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 second post in a series of articles recounting his weekly experiences as a humanities student in a world of science and conservation.
After all the learning and experiences of the first week, one might expect the following week to be tamer. That was not the case, and the adventures kept piling up. On my eighth day, we found two stranded humpback whales along the coast as we were out at sea. One of them had been reported and the other we stumbled across as we were searching for dolphins. These whales were decomposing and were not pretty. The smell was potent, and the animals no longer looked majestic, having lost all their form to decay. Part of the work however, is collecting samples and measurements from dead cetaceans, and it is vital work. Such data can provide valuable insight into the feeding habits, movement, health, pollution levels and many other aspects of the animal.
Similarly, we responded to a stranding report of a dead pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) along the northern shore. Unlike their more renowned cousin, the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), pygmy sperm whales are small and largely unknown to humans, living deep in the ocean and staying hidden to avoid predation, making finding one all the more interesting. It was also the second ever recorded pygmy sperm whale found in Namibia. This individual was a calf and thus posed little problem in the way of transport. We drove it to a nearby hospital where it most probably became Namibia’s first whale to get a CT scan. The results indicated that the cetacean may have died of Brucellosis, a zoonosis that can affect the brain of the animal.
A few days later, we performed a necropsy of the animal in a lab to take samples and get an in-depth understanding of the condition the mammal was in. The necropsy was a bloody affair and the whale no longer resembled a living organism by the end of it, something I was not used to, and something a lot of people would find difficult to digest. I managed to open the skull and the team hypothesised that the CT scan results were correct, as the brain seemed liquified. It was fascinating to learn about the diet and health of such an animal by the contents of its stomach, quality of the lungs and kidneys etc., but it is not for everyone. It is a stark contrast to what many learning conservationists initially think of the work. It is not hugging seal pups, it is dirty and morbid at times, and something to think about when deciding whether it is right for you. But if one can overcome the presence of death and decay, seeing the bigger picture yields many rewards. For instance, should this cetacean have died of Brucellosis, it could have an impact on the health and population of not only pygmy sperm whales, but all other marine mammals in the area as well, and it is important to understand and detect these events.
It was not all blood and guts this week. I was placed on a boat tour to collect data about where tour boats travel to around the bay and the encounters they might have etc. These types of survey are called opportunistic surveys, as I collect data depending on what I encounter on the boat, without a plan of where I am going and what I am going to observe. It was a relaxed environment to work in and I was treated to some oysters along the way, which made me feel like a very privileged intern. These opportunistic sightings are valuable for recognising patterns of human interaction and cetacean reaction. The headline of the tour was encountering a leucistic Heaviside’s dolphin that had not been seen by the NDP in two years. Leucism is the partial loss of pigmentation which results in white, pale or patchy coloration of an animal – not to be mistaken with albinism, which is the complete loss of melanin resulting in a completely white animal, including loss of colouration in the eyes.
The problem of the week was entanglement. One day when the weather did not permit us to go out to sea, we did a land survey of jackals and Cape fur seals instead. What we were mainly looking for amongst the huge colonies of seals that cake the beaches around Walvis Bay, is entanglement. The first seal we passed in the car, lay aside from any colony and lifted its head to reveal scarring and a fishing line caught around its neck. We saw multiple such cases. Walvis Bay is a fishing port and there are oyster and mussel farms in the area, which employ nets to cultivate the relevant crustaceans. As in any area where human meets sea, there is bound to be something that a marine mammal can get caught or entangled in. I do not know if these seals could feel what was wrapped around them, but it looked excruciating to the naked eye.
Simon explained that to free all these seals is a full-time job, and not one the Namibian Dolphin Project has the resources to cater to, seals not being their focus after all. They do however work closely with a few benevolent local kayak guides, who have taken it upon themselves to free any entangled seals they may find. Freeing them from their rope or fishing line prison is hard work; the bulls can weigh up to 200 kilograms and could easily take off a finger if approached incorrectly.
The unfortunate truth I learned this week about marine conservation is that to understand and protect the living, you must learn from the dead. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows and when you are prying through an animal’s organs you do have to stop and remind yourself what you are doing it for. It might seem like it is all life and beauty on Blue Planet, but someone along the line had to be knee deep in a carcass to bring you the wise words of David Attenborough.
Cfsph.iastate.edu. (2018). [online] Available at:http://www.cfsph.iastate.edu/Factsheets/pdfs/brucellosis_marine.pdf
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.