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Monday, January 30, 2012

Life list + 1!!

A pair within the larger group. 
Characteristic dorsal shape - a dead giveaway. A whale watch boat watches blue whales in the distance.
Spy hop to check us out!
The black bulbous melon, lack of beak (or discernible one) and broad-based falcate dorsal fin help us to identify the species
The world's best support team who happen to be my parents (and as it turns out - my good luck charms too!)

An amazing new addition to my life list - the short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhnychus). A pod of about 30 cruised towards and stuck around our boat giving us some great photo and sighting opportunities.....that is until a whale watch boat cottoned on and came racing right through causing them to hurriedly dive out of sight!!!  

It also happened to be the day my parents came out on their annual 'sit-on-boat-with-Asha-and-watch-her-do-what-makes-her-happy' trip so the whole thing immediately became more memorable with exclamations of excitement and joy from all quarters.

Pilot whales are actually large dolphins and come in two species. This one, found in tropical and subtropical waters and the long finned pilot whale that is distributed antitropically. Click on this link to learn more about this species http://www.acsonline.org/factpack/PilotWhale.htm and see how it differs from its long-finned cousin.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sri Lanka: The kingdom of giants

While the width of its fluke is the length of an average Sri Lankan fishing boat, it is with great respect that we maneouver through its territory knowing that a mere flick of the tail would send us reeling. But it is with unending fascination that we stop to watch. Even as a researcher who has the privilege to spend many hours weaving through their world, each encounter reminds me how lucky I am to experience something that only the smallest percentage of our world has, and ever will get the opportunity to marvel at.

The largest animal to ever roam the planet, the blue whale, is fast becoming a national icon; a symbol for the Sri Lanka in a new era of peace. While Sri Lankans are now free to roam and experience the entire country, the blue whale is free to explore the entire ocean, however, those in our waters do not wander afar. The northern Indian Ocean basin is home to a population of blue whales that, unlike others of this species, remain resident all year round.  While the warm waters of the tropics are a key reason for tourists from around the world to flock to our shores, it is precisely what prevents most whales from hanging around throughout the year. Tropical waters are generally less food-rich than those in the cooler areas such as the poles. For a species that feeds exclusively on tiny shrimplike animals called krill, that are no bigger than a 2 rupee coin, and consume about 3.6 metric tons or 2/3rds of the weight of an elephant in a single day – having areas rich with food is a key to their survival.

The blue whale is a baleen whale. This means they have fringed plates of fingernail-like material, called baleen attached to their upper jaws and a distinct absence of teeth. These giant animals feed by gulping an enormous mouthful of water, which is made possible by the expansion of their throat pleats. The whale then uses its massive tongue, which weighs as much as an elephant, to force the water out through the thin, overlapping baleen plates. The krill that are left behind are then swallowed in a single gulp.

So why are they called blue whales? Because as they swim under the surface of the ocean, they take on a beautiful tinge of blue; while at the surface, they are a mottled blue-gray in colour. While blue whales are generally considered solitary, in Sri Lanka, one often gets the opportunity to see more than just a couple in a single area. So why are our waters so popular with these great leviathans? Well, evidence comes in the form of a reddish substance that floats at the surface of the water before dissolving….blue whale poo! It gets its beautiful hue from the reddish-pink krill that the whales consume…and the fact that they defaecate is a sign that they are feeding in our waters.

While Sri Lanka is now being crowned one of the most accessible places in the world to see blue whales, for over two thousand years another giant has become synonymous with our island – the elephant. It became such a symbol of Sri Lanka that the coat of arms used during Dutch and British rule were adorned with an elephant standing majestically between two stands of palm trees. Sri Lanka is a blessed land. An unimaginable range of cultural and natural sights, smells and sounds abound as you travel through this island and the sight of the largest land mammal roaming the planet today is certainly one to behold. The mere fact that it is possible to see the largest land mammal and the largest marine mammal in one holiday makes Sri Lanka a very unique land and definitely worth a visit.

Unfortunately, both these species, the largest mammals in their respective habitats are endangered – they face a very high risk of extinction in the wild. They face problems related to increasing human encroachment – directly linked to increasing population size. Blue whales face significant threats from increasing ship traffic and elephants suffer from loss of territory and habitat due to increasing land development. While research on blue whales is still at its infancy mostly due to the costs related to working in the marine environment, we are beginning to understand their needs and better ways to conserve the populations.

So, while we sit back and enjoy the moment it is always important to remember to treat these giants with respect. We must recognize that these are wild animals, and while seeing them is a moment to celebrate, there is no guarantee for nature. To truly appreciate these giants, we must watch them in their natural habitat indulging in their natural behaviours. Rushing to get as close as possible or any other invasive action on our part only disturbs them and sends them fleeing. It is essential that you tell your operator that while you are keen to watch these animals you are happy to hang back and get the real experience to prevent harassing the animals. Make a statement about the importance of conserving these species when you pick your guide and don’t be afraid to vocalize if you think they are disrupting the animal’s behaviour. We have to remember that while we have the privilege to experience these giants, two of the greatest that have ever lived, they are not ours to destroy. We have a responsibility to protect them as they belong to all of us and most of all to our unborn children.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

kancando: Whale Watching in Mirissa

kancando: Whale Watching in Mirissa: Until early last year, I always knew Sri Lanka to be the Land of the Elephant, the Asian Elephant being the second largest land dwelling mam...

