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Marine Research

Our research program offers a unique learning experience for volunteers that are passionate about the marine environment. It allows participants to make a valuable contribution to increased knowledge, awareness and conservation efforts while supporting applied marine research. As part of the ORCA Foundation’s comprehensive volunteer programme, participants regularly receive the opportunity to assist our research team and obtain hands-on participatory experience in boat-based and land-based fieldwork, including marine mammal stranding response and necropsy.

Our current research program involves long-term monitoring of various marine top predator species in Plettenberg Bay, some of which are endangered (ex. the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin and the great white shark). We facilitate collaborative research on cetacean photo-ID, abundance estimates and habitat use; seal population monitoring, seal diet studies and estuarine habitat use; seal-fisheries interactions; and seal-shark interactions. Furthermore, our researchers are members of the Plettenberg Bay Marine Animal Stranding Network. They are appointed as agents of the Port Elizabeth Museum to attend to marine mammal strandings, perform necropsies and collect samples for research purposes.

No previous experience is required to assist our team and in-field training is provided to all participants. It is however recommended that volunteers have the following qualities:

  • Sociable, enthusiastic and positive attitude
  • Reliable, adaptable and patient
  • General interest in marine biology and ecology
  • Mature and independent attitude towards research
  • Willingness to learn and work within a small research team
  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to work long-hours on small vessels
  • Willingness to perform tedious behavioural observations in challenging weather conditions
  • Moderate fitness level
  • Ability to communicate fluently in English (both written and oral)

Boat-based fieldwork require agility as participants are required to move around the vessel whilst underway, sometimes in choppy conditions. Hiking to land-based observational sites and stranded marine mammal carcasses on remote beaches is physically demanding and at times mentally challenging. Volunteers need to be prepared for regular last-minute changes in the research work schedule. Most research activities are highly weather dependent and marine mammal strandings often occur without warning. Stranding events involving fresh carcasses or live animals ashore require immediate response and therefore take priority over all other research activities.

Our research programme is most suitable to volunteers who are interested in, or currently enrolled in studies in zoology, ecology, marine biology, conservation, education, or other related fields.

See below for more detailed information on each project:

Whale and dolphin fin profiling

Photographs are taken of whale and dolphin dorsal fins during opportunistic boat-based surveys in Plettenberg Bay. Information is intended for use in collaborative research projects on cetacean photo-ID, abundance estimates and habitat use. Endangered humpback dolphins are monitored especially closely as part of a nationally coordinated research effort.

Monitoring marine animal spatial distribution

In order to assist with the development of a marine management plan for Plettenberg Bay, it is important to study the habitat preferences of animals that utilize the bay. We regularly join Ocean Blue Adventures on their whale watching trips to record opportunistic data on the sighting locations of various species of marine animals.

Marine mammal stranding response and necropsy

In collaboration with the Port Elizabeth Museum, our stranding biologists regularly attend to live seals ashore to capture, hold in temporary confinement, tag, move, treat and/or release. They also attend to dead whales, dolphins and seals ashore, to collect entire carcasses or parts thereof, perform necropsies (dissections) and temporarily store samples for research and collection purposes of the museum. Samples are currently intended for use in various studies on marine mammal morphology, taxonomy, population structure, diet, health, fisheries interactions and predator-prey interactions.

Monitoring local Cape fur seal population growth

As part of ongoing collaboration with the Port Elizabeth Museum, our researchers perform dedicated boat-based surveys to Robberg Peninsula to monitor the number of seals that haul out, and, from November-February the number of new-born pups. This long-term monitoring project will allow further examination of local seal population growth. It will also allow new research on the impact of easterly storms on pup survival at this colony. Reliable pup counts over the next few breeding seasons will inform managing authorities of the possible change of the status of the colony from a former haul out site to a full-on breeding colony.

Monitoring the diet of Cape fur seals

In collaboration with the Port Elizabeth Museum, our researchers collect monthly scats to update the current diet of Cape fur seals that haul out on Robberg Peninsula. Scats are routinely processed and prey remains identified for future analyses. Data will be used to aid in studies on seal-fisheries operational interactions, biological competition between seals and fisheries, and trophic ecology to examine the role of seals in the Agulhas Current. This is especially important in terms of recent changes that has taken place in this ecosystem.

