Dolphins ‘Popping’ in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique…

Dolphins ‘Popping’ in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique…

One of the most fascinating things about my work with the wild #dolphinsofponta  is being able to create a safe space were humans are able to observe this special species in their own environment.

Over the past couple of years I have filmed numerous events of a vocalisation I called tok, toking….Popping, a term coined by Richard C. Connor and Rachel A. Smolker in their article entitled ‘Pop’ goes the Dolphin, is of of those vocalisations that normally stops me mid swim! It’s done by the big boys and is sometimes followed by aggressive behaviours such as mock charges and open jaws!

In the coastal shallows of Shark Bay W.Australia three adult males were observed between 1987-88 in the company of one single female at a time. Over the period the female was seen to turn in towards the males and the authors concluded that popping is a threat vocalisation telling the female to stay close.

The series of low frequency pulse sounds are very distinctive and always accompanied by a series of bubbles. Through our in-water recordings in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve in Mozambique we are able to associate the popping with the bubbles and the individuals – and guess what – they are all males too!

Since 2008 we have recorded some 30 events of popping. Interestingly enough though, most of our events included large nursery pods with adult male escorts. It seems that popping is also used on this side of the globe to keep the girls together.

On the 27th September I filmed an event with RemmyBoy and two other same age males together with a juvenile male who were in pursuit of Maria a young female.  It did look like the young boy was getting a lesson in popping and herding – with Maria being the consort this time! The adult males however this time slowed for a bit of circle swimming and conscious interaction with me before heading off in pursuit of Maria once more.

The #dolphinsofponta are part of a longterm monitoring project that was started in 1997 by DolphinCareAfrica; the research & conservation arm of the Dolphin Encountours Research Center in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique.

 

Reference: Connor, Richard & Smolker, Rachel. (1996). ‘Pop’ Goes the Dolphin: a Vocalization Male Bottlenose Dolphins Produce During Consortships. Behaviour. 133. 643-662. 10.1163/156853996X00404. 

From Shark Bait to Shark Warrior: Lesley Rochat Empowers the Youth

From Shark Bait to Shark Warrior: Lesley Rochat Empowers the Youth

It was the first day on the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism internship with Lesley Rochat, which I was attending. Five other students joined me as we sat around a table in her beautifully hand-constructed house, perched high up on the side of a mountain, with windows circling us so that we could see the ocean roaring outside. It was some of the most spectacular views I had ever witnessed.

Lesley having fun with and empowering a group of young ladies – the future of our oceans!

Lesley positioned herself in front of us all as if she were going to give a presentation, but to our surprise, she began narrating a colorful and animated story of a little girl who ran off to the beach with her dog without permission. The story was about a little girl who thought she was fiercer and mightier than nature, who jumped into the ocean, and amidst all of this, reality struck, and she almost drowned. That little girl was her. Lesley went on with the story, telling us of how she conquered her fear of water but not before escaping yet another near-drowning experience, this time in a public swimming pool. She then began SCUBA diving only to discover yet another fear; the fear of sharks. “So extreme was my fear of sharks that my dive buddies nicknamed me ‘shark bait’,” she told us laughing.

The true inspiration of the story, however, started revealing itself when she explained that while real fear is a response to external threats to one’s life or wellbeing, the fear of sharks she was suffering from was nothing more than anxiety, emotions that arise from one’s own thoughts, not from external reality.

I anticipate, upon getting to know Lesley on a personal level, that this concept of fear and overcoming it has motivated a lot of her work and education initiatives, including her amazing shark conservation campaigns like ‘Rethink the Shark’, and her groundbreaking documentaries that cover the sad truth behind shark finning. Through defeating her fear, she went from being dubbed Shark Bait to Shark Warrior, defending those who cannot speak.

A group of children having fun while learning what lies beneath the surface of our oceans

Lesley’s passion to make a difference put her on the path of packing up her well-paying corporate career to found AfriOceans Conservation Alliance, a non-profit organization located in Cape Town, South Africa. AfriOceans has been involved in a number of exciting scientific research project, environmental awareness and educational initiatives that aim to empower the youth to become the voice of our oceans. Lesley’s inspiration to empower the next generation stems from her beliefs. She believes that handing over her skills in order to empower the next generation of Earth’s guardians is one of her main life’s purposes. She told me once, “The train of human destruction is steaming ahead, but if there are enough of us pulling in the opposite direction, we can, and we will slow it down.” She believes that what she is fighting for is much larger than herself, adding: “I want to help others become Shark Warriors by helping them develop the same skills, which have helped me to be successful in conservation. The more I can do that, the more chance we have at slowing down the deterioration of our environment.”

One education initiative that is particularly influential is her Swim like a Shark program. Most underprivileged children around South Africa do not know how to swim, despite them living within walking distance to the ocean. Additionally, a majority of these children are afraid of the ocean. When Lesley and I sat down to talk about this initiative and why she started it, I was reminded of that little girl who nearly drowned in the ocean that day. This program teaches basic swimming skills and helps saves lives while at the same time gives these young learners and opportunity to catch sight of the wonders that lie beneath the surface of the water. Lesley says, “The joy, excitement, and appreciation from these children speaks for itself. We’ve had children do the course who have wanted to come back again and again.” She laughs, adding, “We even had kids that were afraid of the kelp, thinking it would bite them, it was so cute. But after doing the course it was hard to get them out of the water!”

Myself and the group of ladies that attended the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism internship with Lesley Rochat in December 2016

The program has managed to teach a handful of children but unfortunately, like with any non-profit, the challenge is always funding. Lesley mentions, “They [environmental education and awareness] are still quite low down on the list of priorities, in particular in Africa where they believe there are more important issues, such as AIDS and unemployment. So, the environment comes last, and looking for funding for it has become more challenging.” Faced with this challenge, Lesley recently kicked off a sustainable self-funding initiative called Shark Warrior Adventures, a responsible tourism initiative that offers watersports such as snorkeling safaris, sea-kayaking and stand up paddling guided tours. The aim is that Shark Warrior Adventures generates the funding needed to continue the Swim like a Shark program, which holds tremendous potential. It not only teaches the youth how to swim, but it empowers an admiration for the ocean, and opens up opportunities for children interested in ocean related careers.

