Monday 29 December 2014

Reflections of a volunteer

“Hi Phoebe. We would be happy to have you join the team in Namibia for November and December”.

That was it. I was booking flights and on my way down to London to get my visa sorted. I arrived in Walvis Bay in early November.

Now, six weeks later, I am incredibly sad to be coming to the end of my volunteer time with the Namibian Dolphin Project. But instead of being sad, I’m going to try and give you an insight into my experience and why I’m already planning my return to this part of the world. To put it briefly I have fallen head over heels in love with Namibia, the people, the places, the food and of course the dolphins!

Before coming to Namibia I only had a small amount of marine research experience so the past 6 weeks have been a huge yet thoroughly enjoyable learning curve. In the Namibian Dolphin Project office at the Walvis Bay waterfront both Steph and myself are involved with the logistics and day-to-day management of the project, quite a unique experience and one that I believe to be incredibly valuable. In addition to this, learning dorsal fin photo ID skills, editing videos from previous field seasons and explaining the function of baleen to tourists has enriched my time significantly.

Working with the team in the office is fun, but for me the best part is getting out on the tour boats. There are a number of marine tour companies in Walvis Bay, all of whom take boats out on a daily basis to offer tourists the privilege of seeing Heaviside’s and Bottlenose dolphins in the wild, as well as Cape Fur Seals, maybe some whales and even the odd penguin. As volunteers we get to do this a few times a week! Every time we collect data on the location, number and activity of the dolphins we see and I can assure you that the novelty never wears off. Seeing bottlenose dolphins bow ride or Heaviside’s dolphins swimming underneath the boats for the twentieth time is just as exciting as the first.

But my time in Namibia has been made equally as memorable through the experiences had outside the office and dolphin boats. By meeting so many Namibians and South Africans, all of whom are immensely friendly, I have been able to stand on top of dunes that plummet straight into the sea at Sandwich Harbour, drive 4x4s along the beach to Pelican Point and to sit only metres from a lion roaring its head off at Erindi Game Reserve. Now, future interns, my advice to you – dive head first into the dolphin research, you will learn a huge amount but also take all opportunities you get offered, you will head home with some amazing memories!
Tonight we, and members of the Fisheries Observer Agency, are attending an end of year soirée hosted by the Albatross Task Force. Working with the Namibian Dolphin Project has been immensely rewarding for such a short period of time, it has exposed me to the inner workings of an international research project and has helped to direct my future plans, both academically and career based.

Friday 17 October 2014

October - Walvis Bay

by Tess Gridley

To many on the outside it may look like we have been keeping a low profile in Walvis Bay - have we been on holiday? Do we still care, where are Glen and Sara??? Others (those who don't hang out at the waterfront) probably haven't noticed we've been gone!

Well to provide a bit of an update, Simon and I (and Lucas, Glen and Alan) moved down to South Africa in July to start setting up a research station there - Sea Search. A large reason for the move was so that we can develop and maintain closer relationships with the key universities  (UCT and Pretoria) and set up an NPO which can help to finance research in both South Africa and Namibia. We've made important steps towards these aims, bought a big house to run research from and are expanding our research team and planning for a very productive 2015 both in  Namibia and for research in False Bay and along the Garden Route.

So although you may not have seen our faces around on the water too much recently,  We've been working 24/7 behind our computers writing grants, raising funds and awareness of issues affecting dolphins in Walvis Bay so that the coming years we can monitor Namibian populations and collect research data on a range of species. We've also published a few papers on our finding on bottlenose dolphin signature whistles and Namibian humpback whales, which will be available on the website.

We've also welcomed Dr Daniela Maldini to the Namibian Dolphin project and together with her husband Jon, they will be spending more time in Namibia over the coming months - so keep an eye out for them. .

- Highlights so far from our funding drive include:
Support from De Beers  to run Marine Education Day in 2015 in Walvis Bay
Support from the Walvis Bay Municipality for education materials for the Waterfront Environmental office
Three years of research funding from Nedbank Go Green to support dolphin monitoring in Walvis Bay (well, enough to keep the boat on the water for about 50 days a year, but there are a lot of other costs for research and we are still a long way off our target. Importantly - we still trying to get funds for local students and interns - but feeling positive about the future and what we have achieved so far....

We've also been attending the 3rd Large Marine Ecosystem and the 6th annual Benguela Current Commission meetings in Swakopmund and talking with UNam lecturers about student projects for next year and giving some courses there for the current undergrads.

No visit would be complete without getting a little stinky, and within 48 hours of being in Walvis we were conducting a necropsy on a dead Heaviside's dolphin calf and a few days later searching for a 4m stranded something on the way to Swakopmund..(which turned out to be a pygmy sperm whale which was reported drifting at sea in August.