Tag re-sights of Cape fur seals

During the end of January each year our researchers intend to tag, weigh, sample and release ~100 pups at the Robberg Peninsula seal colony. Subsequent tag re-sights will be recorded during routine boat-based surveys to assess the effectiveness of different types of flipper tags in terms of tag retention. Tagging pups will also allow long-term research on specialist seal behaviour via re-sights of tagged seals in estuaries, those incidentally captured in trawl nets and deliberately killed during other fishing operations. Stranded new-borne pups that are rescued, treated and released back at the colony during the breeding season are fitted with flipper tags as part of an existing long-term monitor project of the Port Elizabeth Museum, which aims to assess the success of rehabilitation efforts.

Monitoring the presence of great white sharks and seal-shark interactions

As part of collaborative research through the Port Elizabeth Museum, our researchers record sightings of white sharks and seal-shark interactions during opportunistic boat-based surveys and dedicated land-based observations in the Robberg MPA. This includes sightings of shark predation attempts on seals, as well as examination of shark-inflicted wounds on dead seals washed ashore and live seals that haul out at the Robberg colony. Data will be used to examine the seasonal presence of white sharks and predation rates on Cape fur seals in Plettenberg Bay. Continued monitoring of white shark presence and the percentage of seals exhibiting bite wounds could provide a useful indicator to any changes in the abundance and behaviour of sharks in the area, especially in relation to continued local seal population growth, potential environmental changes, fluctuations in prey availability and possible shark cage diving activities in future.

Updating the current nature and extent of seal-fisheries interactions

Our researchers distribute questionnaires and conduct opportunistic interviews with fishermen to obtain their opinion on the impact of Cape fur seals on local fish stocks and recreational angling in the Robberg Marine Protected Area (MPA). Circulation of questionnaires was recommended by Cape Nature and the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) after negative feedback received from fishermen at the recent MPA resonation meeting held in August 2017. Although independent of the resonation process, questionnaire surveys will form part of a broader study in collaboration with the Port Elizabeth Museum, which aims to update the current nature and extent of seal-fisheries interactions in the Agulhas Current to inform management with scientific advice. For the recreational rock & surf angling component, questionnaire results will be compared to independent observations made from cliff-top viewpoints, as well as results from seal diet analysis. This will allow critical evaluation of the current perceptions of recreational anglers that fish in the MPA.

Examining specialist behaviour in Cape fur seals that utilize estuaries

Fishermen have encountered Cape fur seals in the Keurbooms River estuary for many years and there are numerous anecdotal reports of them preying on important recreational fish species that are also of conservation concern. In the past, due to public pressure, this has lead to the issuing of exemption permits for the selective removal of such individuals by river management authorities. However, the existence of river-specialists, whether such seals have a greater impact on estuarine fish species than individuals in the general population, and the potential effect of their removal, has not been examined.

In collaboration with the Port Elizabeth Museum and DEA, our researchers have set up a project to track the movement of Cape fur seals that frequent the estuary. We conduct dedicated boat-based surveys to record the presence, identity, behaviour and habitat preference of these seals. Using photo-ID techniques we have identified a number of individuals with unique flipper scars. Prey species are identified from photos taken during predation events. With this we aim to determine whether individual seals specialize in feeding on estuarine fish species, and whether their behaviour is seasonal, tidal, sex or age specific. The study further aims to place the impact of river seals into context with current recreational fishing pressure. Results will have important implications for management as it will provide new data on the existence of river specialists, which may be important for the development of future conflict mitigation measures, should they be needed.

Tag and Release Fishing

As it is tag and release, the information of the breed of fish caught is recorded along with the tag number before the fish is released. These fish are eventually re-caught somewhere further along the coastline and the information from their tags are sent in to a national database at the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI) in Kwazulu Natal. The information that is gathered shows the distance that each fish has traveled from the time of its release to the time of its capture, along with the size increase that has occurred during its release period. Some amazing information has already been captured since the start of this long-term monitoring project.