From the archives: February 2015
Above: Spinner Dolphin on the Tanzania Indian Ocean. Copyright Gill Braulik
Published in The East African Nation Media 27 Feb 2015
It’s exciting talking to Dr Gill Braulik who for the last 18 years has been following dolphins and whales around the Indian Ocean. In a few days time, she will set sail for six weeks in a catamaran with her team of seven scientists – all females in the top echelon – to survey the Tanzanian coastline for dolphins and whales – 3000 kilometers with a few more added in for the islands of Pemba and Mafia. It’s the first time that such a survey is being carried out in Tanzanian waters.
For most people, dolphins are those friendly creatures leading troubled vessels in the sea to safety and whales are awesome because of their sheer size. But for Braulik, that isn’t enough. Curious about their declining populations, she’s travelled the globe to raise the profile of these enigmatic ocean-wandering creatures.
Her first stint, where she spent ten years living, was in Pakistan to study the blind Indus River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica minor) found only in the Indus River, one of Asia’s longest rivers flowing through India, China and the entire length of Pakistan. “When we started we didn’t know if any were left,” tells the ocean wanderer. There was dire need for scientific information to chart out conservation efforts. “I trained the first batch of Pakistani dolphin researchers who now run the show and started the first national programme on dolphin conservation in the country.”
In 2001, the team carried out the first assessment covering 1,600 kilometers in Pakistan. This was repeated in 2006 and then five years later in 2011.
The assessment revealed a population of around 1,500 freshwater dolphins, which has been stable over the years despite the challenges the dolphins face. 150 years ago, their range covered the entire 3,500 kilometers of the Indus River. Today, this range has declined by 80 per cent. “The bigger picture for these dolphins is not good,” continues Braulik. There are 16 huge dams built on the central Indus, farmers use the river heavily for irrigation and much of the water is diverted before it drains into the ocean. Pockets of dolphins survive between the dams on the river.
Specializing in dolphin and whale research is a career Braulik chose early in life. She was attracted to this because there were many areas in the ocean devoid of scientific research on these mammals, who are our closest relatives in the oceans. Like us, whales and dolphins are warm blooded, give birth to live young – albeit in water – who then suckle the mothers’ milk from mammary glands.
“I go to places to be the pioneer, train local researchers and start national initiatives,” the petite, sun-tanned scientist tells me, as we chat by the ocean facing the Zanzibar Serena Inn. Her eyes keep turning to the ocean. “You can usually see Humpback dolphins near the shoreline here,” she tells me.
The Tanzanian coastline on the Indian Ocean spans 800 kilometers with numerous fishing communities settled along the beach front. Nobody knows what species of dolphins and whales abound in these waters because no surveys have ever been done.
“We will be seven scientists aboard the 50-foot catamaran recording visual and acoustic information,” tells Braulik. The captain and acoustics specialist – including Braulik and Magreth Kasuga, her Tanzania research assistant on the WADE project, an apt acronym – for Whale and Dolphin Evaluation in Tanzania– are females. Kasuga has been working with Braulik, training in marine mammal science and is taking on a greater role in the coming survey of supervising the observers and managing the data. In the six weeks at sea, they will only come to land twice for refueling and replenishing food stocks. The crew will set sail from Stone Town in Zanzibar to Mtwara on the border of Tanzania and Mozambique and end in Tanga close to the Kenyan border.
“It will be a broad scale overview of species and hotspots. This will tell us which are the endangered species to help us target our conservation efforts. At this moment apart from in Zanzibar where there is a long term project run with the University of Dar es Salaam, we know very little about dolphins and whales in the rest of Tanzanian waters.”
Away from mainland Tanzania’s coastline, Braulik and her team recently conducted a two-week survey of whales and dolphins in the Pemba Channel Conservation Area (PECCA), Tanzania’s newest and biggest marine conservation area established in 2009 with an area of 1,000 square kilometers. “It was fantastic,” she enthuses. The team recorded five species of dolphins – the most exciting being large numbers of humpback dolphins not usually seen. “These are the most threatened because they are found near the coastlines and therefore are closest to humans, meaning they are subject to getting caught in the fishermen’s nets.
“We saw Spotted and Bottlenose dolphins and lots of Spinner dolphins and two Humpback whales – both females with calves,” continues the researcher.
Humpback whales migrate from the Antartica where they feed on krill, all the way to the eastern shores of the African continent, using the land as a guide to the safe warm waters of Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and Somalia where they give birth and breed. As a general rule, whales migrate long distances each year between feeding and breeding grounds – as much as tens of thousands of kilometers. In Tanzania, the whales arrive in July and the last ones leave in October; this means the whale migration coincides with the dramatic migration of wildebeest across the Grumeti River in Serengeti National Park. “Humpback whales are a priority species for the Wildlife Conservation Society,” states Braulik. For two centuries, Humpback whales were hunted– to the edge of extinction – for their fat and meat till a moratorium by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was put in place. Like vultures, their population declined by 95 per cent. Although some whale populations disappeared forever as a result of persecution by hunters, today, others are on the rebound, spelling a conservation success story.
Braulik tells of expanding horizons beyond Tanzania. “There is a new dolphin project we are currently planning to collaborate with Global Vision International and Watamu Marine Association in Kenya on conservation of animals that move between countries. It will involve taking pictures of dorsal fins of dolphins and whale tails because they are unique like our fingerprints.”
The collaboration could expand to Madagascar, Mozambique and other ocean-hugging countries along the eastern side of the continent to compare data and map a safe passage for the cetaceans.
Climate Change and Cetaceans
Until a few years ago, sighting a gray whale in the southern hemisphere would have been dismissed. But on 4th of May 2013, marine tour operators working in Walvis Bay, Namibia, reported an ‘odd looking whale, possibly a gray whale’ to local researchers running the Namibian Dolphin Project (NDP). After studying the pictures, it proved to be a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), which is normally recorded only in the Pacific, making it the first confirmed record of the species along the African coastline.
With the ice caps melting at the Poles, water passages are now opening, allowing for the sea creatures to move into new areas from as far away as the Arctic.
Threats and Challenges
“They are the same for them everywhere,” says Braulik, worry-lines appearing across her brow. An initial research along the Tanzanian coastline reveals that local fishermen do not hunt dolphins but dolphins that get caught in gill nets are sometimes eaten and the oil from the fat blubber is extracted. It’s used to paint the wooden boats and dhows to guard against wood rot and wood worm.
But what’s really worrying along the Tanzanian coast is local fishermen dynamiting the coral reefs which kills not only the fish they want, but the reef and threatened creatures like dolphins, whales and turtles. In days of old, in some places local fishermen conducted dolphin hunts at sea which in Kisimkazi on Zanzibar has been replaced by tourist boats chasing dolphins for picture-perfect shots of the graceful cetacean.
“An ocean empty of dolphins and whales would change the ocean considerably. These creatures are at the top of the food chain. Taking them out of the sea would have knock on effects to the entire ecosystem including fish on which people depend. Whales and dolphins are enormously charismatic and visible creatures, it is a great way to motivate and inspire people about protecting the ocean. Many people in East Africa have no idea that it is home to such a diverse array of incredible whales and dolphins. Our hope is that by spreading the news about these awesome creatures will give East African people another thing to be proud of and to protect.
To follow the journey of the dolphin and whale researchers @GillBraulik #BigBlueTz
She is a Pew Marine Fellow, and a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cetacean Specialist Group