So as you can see we've been busy and very much putting Walvis Bay at the top priority for our future research plans. We look forward to keeping you updated on your results and please remember to get in touch if you come across stranded animals!!

Friday 8 August 2014

Bryde's whale calf stranding and attempted rescue at Walvis Bay

Last Saturday (02 August 2014) a small whale was reported to have stranded alive at the Walvis Bay Salt works pump station. Many whales and dolphins have been recorded to strand there in the past. We think that the dead end nature of this corner of the bay, the shallow slope of the sea floor which makes the tide rise and drop very quickly and the many channels in the area confuse animals which might be trying to leave the bay by a direct westerly route. What this means is that many of the animals which strand here are often healthy and rescuable (most solitary whales and dolphins which strand tend to be sick, old or injured). Read more about this theory in Ruth Leeney's paper on pygmy right whale strandings in this area: Paper on the NDP website here

Sara Golaski, MSc student with the Namibian Dolphin Project coordinated rescue efforts and managed to get small team of local volunteers out to the pump station by 11am. The animal was assessed and although it looked rather emaciated it seemed strong and was also small enough at 5.7m long to be potentially rescued. After taking a skin sample for genetic analysis and a range of standard length measurements to ensure species ID, the animal was kept wet and cool with towels while the team waited for the tide to come in (their thick blubber layer and dark colouring means that whales can overheat quickly when out of the water). Local company T&T Marine provided a large ski boat to assist in the rescue. Once the tide was high enough the animal was rolled gently onto the rescue stretcher and manoeuvred into deeper water alongside the boat. The small whale (its sex still unknown) was held in the stretcher along side the boat and moved out into the middle of the bay in the hope that it would be able to navigate around Pelican Point. It's very hard holding a nearly 6m long whale (which could weigh as much as 3 tons) in a stretcher alongside a moving boat and the animal eventually wriggled free and swam off into the choppy sea.

Although the wet and exhausted team were all hopeful the animal had made it back out to sea, it was reported to Sara again on Sunday morning. With help from Margot Jefferson, Sara managed to get back out to the whale, but by early afternoon with the tide still out, the whale was looking very exhausted, breathing irregularly and in poor shape. Unable to get sufficient volunteers to help move the whale, the decision was made to let nature take it's course.

The whale was a juvenile Bryde's whale (Balaenoptera edeni) and is the 4th of this species to strand in Walvis Bay in the last 3 years (2 adults at Long beach at 2012 and 2013 and a calf at the pump station in 2012 - we have no records of the speies stranding here prior to that). Two genetically and physically distinct populations of Bryde's whales live off the coast of southern Africa, one offshore on the west coast which migrates from Southern Africa in summer up to the Equatorial regions in winter and a second smaller population which was  thought to live only on the Agulhas Bank off South Africa until one was found in Walvis Bay in 2012!  

The bites and scars on the whale are caused by cookiecutter sharks (with a little help from local seagulls reopening the wounds) which are thought to live only in the warmer waters beyond the Bengeula current. The freshness of these bites suggest that the animal must have moved in rapidly from deeper water, probably in the last few days. These bites are more common on offshore Bryde's whales but genetic analysis will confirm which population this animal belongs to in due course! 

We know so little about these pelagic whale species and strandings provide a very valuable information resource for scientists, like those at the Namibian Dolphin Project. Although rescue isn't always possible, the NDP has 2 stretchers to lift small dolphins and whales and does it's best to coordinate refloatation efforts.  We're a small team running on an even smaller budget and every bit of support helps - so please drop us a line or pop into our environmental office at the Walvis Waterfront if you're interested in being involved in the strandings network or can help out with equipment or funding. ( or 081 687 6461).  Learn more about research on this enigmatic species in South Africa at the SA Bryde's Whale Project Facebook site.

A big thank you to everyone who helped out with the rescue on Saturday, especially Margot Jefferson, Toya Louw and T&T Marine.

