Me getting in position to photo ID a whale shark

January 8, 2012

Presentation on my Internship!

As part of my Biology Internship credit requirement, and partly because my internship was awesome... the UVU Biology Department invited me to be one of the speakers for their seminar series on January 27th @ noon in PS 115. I will basically just be telling about my MCSS whale shark internship. Feel free to come and see what I did last semester and the whale shark work Dr. David Rowat and his NGO, the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles, carries out. Some of the work and research I participated in will be used for my Integrated Studies Capstone project.

December 7, 2011

Journal entry 7

I'd like you to reflect on the "ecotourism" aspect of the Whale Shark encounters. Discuss a particular example that exemplifies the most positive aspects of ecotourism and another example that exemplifies the less than ideal situation. What are the goals of ecotourism? What could the project do to further these goals?

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

Journal entry 6

Compare the turtle monitoring project and whale shark project in terms of types of questions addressed, use of volunteers, organizational structure, etc. (whatever is relevant).

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.

October 25, 2011

Journal entry 5

*aerial monitoring project

A few weeks ago I met with Dr. David Rowat (MCSS Chairman) and Laura Jeffreys who is out here with the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles for the next 4 years doing her PhD on human impact of animal's behavior (namely whale sharks and turtles I think???). David said there were two "projects" I could chose from and focus on that for the next 6ish weeks I'd be out here.

1. MCSS is trying to learn what "normal" whale shark behavior is i.e. what whale sharks do when people aren't looking. David collected the initial data using a microlight aircraft to get aerial data. The pilot speaks into a dictaphone for 5 minutes and says exactly what the whale shark is doing during those 5 minutes. Then he wants to get aerial monitoring of how whale shark responds to boats (15 m away, 10 m away, 5 m away, etc), how they respond to people (15 m away, 10 m away, 5 m away, etc), and how they respond to certain numbers of people in the water. He'll compare that to the null record of just "normal" whale shark behavior swimming around. On top of that David is getting "daily diaries" which is a type of satellite tag that allows the computer to reconstruct every move the shark made (depth, temperature, and a lot of other stuff I'm not too sure on) within a 24 hour period. He'll compare the data on the daily diaries of specific shark movement with people or boats in the water.

2. Looking at the tourist perspective of whale shark ecotourism in the Seychelles, via surveys that have been filled since 2008 (?). I would look at surveys and pay particular attention to people who were dissatisfied with the encounter and people who said they didn't get their money's worth and look back and see if those were days that thee weren't any whale sharks spotted during the encounters. And again run different numbers through the SOCPROG computer program and see if there is any statistical significance to them. This would be important to do because the tourist component of ecotourism is essential and if there is something the MCSS whale shark program needs to change or improve, it would be good to figure it out soon.

So after the initial meeting and emailing my faculty advisors, I decided to go ahead with the aerial monitoring idea. Since I've been out here, I've realized whale shark research is where my interest is, not whale shark ecotourism. I didn't realize the distinction before. MCSS does a good job balancing the two, but it was explained to me that project 1 (aerial monitoring) focused more on whale sharks and project 2 (questionnaires) focuses more on people/ tourists. I got really good input from my faculty advisors who prompted me to consider long-term academic/ professional goals and do what I find more interesting. Also to look ahead 10 years and try to picture myself working with the animal part of the tourist part of ecotourism. And also with either focus I will still be learning something about eoctourism. Something else I like about this project is that it is so long term and something that hasn't been properly looked at or studied in depth yet

With only the 6 weeks I had there wasn't a lot I could do with the actual experiments since those are a few years down the road, so I'm helping out with the transcribing recordings, formatting them in Excel, and doing my best to analyze some of it. I've been looking at the 130ish dictaphone recordings that MCSS already has from 2005 and 2006 and figuring out the best way of converting whale shark behavioral analyses into actual numbers to play around with. (by "whale shark behavior" I mean if the whale shark is swimming or diving or turning or banking or feeding, etc). Right now the dictaphone encounters have been transcribed on excel spread sheets and the numbers they use are based on "time"-- so how many seconds the whale shark behaves that certain way. For now I haven't thought of better way to convert whale shark behavior into a numeral value. The I have to keep reminding myself is that the end goal for me is to make the behavior data analyze-able. Once we figure that out, MCSS can start analyzing the data with the SOCPROG computer program (or by other means not discussed yet) and get some initial stats of "normal" whale shark behavior. I've added certain whale shark behavior like banking and ascending that wasn't included before when another intern transcribed the 2005 and 2006 data, but everything else I've kept consistent and and matching her format.

