Boats, Birds and Bellyaches

Matthew Logan
11 April 2016

At 5 we woke, down on the beach for 6, ready for action. The boat we were to spend our day on, researching wildlife abundance and ocean conditions, was ready waiting for us on the sand. Framed between the gently lapping waves on the dark shore and the flamingo pink sky above, littered with sporadic clouds stretching to the horizon.

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Early sunrise launch

The team for the day assembled as we prepared to board; our skipper Rudi, taking a break from his typical work of leading fishermen to the best catches and instead sailing scientists around to monitor fish populations. The 3 interns; myself, Jen and Chloe, who had jumped at the chance to spend the day out at sea and would be carrying out the various tasks during the survey. Director of the Natures Valley Trust and expert of all things bird, Mark Brown and Gwen Penry, a scientist who has been at the forefront of research into South African Bryde’s Whales for many years and is now part of the team bidding to establish a colony of African Penguins in the Plettenberg Bay area, the leader for the day. After climbing up and into Rudi’s boat, cramming into the cabin to escape the splash of impact and being maneuvered into position upon the beach by the tractor our trailer was attached to, we paused for a moment, like an Olympic ski jumper in the starting gate. Then when an opportunistic lull came over the water we took our chance, accelerating towards the ocean and with a splash, we slipped off the trailer and into the waves. We had launched!

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Stunning start to a long day

 Instantly we began to feel the power of the sea as our boat was rocked by the oscillating ocean. However we quickly began racing towards the starting point of our route. As we bounced away from the shore, Gwen filled us in on the various tasks we need to carry out during the day. They we as follows: 

  • Our route included 10 checkpoints; at each one we would take a variety of measurements; water visibility, wind direction and speed and the height and direction of the ocean swell. These we overseen by Gwen to insure accuracy and consistency.
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Dr Gwen Penry and NVT Intern Jennifer Parker measuring water visibility

 
  • Whilst travelling between checkpoints the number and type of fish in the waters around us needed to be recorded. This was done using the sonar equipment already on the boat. Capturing this data needed to be done about every 90 seconds and simply required a button to be pressed, an arduous but necessary job.
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Gwen on sonar duty - recording a screenshot every one and a half minutes!

 
  • As the wildlife above the surface also needed to be recorded, two spotters would sit at the front of the vessel, each observing a 90 degree section on either side of the boat. Any animal sightings had to be recorded with details such as direction of travel and location also being noted.
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NVT's first Scottish Intern - Matthew Logan

 

As we listened to these instructions, Gwen was momentarily interrupted by the occurrence of a large pod of common dolphins that swam along side our boat for a short while. Some individuals had young tucked into their side, sticking like magnets to their mother’s sides. Soon after this we reached our first checkpoint and began the days work.

I was first on sonar screen-catching duty and so was free to enjoy the sensation of being at sea, with the small distraction of ensuring the data was captured and saved every minute and a half. By this time the sun was up and lighting barren rock cliffs, the densely vegetated green coast and the large swells of shimmering water we floated upon. The vast open sky became the focal point for Chloe and Jen as they took their place at the bow of the boat to search for birds large and small, the odd fin or flipper that might be poking out of the water or, if we were lucky, the distinctive vapour clouds just above the surface, the tell tale sign that whales were close. As we chugged along and the data began to gather, our boat would fluctuate from peak to trough as the great force of the ocean moved beneath us.  Unsurprisingly however the idyllic start to the day had to come to an end and soon the constant rocking and rolling of the sea, the boat and most importantly the content of the passenger’s stomachs began to take its toll…

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NVT Research Interns Jennifer Parker and Chloe Brookes on observation duty

 

Three of us had been hit by the sea sickness; Jen, Mark and I were all feeling the waves of queasiness wash over us. I was reminded of long journeys through winding roads in the back of my parent’s car. Now this familiar feeling came with a strange twist, one of my usual remedies for the claustrophobic feeling of motion sickness is opening the car window to breath some fresh air, being on an open air boat meant this treatment was not an option. With still another 9 or so hours left on the boat we had to grim and bear the feeling. Luckily for me and Jen we recovered after we’d stopped concentrating on writing and recording, Mark was not so fortunate though and had to endure some keeled-over-the-side moments throughout the day. The rest of us managed to avoid any further bouts of sickness and managed to continue with the day, scot-free.