Monday 28 July 2014

An aside...a trip to Sandwich Harbour

By Barbara Laesser - NDP Volunteer 2014

My trip to Sandwich Harbour was a wonderful experience. The adventure started around midday and we got picked up by a very friendly tour guide. On our way to Sandwich Harbour we crossed a variety of landscapes including barren salt pans and hummock dunes. These little dunes were covered by some vegetation, which give shelter to all kinds of fascinating animals that have adapted to the harsh conditions found in a desert. After a very short period of time, our tour guide became very excited because in front of us were the beautiful golden sand dunes, which he called his ‘outdoor office’. We were told that these sand dunes have reached an age of around 1 million years. So they are very old! Driving up and down these dunes was fun and around lunch-time we decided to stop on top of one of the dunes, where we enjoyed an incredible view of sand dunes lining up next to the Atlantic Ocean. Seeing all this dramatic nature made us very hungry, but luckily we were served with some fantastic food and drinks. When the wind decided to pick up we quickly hopped back into the vehicle and continued our journey. But this time we were heading towards the beach to drive into Sandwich Harbour itself. Along the way we saw not only wind-sculptured dunes, heaps of cormorants and seals, but also the remainders of the traders and fishermen community. Further inside Sandwich Harbour we witnessed a fluffy white baby flamingo in-between some other flamingoes in the freshwater lagoon. When it was time to head home we drove along another dune chain that ended in some hummock dunes, where we were lucky to find a small group of springboks and two ostriches. That was great! All in all, it was a very lovely trip.  

Thank you so much Katja and Naude :)

Tuesday 10 June 2014

A wrap-up of two busy months in Luderitz 2014

By Sara Golaski - MSc student.

We’ve just finished up another busy couple months of fieldwork in Lüderitz, with lots of time on the water, and a few more interesting sightings!

During this year’s two-months in Lüderitz, we did 16 photo-id surveys (a total of 93 hours on the water) covering 868 kilometers. In total, we took 8595 ID photos!  The information from these surveys is being used to look at abundance, population trends and habitat use of Heaviside’s dolphins. We also did three multi-day ship surveys, a continuation of our work looking at cetacean distribution within the Namibian Islands Marine Protected Area. We covered a total of 2176 kilometers in our 171 hours on these surveys and had 58 cetacean sightings from the ship.


We also had five acoustic loggers in the water listening for dolphin clicks throughout the field season (see top map). This data will be used to examine temporal patters in fine-scale movements of Heaviside’s dolphins around Lüderitz. This is important to ground-truth our survey data for defining dolphin habitat because we aren’t out late in the day or at night.  

Fieldwork in Lüderitz is always exciting, because there are so many opportunities for Heaviside’s encounters and we really never know exactly what we’re going to find. Interesting sightings from this year include the southernmost sighting to date of the inshore bottlenose dolphins from Walvis Bay and the first sighting of fin whales inshore in Namibian waters! We also had 5 humpback whale sightings, including a feeding pair and a surface-active mom/calf pair. Humpbacks are usually seen migrating through between June and November, so these sightings are important for highlighting “out of season” use of this area. We even had a very rare sighting of southern right whale dolphins in the distance from the ship!

When we aren’t at sea we keep ourselves busy with office work too. Other accomplishments this field season include 1 paper submitted, 1 back from review and being corrected, 3 finished and with co-authors for comment.

A great big thank you to Jean-Paul Roux and Kolette Grobler at the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources and M&Z Motors for their support in making our field season possible.




Saturday 24 May 2014

Heaviside's dolphins - the little dolphin in Africa

Keeping blogs up to date is hard work!  So today I'm going to take a short cut and link you to a video about the dolphins we're working on here in Luderitz and Walvis Bay.  Heaviside's dolphins are the smallest dolphin in Africa and endemic to (i.e. found only in) the Benguela ecosystem on the west coast of Southern Africa.

Most people have never heard of them, let alone seen them - despite the fact that they are easily seen from shore right off the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town (which is about the southern limit of their range)!   So last year we were quite chuffed to get a little exposure for the dolphins and our project when it was featured on 50/50 - South Africa's leading conservation news television programme.

Videographer Zach Vincent spent a few days with us here in Luderitz last year and got some great footage of the animals which he combined with some footage shot with colleagues working on the animals in Cape Town

Check out the video here:

Saturday 10 May 2014

Luderitz field season 2014

by Simon Elwen

We're just over halfway through our Luderitz Field Season for this year. Always good to spend some time down here, even if it's quite a challenge getting 5 people, 1 dog, a baby, a boat and a car full of equipment all the way here in one piece. It's only 400 km in a straight line from Walvis to Luderitz, but we can't tow the boat over the dirt roads and have to take the ~1200 km tar road via Windhoek.