October 12, 2011

Journal entry 4

Last Saturday (October 8th) it was raining like crazy in the morning, which is something I've started getting used to by now. But it meant I was expecting a slow day. The morning was fairly typical in that we processed all the data from our whale shark encounters the day before. Then in the afternoon... WE GOT TO TAG BABY LEMON SHARKS! There is a conservation volunteer group called Global Vision International (GVI) that has a base camp on the south of Mahe (the island I'm on). MCSS and GVI have a functional relationship; as a matter of fact, three of the MCSS interns completed a phase with GIV previously. So someone from GVI sent word to MCSS that there were 5 baby lemon sharks in the mangroves by the GVI camp. One of our MCSS staff is trained to tag sharks, so all of us whale shark interns were able to go attend and participate in the process. The first order of shark tagging business was to spot and catch them. We had two advantages 1. The GVI volunteers knew where the sharks were and 2. It was low tide. We tromped through the mangroves and spread out a net starting at the mangrove and extending it to the open ocean, then slowly brought the net closer together.
I was on the pivot end of the net so I didn't move; I just stood there in the water with the fishing net. We were so lucky in that, one after one, the baby lemon sharks just started swimming straight into the net! Two of them got tangled in the net and had to be maneuvered out. We were able to catch three of the five sharks spotted. They were put in coolers and brought to the beach to be tagged. The shark was flipped upside down so it went into a state of tonic immobility and therefore not aware of the rest of the tagging process. Then an incision was made, an acoustic tag was placed inside, and then the shark was sutured, all while still being upside down.
The spaghetti tags were too big for little sharks, so that is why the acoustic tags were used. There are acoustic receivers set up along certain bays and coastlines of Mahe, so when tagged sharks, rays, or other fish pass by, the receiver picks up on the acoustic tag. This helps MCSS and other scientists understand where these animals travel, if they come in certain bays, and if they ever return once they leave the area. Only two of the lemon sharks were tagged because the third shark seemed too stressed but all three sharks were successfully returned to the water as soon as we were finished with them. These little baby sharks were incredible! All of them were only about a foot and a half long. Later we found out these were sharptooth lemon sharks which are considered more vulnerable than other lemon sharks. It was an overall great day.

Yesterday we went back to try and tag the other baby lemon sharks, but after a lot of waiting, wading, baiting, and rain, we had to call it a day. Also, since the tide was coming in during our attempt, the current was flowing the wrong way to entice the sharks to the net and the deeper water just seemed to make everything much more difficult. However, one of the bait fish did have a perfect little bite mark taken from it that could have very well been from a sneaky lemon shark hiding in the mangrove.

Today since there were still no whale sharks seen in the area we went to go retrieve the acoustical receivers (Vemco VR2Ws) at the mouth of Baie Ternay. We had a GPS location for each receiver and they were placed shallow enough to snorkel to. We were only able to find one of the three acoustical receivers this afternoon because the visibility was awful. The receiver was replaced with another one and the data from the retrieved receiver will be downloaded here at MCSS. So even though we haven't been able to be on as many whale shark encounters as hoped, it's still always busy at MCSS and there are plenty of projects to get involved with.

Journal entry 3

Last week an environmentally responsible conservation tourism group called Aqua-Firma joined MCSS for our whale shark encounters for the week. On the evening of Sunday October 2nd, Dr. David Rowat gave a lecture at the Sun Resort to the Aqua-Firma clients about MCSS and whale shark conservation in the Seychelles. Afterwards the interns and pilots got to mingle with the Aqua-Firma clients over Sun Coco pizza. Towards the end of the week, the weather finally permitted us to take the Aqua-Firma clients out on a whale shark encounter. The cloud conditions created a perfect window of time for our trip, and what an incredible trip it was! We were able to snorkel with three different sharks over a series of seven encounters. Two of the whale sharks were estimated at about 5 meters while the other shark was around 7 meters. When the photo ID shots were run through the I3S database that identifies individuals, two were returning whale sharks (last seen in 2003 and 2009) and one shark was brand new to the area. That encounter trip was one of our best this season, and both Aqua-Firma and MCSS were privileged to enjoy snorkeling with these amazing animals.

