Article written by Jaz Henry. He studies English Literature and Philosophy and always thought the world of marine conservation was slightly out of his grasp, not having studied Biology or Zoology. So, this summer, he decided to let experience decide whether pursuing this line of work is the right choice for him. After applying to various projects, he was accepted as an intern for the Namibian Dolphin Project. This is a series of articles recounting his weekly experiences as a humanities student in a world of science and conservation.
I arrived in Namibia and was already captivated by the barren beauty of the vast desert dunes that surrounded me at the airport. It is certainly not a place where you expect to find the sea. However, my home for the duration of my internship was located directly by the coast and the ocean was very much alive. Namibia is one of the only places in the world where you can witness the desert meeting the sea and it provided me with an endless sense of awe throughout my stay.
The team I worked with during the first week were Monique Laubscher, Darren Du Plessis and Simon Elwen, the founder of the Namibian Dolphin Project (NDP). The project began in 2008 and its aims are to collect and analyse data on cetaceans in Walvis Bay, to raise awareness and understanding of these marine mammals and to work towards the conservation of the local populations. Their focus is on the population of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the area, but other common species observed are Heaviside’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Besides research, they act as a response team for any sea related animal issues such as strandings or injured penguins. Moreover, they are a primary information point for tourists and locals.
My first days on the project were loaded with new experiences and learning possibilities. On my debut sea day, I encountered bottlenose dolphins, Heaviside’s dolphins, Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus), pelicans and flamingos, all for the first time. Bottlenose dolphins are relatively large, and I was surprised by their impressive size. They are beautiful animals and as they leaped into the air and socialised with each other, I felt increasingly fond of them. Heaviside’s dolphins are much smaller and evasive. That said, they were equally endearing as they raced back and forth under the boat and teased us as we tried to take photographs of them for photo identification. You can tell the difference between the two species at a glance by their differently shaped dorsal fins: bottlenose dolphins have a curved fin like a hipster’s beanie hat, whereas Heaviside’s display a triangular fin.
The second time I went to sea, we encountered a humpback whale and her calf. They are massive mammals and seeing them in the wild made everything else seem small. Tracking these gigantic creatures was humbling and served to further deepen my respect of the ocean; a respect that grew exponentially every day I spent on the project.
That same evening, as we settled down in a restaurant to drink a beer and relax, we were called out for two penguins that had been sighted in bad health nearby. As the main response team, we left our drinks behind to go investigate the scene. We found the penguins drooped on the ground close to where they had left the sea and covered in oil. Monique and I gathered them up with blankets and they were driven off to a vet. Whilst an exciting experience in terms of being involved in hands on conservation work, it was upsetting to see animals suffering at the whim of human greed.
The afternoons and evenings were spent analysing and transcribing data. Not being a scientist, this was initially the element that I felt would weigh on me. It is hard work, and it can feel daunting to undergo the monotonous task of inputting all your findings and observations of the day into a computer, but as with the dead humpback whales, it is what that data is used for that is gratifying: compiling data to identify trends and patterns that can, over the years, serve as formal evidence in persuading governments and organisations of the hazards and potential improvements facing local cetaceans. But again, it is important to consider this element of office work that comes with the territory that a lot of young people believe is bypassed by choosing a career in conservation.
This week’s main problem was tourism. The tour boats crowd around small pods of dolphins and the noise levels are extremely high. I saw twelve tour boats racing to catch a glimpse of only two dolphins, which must have been distressing for the animals. A survey done by the Namibian Dolphin Project found that once more than four boats are in proximity of bottlenose dolphins, it would seem that the animals no longer rest or feed (Gridley et al., 2016). The tourism industry is thriving here because of the incredible amount of wildlife, which certainly has its effect on the animals living here as their wildness is prostituted to tourists by the tour companies. Tour boats host trained Cape fur seals and pelicans for tourists to pet, which they have made dependent by feeding them. The Namibian Dolphin Project’s response to this issue is to raise awareness about the local population of marine mammals and outreach to the local community to create a better understanding of what constitutes harmful behaviour or harassment to the animals. I saw this involvement first hand, as Simon makes a conscious effort of knowing everyone in the community and providing an open door for discussion, which allows understanding to flow both ways, usually resulting in a mutual agreement and common aim.
My main takeaway as a humanities student amongst scientists this week was a more rounded way of thinking about conservation. I saw a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. I realised that conservation is not necessarily the constant hands-on work with animals that people think of. This work, as was the case with the Penguins, is present, but it is only a snippet of the whole story. The conservation that can have a tremendous impact takes time and patience. It takes years of research, data input and analysis before it can be formalised into a published paper that can serve as evidence in governmental and corporate discussion. One may not be able initially to see this change because it lies so far in the future, but I keep it at the back of my mind after this week on the project, as I transcribe another page of data onto a computer.
Gridley, T., Elwen, S., Rashley, G., Krakauer, A. and Heiler, J. (2016). Bottlenose dolphins change their whistling characteristics in relation to vessel presence, surface behavior and group composition. In: Fourth International Conference on the Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life. Acoustical Society of America. Link to full text.
You can find more information on the research, conservation and outreach projects of the Namibian Dolphin Project on their website. Here you can also check for upcoming internship opportunities if you want to experience Namibian conservation work firsthand.