I have the largest brain of any animal, I can reach up to 20.5 metres in length and have a head that is one third the length of my body… what am I?
I am the ever illusive Sperm whale and my name comes from the milky-white waxy substance, called spermaceti, found in my head. Are you passionate about whales and dolphins?
Volunteers on the Mauritius Dolphin Conservation Project have been looking for the ever elusive sperm whales, which inhabit Mauritian waters, as part of a research programme which aims to protect cetaceans from the rapidly growing tourist industry. In recent times observations of up to 50 boats pursuing a mother whale and her calf have been recorded. The funding required for Marine Biologists to collect essential data to develop legislation and regulate the industry depends on volunteers who work hands on as research assistants.
It had been three months since the last sighting and the team were anxious as to why they hadn’t had any sperm whale sightings which are usually frequent around this time of year. After being out on the sea for 30 minutes they encountered their first glimpse of a whale, the melon headed whale. To their relief, it was then on the way back to La Preneuse that they finally saw the great sperm whale, a group of around 15 were traveling along with their calves. The team were thrilled.
The use of volunteers to identify and record individuals during sightings is crucial if we are understand how these animals’ movements, populations and behaviour is changing over time. Nobody quite yet understands what impact the huge increase in motor boat traffic has on cetaceans. In addition to the harassment, these animals use echo location to communicate and locate their prey. Dolphins (and other toothed whales) can produce high pitched clicks. When these clicks hit an object, some of the sound will echo back to the sender. By listening to the echo and interpreting the time it took before the echo came back, the dolphin estimates the distance of the object.
With motor boats adding a huge amount of noise pollution to coastal waters, it isn’t clear just what impact this may be having on their feeding behaviour. Furthermore, just yesterday a study published in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology revealed for the first time that turbulence generated by speeding motor boats kills significant numbers of zooplankton, the food for many filter feeding cetaceans and a critical link between phytoplankton and fish in aquatic food webs.
The project researchers have participated in several conferences in the region, specifically in South Africa where they attended the African Marine Mammal Colloquium and on Reunion Island they attended the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association to present the work, which is mainly the data collection which has been achieved with the help of the volunteers and the research which is run with help of their funds. Being able to present their work at these conferences means that they have increased the awareness of the situation in Mauritius.
A huge recent development is that as a result of the ongoing education process the dolphin watching operators have started their own NGO to help regulate each other and continue education.
As a marine conservation volunteer you will be part of a dedicated team collecting data for the development of new legislation to protect the marine life from further decline. For information on how to apply please follow this link.