but possibly to a breeding area slightly further south. This has been a very good year for humpback whale sightings in Namibia, but because there are usually only one or two a day, and it can take over an hour to get the data we need (biopsy for a skin sample and photo ID images), each and every whale counts. The humpbacks that pass by Namibia tend not to breach as often as the humpback whales in other parts of the world. When whales breach they can lose bits of skin which can be collected and used for genetics, saving us from having to biopsy the whale. As we approached we saw two humpback whales flipper slapping and breaching.  It was spectacular to see from the perspective of our 6m long boat, small by comparison. By the end of the encounter we had over a hundred photos for photo ID and two biopsy samples. It was a great last day for the interns that stayed only for July. The next couple days were filled with training for the August intern teaching them how to take advantage of some of these unexpected opportunities to collect data. 

Thursday 19 July 2012

By Alex Sasso, interning with us for July from Eckerd College in Florida, USA - a few words about their trip to Sossusvlei:

The last five days have been very adventurous and exciting for us interns here at the Namibian Dolphin Project. Over the weekend the six of us traveled to Sossusvlei, which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Namibia. Basically it is a valley surrounded by extremely large red dunes and when there are heavy rains the valley will fill with water, but rain is unusual so it’s very special when there is actually rain in the valley or “vlei”. It was an absolutely breath taking and amazing sight and I encourage anyone to make the trip.

We rented a car, well a 10 passenger van to be exact (we called it “The Beast”) and made the long 6 hour journey on washboard dirt roads. It was very cool to watch the Namibian landscape change as we left Walvis Bay. The scenery changed from desert to grassland and some mountains, to mountains, to grasslands with lots of mountains. We also saw some awesome African wildlife along the road such as Springboks, Oryx and Ostriches, seriously who needs to pay to go on a safari? About 5 hours into the trip we arrived in Solitaire, which is the only place to get gas and any type of food. There is a bakery next to the gas station owned by a man named “Moose” and he makes delicious pastries and bread! Definitely get the apple pie or blueberry crumble! When we arrived at Sossusvlei we got a campsite at Sesriem. That day we walked through this canyon that has some great rocks and small ledges to climb! That night we made a fire and cooked ourselves dinner and attempted to make s’mores (good marshmallows and graham crackers are not easily found in Africa). Sleeping in the tents was an experience as the wind was extremely strong all night and sand covered us in our sleep. Then in the morning on our way out of our campsite to go into the Sossusvlei park our van got stuck in the sand (hmm renting a 4x4 probably would have been a better idea). After about an hour and a half of waiting to get pulled out of the sand, we were free and on our way to finally see the Sossusvlei and it was definitely worth all the trouble.
When we returned back to Walvis Bay we were welcomed back to warm weather thanks to the east wind! Finally we could break out the shorts and t-shirts instead of the usual layers of sweaters, gloves and hats! 

George Cambanis is interning with our project for the month of July.  He's from Greece and currently studying in Chicago, USA.

1 week in Walvis Bay…

The life we have been experiencing during the past week is an academic but also a social life, its novel even though we are all gradually becoming habituated with our daily lives and most importantly entertaining while everyone is at the same time serious about the project.  Simon and Tess divided us-newcomers into two subgroups, composed of three interns each. Our daily schedule dictates that we execute our scientific research early in the morning and once we have gathered our facts, we then “digitalize” them, that is, upload them into the computers used by the Namibian Dolphin Project in our comfy office in the Flamingo Cottages. Usually, one of the teams will research offshore in its quest for dolphin species and other marine mammals while the other team will examine different coastal areas of Namibia.

Our research is centered on dolphins. We therefore, photograph all of our “encounters” and try to photographically identify them once back in the office. We also examine their habitat and record everything we deem valuable, ranging from an unusually high concentration of jellyfish which can be the outcome of a potentially underlying important cause to the number of tour-boats we come across. Spending time with bottlenoses and Heaviside’s dolphins we come to realize and appreciate the uniqueness of every animal.

To a further extent, every day adds to an emerging familiarity with the environment of Namibia itself. Looking for stranded animals, observing the magnificent kingdom of birds that fills the sky and using our hydrophone to listen to the “signature whistles” of dolphins we are gradually coming to terms with the harmony and magnificence of Namibian’s wildlife.

All in all, what has been offered to us is a fulfilling “life-activity”. Whether it is the observation of an anatomical operation of petrels or the knowledge that the project results in an accumulation of novel scientific data, we fill satiated, engaged and excited. More to come. Best, George Cambanis. 
July 2012

The project is back in Walvis Bay, where we will be running two months of intensive field work to match our previous 4 years of data.  It's going to be busy so blog updates will be unpredictable.  Keep checking!


