ISimangaliso whale survey concluded
THE east coast Humpback Whale survey was recently concluded in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, whose ocean component forms one of only 49 UNESCO marine heritage sites globally.
The survey of the population status of migrating Humpback Whales was spearheaded by Wildoceans, a new marine and coastal conservation programme of the Wildtrust, under a research permit granted by the iSimangaliso Authority.
Marine ecologist, Dr Jennifer Olbers, working with iSimangaliso’s conservation partner Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, said, ‘Over the past decade it has been presumed the Humpback Whale population is increasing as the number of reported mortalities have decreased.
‘However, threats to these whale populations are accelerating.’
Wildlife ACT, a conservation nongovernment organisation which specialises in endangered and priority species monitoring, and which undertakes terrestrial monitoring for the iSimangaliso Authority, stationed monitoring teams on two towers on top of dunes to undertake the full-time monitoring required over a two-month period.
Estimates of overall numbers, group sizes, migration speeds and daily densities can be determined using this data.
Results from this project will allow scientists and conservationists to expand on current knowledge of the east coast Humpback Whale migration and therefore estimate any changes in the population.
Whales communicate using low frequency acoustic signals which allow interaction over large distances.
Noise in the ocean, such as from large ships or off-shore mining activities, can overlap with these acoustic signals and have been reported to induce habitat displacement, behavioural changes and alterations in the whales’ acoustic signals.
The protected iSimangaliso coastline offers an important area in which ocean noise from anthro-pogenic sources is reduced, because shipping lanes are further from the coastline and off-shore mining is prohibited, making it an ideal location for a monitoring survey.
Commercial whaling off the northern KwaZulu-Natal coastline between 1908 and 1979 decimated whale populations in these waters.
The protection of Humpback Whales in 1963 marked one of the great South African marine conservation success stories, with numbers steadily increasing during this time. The current survey forms part of a long-term, shore-based migration survey which was designed and initiated in 1988 by Prof Ken Findlay, of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and Dr Peter Best, of the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute, to track the population increase of Humpback Whales as they recovered from commercial whaling pressure.
‘The recovery from severe whaling pressures in the last century when some 210 000 whales were killed, must rate as one of the world’s great conservation recoveries.
‘Populations that migrate along the KZN coast each year were whaled in the Antarctic, during their migration and in their Mozambican breeding grounds.
‘Their current recovery of some ten percent per annum is really heartening to see,’ said Prof Findlay.
Nothing can compare to being up close to the largest creatures on earth, and in iSimangaliso there are three licensed whale watching operators taking tours out to experience this awe-inspiring spectacle.
The latest recipient of a permit in iSimangaliso is also the first black woman to achieve this.
Having worked in the local tourism industry for many years, Abigail Mncwango successfully applied for and received a permit to open her business, Whale Safaris in the St Lucia section of the park.
She started operating in June this year. Advantage Tours has been operating in iSimangaliso’s waters off St Lucia for 20 years and their ocean outings remains one of the most enduring tourist attractions in this section of the park.
Co-owner Riette Bennett says this has been one of the best years in terms of sightings of Humpback Whales and calves since they started operating in 1998, with every day outdoing the previous one.
In the Sodwana Bay section, Sodwana Bay Lodge also operates a whale boat for visitors to add an experience to their beach and diving holidays.
Owner Richard Scott agrees that it has been a great season and whales are still being seen regularly, heading south. He says on rare occasions, Orcas (killer whales) also put in an appearance, which is always a fantastic thrill.
A flapping tail of a humpback whale off the iSImangaliso Wetland Park
Abigail Mncwango with her whaling permit