January 8, 2012
December 7, 2011
POSITIVE: I feel that MCSS does a great job as an NGO and ecotourism organization. MCSS has a few elements in their favor: the Seychelles are one of the lesser known whale shark aggregation sites and only one organization in the country provides whale shark ecotourism tours exclusively. Compared to other global aggregations, this puts the odds more in the Seychellois whale shark’s favor that they endure the encounter significantly less disturbed. There is not a queue of boats, groups of impatient tourists to please, and boat operator’s competitive motivation clouding their judgment when maneuvering in the shark inhabited waters. The fact that the whale shark encounters pay for themselves instead of needing funding like other NGO projects is an indication of its success as an ecotourism NGO.
One of most positive aspects of MCSS that exemplifies whale shark ecotourism is the fact that research is conducted while customers are swimming. Ecotourism is always a tricky balance between the customers and the environment, and when animals are the focus of trips it adds another element to complicate that balance. Before clients are allowed to swim with the whale sharks they are given a briefing on things like a history of whale sharks in the Seychelles, threats to whale sharks now, the research MCSS carries out, boat operations, and taught the code of conduct so clients can be safe and not disturb the whale sharks. Even though MCSS is the only organization to run formal whale shark encounters, the whale shark code of conduct is shared with other dive centers and organizations that might have a lucky interaction with whale sharks too.
Because interns pay to assist with the all the research and tourism aspect a lot more information can be processed and customers can be helped. Also, the MCSS whale shark program is unique in that is has regular aerial monitoring to assist with the research and boat encounters. Tours run 7 day a week and so on a regular whale shark encounter day data is collected about:
- locations of whale sharks and other fauna in the mornings and afternoons
- photo ID of each whale shark
- length, sex, scars, and other fauna surrounding whale shark
- whale shark behavior from the air, the boat, and with clients in the water
- plankton samples from within and outside the feeding area
- visibility of the water
- conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water column
What makes MCSS whale shark encounter tours ideal is that customers are getting the experience they paid for, whale sharks suffer minimal disturbance, and each year the program runs, more information is being collected and shared about whale sharks which will have a positive impact for whale sharks in the long run.
NEGATIVE: If there was an area I could argue where MCSS could improve its ecotourism is by using more local help. MCSS operates through the Dive Seychelles Underwater Center, which does a great job hiring Seychellois employees. Essentially all the staff at the Underwater Center are from the Seychelles Islands. International volunteers come to the Underwater Center to do Dive Master internships so the duty of leading dives and briefing customers falls partially to those interns, but for the most part the Dive Center hires locally. MCSS has two full time Seychellois staff but the director, program coordinator, and research assistants are all from the U.K. It’s very understandable to hire outside help if experts can’t be found locally, but maybe MCSS could do a better job turning more locally to fill the annual internship opportunities. When it comes to MCSS running whale shark encounters, usually the only locals who participate are the boat skippers; the interns and MCSS staff are all from other parts of the world.
True and ideal ecotourism would provide jobs to directly benefit local people, bring tourists in to experience a different culture, preserve the location or animal being visited, and directly benefit communities. MCSS is heavily involved with local schools to promote marine conservation through contests, lectures, and work attachment programs. So overall, I was very pleased with the way MCSS balanced all the elements of ecotourism and was proud to contribute what I could as an intern.
December 2, 2011
During my time with MCSS I was able to get involved with other projects beyond the whale shark internship I applied for. This was partly due to the fact that the whale shark season in the Seychelles peaked early and so the latter end of the internship had significantly less sharks. Ultimately that meant I had more free time to assist MCSS with their other projects. October to January is the peak nesting season for Hawksbill sea turtles, however Green turtles nest on the shores of the Seychelles year round. A number of high activity level beaches are monitored three times a week during this three month period. There is not an established turtle internship in the same the way the whale shark internship exists, but turtle monitoring this year was assisted by Maritime work attachment students, high school students from the International School, and a few of us willing whale shark interns. There were two full weeks of whale shark training before we got in the water with them, but when I did the turtle monitoring I was given a quick briefing on turtle procedures on the beach right before we went out.
One of the goals for the turtle monitoring project is to assess the beaches with the most turtles and at the highest risk (of poaching, inadequate foraging sites, costal development, etc.) so a protected areas project can be implemented. If the MCSS is able to choose and defend which beaches should be protected then they can get grant money to fund their protected areas project. The whale shark program does not carry out research specifically to establish protected areas for whale sharks. Right now MCSS is trying to understand 1. when the sharks come, 2. where they come from, 3. where they go when they leave, and 4. if they return to the Seychelles. The whale shark was the flagship species that inspired Dr. Rowat to create MCSS and is still his pride and joy. The turtle monitoring project is only beginning to flesh itself out as another full-scale seasonal responsibility the MCSS will tackle. On top of sea turtle monitoring, MCSS routinely studies the endangered terrapins located more inland on the island of Mahe.