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.