Sunday, November 20, 2011

There's Lots to See Under the Sea


We were out on the boat to take scientific samples of whale sharks. I was fully aware of the amount of sea life swimming around underneath us but I really wasn’t expecting a humpback whale calf to almost jump into the boat.

Friends who I’d spoken to about looking for waves in this part of East Africa wished me luck then told me to take a good thick book and that I’d probably end up in Tofo snorkeling with whale sharks by day and drinking the local moonshine rum by night.

I hadn’t realized that Tofo is centrally placed on a stretch of coastline that’s world renowned for the high concentration of large marine creatures swimming around under the surface there, although it didn’t take me long to work out after spending ten minutes on the headland looking out to sea. No more than twenty seconds would go by without a whale breaching somewhere out in the vast Indian Ocean leaving spray lingering over the Ocean in the distance.

But there’re more than just migrating humpbacks here. It turns out that Tofo is the base for The Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna run by two experts in their respective fields. Dr. Andrea Marshall from the States who is the world’s leading expert on manta rays and giant rays (she was the subject of a recent BBC wildlife documentary “Andrea Queen of The Rays”), whilst Kiwi marine biologist Dr. Simon Pierce is a leading scientist in the field of whale shark research. Both giant rays and whale sharks (the world’s largest fish) are found in surprising concentrations almost year round on the reefs off Tofo so it’s the perfect location for a research base. Both Andrea, Simon and their resident PhD student present weekly lectures (Manta Mondays, Whale shark Wednesdays and Fauna Fridays) open to the general public and sending them away with probably more knowledge on those individual species than many of the world’s top marine biologists have.

This was how I ended up on a boat with Dr. Pierce and a group of volunteers from All Out Africa helping to collect samples. We’d jump off the boat and snorkel alongside the whale sharks, through and under the various boatloads of bobbing “ocean safari” tourists and then when we’d left them behind, dive down and use a Hawaiian sling to fire a capped spear into the giant fish, collecting a plug of skin as it was pulled free that could be analysed to determine the fish’s diet, and thus, where in the great blue it had been. Another, sturdier, sling is then use to fire a tag into the whale shark that trails a little sonar tracker which allows it’s movements to be followed by satellite. Underwater photos are taken to identify them as each whale shark’s spotted pattern is unique like a fingerprint and they can be logged into an international database and then tracked long-term by various dive operations around the world.

A happy humpback family

That was it, nature done for the day I thought. Nature wasn’t done though, as on our way back a family of humpbacks surfaced near us; Mum, Dad and a calf who was keen on showing off. The calf was learning how to breach, the acrobatic jumps, slaps and splashes that mature whales use to display their virility, and came up so close to us at one point that it nearly filled my entire viewfinder on my camera. Once he decided we’d seen enough, the family slowly swam off and then a larger lone, slow and ponderous humpback drifted along. Doc Pierce decided that this whale was mellow and slow enough to allow him to do something he’d never done before and jump overboard with a waterproof movie camera to try and film it as it swum past. I don’t think he expected it to dive under, double back and come check him out a second time. The thing was the size of a bus, one slap of its tail would’ve been the end for the curious Kiwi.

Humpback populations worldwide are back from the brink, having been hunted to the brink of extinction there are now about 80,000 individuals. These humpbacks were visiting the tropics to breed and give birth before returning to the Southern Ocean off Antarctica to feed for the summer months.

Dolphins. Old news.

We also saw dolphins on the way back too, I don’t think they realized what they had to live up to though in order to impress. We motored on to get our samples back to the lab.

This was taken by a real nice Aussie guy called Crewe Dixon, a volunteer with All Out Africa. He was on a dive looking for giant rays, looked up and saw this. Wow.

The Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna are looking for two volunteers to assist with their valuable research in Mozambique, a whale shark research and admin assistant and a manta ray research and admin assistant. Check their facebook page for further details on the positions and how to apply.

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