The Two Oceans Aquarium is always eager to collaborate with organisations that conserve our precious ocean and provide thrilling insights into the possibilities of marine careers for young people. Sea Search Research & Conservation is such an organisation, an active group of whale and dolphin researchers who are based in Muizenberg, Cape Town and starting to make a splash! You might remember them as one of the groups involved in recent attempts to rescue a pod of false killer whales in the harbour. Below, Dr Tess Gridley explains what you need to know about this exciting organisation on our doorstep.
What is Sea Search?
Sea Search was established in 2014 as a research and education organisation dedicated to whales and dolphins. It is run by Dr Simon Elwen, Dr Tess Gridley, Dr Els Vermeulen and Dr Gwen Penry - a group of "cetacean" (the fancy word for whales and dolphins) specialists who have 14 to 20 years of research experience each.
Like the Justice League, we each have our own speciality, but the work we do overlaps and complements each other, which is why the group works so well. For instance, Tess works mostly on whale and dolphin acoustic communication, while Gwen is an expert on Bryde's whales' ecology and Els has a keen interest in policy and is in charge of monitoring southern right whales. Simon is a Jack of all trades and involved in many different projects from monitoring whale parasites to investigating the potential effects of climate change on dolphins. A team of dedicated field assistants and students help in all we do.
Where does Sea Search work?
Several projects are carried out in association with Sea Search. We run the Namibian Dolphin Project from Walvis Bay, Namibia as well as research in and around Cape Town and projects along the South African coast to Plettenberg Bay and beyond.
Most of the team have trained and worked both within southern African and other locations like Europe and the USA - so we have strong ties with overseas academic institutions and always try to work together with the global research community to help make our research stronger and more relevant on the international stage.
Why are cetaceans so interesting?
Whales and dolphins are what we call "charismatic megafauna" - they capture the imaginations of the public and are loved by children and grandparents alike. Not only that, but they are really important within the ecosystem - from killer whales hunting seals and dolphins to the southern right whales consuming huge quantities of krill - whales and dolphins help structure the marine environment and keep it working efficiently.
Cetaceans also act as "flagship" species - by understanding changes to the health of whales and dolphins, we can often get to grips with human impacts on the marine environment (and motivate people to lessen these impacts). For these reasons and many more, it's important to dedicate time and money to understand the whales and dolphins in our coastal and offshore waters.
How many species and where do they live?
This is a BIG question, and better suited to another blog (watch out for this later in the year), but needless to say Southern Africa has a huge diversity of plant and animal life, and the number of whales and dolphins in our coastal and offshore marine environment is also large. From the locally found (i.e. endemic) Heaviside's dolphins, to the offshore deep-diving sperm whales, there are many species to learn about and a huge amount we don't know.
For most species, we still need to collect or update basic information like population sizes, information on where they travel to, what they eat and how they behave. So, we have lots of research questions with important conservation implications - and these are the types of questions Sea Search tries to answer.
How can you help?
Sea Search Research and Conservation is a registered non-profit organisation, and there are several ways the public can get involved to help with the research, such as making a donation to these efforts. A simple way to help is to add Sea Search as a beneficiary on Woolworths' "My Planet" scheme - this way you donate a little every time you shop.
Sea Search is interested in hearing about your whale and dolphin sightings, as this information is used in citizen science projects. Sea Search have teamed up with Seafari which is a great app for logging your sightings. We encourage everyone to use this app - every time you see a whale or dolphin the information goes straight to our scientists!
And finally - you can follow Sea Search on Facebook - and find out more about their research and related projects!