Thursday, July 17, 2008

GVI Seychelles Marine Expedition

16 April-June 2008

The second phase of 2008 was pretty wonderful on the whole, with a great group of volunteers, good weather, and abnormally high numbers of sightings all the way around, from turtles to whale sharks. Girly volunteers outnumbered manly volunteers by a good 3 to 1 this phase (as was the same with the staff) which meant wonderful drawings for community work and the best bread in ages, but a lot of hauling tanks and not a lot of improvements to our base facilities. We were able to complete and hang up our new GVI Seychelles’ science board, though, complete with science info and brochures and reports from our partners. Staff member Hilary Glenn also headed up our new composting project, which we’ve added to our current recycling program, to reduce our waste by at least half. Although we’re not currently using the compost for anything, we have strict instructions from Hilary about the composting strategy, and we’ll eventually be able to use it to enrich our garden on Curieuse or elsewhere.

The volunteers also had much cause for celebration this phase, with over 6 birthdays, several 100th dives, and the great World Ocean Day!!! For each of the birthdays, cakes and cookies were made, along with cards, candles, and the whole shebang. Hundredth dives here at Cap Ternay are celebrated in style with fancy dress or the “fat suit,” a large yellow wetsuit of phenomenal proportions that lives here on base. While World Ocean Day fell on a Sunday, and thus not a work day for us, we still did our part with a beach clean nearby and a much-appreciated photo-op with the volunteers posing as a giant blue open-mouthed fish. We were also alternately blessed and cursed with the poy skills of several of our volunteers, who provided the beauty of fire twirling, along with the heart attacks for staff members and the smell of burned leg hair.

On the whole, this group of volunteers did a fantastic job of exploring the Seychelles during their time here, and many had the chance to visit local lookouts, hikes, and waterfalls. They were also able to visit several of the islands, rather than just Mahe, including Aride, Praslin, Curieuse, La Digue, and Silhouette. On Aride, we’ve been able to introduce another aspect of Seychelles wildlife to the volunteers this phase through the Island Conservation Society. One of GVI’s volunteers last phase, Phil Summerton, became an intern with the non-profit organization and opened up the possibility of a day trip to the island from our satellite camp on Curieuse. Since this trip usually costs somewhere on the order of 30-40 euros per person, it’s quite a treat to get a guided tour by an old friend every week. Aride is famous for its diversity and abundance of critically endangered and rare birds, including the Seychelles magpie robin and the red-tailed tropic bird. The trip is a great time for everyone, whether you’re particularly fond of birds or not, and has become one of the high points for the volunteers.

On Curieuse and Praslin, we’ve been hard at work as usual, with Rich heading up the house construction and efforts with our partners at Seychelles Centre for Marine Research and Technology- Marine Park Authority (SCMRT-MPA), and Gen hard at work as our newest qualified instructor. Both are the proud new parents (grandparents?) to 6 healthy baby chickens, and still counting. The chicks all hatched in the last week of the phase, and though there are no pictures, we rest assured that they’re in the good health. The house itself benefited from several improve-ments this phase, including a brand new granite rock path which guides visitors from the beach to the front door. The path features a built-in foot washing tub, complete with drain, so that no sand gets on the decking and into the house! We’ve also constructed a lounge area on the front decking which serves as a lovely living room with a breeze, and a painting of the house is soon to be completed, giving it a fresh and welcoming feel. The house is also slowly but surely taking on the lovely shades of white and yellow, though the thin Seychelles paint has made sure that the task isn’t easy. Rich and Gen are currently in the process of deciding names for the house and the chicks, and become more like an old married couple every day. Also on Curieuse, this phase saw the reintroduction of Coco de Mer census work for GVI volunteers. These rare trees are endemic to the Seychelles and grow naturally only on Curieuse and Praslin. The ‘love nuts’ they produce are famous for both their shape and their apparent aphrodisiac effect, and Curieuse became famous amongst pirates in the old days as the original garden of Eden—due entirely to the resemblance of the tree’s sex organs to that of humans. The tree is so rare that the area in which they grow was deemed a UN World Heritage site. The aim of the work is to mark all of the accessible trees on the island and identify them as male or female, adult or juvenile. The census was last completed in 2006 and it’s been great to start up the work again and the partnership with SCMRT-MPA. We’ve counted over 300 trees so far, and we look forward to seeing the comparisons of this year’s data to 2006.

Back on Mahe, it was diving and more diving, and we had an abnormally good phase for mega fauna, plankton, and just about everything else. Though May marks the very beginning of whale shark season in Seychelles, we had extraordinarily high numbers of sightings and dense plankton samples as well. Last season GVI had a total of 12 whale shark sightings and this phase alone, in only 4 weeks, we were able to observe 15 whale sharks on 10 separate occasions. We’ve kept in close touch with our partners at Marine Conservation Society Seychelles (MCSS), and so far have positive identification of at least 4 individuals. The volunteers are always ecstatic to see these big darlings, and we had almost 100% of the volunteers represented in sightings. Several of the sightings were in-water, and the EM’s were able to swim or snorkel within 3 meters of the big fish, as the pictures can show. Other mega fauna has also been up, with over 270 rays—in addition to the usual species of eagle rays and sting rays, we’ve also seen 56 devil rays and 11 manta rays, which migrate in with the plankton. This phase has also seen high numbers of turtles for this time of year, at 130. Some of our nerdiest, and most exciting finds though, were the 5 sailfish sightings between Curieuse and Mahe, the giant guitarfish, and our new corals! Perhaps one of the things from this phase that the staff is most excited about is GVI’s possible identification of coral genera new to this distribution, or newly recovering coral genera, unseen since the mass bleaching event in 1998. Staff and EM’s have had several debates about the identities and personalities of these corals, and we’re excited to see what happens. We’ve met with our partners to discuss the possibilities of identifying and incorporating these new colonies and are currently working to get good photographs and GPS points for further follow up.

This phase with the International School of the Seychelles was as awesome as ever, and almost all of the volunteers opted to get involved in teaching two classes on Monday and Tuesday mornings. The volunteers, with the help of Rach and Hilary, finished two new lesson plans on Invertebrates and Frozen Seas, and all the current lesson plans reaped the benefits of the artistic skills of Heidi Schubert and Amanda. The work with the International School is always one of the high points for the volunteers, and allows them to get out of the isolation of base and into the Seychellois community. Working with the kids provides a different perspective, a change of pace, and loads of entertainment. For the last couple phases, we’ve celebrated the end of the phase with a big barbecue on the beach with the parents and games with the kids. The food is great, the kids are amazing, and we’ve gotten really encouraging feedback from the teachers and parents.

All in all, Phase 16 was a lot of hard work, but worth every minute. The volunteers were a diverse crowd in age and experience, loads of fun, and very hard workers. The diving in Seychelles is absolutely magnificent at this time of year, and it was a very beautiful and gratifying 10 weeks.