Practicing photography skills that Lesley Rochat passes along to aspiring conservationists!

Over and above the watersports division of Shark Warrior Adventures is the photographic diving expeditions which Lesley leads to numerous destinations worldwide, as well as the internship courses she runs such as the one I attended. She has already extended her educational internships to the East Coast of the United States, empowering me and five other young ladies, all of whom are students at Coastal Carolina University. By working closely with Lesley on the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism internship, she is helping us become leaders in enriching the public in understanding environmental issues. The course is truly unique in that we are learning from a leading conservationist and globally respected, award-winning photographer and filmmaker. Some of her awards include Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government Awards, Global Oceans Society, Women Divers Hall of Fame, International League of Conservation Photographers, and she was also 1 of 16 women chosen internationally for ‘Women of Authentic Power’ in Oprah Magazine.

Lesley is handing her knowledge and skills that she has gained over twenty years of being a conservationist over to us, and that is candidly something that you cannot receive anywhere else. She sees long-term goals for the courses, saying, “My aim for these courses is to grow my own army of warriors, and students like yourselves are going to be the next generation to make a difference. You are already on your paths to your careers, and if I can guide you and help you gain broader skills, then that is an accomplishment.” Through multiple articles, blogs, and posts on social media platforms, I have already seen my work having an impact. The Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism course has encouraged me to do more, and keep working as an environmental photojournalist. Lesley has equipped me with the necessary skills to join her army of warriors, and I stand tall, fighting beside her, for those who cannot speak.

To learn more about supporting Lesley Rochat, Swim like a Shark, the Wildlife Conservation Photojournalism course, and other courses coming up soon, visit http://sharkwarrior.com/, http://www.aoca.org.za/ and http://www.lesleyrochat.com/ .

Dive Sites of St. François

Dive Sites of St. François

As our nature demands, humans have always been curious creatures which love to explore and discover the world around us. This sense of adventure stays with us even if we decide to escape to an island paradise. And what could be better than exploring an underwater world while in a remote corner of the Seychelles?

Located in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles remains one of the most exquisite destinations and arguably one of the best scuba diving destinations in the world. Giving you access to this new and wondrous underwater world is Alphonse Island situated in the Outer Islands of the Seychelles.

A stay at Alphonse Island gives guests access to 30 sublime scuba diving sites scattered amongst the remote islands surrounding it. This includes the beautiful St. François and its glorious flats which are home to some of the most incredible pelagic species. These stunning creatures can be viewed by walking the sandy stretches or diving into the deep blue surrounds of the Atoll.

Reaching these remote sites means jumping onboard one of our dedicated diving vessels, the Amirante Cat or Zanbren. Purpose-built with 225hp, these vessels will get you to the dive sites in no time and they are equipped with all your diving gear as well as towels, snacks and drinks. So sit back and let our dedicated dive team take care of you as you explore the wonder-ful dive sites that surround St. François:

Trigger Hill
Location: 20 minutes by boat, North-East St. François
Depth: 8 – 18m
Trigger Hill consists of a sharply slanting hill with three main coral rivers that run from the seagrass beds at 7m to the sandy slopes located at 18m and beyond. The coral bommies here act as a cleaning station and many resident schools of fish can often be seen here, including large Napoleon Wrasse, Blue and Yellow Fusilier, Humpback, Bluelined and Bohar Snapper as well as the shimmering Bluefin Trevally. Species like Camouflage and White-blotched Grouper live deep within the crevices of the coral, while smaller specimens rest casually at the base of the coral allowing for a closer look. Divers will often see Garden Eels peering out from their burrows in the sand galleys along with Seychelles Anemonefish, Moray Eels and Yellowmargin and Titan Triggerfish. Golden Trevally, Green Jobfish, Whip Rays and Nurse Sharks venturing from the sandy slope is also a common sight.
Special Feature: This site is named after the Yellowmargin Triggerfish which build their nests and lay eggs here. They can often be seen undulating in the water column above as they fiercely protect their territory. Trigger Hill is a great site for general observation of fish behaviour.

Bluelined Snapper and Bluefin Trevally

Three Sisters
Location: 20 minutes by boat, North St. François
Depth: 15 – 25m
This site, as the name would suggest, holds 3 large coral patches which lie on the flat sandy bottom at 20 meters. A variety of Grouper and Snapper species densely populates these ‘sisters’ and as such the dive starts by discovering and appreciating the abundance and diversity of fish here. Divers will also get to see Garden Eels and Yellowmargin Triggerfish on the surrounding sand where they make their respective burrows and large nests. The dive here is ended at a raised reef in the East which sits at about 13 meters. Here there is a colourful aquarium-like cleaning station where Yellowfin Goatfish, Onespot Emperor, Bluelined Snapper and Napoleon Wrasse congregate. Alternatively, guests can choose to start the dive on the outer wall which is covered in purple Sea Fans and extends to a sandy shelf at 30 meters. When gazing off the wall, there is a big chance of seeing big fish out in the open blue.
Special Feature: Three Sisters holds something for every kind of diver with its combination of calm patch reef, aquarium-like cleaning station and deep drop-off.

Napoleon Wrasse

Rat Rays
Location: 25 minutes by boat, South-West St. François
Depth: 8 – 25m
Rat Rays is the name given to the channel entrance of St. François Atoll. This site is situated within the main tidal flow in and out of the large lagoon which makes it a highway for various fish moving between the lagoon and the open water. Outside of this channel, Spur and Groove Coral formations give way to ravines of white sand that cascade over the edge of the drop-off which surrounds the island. St. François and its curving beaches are home to a plethora of birds and the surrounding shimmering waters are a hotspot for Green Turtles, pink Whip Rays and Greater Barracuda. Large Napoleon Wrasse and Milkfish can often be spotted hovering in the blue edge of the drop-off.
Special Feature: A lot of action is created by an array of diverse species congregating around the mouth of the channel as the tides rise and fall.

