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 the fourth and last post in a series of articles recounting his weekly experiences as a humanities student in a world of science and conservation.
My final week on the project was another week to remember and once again yielded one experience after the next. Tess Gridley replaced Simon as team leader for the last two weeks and brought a new, but equally fascinating perspective to the work the NDP does. Her focus is on bioacoustics and as such I have gained a more focused and in-depth understanding of the importance and relevance of acoustics in marine mammals. We have been deploying a lot of hydrophones, and beyond knowing that they record the noises dolphins, whales and other ocean dwellers make, I had not extensively thought about how that information is used. Tess explained to me that acoustics can be used for a range of applications, from revealing the changes in biodiversity in different regions by analysing the level of acoustic commotion in those areas over time, to recognising the different ways in which cetaceans and other sea mammals communicate. It can also reveal the effects and extent of issues like noise pollution and tourism, which is fundamental from a conservation point of view.
The main focal point of Tess, Rachel and Darren’s work, is the acoustic repertoire of dolphins, and so naturally leans to the research of how these animals communicate. They use a spectrogram to visually depict the frequencies and duration of the noises made by the cetaceans which have been picked up by a hydrophone. They then categorise these sounds and try and associate the different categories with different behavioural patterns to understand what the dolphins are trying to communicate with the different noises they make. For instance, dolphins use clicks to identify their prey. The closer they get to their dinner, the more frequent the clicks become, because they are signals that bounce off the prey and back to the dolphin. When a dolphin is about to catch its prey, the clicks become so bunched together that it resembles a buzz to the human ear, and so this noise in the acoustic repertoire of dolphins has appropriately been coined a “buzz”. Another key feature of dolphin acoustics is their signature whistle. Each dolphin develops a whistle in their first year or so of life which is unique to them and acts as a name would to a human. A mother may use her signature whistle to locate her calf in the vast ocean should it have veered off course, and the calf might reply with its mother’s whistle or otherwise with its own signature noise, identifying itself amongst the crowd. The whistles tend to be longer than clicks and vary in frequency and can thus be seen as separate sounds on a spectrogram, giving each dolphin an identity. In terms of noise pollution, I witnessed what clanging doors sound like under water, from a recording of dolphins in captivity, and what a boat motoring along produces on a spectrogram and it is a shocking contrast to the fleeting and peaceful hustle and bustle of the dolphins.
Tess’ presence spurred on the development of a side project the NDP is working on: the “Jackalogue”. It consists of collecting all the data on the numerous jackals around Walvis Bay and creating a catalogue of each individual.
As a result, we conducted another land survey this week, during which I experienced some old-school hands-on conservation action. Naude, one of the kayak guides who rescues the local Cape fur seals from entanglement invited us to join him on one of his disentanglement patrols. We did so eagerly, and he soon found a pup burdened by fishing line. Very few words were spoken before he sprinted in amongst the colony of seals, grabbed the unfortunate individual and began cutting loose the line. The other seals all waddled into the ocean befuddled. He soon had the youngster freed from its human prison and let it scurry into the water to join its confused family.
The main problem this week, and a fitting one to leave open ended, was plastic. One day, returning from sea, we began picking plastic and other litter out of the ocean, only to find that piece upon piece of waste seemed to trail on into the distance. It was disheartening, and we could not pin the origin of this long line of rubbish. Eventually, we plucked a whole bin bag, contents included, out of the water and could but sigh at the thought that somewhere along the line this whole bag had been dumped into the sea. Plastic was everywhere, and it can easily kill the cetaceans that live in the area. Should a young calf, adventurous in nature, decide to taste the strange floating entity it sees on the surface, suffocation or contamination is probable. Plastic is obviously the most talked about problem facing the oceans today, so I will refrain from going into too much depth, since I do not want to take away from the importance of the issues I have outlined in the last week, which are of equal weighting. Beyond removing plastic from the sea when it is encountered on the boat and organising occasional beach cleans, the NDP is limited in what it can do to tackle this problem, since to investigate the full effects and level of plastic pollution in Walvis Bay would require years of dedicated and targeted research which is outside the scope of the NDP’s focus. They have however begun to photograph and document litter removed from the ocean and may use this documentation to serve as evidence in future discussions and provide a foundation for mapping where and what sort of waste is being found, allowing for more targeted future projects.
This concludes my time at the Namibian Dolphin Project, and with it comes another lesson. Between all the beautiful sights, ugly deaths, problems and solutions, what stayed consistent was a sense of purpose and achievement. This is something that is consistent with the common view of conservation and something I hoped would always be the case at the end of my internship: it is worth it. Though this sort of work has a great many more complexities than I ever imagined, there is a common and omniscient goal that runs throughout and finding solutions through communication with communities and careful observation is extremely rewarding when progress is made. I can safely say that I cherished every moment and that for those willing to step out of their comfort zone and be active, conservation yields endless moments of awe, fascination and improvement.
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.