As I wrap up the season here in Nosy Be and feel the familiar bittersweet nostalgia closing in, I wanted to share what we’ve been up to over the last few months-a full end of season report is on its way, but for now, here is a brief summary!
This season marked our return to Nosy Be after nearly three years away, we planned a lot of things and knew it was going to be challenging, and in some ways, did not know what to expect after so much time away.
I personally was worried the shark population would have decreased, and that, after the pandemic, a lot of people would have jumped on the whale shark tourism boat without proper training or knowledge, thus very likely disturbing them even more as they feed.
The sharks, it turns out, are still here. Following our initial statistics, our team and contributors identified this year 108 different individuals, which is lower than in 2018 and 2019 (where we topped the 140 bar) but still a significant number. Of these sharks, we knew 44 from previous years, it was a real pleasure to see friendly sharks again, like Hugo, Alphonse, Raphael, Théodore, yet also sad to not see familiar faces such as our beloved Michel, Clasperfin and Zazou, we hope they are living their best life somewhere else! This year we also met many new sharks (67!), which is not surprising considering our data gap after the pandemic. I experienced a magical moment with Alphonse vertical feeding on baitfish, and witnessed whale sharks feeding on krill which was pretty mesmerising!
This year we also tested new things. A big change for us was the introduction of the tablets, streamlining data collection onboard and significantly reducing our data entry obligations in the evening. This was made possible through the creation of a survey tool on the app Kobo Kollect, specially designed by Justin who joined us this year with a background in data science. We also started using the algorithm I3S locally on the laptop here, which was overseen by Léonce on a daily basis to ensure we could produce a weekly statistic on the shark numbers, done remotely by Claire and Amy who updated the databases on a weekly basis. With all of these steps, it was much easier for us to supervise and guide volunteers as they collected data on a daily basis while at sea. To date we collected photo-identification data for 336 encounters!
A huge thanks to you all for making this mammoth task a lot easier! I also thank all the contributors who sent us photo-identification pictures by email.
Another highlight this year was the deployment of the acoustic array. It was all in all highly challenging as I never did this before, and we had a few setbacks which meant local solutions had to be identified here in Nosy Be, again and again, without any colleagues being able to join me on site. The first part, the deployment of the 9 moorings and receivers, took part ahead of the season with the aim to have it fully deployed and working before the sharks arrived, so they could be tagged as soon as possible to start collecting data. With the help of Forever Dive, Quinten, Jacques, Thomas, Oceane’s Dream and Nosy Découvertes this was all possible. Special thanks to Sylvia for her expertise and advise.
The sharks however only arrived in late September, and due to some equipment malfunction I struggled to deploy the tags as fast as I wanted. Thankfully we could solve the issue and had to use more strength, aka double band, to insert the tag into the animal (which doesn’t feel a thing, by the way). Eventually we could deploy all the 34 tags as planned, which was a huge relief and challenge, as we need the photo-identification photo and sex before each tag is deployed. I am hugely grateful to Thomas and Guillaume for their help as skilled spear fishermen!
I have successfully found the stations again, and have downloaded all the data, which is amazing to see. We will soon start analysing it together with the project partners, and plan the next steps!
This year we also improved our code of conduct training, with the aim to reach more local operators with a simpler training format. Thanks to a collaborative effort with Cetamada, and with support from Madagascar Film & Photography and Pinky Productions, we produced 3 short videos, one about whale shark biology, one about our actions in Nosy Be, and one about the code of conduct, in both French and Malagasy, with a voiceover and pictures, to share our message. Early in the season Leonce, Tsiafoy and myself gave more than 10 training sessions across Nosy Be, Nosy Komba and Nosy Sakatia, to remind everyone about the fragile nature of whale shark tourism in Madagascar. While the number of people out at sea was much higher than any other season, we kept reminding operators about the code of conduct. We have also been advocating for the code of conduct to become a law in Madagascar, a joint initiative with Cetamada which is well underway and in its final stages with the Tourism Ministry at this stage. This will encourage, we hope, operators to follow the guidelines and the law, as we all should when interacting with an endangered species.
I also joined the President of Madagascar during his brief passage in Nosy Be for the Whale Shark Festival, a new initiative led by the Tourism Ministry, at sea to tell him about whale sharks and their dire need for protection. It was both highly stressful and impressive to experience such an event, the beach was covered with people, and after so much planning and preparation I did not know whether this would happen until the last minute. Huge thanks to Fanja and Nahema from Safari Baleine, Léonce and Tsiafoy for helping out as guides on this day and making sure all of the presidential cabinet was told about whale shark protection needs that day.
Finally I want to thank all the team of the Madagascar Whale Shark Project, in particular Léonce, Amy, Justin and Claire for their presence through this season, the Baleines Rand’eau team for their support, the staff at Senga, and to everyone who contributed, Ralph and the Aqua-Firma group, the Sakatia Lodge team, Valentin and Apnea Revolution freedivers, all the volunteers… And the wider Mada Whale Shark family, across the world, who have supported us through this big year!
We made it!
Wishing you a happy break, and see you in the new year with exciting news!
Stella Diamant, Founder & Director
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