Pink Whip Rays

Mantam North
Location: 25 minutes by boat, West St. François
Depth: 7 – 20m
The coral assemblage at Mantam North with its flat gently sloping bottom resembles that of a patch reef. However, at 10 to 18 meters patches of sand are scarce due to incredibly high coral cover. Here the copious undulations of Hard Coral lead divers through a myriad of reef fish with occasional protrusions of large bommies which are thick with Bohar and Black Snapper as well as Fusilier. Divers will often spot Nurse Sharks here as they patrol the reef. Mantam North makes for a great training site with the depth limit at 18m where the coral finally meets the sand. The relaxed ambience at this site allows divers to get close to Giant Moray Eels and Lionfish that inhabit the deep crevices in the reef.
Currents at Mantam North: Currents are generally mild which makes it ideal for underwater photographers who like to document even the smallest of fish.
Special Feature: This is the best site for those who like to get up-close to the variety of reef fish for photography or behavioural observations due to lack of currents.

Giant Moray Eel

West End
Location: 30 minutes by boat, West St. François
Depth: 12 – 40m
West End holds a sloping reef which extends from 12 to 40 meters with most activity seen at 16 meters. Dense schools of Bluelined Snapper, Bluefin Trevally and Humpback Snapper are found around the reef and during low tide countless large Green Sea Turtles can be seen as they move from adjacent flats. The wall of the reef extends to a second plateau which is deeper than diving limits; it is here that a number of sharks reside and from where they follow the wall up to visit divers at the site. Large Grey Reef and Nurse Sharks are the most common at the site with the latter even more so in the shallows. Spur and Groove Coral formations stretch out towards the south with large aggregations of fish such as Bohar Snapper and Chub. Depending on the season, Manta Rays are most seen at this particular site, if not on the dive then feeding with Milkfish at the surface.
Special Feature: West End is close to the south of St. François where a number of Sharks and Rays are commonly seen. It also has the added benefit of beautiful coral and an abundance of fish to complement it.

Nurse Shark

Swiss Garden
Location: 35 minutes by boat, South St. François
Depth: 12 – 20m
Swiss Garden is the farthest dive site at the southern reaches of St. François Atoll. The site is a well-known historic fishing ground for local individuals with many reports of thriving populations of big pelagics, yet this is a site rarely dived. This remote site is one for the explorers out there as you never know what you might see. The bottom is a flat, steadily sloping reef comprised of mainly Hard Coral. A flurry of marine life covers the coral ridges and bommies that are interspersed with the flat seabed. Dives here have offered up incredible sightings of Giant Trevally (GT), Dogtooth Tuna, Nurse and Bull Sharks, Whip and Manta Rays, huge Green Turtles and schooling Milkfish.
Special Feature: The site is only visited per request by those who wish to explore waters which few others have dived before.

Bull Shark

Wouldn’t you like to dive into a world of wonder with the Alphonse Diving Team? Book your scuba diving experience today!

 

Whalesharks of Mafia Island

Whalesharks of Mafia Island

 

The average human (data culled from various signs in lifts) weighs 70 kilos and (empirical evidence) is less than 2m tall. Also, we’re terrestrial. So it’s quite something to be floating in 25m of warm blue water being approached by an animal which, as an adult, weighs an average of 9 tonnes (that’s 9 000 kilos in case there was any doubt) and is close to 10m in length. Plus, it’s leading with its cavernous 1.5m wide mouth. And the animal which owns the mouth is actively feeding. At 2m away and closing, there’s a certain sense of drama.

That’s a really big animal getting really close. And that’s presumably why they’re not called hamstersharks.

Luckily for me, the whaleshark, for that’s what it was, ignored my feeble attempts to evade it, effortlessly flicked its enormous tail and submerged. And circled back and repeated the feeding lunge, this time not quite so close to me. The plankton must have moved. Whalesharks, of course, are not interested in feeding on humans, though an unintended whack from a tail could certainly do some damage; worth considering when in the water and trying to photograph one.

This was offshore of Mafia Island, off the Tanzanian coast. We’d gone there specifically for just this experience. Here, from September to March, congregations of whalesharks move inshore to feed on the plankton blooms which are generated by river outflow.

As many as fifty whalesharks can be seen gaping their rectangular mouths open, sucking vast gulps of plankton into their maws and flaring their gills. It’s got to take a lot of tiny shrimps to keep 9 tonnes on the go. Whalesharks, indeed, will also eat small schooling fishes and sometimes small tuna or squid. This must make life exciting for the juvenile golden kingfishes we frequently saw swimming just in front of the whalesharks, mouths opening in time to the whaleshark’s.

They’re presumably there because the whaleshark is better at finding plankton blooms than they are. Or maybe they like living dangerously.

The whalesharks of Mafia are mostly sub-adults, so they’re usually only around 8m in total length (i.e. not that big, for a whaleshark), and mysteriously, are predominantly male. Getting to see them and snorkel with them as they feed is awe-inspiring. Waking in the morning, hastily eating breakfast and splashing through the jellyfish-dotted shallows to the dinghy is just the beginning. Then there’s the outward journey searching for the leviathans, in a hand-carved dhow, powered by a 9.9 horsepower engine, driven with dashing flair by the boat captain’s foot. It’s a bit like being back in the days when whalers stood in the bows of their tiny ships and shouted out, ‘Thar she blows!’, except here the sign is the enormous dorsal fin of the whaleshark and its smaller tail fin which breaks the surface in the distance.

