Whale Coast Cetacean Project

"The Whale Coast Cetacean Project in Pearly Beach and Walker Bay aims to gain a thorough understanding of how whales and dolphins use the areas in the hope that this knowledge will assist conservation in these precious and unique environments," says Katja Vinding Petersen (M.Sc.), Project Manager and leading researcher of the project.

Katja Vinding Petersen,Project Manager  (Picture: Mogens Trolle)

Katja, originally from Denmark, is a Marine Biologist (Whales & Dolphins) and a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Pretoria who has been working with the whales in the region since 2007.

She specialized in bioacoustics and marine mammals. Her adventurous nature and passion for marine life has taken her around the Globe - she has spent countless summers in Iceland either recording Killer whale sounds, making documentaries of science projects, or guiding on whale watching boats. Her passion also took her to Andenes in Northern Norway, Greenland, Svalbard and the U.S. This PhD study is the first of its kind in South Africa. "The project implements the combined methods of underwater microphones (Passive Acoustic Monitoring - PAM), theodolite tracking and the establishment of an archived long term (12 years) database of opportunistic observation data from Dyer Island Cruises whale watching vessel, The Whale Whisperer," she said.

"Furthermore the aim is to obtain a baseline of distribution, habitat and behaviour of whale and dolphin species in the Greater Dyer Island / Walker Bay area." Katja says the project has been developed with the Pretoria University, Mammal Research Institute (MRI) and Statens Serum Institut, Copenhagen (SSI). The scientific team consists of herself, Professor Marthan Bester, Dr Simon Elwen and Ms Meredith Thornton (MRI), Dr Steve Kirkman (Department of Environmental Affairs), Dr Michael Christiansen (Research Director, Chief Physician and Head of Section Molecular Medicine at SSI). "The project receives support from various organizations, institutions and sponsors from South Africa, as well as abroad. Any further support is always welcome," says Katja. As part of the research the mooring for the underwater hydrophones will be tested at De Kelders very soon. "It depends on the weather and the swell when we can deploy the mooring and the hydrophone (underwater microphone) - we live by the weather here!" While the hydrophones record the sounds of the animals a team will be searching for whales and dolphins in the bay. When they find animals they will track them from land, using a land surveyors' theodolite. By combining the visual observations and the acoustic recordings, the aim is to establish a method of using PAM to monitor whales and dolphins along the coastline. Visual observation has limitations, since it demands a lot of man power, and cannot be conducted at night, nor when the sea state is above 3 (Beaufort scale). Acoustic monitoring of whales is possible at night and while the wind is howling. However, since some animals are quiet it is crucial to establish exactly when the different species are vocalizing which is why correlating the methods is key.

Harry Stone, Project Member (Picture: Matt Nicholson)

The mooring is sponsored by several local and overseas companies: Walker Bay Decking, Hydro Hydrolics, Cope Stone Financial Services, PADI Aware Foundation, Wilderness Wildlife Trust and Torben of Alice Frimodts Fond. The mooring operation has been devised and coordinated by Adriayn Weich, who will also lead the dive team on the day.

Project member Harry Stone, who is assisting with various tasks such as promotion and other non-scientific aspects of the project, will also be helping out with the underwater deployment of the mooring.

For any enquiries or donations, Katja Vinding Petersen can be contacted at 072-280-1146, or send an email to her at katjavp@gmail.com.

Their Facebook is www.facebook.com/whalesdolphins and the Website (still in process) is www.whalesdolphins.co.za.

Hardus Botha