Unfortunately, this year my car didn't make it and just north of Keetmanshoop the cylinder head blew leaving me, the boat and the dog stranded!  Quite a mission getting everything the last 500km to Luderitz but we managed to do it and my car has been left in Keetmans awaiting a new engine ($$$ !!!).  Working without a car is a major challenge when you need to cart lots of equipment around town, launch and refuel boats etc etc. So my first priority at the beginning of April was to find a car to use.  Lots of phone calls and emails later and M&Z Motors came to our rescue by lending us a double cab Triton for the field season!  An absolute life saver and a HUGE thanks from all of us for the help while we await a new engine being delivered for my car.  Here are some pics of the Triton helping us load the boat down at the slip way:

The marine wildlife around Luderitz is fantastic and strikingly different to what we see up in Walvis Bay, despite being only 400km to the south.  There are several reasons for this, including the strength of the upwelling which happens down here creating a very rich and dynamic ocean and also that the continental shelf is much closer to shore here (about 30-40 km compared to over 100km in Walvis), so we tend to get more 'offshore' species here including large whales.  

We were lucky enough to have a group of fin whales (Balaeoptera physalus - the second largest species of animal in the world!) hanging around for a few weeks. We only encountered two of them twice from the small boat just off Luderitz but saw an even bigger group of 6 animals about a week after that during our first ship survey of the Marine Protected Area.  This is the time I've ever seen a fin whale and the first time anyone is aware of, of a sighting of this species close to shore in Namibia!  So a great sighting for all of us. No idea why they have been hanging around so close to shore, but very happy that they were.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

NDP Open Day - Community support great but corporate backing is still lacking...

By Tess Gridley:

Last week the Namibian Dolphin held a Fundraiser and Education Day at the Walvis Bay Waterfront.  We had several aims by holding these events - the first was to let people know who we are, what we are doing and where we are based.  We've been based at the Waterfront since July, and where we have a range of education information and material available freely to the public to view - but still most people aren't quite sure who we are or what we get up to.

The second was to invite all schools to an education event to increase awareness of Namibia's marine life. We've been meaning to run a big education event for a while and during the summer months is the best time as our fieldwork commitments are less.

And the last was to raise funds - primarily for Namibian students, office running and general research costs. This final aim is crucial for us. While Simon and I are employed through the University of Pretoria on a contract basis, we have to search hard for funds for the office and students and to conduct the research we think is important. Recently we have had some really great Namibian students approach and work with us (for instance see blog by Titus below). We would love to be in a position to offer these students paid internships or student bursaries, but at the moment we can only offer volunteer positions. This means that most students can't afford to work with us, as they need to find alternative paid work. Our long-term aim is that the project is run by local Namibians and getting these studentships is the first step towards achieving this.

We hoped that through running a fundraiser event we could inspire local businesses to support marine conservation and thereby secure some financial backing for the students, the environmental office, research or all three. Currently this has not come through and the search continues. On the up side though – the fundraising evening we held was fantastic. It was a sit down meal for 50 people, with music and games to boot – and was a lot of fun! We had support from NACOMA, Maersk and Nedbank – who all booked large tables and enjoyed the evening.



The Education Day on the Saturday was also a great success – over 150 children attended the event and there was a real buzz at the Waterfront. We had 10 stations set up - so children could learn about sounds in the sea, sharks, seabird conservation, ‘tools of the trade’ and see our collection of marine mammal skulls.  For the younger kids we also had face painting, arts and crafts and pelican viewing. All the volunteers that helped out on the day were wonderful and all the kids seemed to love the day. In fact, more than 70 ended their day with a trip to sea with Laramon tours, where they got to do some wildlife viewing - for those children who had never been to sea before this was a real treat.
So what did we learn from our busy weekend  - well mostly that the community in Walvis Bay really cares about the marine environment and wants to know more - but that we are going to have to work a little harder and shout a little louder if we want local businesses (particularly those that use the marine realm - Manica, Maersk, de Beers, the fishing companies etc, this means you!) to take note and support local conservation efforts… and on that note I'll get back to writing yet another funding application :-)

A HUGE thank you to everyone who helped out with the day, the event and with prizes:

Volunteer Support: Bex Russel, Margot Jefferson, Bridget, Sara, Marie, Justus, Cecelia, Tobias and Titus, the Albatross Task Force (Sarah Yates) and CETN (Peter Bridgeford & Sue Roux).

Venue supplied by Anchors Restaurant, Lindi Dreyer and Marti Behr

Printing costs supported by Printworx Swakopmund & the NACOMA project. Petra at PAKO MAgazine helped out designing some of the info sheets.  Mega-Stationers, Waltons and Herco all supplied some materials for the day.

Raffle Prizes by: AfriCat & Okonjima Lodge, Sun Sail Cruises, Levo Tours, Lyon Des Sables, Lemon Tree Deli, Mussel Cracker, Art Africa, Harbour’s End, Namib Offroad, Harbours End

Boat trips on the day by Laramon Tours

Ocean Adventures helped courier some of the kids to the event with their busses and Catamaran Charters provided a prize for the winning essay.