Or it might be the surface wave that trails their great heads as they rise to the surface to feed. Or their enormous muscular backs glinting in the tropical light. The captain’s foot does its work and the snorkellers bail overboard searching for signs of the beast. A lot of the time it’s empty ocean but then suddenly and with a weird inevitability, there’s a spotty reef in the water, as though it’s always been there. Sometimes they don’t come near, but often the feeding urge is upon them and it’s close encounter with huge animal time.

Whalesharks have beautiful blue dorsal skin crisscrossed with a chequerboard of pale stripes and spots. They may look like this because they have evolved from bottom-dwelling sharks, though no-one is really sure. They have the aforementioned huge mouths which contain 300-350 tiny teeth: not used for feeding and probably also an evolutionary legacy. To feed they open their mouths, suck in a mouthful of prey and water, then close their mouths and open their gills. The slight delay between closing their mouths and opening their gills results in any particles bigger than 2 or 3mm being trapped either against the filter pads in their mouths or pushed directly back to their throats. This form of suction feeding is so efficient that only water is emitted from their gills. They are sometimes seen ‘coughing’, which is probably to rid their gills of any unwanted food buildup.

They are open ocean animals, known from the tropics and subtropics, which makes it interesting that the first whaleshark seen by Western scientists was found in Cape Town’s Table Bay back in 1829. It had probably come inshore following an unusual meander of an Agulhas gyre. They like warm surface water, but tagging data has shown that they dive to 700m and spend time down there in 10 degree water. No-one is really sure what they’re doing there.

And when it comes to mysteries, it’s astonishing just how many secrets swirl around those huge slow-moving animals. No-one has ever seen them mating, and it was only in 1995 that a pregnant female was caught with 300 embryos inside her. Today it is known that whalesharks are ovoviviparous, which is to say, the females carry eggs within their two uteri and the embryos grow inside the eggs inside the mother, finally being birthed at about 60cm long. It is thought that females carry many embryos at varying stages of development, probably mate only a few times and may store sperm, fertilising their eggs at different times.

But back to being in the water with whalesharks. They’re huge, a fact which can hardly be overstated, and though they look like they’re moving slowly, they far outpace even the fastest human swimmer. Best to aim ahead of their apparent feeding direction and hope for the open mouth shot.

Finally, around lunch-time, the plankton swarm has dissipated (or been swallowed by the whalesharks) and the snorkellers return to the dhow. If the wind is right, it’s a creaking smooth sail homewards to Mafia to eat, process images and scheme for the next days’ possible encounters.

Project Humpback Whale

Project Humpback Whale

A new project out of Ponta do Ouro is creating a baseline of data on the humpback whales that migrate north into the Indian Ocean along the of Mozambique and South Africa. On the tail end of the annual winter migration, Clare Keating Daly caught up with the project’s founder, Jenny Stromvoll.

By Clare Keating Daly

“The moment a book doesn’t satisfy my need to answer questions, I feel like I need to go find the answer out myself,” says Jenny Stromvoll of Ponta do Ouro. Jenny has lots of questions. Recently, her questions have focused on the humpback whales that migrate up and down the eastern coast of southern Africa during the winter months. What feeding grounds do they come from? How many pass through the PPMR? And what’s happening in terms of group dynamics, songs and behaviour as the whales move north and southbound?

“I read up a little bit and realised there is no on going humpback whale research happening here so that makes me feel like, well, I can do something,” she says. Jenny is Swedish born but moved to Ponta do Ouro in 2010 and is co-owner of Back to Basics Adventures, a dive charter. “I have realised that within the oceans there are so many things unknown and there are very few people that are fortunate enough to work with the ocean everyday, like myself, so I feel like I can contribute to various conservation efforts and research by simply sharing and collecting data.”


“It’s easy to write things down and store them in a box, but we want to get the information out there, in papers, on the web,” Jenny says. In a recent interview, and with follow-ups over email, Jenny shared the fundamentals and passion that form the new project:Jenny, along with researcher and fellow Ponta do Ouro resident Diana Rocha, recently started Project Humpback Whale within the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR) in southern Mozambique to do just that. The two are hoping to create a lasting project that contributes to the world of humpback whale research.

What is the inspiration behind Project Humpback Whale?

You know that feeling, of always wanting to know more? It started there. My friend Yara Tibiriçá [President of the Association of Coastal Conservation of Mozambiuqe and founder of the Zavora Marine Lab] was visiting, looking at the nudibranchs. We did a lot of nudibranch diving, but then we had a dwarf minke whale on our deco stop. That’s where the conversations started. Yara’s passion is nudibranchs, but she also keeps a whale catalogue because no one else does up in Zavora. She asked why I didn’t just collect data here [in the PPMR] and said I could share my data with her. So then I started thinking, what is actually done here? I started reading up, getting articles, online and from Yara. But I wanted to do it right. Yara helped me with the original proposal for the project. Very basic.

So where did the proposal go from there?

Well, I went to Miguel [the manager of the PPMR] and asked him what was going on here and how I could get involved. Then I started chatting with Diana [Rocha] over a braai and asking her about the whales because she’s done a lot with the dolphins [with Dolphin Encountours]. I said, this is that I want to do: I don’t have anything else but my drive but I can see clearly that this needs to be done here. She was really inspired and we decided to take the project on together and do the formal proposal. And you know, Miguel was really supportive of research on the area, research that’s valuable for the region. So we got the research permit and started data collection in August.

That’s great. So tell me a little about what’s already known about humpbacks. Are they endangered?

Humpback whales were one of the easiest whales to catch during the whaling years because they move close to shore and are easy to spot with their aerial surface behaviour. In the southern hemisphere, many baleen whales were driven close to extinction [during whaling years]. As far as I know, around 47,000 individual humpback whales were taken between Gabon to the west and Mozambique to the east. To put it in perspective, it is suggested that there were only 340 individual humpback whales left in the southwest Indian Ocean. In 1996, humpback whales were listed as endangered on the IUCN list but today they are listed as a least concern species. I have read in a paper that it’s estimated that the Southern Hemisphere humpback whales [population] are increasing around [the biological maximum rate of] 10% a year and this is great.