Tuesday 26 June 2012

By Hazel Tan - Oceans Intern June 2012.

We started out on a beautiful warm day with low wind and a glassy calm sea. It may be our last day out at sea in Luderitz and what a day it was! The sea was so clear we could see the sea floor which was 7m deep, perfect conditions for sighting animals from far away. We surveyed 30 or so Heaviside's dolphins feeding for a long time while enjoying their aerial acrobatics before moving on.

 Before long, while we were with 3 Heaviside dolphins for an encounter, off in the distance we saw a breaching humpback whale about 500m away! South of Guano bay. I only saw the splash but my heart was pounding with anticipation of my first humpback whale sighting. The dolphin encounter was immediately wrapped up, loose items put away, everyone prepared for the pursuit (humpback whales are still relatively rare in Namibian waters, so data is very precious to the project). We sped towards the whales and inched closer once they were within 50m away. They were cruising along at about 6kn and though they were no longer breaching, were a magnificent sight. There was no time to lose, photographs were taken for identification, trying our best to capture both their dorsal fins and flukes. I was busy preparing the biopsy arrows, fingers fumbling with cold and the wind snatching at plastic bags. It was adrenaline pumping and we had a limited time frame before the whales would be too harried and stressed. Luckily we managed to sample both the whales and have all the photographs.


Despite the initial lovely weather, a fog bank rolled in and we left the humpback whales soon after. Books hardly prepare you for the live sighting of animals. Especially when they are of sizes so large it is difficult to visualise. I have come to the end of my internship with the Namibian Dolphin Project and my time here was so full of new experiences it often was a struggle to keep it together, do well and have fun at the same time. However I have learnt so much that it has been a lovely time. From acoustic analysis to proper photo identification and data management. Hands on working on the boat and good handling of equipment. These skills I hope to hone and work on in time to come and I'm so grateful for the NDP for the opportunity. With the many friendships forged with people from different nationalities, it is sad that the time has come where we are going to leave Luderitz on the 28th and the NDP will be moving on to Walvis Bay.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

The NDP goes to Cape Town for the AMMC

By Sara Golaski:

At the end of May, we traveled to Kleinbaai, South Africa for the second African Marine Mammal Colloquium. This was my first ever trip to Africa and I only I had been an intern for just under a month at this point.  I was so excited to learn more about research beyond just what we were working on in Namibia.  On the way, we stopped at the Fish River Canyon and camped at Ai Ais National Park so the trip was an amazing opportunity to see more of the beautiful Namibian countryside. It was also my first chance to see many of the region’s animals that I had never seen before. Once in South Africa, the landscape was colder and lusher than the Namibian desert, but was just as gorgeous. As we got nearer to Kleinbaai, I could tell by the signs around town that we were entering an area known for its whales. Sure enough, we stopped along the coast to sightsee a few times upon spotting whale blows amid the stunning scenery. 
The conference was lovely and small, and I learned a lot. I was a little nervous about being at such a small conference and being just an intern, but everyone was friendly and welcoming, and I was certainly not the only one from far away. It was nice to chat with people about the work they were doing in other places, and about what we were working on with the Namibian Dolphin Project. During the conference, there were talks throughout the morning, but in the afternoons, there were other things to do as well. One afternoon, at the end of a strandings workshop, they announced that there was a recently stranded Bryde’s whale calf. We went to take measurements and then did a full necropsy the next day. 
On the last day of the conference, we got to go out on a boat to see the white sharks that Kleinbaai is famous for and that evening, we had a drumming workshop. Everyone at the conference either learned to drum or showed off their skills, before enjoying a braai. On the way back from Kleinbaai, we stopped for a few days in Cape Town, and I had time to explore one of the coolest cities I’ve ever been to. In all, it was a wonderful trip and I’m very grateful that I had the chance to go.

Monday 11 June 2012

NIMPA Surveys IV

by Tess Gridley:

The !Anichab had some gearbox problems a few weeks ago (before we left for Cape Town) and unfortunately it's still not fixed..

So while she's out of action, we’ve had a few weeks to process data and produce some preliminary results from the initial NIMPA surveys. It's great to see the data taking shape.  Over 13 days and 5 nights out on the seas, we’ve had almost 200 sightings, of which the majority are dusky and Heaviside’s dolphins, as well as plenty of African penguins! On the more unusual list, we’ve had several out of season humpback whales spotted, along with minke whale and sei whales.  The hydrophone has been doing us well, with 36% more dolphin detections made possible by surveying at night and 12% from surveying in poor weather. Considering that we try not to go out in poor weather, this is pretty good going.  

