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.

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