They’re cruising our coasts in winter, where are they in the summer?

Humpback whales undertake an extensive migration between their high latitude summer feeding grounds and tropical low latitude winter mating and calving grounds. So the southern hemisphere whales are feeding around 55° south, Antarctica, and winter grounds are around 20° south.

So what are the key questions of this project, in basic terms?

The main aim of this study is, on an annual or seasonal basis, to collect data on the humpback whale population that migrates to its breeding grounds north from the PPMR region. The specific questions are; one, what’s the abundance of humpback whales that pass by here during their migration and is there any rate increase; two, what is the distribution, behaviour, the sounds and group composition of the migrating population and is it different for the north and southbound journeys; three, what breeding stock do the whales passing by here come from and is there any breeding stock exchange; and four, what is the occurrence, prevalence and population distribution of a specific skin lesion observed frequently on the humpback whales passing through?

A skin lesion?

It’s not something I’ve observed myself but I’ve heard of it being seen on humpbacks in the area, kind of a scarring on their dorsal fins and always in about the same place on different individuals. One explanation is poor water quality or poor health of the individuals. We want to find out more about it.

That’s really interesting. How are you collecting the data on all of this?

We’re using land-based surveys and boat-based surveys along with ocean fix location and boat based transects. At each sighting at sea, when possible, we try to approach the individuals by boat at a steady reduced speed to obtain photo IDs and whatever detailed information we can. For all three different methodologies, the same data collection module is applied and a standard log sheet is filled in. Then once data is recorded, the boat goes back to the fixed point, or a commercial dolphin boat track or the track line of a transect and starts over. We’re keeping a photographic data catalogue with both dorsal fins, left and right sides, and flukes also.

Photographic data, does that mean that visitors in the PPMR and help with your project?

Anybody with a camera can contribute by taking photos that in turn helps us identify individual whales. The best way is to capture a photo of the whale’s fluke, their tail fin. The underside of the fluke has unique markings and what we do is build a library of the different whales passing us. It is not easy to capture a whale fluke, the best chance you have is when they dive for a longer period of time when they tend to arch their backs and show their flukes, or when they are tail slapping. And to give a good example of how citizens can help, there was a case in Madagascar where a Norwegian tourist took a photo of a whale fluke. Years later, the photo was posted on Flickr and a citizen scientist found the photo and matched the fluke to a whale that was seen off the shore of Brazil. This was an amazing discovery as it showed that one individual, thought only to migrate past Brazil, had changed his migratory route and came past east Africa. So everybody can make a difference and contribute to science and our knowledge of the ocean, humpback whales included.

Keep up with Project Humpback Whale at www.pontahumpbackwhales.com, the portal to sharing their research with the public and maintaining a meaningful and transparent project.

You’re Doing it Wrong: Diving Ponta do Ouro

You’re Doing it Wrong: Diving Ponta do Ouro

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I remember my first dive in Mozambique. The site was called Playground, off of Ponta Mamoli, and the dive lasted just over twenty minutes. The reef looked like a bunch of boulders strewn over sand and through my chattering teeth, I couldn’t grasp what the big deal was. This was supposed to be a great dive site.

Text and Images by Clare Keating-Daly

That was back in 2009. I was diving within the newly declared Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR) that stretched from the border with South Africa north into Maputo Bay. My sorry 3mm excuse of a wetsuit didn’t stand a chance against the late winter water temperatures.

Before coming to Mozambique, I’d been teaching diving in Southeast Asia, Thailand and the Philippines, and travelling to dive in Indonesia and Malaysia. Before that, I’d done my dive master training in Honduras. Not counting the sites affected by dynamite fishing, the reefs in Southeast Asia were stunning – they looked like something out of a glossy travel magazine. The crystalline waters of the Caribbean were taken straight from a tropical daydream. Divers, myself included, thought they were wonderful because of this, because we’d been taught what reefs are supposed to look like.

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Five years ago, on my first dive in Mozambique, I wasn’t impressed because the reef didn’t look like my idea of a classic reef. Where were the colonies of branching coral? Where were the layers of plate coral, and domes of brain coral? And what was with the water temperature? Where was my stereotypical reef? But today, the reefs of Southern Mozambique are, in my mind, some of the best in the world.

So what changed? Anyone can dive a tropical coral reef – they’re basically fool proof and you’re bound to be impressed. But it takes a little more finesse to dive sub-tropical reefs. In short, I was doing it wrong. Once I changed the way I dived (and got a 5mm wetsuit), I never wanted my dives to end; I learned how to dive the reefs of Ponta. In doing so, I have had some of the most remarkable dives of my life.

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If you’ve dived anywhere in the PPMR, that is, in the bays of Ponta do Ouro, Ponta Malongane, Ponta Mamoli, Ponta Techobanine or north, you’ve dived some world class sites. But you probably already know that. If you disagree, or if you’ve never dived the PPMR, maybe you need a little insider knowledge before your next trip.

In this two part series, we’ll start with five open water dives (18m and shallower) this issue and five advanced dives (+20m) in the first issue next year. Yes, we’re going against the rules of diving and doing the shallower dives first. Of the shallower dives, four are in Ponta bay and one is in Malongane bay. While there are some spectacular dives further north (Playground off of Mamoli being one of them) we’re sticking to the reefs you can reasonably request most dive operators to take you to. Diving reefs further north often takes a bit more organising. So, without further ado, here we go.