What also made this Aqua-Firma encounter trip one of my personal favorites was that I spotted a manta ray in the water during the whale shark encounter-- or at least that's the story I'm sticking to. I was in the water with some of our Aqua-Firma clients "spotting" the whale shark (meaning I was with the shark directing the clients and boat with my arm which direction the whale shark was moving). All of the clients were behind me so it was basically just the whale shark and I in the area. I struggled to keep up with the shark's steady swimming with my hand in the air, but the whale shark found a thick patch of plankton. I quickly lost sight of the shark because the visibility was so bad. While my head was still in the plankton-rich water I started to make out the shape of a strange white eerie thing. It honestly just looked like a weird crumpled white thing. I could just barely see the shape because the water was so murky with the plankton, but I suddenly realized it was the cephalic lobes of a manta ray! It must have been there feeding on the plankton too, but as soon as I realized what it was, the shape has disappeared. Soon afterwards I was joined by the Aqua-Firma clients and I excitedly told everyone I just saw a manta. So far this season I have been lucky enough to see two manta rays from the boat, but not until that moment had I been able to realize I had been swimming with a manta too. That whale encounter trip ended up being our most successful for the clients and the most fulfilling for me because I had the opportunity to swim with whale sharks and see a manta ray in the water!

September 29, 2011

Journal entry 2

The MCSS has had a slow 2011 whale shark season. The official season is September 1st- October 31st however whale sharks are seen before and after those dates. In September we were only able to take clients on the boat for 10 days out of the entire month. Us interns have been able to go out on the boat a bit more, but it hasn't been everyday. Even before the season started there were two fatal shark attacks on a different island in the Seychelles, which initially had MCSS worried that would affect the amount of tourists wanting to swim with whale sharks. Even though whale sharks are plaktivores are harmless, the idea of swimming with a sharks after sharks attacks is never good for business.
However, the greatest challenge our whale shark encounters has faced has been the weather and the plankton. Because the Seychelles are situated around the equator, they lie in an Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), better known as the "doldrums" to sailors. Basically it has something to do with the trade winds from the northern and southern hemisphere colliding and rising at the equator which creates more clouds, more rain, etc. It used to be that the ITCZ was shaped like a band that would move the storms northwest across the islands half the year, and then move the band southeast across the islands the other half of the year so that for the most part there were noticeably wetter and dryer seasons (however since the islands are very mountainy the island does tend to create it's own weather sometimes) but now instead of a "band" of weather, it's shaped more more like "whisps" or "fingers" so the stupid clouds will pass over the island and it will rain, then the clouds will pass it will be sunny, then in the same day it'll rain again when the clouds pass over again. When it rains our microlight pilot can't get up and without the aerial support it's usually not worth the trip out with clients.

But rainy weather hasn't been the only whale shark problem. We've had awesome clear days where the microlight pilot has been able to go up but he just hasn't spotted any shark. So what does this mean? Where are the whale sharks! Well, GVI (another volunteer organization) has been doing plankton tows to measure the amount of plankton in the water. And they do plankton tows at 5 m, 10, m and 15 m below the surface, so they can measure the amount of plankton in that entire part of the water column. This plankton tow is something I was able to do last week as well, and it requires a lot of muscle power! The plankton levels haven't been too unusual for this time of year. But whenever we've done our plankton tows, which we only do surface plankton tows, we were coming up with low levels of plankton (which is also obvious because the visibility in the water was pretty good; if the we had a lot of plankton then the visibility would be low). So what this could mean is that the whale sharks were here, they're just haven't been at the surface where we could see them. Or maybe the whale sharks were just beyond our aerial survey zone. Towards the end of September, the whale sharks have started feeding at the surface so we've been having more whale shark encounters! I've been able to witness the whale sharks go up and down through the water column and felt the stinging plankton prick my legs. A small price to pay to swim and ID these spotty beauties. So now that the plankton is here, so are the whale sharks!

Some of the other science we do during these whale shark encounters (besides getting whale shark photo ID shots) is using a secchi disk to get a sense of the water visibility and we also use a CTD that takes measurements of the conductivity (which is more or less a measurement of salinity), temperature, and depth. So the CTD is lowered from the boat at a steady rate and a reading is taken every two seconds. Once the CTD information is downloaded it's easy for the MCSS to get an idea of the water conditions and see any thermoclines that are present.