Studing marine megafauna in West Africa

Humpback Whale Breaching. Image: P.Brehony

How can you know for sure exactly what you want to do once you graduate from UCC? Not all of us do… But I figured; jump at as many opportunities you can, gain experience, have fun. Then make your choices from there! So when I came across a job that would give me the opportunity to work with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in central West Africa, I jumped.

by Peadar Brehony (BSc Zoology, 2011)

 
For the last three months, I have been working in a remote part of south west Gabon, studying the marine megafaunal biodiversity of the region.
Gabon is unique in Africa; it has a small population of 1.5 million people with a low population density and also has the second highest GDP per person thanks to its hydrocarbon, forest and mining industries. Nevertheless most of the country is still covered in thick equatorial forest. In 1999, Dr. Mike Fay, a WCS scientist and National Geographic Explorer completed a 455 day, 3300 km mega transect from northern Congo to the coast of Gabon. One of the results of this was that Gabon declared 13 new National Parks.

 
I was based in one of these, Mayumba Marine National Park, set up to protect one of the largest breeding populations of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in the world. However, every year before the leatherbacks start arriving, an even bigger creature arrives in Mayumba, the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). After their long journey from Antartica, humpbacks arrive along the coast of Gabon to begin their breeding season. My work with WCS was to study these active and magnificent whales, as well as the other megafaunal species found in and around Mayumba NP, including the turtles and several other cetaceans.

 

Humpback Whale Breach off the coast of Gabon. Image: P.Brehony

On our off shore transects we would see up to a hundred humpback whale breaches a day; every single one a jaw dropping spectacle. We would see new born (but still huge!) humpbacks, or groups of 12 males fighting for their chance to pass on their genes.
On our near shore transects we were fortunate enough to see and photograph the extremely illusive, rare and endangered Atlantic Humpback Dolphin (Sousa teuszii).

Atlantic Humpback Dolpin. Image: P. Brehony

We also saw barrel- breaching Giant Oceanic Manta Rays (Manta birostris) as they too came to the southern Gabonese coastline to breed. Finally as the ‘whale season’ drew to a close, we began to see all sorts of marine turtles turning up in our research area, particularly the impressive leatherbacks as they arrived in preparation for their nesting season.

Bottlenose Dolpins at play. Image: P. Brehony

On the days we couldn’t go out to sea we would explore the dense and lush forests around us. Here as well we were mesmerized by the bird diversity, the Chimpanzees, the Gorillas and the elusive forest elephants! We even hung out with Victor, the first West African Manatee to be studied in captivity after he was rescued as a badly injured orphan washed up on the beach.

 

Victor the Manatee. Image: P. Brehony

All in all, this opportunity allowed me to gain lots of experience, network with some great people and best of all have a fantastic time. So if you’re not sure, get out there and try something new or different!

Peadar graduated with a BSc in Zoology at the School of BEES in 2011. For more information about this course, see here.

Thanks to Peadar for the use of his excellent photographs.

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