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Crèche
Ponta do Ouro, 10-12 metres
The story here is that Crèche is known for its abundance and variety of juvenile fishes here, that is, many species of sub-adult fish. However, you’re just as likely to see juvenile fishes on one healthy reef as another, which means there must be something else drawing divers back to this shallow reef again and again. Crèche is a favourite spot for new divers; a patchy reef with plenty of sand means that student divers or divers that haven’t blown bubbles for a while can settle, adjust their buoyancy, relax and generally stay off the reef. When relaxed, you use less air and at this depth, using less air means you could be in for a very long dive – the no decompression limit at 12m is 147 minutes! And, juvenile fishes aside, there is plenty to see on this reef. For me, the best part of Crèche is the cryptic stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa) found on the reef. It takes a trained eye to spot these masters of disguise, even if they’re right out in the open. Not to be confused with false stonefish or scorpionfish, these guys are the real deal. They can reach up to 40cm but are more typically around 27cm. But don’t get too caught up looking only at the reef. Dolphins often swim along this shallow line of reef, cruising in to investigate divers. Crèche is also known for its schools of crescent-tail bigeye and as a treasure trove of masks and snorkels dropped by student divers.

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Dive it right: Don’t touch the reef! Although they’re not common, there are stonefish on this reef. Stonefish are the most venomous fish in the world, not the best thing to run into on a dive holiday.

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Blacks
Ponta do Ouro, 15-18m
Take a look at your hand. Spread your fingers out. See that? That’s what Black’s is like, only bigger, about 40 metres wide. The main reef, your palm, bulges up from the sand punctured with little overhangs and covered with corals, some sea grass and sponges. From that about five thin fingers trail off in a southerly direction. While its possible to craft some good wide angle shots on Blacks, it’s structure and primary residents are better suited for macro photography. Be ready to get up close and personal with this reef, scouring it for the small stuff: frogfish, sea moths, long nosed pipefish, Durban dancing shrimp, paperfish, feather star shrimp. But don’t forget to keep an eye out for the scattered shrimp cleaning stations and cheeky black cheek moray eels. Because this small reef is surrounded by sand, it generally isn’t at its peak in large swell and in heavy current you’re quickly swept off of it.

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Dive it right: Take your time on this dive – it’s a small site but holds countless cryptic and camouflaged species. But be careful where you stick your nose, black cheek moray eels are notorious for biting divers on this reef. If you put a finger or two down to steady yourself, always look then look again!

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Doodles
Ponta do Ouro, 16-18m
Doodles may be the ‘house reef’ for Ponta do Ouro, it’s less than ten minutes from the boat launch, but it’s one of the greatest dives in the area. It acts as a sort of oasis in Ponta Bay with a diverse range of fish. Patrolled by resident potato bass, it runs about 200 metres long and on average it is about 20 metres wide. Close to the northern section of the reef is a cave system that is generally the hub of activity. This area is great for wide-angle photography. Don’t forget to check out the sand patches. Potato bass and at least four species of ray mosey around the sand near the cave area and easily photographed if approached cautiously. All of Doodles is well worth your bottom time. The usual algal reef suspects can all be found here, but Doodles often surprises with unexpected visitors like a weedy scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa), the odd thorny seahorse, thistle cowries, as well as numerous species of nudibranch – a macro photographer’s dream.

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Dive it right: Never pass up the opportunity to dive Doodles, even if you’ve feel like you’ve squeezed everything you can from it. You never know what you’re going to find on this reef, it can change day to day. Don’t get stuck looking down, manta rays, yellowfin tuna, bull sharks, whale sharks and other nomadic species are often spotted here.

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Drop Zone
Malongane Bay, 10-16m
There are some spectacular reefs in Malongane Bay and Drop Zone is one of them. This site, like some of the deeper sites in Malongane Bay that we’ll cover in the next issue, has some serious structure. Pitted with potholes and with gullies galore, the topography of this reef is stunning and a great option for those days when the current is cranking – the reef seems to never end. If you’re debating between macro and wide angle equipment for this dive, start with the wide angle. With schools of bluefin trevallies patrolling the ledges, potato bass lurking in backlit overhangs, and numerous cleaning stations with rubber lips queuing for service, there’s a lot of big picture kind of action on Drop Zone. But on that second dive, because you’ll have to come back, shoot macro. I’ve counted fourteen different species of nudibranch on this site – look close, it’s definitely possible to beat my record with all the Halgerda species slugging along. The leopard blenny are particularly friendly here as well.

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Dive it right: Something about Drop Zone makes it a hot spot for green turtles. They’re frequently sighted here, sleeping in a crevice, feeding on the algae and seaweed or dropping in for a shell deep clean from schools of butterfly fish fluttering for a snack. All sea turtles are endangered species, making the treat of seeing one that much more special.

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Steps
Ponta do Ouro Bay, 14-16m
Like the other reefs in Ponta Bay, Steps is patchy reef. The step-like ledges that give this reef its name hide reams of paperfish and their more cryptic cousins, frogfish. Camouflaged crocodile fish tend to hang out on the sandy inshore side of this reef, their mesmerising eyes certainly seeing you before you see them. For macro photography, scan the whip coral for tiny whip goby. Watch for busybody mantis shrimp clearing out their burrows and distressed damselfish defending their nests. Schools of larger reef fish congregate around the central cave area of this site and make great photography subjects. The topography around this area is also very rewarding for wide-angle enthusiasts. And be sure to check the sandy offshore areas of this reef. Giant guitar sharks are often, albeit briefly, spotted here. The length of Steps along with its north-south orientation makes it the place to dive when the current is cranking in either direction. On days like this, be sure to ask your divemaster if it’s possible to foray over to Steve’s Ledge, Steps’ southerly neighbour and another excellent dive site in the bay.

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Dive it right: Just because Steps is a long reef, doesn’t mean you need to try to cover it all in one dive. With all these reefs, you’ll get the most out of them if you take your time, but with all of Steps’ ledges and pockets, you’ll likely be rewarded for looking a little closer rather than trying to cover more ground.

The reefs in the PPMR don’t look like the reefs out of your average glossy travel magazine. On first glance, you may be disappointed. I was. But now that you have the insider information necessary to make your next Ponta dives your best Ponta dives, I bet you’ll start to see things a bit differently.