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The NVT crew for the day

 

As the day proceeded the data began to stack up, we were lucky enough to see a wide range of birds; small Storm Petrels who cut across the sky, White-Chinned Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters who flew along beside us and often sat on the water and watched as we bobbed past, Gulls and Gannets who recognised our boat for its usual purpose and followed us coyly, eyeing any scraps they could pinch, best of all however was the mighty albatross, sweeping through the air with majesty and an indifference towards our boat. As well as this was a slightly more sinister incurrence. As we sailed from one checkpoint to the next, the air seemed to chill and a shadow came over the boat as a dark triangle cut through the water a couple of meters from our boat. A sleek wedge slithered through the water, with a looming dark shadow beneath it. The shark dived deeper into the ocean and Rudi and Gwen announced that it had been a Great White; with this encounter behind us we each took a little more care whilst leaning over the side of the boat to look for fish. 

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A gorgeous Shy Albatross. Photo Credit Dr Gwen Penry

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Lovely head on view of an inquisitive Sub Antarctic Skua. Photo Credit Dr Gwen Penry

Throughout our journey we nibbled on the bits and pieces of food we had brought with us, ginger biscuits were handed round numerous times, soggy sandwiches forced down more for necessity than pleasure, the rare appearance of Kendal mint cake was enjoyed as a novelty, and then again brought back by popular demand. Due to the constant nature of the jobs no one could properly eat at the same time so envious looks followed as one member of the team enjoyed their lunch, or those that had the foresight to bring coffee sipped it slightly smugly. None the less everyone, with the exception of Mark who probably couldn’t  bear the thought of food in his current disposition, were content and enjoying the day.

Midday passed and we continued to plod along, slowly closing in on the end of our data gathering. We’d rounded the point of Robberg Peninsula and were now out of sight from the town of Plettenberg Bay even more alone on the ocean. The peninsula had lived up to its name; translate to Seal-Rock in English the number of flippers pointing up at odd angles had increased as we neared the great outcrop. Often two or three seal would simply be lying near each other floating with no worldly cares, their silky rounded bellies sticking out like Speedo clad holidaymakers lounging in a tropical resort. Just as we passed the tip of Robberg it became clear Gwen’s years of whale research had obviously sharpened her eyes as she spotted a whale’s blow, which the rest of us had been blissfully unaware of. Although the vapour cloud was about 800m away, once you had picked it out it was very distinctive against the two tone blue horizon. Whilst the rest of us sat in awe of this first sighting Gwen must have been scanning around for more as she began shouting “Blow! Blow! Blow!” at random intervals, leaving us like a bunch of tennis spectators, our heads spinning from side to side to try and find the whale’s mark. Soon we were moving closer to the shore again and away from the small markers that betrayed a monstrous creature looming below.

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Lovely cloud formation over Robberg

 

The rest of the survey passed mostly without event. We continued to identify the pelagic birds we came across as well as a couple of penguins floating out at sea, little knowing that they may soon be joined by many more of its species. The African penguin is a species in decline, despite protected colonies in both Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. In order to lend support to the South African population and coinciding with the travel of many penguins between the two current colonies, a halfway-house for penguins may be established. The colony will also provide a place to release any rehabilitated or rescued individuals that land up on Plett Shores. The Plettenberg Bay area is one of two locations currently being monitored and assessed to determine which would be most suitable. Our surveying will be repeated each month for a year to decide if the area contains enough prey to introduce penguins and not disturb the local predators. This will be compiled with other research into different aspects of the proposal to form the final application. Our epic day at sea was really a tiny piece of a huge project.

When we reached the final checkpoint and had packed up equipment, we turned and sped back towards the bay, now we weren’t monitoring with the sonar equipment we could go a lot faster and Rudi was unshackled as he roared the twin engines creating a bubbling white froth behind us. Quickly we had rounded the point again, and were nearing the beach, now a lot busier with people scattered along. Once we were very close to the shore, Rudi informed us that to land we would effectively beach ourselves. With that he motioned to some sunbathers to get out the way and put the engine to full throttle. Not having fully registered what Rudi had meant I was a little surprised as we hurtled towards the shore with no sign of slowing down. However we quickly reached the beach, hit it with a similar impact to getting into the water and stopped. With that, after 11 hours, more than 150 animal sightings, 400 screenshots of the sonar scanner captured and a one unforgettable experience, we were back.

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