Calling all weather Gods

Life is about challenges...and in some ways, things would be boring if this was not so. Thats what I think..... in general....
Then, there are days like this. Days when I wish the challenges would go away at least temporarily, leaving room for us to continue with the task at hand. I write from my field site on the southern coast of Sri Lanka where I study the habitat of a rather different population of blue whales....ones that choose to remain in warmer waters year round. The challenge I face right now is one beyond my control - the weather. The fact that the weather Gods are not cooperating as we would like. In a country whose climate is governed by the monsoons, this is the season to work in this area. The good days are glorious and make up for the few bad days, but back to back days spent on land can lead to frustration.
The thing is, we need reasonably flat seas and low winds to be able to sight, observe, follow and photograph the whales and cast our salinity and temperature recorders. Even collecting acoustic data requires the boat to be quite still so the predominant sound isn't the boat slapping on the surface of the water. Besides the requirement for nice seas for research purposes, there is also the comfort factor. Unsettled seas make the boat roll when we stop at which point data entry becomes an unpleasant task for some.
Field biologists are plagued by this problem and I think working on the ocean adds a further dimension. In August last year I had the privilege of working with a team from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland and the Mingan Island Cetacean Study on humpback whale related research in Mingan, Canada. While I looked forward to a whole month of research - we were only able to head out on the water for 6 days because of intense fog. At first, the fog was a novelty because I had never experienced the sensation of 'walking through clouds'. As you can imagine, the novelty soon wore out and we were doing everything in our power to keep our spirits up and stay positive. I guess in some ways it's the life of a marine biologist, but it is not something we ever get used to or are willing to acknowledge.
Perhaps I sound ungrateful, which I hope I don't. Perhaps I sound frustrated, which I definitely am. I guess ultimately what I am requesting is if any of you have contact with a congenial weather God - please pass on the number....our days in the field are limited as are our funds and we really need to get out on the water much more than 50% of the time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Global fellowships in marine conservation at Duke University

I was a Duke Global Fellow 4 years ago and had a really great summer out there. Apart from the great learning experience and having the opportunity to work with leading researchers in the field I made lasting friendships with like minded, fun people and subsequently have built collaborations for research. I fully recommend that anyone interested in marine conservation applies for this.

Deadline: 15 February 2012
Fellowships for international students will fully cover travel expenses, room and board, and tuition for two courses, your required course BIOLOGY 109/ENVIRON 109/ENVIRON 209 Conservation Biology and Policy and an elective course of your choice to subject to availability. The courses begin on July 9 and ends on August 10, 2012.

The Global Fellowships are available to any international applicant with a good working knowledge of English who has an interest and qualifications in marine conservation biology.  The course requires some background in marine science and political science. Usually Global Fellows have a BA or BS degree in hand.

There is no separate fellowship application form. Intent to apply for a fellowship should be made known on the
 printed summer course enrollment form. It is our preference to receive applications via email (rachel.lopiccolo@duke.edu) or by fax (252)504-7648. 
Application materials should be directed to: 
Duke Marine Lab Global Fellows Program
c/o Rachel Lo Piccolo
135 Duke Marine Lab Rd
Beaufort NC 28516, USA

Application Materials
In addition to the enrollment form, each Global Fellowship applicant is required to submit the following credentials:

1.    A brief essay - please limit this to one page - describing the applicant’s education, research, and work experience background please note a Curriculum Vitae does not take the place of this essay;
2.    A brief statement of purpose - please limit this to one page - i.e., describing the applicant's reason for taking the course, how the applicant will be able to apply the training in his/her home country, the applicant's future goals;
3.    A letter of recommendation from academic faculty or employer addressed to Dr. Mike Orbach.  We do not offer guidelines about the information to be included in your reference letter. These letters typically include how the referee knows you, his/her opinions of your work together in the past, and thoughts about whether he/she feels you'd be well suited to this program.
4.    A Complete Curriculum Vitae.
5.    A copy of your transcript is preferred. It may be an unofficial version. The transcript can be emailed to rachel.lopiccolo@duke.edu or faxed to (252) 504-7638 or scanned and emailed to the attention of Rachel Lo Piccolo.  A non-certified translation of the transcript is fine.  If sending a transcript is impossible, then please send a copy of your degree. If a traditional transcript is available, documentation certifying your courses, grades and official notes taken in each course during university studies in addition to a copy of your diploma will be required.

Due Date
Global Fellowship applications materials must be received no later than
 15  February 2012 by Rachel Lo Piccolo (rachel.lopiccolo@duke.edu).  All applicants will be notified of their award status shortly after the deadline date.We appreciate your interest in our Global Fellows program.  If you have any questions you may contact Rachel Lo Piccolo at rachel.lopiccolo@duke.edu.

For additional information specific to the Global Fellowship in Marine Conservation contact Rachel.Lopiccolo@duke.edu