In the next issue, we’ll go deeper with five more PPMR dive sites. Check back here for insider knowledge on Pinnacles, Atlantis, Aquarium, Three Sisters and Kev’s Ledge all accompanied by plenty more on site pictures to whet your diving appetite.

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Funding research through Dolphin Eco-Tourism

Funding research through Dolphin Eco-Tourism

One of my first memories of dolphins was as a child, Conservation standing with my Granny on the veranda of her holiday home in Ramsgate, southern KwaZulu Natal. She had spotted dolphins frolicking in the waves and was jumping up and down in excitement shrieking with joy each time one of the sleek, silvery-grey, torpedo-like creatures cleared the waves.

Text and images by Angie Gullan – Founder Dolphin Encountours in support of DolphinCare.Org

This joy is often relived now with guests I take to meet the Dolphins of Ponta.

Later on in life I was to learn that dolphins were revered amongst ancient civilizations and to ‘swim with dolphins’ ranked top on bucket lists. I discovered that dolphins are highly intelligent and are, in essence, persons. I learned that they are befriend-able and if approached in the right way, with the right attitude, these sentient beings would never cease to amaze.

The coastal waters off the east African seaboard are home to populations of semi resident Indo-Pacific, inshore bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus). These gregarious dolphins are different from their larger and more robust oceanic counterparts Tursiops truncates, the common bottlenose dolphin, in that they freckle on their bellies and have a longer and more slender beak.

The Dolphins of Ponta are one such population. Some 250 individuals live within a complex cross border network which traverses the towering ‘duned’ coastline and surrounding reef structures that makes up the Ponta Partial Marine Reserve in Mozambique and bordering the World Heritage site of iSimangaliso in South Africa.

Ponta do Ouro is home to the country’s first dedicated dolphin interaction and research project that was developed in the mid 90’s under the auspices of Dolphin Encountours. With the guidance of both scientific and spiritual advisers the special inwater program was developed to fund ongoing research through taking like-minded tourists to encounter dolphins in their natural environment.

The eco-tourism project served the growing need of people seeking to swim with dolphins as well as the need to assess the populations of marine mammals that frequented the area.

Priority number one was to create a safe space for human-dolphin encounters to take place and through the specially developed Dolphincare code of conduct this was made possible. Standard operating procedures were developed which included comprehensive pre-encounter briefings, snorkelling instructions and the collection of baseline data by means of a database that was compiled in collaboration with various institutes, mainly the Natural History Museum of the University Eduardo Mondalane in Maputo. As time passed we learned from the dolphins and were better able to understand, anticipate and distinguish different behaviours and postures, which offered a form of communication between them and us.

This understanding has led to some profound encounters with the Dolphins of Ponta. Some of these encounters leave one in a state of absolute bliss, finding both human and dolphin engaging in what seems to be a time of just being together.

If the situation arises a bout of seaweed interaction may take place and some energetic circle swimming will be had with people the individual dolphins know. They have been observed chasing sharks away from human swimmers and individuals have shown us the art of hunting and eating red-fang trigger fish. Mums and calves are observed in private time together where specific behaviours are taught and if something unusual happens to be in the area, the inquisitive dolphins will venture off to inspect, often leading us to wonderful sightings hidden down below.

Sadly the encounters sometimes leave us with a heavy heart as we realize and see first hand the impact human beings have on our finned friends. Mozambique’s pot of gold lies not only in tourism but in gas and oil exploration and industrial coastal development which will have adverse long term effects on marine mammals. Coastal tourism in Mozambique is growing exponentially and as its famed underwater kingdoms and fishing hotspots become accessible, more and more encounters with humans and their vessels are inevitable.

During the early 2000’s I was out guiding a dolphin session when we located two dolphins, one known to me as Spin. Spin was a young dolphin that enjoyed engaging with us. She was always the first on the bow and the first to initiate a circle swim.

On this day though, things were amiss. As the boat approached her, distressed vocalizing was heard and as I slipped into the water I could see why; the little dolphin was wrapped up in fishing line! I slowly unwrapped her, but found no way to remove the very large hook, which was by now deeply embedded in her belly. This was the last time I saw little Spin.

The DolphinCare.Org’s database comprises thousands of images, observational records, sound recordings and video recordings of semiresident dolphins and other marine mammals that frequent the area. Individual dolphins have their own files where relevant events are recorded with some of the individuals first being observed in the area when the project was in its pilot stage. Dolphin Encountours, the German Dolphin Conservation Society and volunteers primarily fund the project.

For more information on encountering the Dolphins of Ponta or finding out about how you can get involved and help the project please visit:

www.dolphin-encountours.com in support of www.dolphincare.org

HSASA 50hr Dive-A-Thon 2017

HSASA 50hr Dive-A-Thon 2017

Handicapped Scuba Association South Africa is located in Centurion, Gauteng and is a non-profit company that specializes in training people with disabilities, on how to scuba dive.

Our NPC number is: 2014/027833/08. The directors of Handicapped Scuba Association SA are: Vic Hugo, Euvrard Geldenhuys and Melissa Leonard.  HSASA is busy planning and organizing a “HSASA 50hr Dive-A-Thon” for next year, 10-12th March 2017.

In short, our vision and mission of this fundraising event, is to organize and plan, dive trips for- and the training of new disabled divers for 2017 – so that they can too share in the experience of diving.  We need everyone’s support to come on board with this project. Our goal is to get as many dive schools and divers of all institutes, involved. Therefore we would like to ask every diver, to participate in this event and help us make it a HUGE success through buying dive-slots.

