Students having the *whale*time of their lives!
Last month, WhaleTime and the Department of Environmental Affairs gave two marine biology students from the Ocean Stewards program the incredible opportunity of assisting in the tagging of humpback whales during their annual migration from their feeding to breeding grounds.
We won’t get into the complicated genetics of it, but the breeding stock that one might see off the coast of KZN is called the C1 stock, and is a sub-population of the C stock (there are 7 in total and they are grouped according to where they breed. So, the C stock that we see, breeds in the Southern-eastern Indian Ocean). Today, little is known about the C1 stock and exactly where they breed and whether there is mixing between other sub-populations.
The satellite tagging project will potentially provide data on the local and long-range movements of the east-coast humpback whale population to assess how they use the region and hopefully provide insights about exactly how far north they travel every year. Biopsies were also taken, which will allow scientists to understand critical information about this population and whether there is any mixing of subpopulations of humpback whales.
As you can imagine, getting up close and personal with these massive creatures takes quite a lot of practice and expertise, and being able to witness this and assist in this project was an incredible opportunity for the Ocean Stewards, both of whom are interested in pursuing whale related research in the future.
Sam Infante woke up on the day of the tagging with uncontrollable excitement. On The day, she explained that it took quite a while to find the first pod of whales, but once they found them, it was like the flood gates opened, and they were surrounded. Sam assisted by taking photos of the tail flukes which will be added to a photo-identification catalogue for future identification. We should add at this point that tagging a whale, that only surfaces for a short period, in a particular spot, at a roaring speed is really tough and unfortunately not always successful. Lucky for Sam, everything lined up perfectly and the team managed to tag and biopsy one whale after several attempts. Sam was thrilled, and later said that “this experience has helped me find motivation to help conserve whale populations and decrease our knowledge gaps”.
Unfortunately for our second Ocean Steward, Siyabonga Nkomo, the experience was entirely different. On this tagging trip, Siyabonga and the team were unsuccessful in tagging any whales. This however didn’t put a dampener on Siyabonga’s experience as he excitedly explained that being out on the open ocean, watching such active and fast animals was exhilarating. “The most interesting thing that the crew shared with me, was that whales have different patterns on their tails, so the crew and I were taking pictures of the bottom side of the whale also the dorsal fin, which make them unique from each other”. We are also happy to report that the seasickness Siyabonga experienced didn’t put him off and he can’t wait to go back out to sea.
The WhaleTime and Ocean Stewards project would like to thank the Department of Environmental Affairs for giving the two Ocean Stewards the opportunity to assist with the whale tagging project. This initiative allows students to engage with scientists in the field and was hugely beneficial for them. We appreciate the support, inspiration and mentorship that was provided to them, and ultimately helps us achieve our goals of providing students with practical insight into marine research and continue to inspire them to pursue marine science in the future.