Welcome to the Marine Mammal and wildlife Research and Community Development Expedition blog where you can keep up to date with all the happenings and information from Kenya

Monday, March 16, 2009

Marine Research Through the Eyes of a Naval Officer

Jon "JR" Olson is a U.S Naval Attache based in Helsinki, and has joined GVIs Kenya expedition for 2 weeks as a marine project volunteer. He has kindly written about his first day out on the water.

The 0530 alarm went off next to my head and, at first, I forgot where I was. Then, the heat and humidity of the early Kenyan coastal morning kicked in as I peeled off the sheet from my sweating body. While some would be put off by this rather uncomfortable fact, I, personally, felt exhilarated as this was to be my first official day working as a member of the dolphin research project in the Kisite/Mpunguti Marine Protected Area.

By 0600 I was showered, had organized by personal snorkel gear, camera, sunscreen, some additional clothes, etc, and was in the kitchen eating a quick breakfast. I was the new guy and had to prove to the GVI veterans I could contribute to this project. Contribution started with me helping to fix breakfast, cleaning up the kitchen area afterwards, packing the equipment for the day, etc.

By 0630 our group of nine people was hauling the gear down to the water and loading up SQUIRREL, our shuttle boat. A few minutes later we were motoring our way across the Wasini Channel bound for Shimoni Village and our moored research boat known as BARDAN. After transferring our gear to BARDAN, we got underway on our search for dolphins and other marine life.

Within minutes of starting out, we spotted our first pod of bottlenose dolphins, right in the middle of the Wasini Channel. We spent 45 minutes following a pod of seven dolphins as they transited west down the channel. We took dozens of photographs, logged the entire event, and ended the sighting around 0745. BARDAN then turned east and we headed out into deeper water destined for Kisite Island by way of Funzi Bay.

Bottlenose dolphin feeding on a turtle

We motored slowly under cloudy skies, which, on this particular morning, considering my still pasty white flesh, was OK with me. The conditions were absolutely perfect for searching the seas for pods of dolphin and other marine species. And, as luck would have it, while transiting south from Funzi Bay, we spooked a large surfacing turtle which promptly inhaled deeply and rapidly dove back into the deep.

Some two hours after we departed Shimoni, we arrived in the channel area of the Kisite Mpunguti islands. It was not long before we spotted a small group of tourist dive boats and we set course for those boats as it was likely they would be accompanied by some type of marine life. Once again, we were lucky and as we arrived in the vicinity of the tourist boats, we spotted a number of pairs of bottlenose dolphins, all of them engaged in socializing behaviors, and possibly some feeding. We tracked these pairs of dolphins using cameras, the event and sighting logs, and maintained contact for approximately 30 minutes. The dolphins then disappeared and we began making our way toward our snorkeling destination near Kisite Island where we would snorkel a defined path, known as a transect, in search of more turtles. Once in the water, which, to me, feels like bath water because it is so warm, we started our transect and were not disappointed after sighting three turtles, two of which we were able to specifically classify as Green Turtles.

Once back in the boat at the end of our snorkel phase, we logged the information on the turtles in the Mega Fauna log and then proceeded back to the northeast, heading back to base for lunch and afternoon of data entry into the computers and some time spent correlating dolphin photos with individual dolphins.

A bottlenose dolphin with severe scars. Believed to be the result of a shark bite!

It was amazing to me to see the truly distinctive dorsal fin marks on each of the local, or resident, bottlenose dolphins listed in the photographic data base. After expert tutelage by GVI intern Karen, I was able to quickly identify a number of dolphins in the data base with photos taken by other research teams, providing much needed data for GVI to inform the Kenya Wildlife Service about key aspects of dolphin behavior. This information will allow KWS to develop better policies for protecting the Marine Protected Area, which will, in turn, protect the bottlenose dolphins habitat.

As I finish this blog, I realize it is almost 10PM and I have to get up again shortly after 0500 tomorrow morning. I get to do it all over again! I can’t wait!