We have created a Facebook event and would like to invite everyone to join. https://www.facebook.com/events/1614728932163335/?active_tab=discussion

We are going to have two special events taking place on Saturday the 11th March 2017.
They are:
1.  “Sinking the Obstacle to Freedom” – illustrating that HSA’s are free at last and they have no limitations anymore…but more about this later….
2.  Lighting the cross with glowsticks on one night dive (Saturday night 19:00-20:00 dive slot). It’s going be so much fun, an experience and quite a sight to see. So be sure to book one of your slots on this hour.

We are going to have food stalls, great prizes to be won, a boma fire at night, jumping castle for the kiddies, etc…

Demo gear will be available and DAN will also be joining us.

The weather will still be nice and warm and we are going to have so much fun!! We are looking forward- and would love to have you all there with us…

How it works:
There have to be at least two people in the water at all times – for the duration of the dive-a-thon.  People can book their one hour slot and choose any hour between Friday 10:00 – Sunday 13:00, to do a dive. They can also book more than one slot.  The first dive will start on the Friday, 10th at 10:00 and the last dive will end on Sunday, 12th at 13:00. The cost is R150 per person, per dive-slot hour (even sponsors of dive-slots are welcome). We aim to book 750 dive-slots and more.  There will be a Rescue diver or higher qualified, at all times, to ensure the safety of everyone.

So, what if you don’t have the time to join us in person and do your slot, but want to contribute? Well, you can sponsor your R150, and we will find a diver to do your slot of your behalf.

We need you to make this event a great success !!!

Time of Dive-A-Thon:
Start : 10th Fri 2017 at 10:00
End : 12th Sun 2017 at 13:00

Place:
Miracle Waters, North West

So, how do you book your slot?  You can book your dive slot, by making a payment into the following account:
Handicapped Scuba Association SA
Bank : Absa
Type of account : Cheque
Account nr : 4083663706
Branch : Mall@reds Wierdapark
Branch code : 336-346
Reference : “name” and “dive-slot/s”
Please email your details and proof of payment to: melissa@hsa-sa.co.za

About HSASA: Scuba Diving has a great rehabilitative effect on people living with disabilities – so great, that it restores their self-confidence and human dignity, as well as gives them a new perspective in life. After being trained on how to scuba dive, they do not only gain new skills in recreational diving, but they also meet new long-lasting friends and have a sense of belonging. Scuba diving opens up a new world to disabled people, who thought that their lives are over. After being trained, the disabled divers start to live more adventurously and live their lives to the full.

When diving (and with the help of their dive buddies), the physically challenged and wheelchair bound people, get the opportunity to be free from gravity for approximately 50 minutes (duration of a dive) and are able to move as freely as they like. These disabled people’s outlook on life, are permanently changed.
People with various disabilities, ranging from: spina bifida, hearing loss, amputees, paraplegics, quadriplegics, muscular dystrophy, sight impairment, hemiplegics, cerebral palsy, cognitive disability and locked-in syndrome, are all trained and are known as HSA Divers.

We at Handicapped Scuba Association South Africa are dedicated and aim to change and improve the physical and social well-being of people living with disabilities, through the recreational sport of Scuba Diving. We are dedicated to ensure, that the disabled people whom we train, are given the same opportunity to receive quality training, certification and dive adventures – just like the able-bodied divers do.
We not merely just aim to train disabled people and to let them have a once off experience – NO!, it is also our desire and focus to assist these disabled divers, to continue to dive and also experience ocean dives, as well as to get them socially involved.

Therefore your contribution is not in vain.

Bookings are now open!

Our website is: www.hsa-sa.co.za

Our Facebook page: Handicapped Scuba Association SA:
https://www.facebook.com/HandicappedScubaAssociationSA?ref=br_tf

For any queries, please contact Melissa at: 083 545 8295 / melissa@hsa-sa.co.za

A fun weekend awaits all divers.

Ivan van Heerden

Ivan van Heerden

I have always been drawn to the sea. A year in Australia in 1988 opened the underwater world to me and I have never looked back. I graduated from the University of Natal with an Honours degree in Aquatic Entomology in 1993. Thereafter I restored a classic wooden yacht and sailed her over to the Caribbean in 1995. For the next 15 years I was fortunate enough to dive and photograph the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas as well as places like Fiji, Hawaii and Guadalupe Island in Mexico. My family and I returned to South Africa in 2009 and I rediscovered Aliwal Shoal.

My photography really started in early 2001 when I bought a Sony 3.2 megapixel point and shoot camera with an underwater housing. While I sometimes wanted to yell, in frustration, due to the shutter lag it taught me invaluable lessons in composition, patience and how to approach the subject. Eventually I reached the limitations of the camera and made the move to a housed DSLR, a Nikon D100 subsequently replaced by a D200.

I was fortunate to be taught by Mauricio Handler, principle assistant to David Doubilet for many years as well as a Nat Geo photographer in his own right. Mauricio’s time and patience were invaluable and I learnt more each time we travelled together: from shooting Great Whites in the crystal clear but cold waters of Guadalupe to the tropical splendour of Fiji. Mauricio likes to push the limits with light, shutter speed and storytelling and I learned a great deal from him.

With Aliwal shoal in my backyard I am now focussing on bringing all that this amazing reef system has to offer to my picture taking. The shoal rightly deserves its place in the top dive sites of the world despite its reputation for current, bad viz and rough launches. Very few places on the planet have the mix of cold and warm water and the resulting unique ecosystem. Every time you dive the Shoal there is something new and exciting to see.

In telling Aliwal’s story through the camera lens, my hope is to try to bring the importance of conserving this unique ecosystem to the fore. Despite being part of one of the first MPA’s in South Africa it is under daily threat from pollution from Sappi Saicor and the fact that KZN Sharks Board has indiscriminate gill nets and drum lines within the MPA is equally worrying. Educating the public is easiest done through a visual medium.

The next chapter in my photography journey is to become bubble-less. Re-breathers, in my opinion, are going to open up a whole new range of sites and photographic opportunities in South Africa. I can’t wait to do my first 3 hour dive on Umzimayi Wall!

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