This is a long term project, so we’re hoping over time that the maps will build up and we will get a good idea of where animals are, how many there are and seasonal differences in distribution.  I’m also interested in using the recordings to look at dolphin communication so we are now carefully analysing the files in details finding dusky dolphin burst pulses and whistles (so far only a handful) which may be used in communication or feeding  contexts... As always, watch this space for updates on our findings!

Thursday 7 June 2012

Right whales!

We had a lovely warm east wind afternoon on Monday with almost no swell - perfect for surveying long distances on an exposed coastline.  So we headed up northwards, following the course taken by the bottlenose dolphin groups we've encountered twice already and hugging the coastline as far as Boat Bay, about 30km north of Luderitz town.  No bottlenose dolphins, but more Heaviside's dolphins than we were expecting, and a great sighting of a solitary southern right whale, right up against the dunes!

   The ID photos we took will go towards the Namibian catalogue managed by Jean-Paul Roux. This catalogue was recently matched to the South African one and showed a lot of matches (as one might expect), which means that animals seen here and in SA are all part of one big and growing population.  We ended at Boat Bay, which I've never visited before. A really beautiful spot where massive sand dunes come right down to the sea. Impossible to do it justice with a camera!

Friday 25 May 2012

Fun in the sun in Luderitz

By Shannon Hampton - UCT PhD student current helping us out in Luderitz.

I have been in Lüderitz, the land of endlessly blue skies, for 10 days today. It is turning out to be an experience quite unlike any other I have had. After a ridiculously early flight from Cape Town to Windhoek and then on to Lüderitz I stepped off the plane and into the startlingly bright sunlight of Namibia. Sara, an intern from the USA and I were met by Dr Tess and driven into the town that we will call home for the next two months. Tess even organised a black backed jackal sighting en route! J
The very next day we were off to sea on the RV !Anichab for an overnight survey. I boarded the boat with some trepidation, it is smaller than the research vessel I am used to, and that defeated me in bad weather. The blue skies and sunshine distracted me a little from feeling apprehensive about sea sickness, while we searched the ocean for dolphin, whale and penguin sightings. We were rewarded by seeing all three, although I struggled to identify what had made the far-off splashes there were dusky and Heaviside’s dolphins and a whale of some sort (possibly a minke whale). Although we weren’t counting them, we also saw plenty of seals, albatross, skuas and petrels. It was sometimes difficult to tear my eyes away from a soaring albatross to scan the ocean for dolphins.
Despite being absolutely freezing, it was great to be outside on deck and, when the sun was shining and I was on a break, to curl up in a warm spot on the deck. Tess and Simon were sympathetic of my weak sea legs and let us get some sleep while they stayed up through the night to keep everything going. We were all up to welcome in a gorgeous dawn near Mercury Island. It is a rock of penguins, Bank cormorants and gannets. It is gorgeous!

The excitement didn’t end when we got back to Lüderitz. This was the first time I had been involved in the photo identification of dolphins, and I can’t imagine how they manage to get such clear photos of the dorsal fins from animals that are moving so fast and appear to be everywhere at once. On that note, it is pretty amazing to be where there are dolphins everywhere at once. We had a special guest in our team this week, the photographer, Thomas Preschak, is in town and he joined us on some small boat surveys. I have admired his previous work and it was fantastic to get to meet him and to see a professional photographer in action. It was also nice to have someone agree with me that sardines are pretty amazing. I haven’t managed to convince the dolphinologists of this… yet.

Everyday seems to bring new experiences and challenges (by the end of the two months I am sure that I will be able to get off that boat with grace and ease and carry 20L of petrol without my arms burning) but for the day we had yesterday will be hard to top. We were at sea before dawn, there was barely any wind and the sun was just peaking over the sand dunes. Almost immediately we came across a huge group of dusky dolphins. Unfortunately, they seemed to be the only animals active on a morning where everything was in a lazy calm. We even came right up to a black-browed albatross and it didn’t trouble to itself to move away. Even the wind was too lazy to blow in the afternoon so we were able to head out again in the afternoon. In theory this trip was to put hydrophones in the water, but before we could do that we came across bottlenose dolphins. There were a group of about 20 individuals, including the most adorable and tiny calves. We followed them into the sunset and only the fading light made us turn away. Obviously, we were doing important scientific research on their behaviour and not just enjoying the magical evening at sea. It is hard to imagine what else can happen to top that, but I am willing to wait and see.