Stichting rugvin: monitoring and researching whales

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In the summer of 2002, the seeds of Stichting Rugvin were sown. During one of his trips to the Scottish Moray Firth, Frank Zanderink gets inspired to work with whales and dolphins in the Netherlands. Would research in Dutch waters be feasible? To find out, he visits professor Ruben Huele and students Nynke Osinga and Bas Beekmans from Leiden University.

His thoughts are correct and soon after, a monitoring program of cetaceans at ferries in the North Sea becomes their first focus. In collaboration with Stena Line – who transport people between Hook of Holland and Harwich – they start their research under the name of Stichting Rugvin. Just a couple of years later, they evolved into an official foundation. Frank Zanderink, founder of the foundation, shares one of his stories with us.

After the North Sea, our research expanded. Firstly, we heard of harbor porpoises in the Eastern Scheldt. We decided to go out by boat, where we did indeed hear and see harbor porpoises. It took some attempts, but we ended up counting up to 37 individuals. As they were living in a semi-closed-off estuary, multiple questions arose. Why would they stay here? Do they have enough food to forage for? And do they have preferred places in this area? A series of studies was the result, with the development of Studio Porpoise as the icing on the cake. People at shore can now hear the porpoises in real-time.

This is a great example of The Rugvin Foundations’ mission. We are a transparent, constructively cooperative yet critical organisation that conducts research on whales’ distribution, numbers and habitat. The protection of the species and their habitat is central to this. Through several channels, we communicate about our knowledge. We believe that gained knowledge is only relevant if it is shared with society, so that it can lead to greater awareness and behavioural change in people with regard to treating nature with respect.

 

Traveling through Africa

The great interest and passion for whales regularly takes the volunteers of Rugvin across borders. In 2019, a journey to South Africa took place to build a collaborative network of whale researchers and whale safari companies. Our aim? To create an immersive and intensive excursion that teaches the people joining everything about the importance of whales in the ocean.

‘Have a whale of a time!’

At Miller’s Point on the Cape Peninsula in South-Africa, the wind howls between our tents, the canvas flaps permanently and the rain beats in strong gusts. I hear my name being called out in the storm: “Frank, Frank! Is everything alright?” “Yes,” I answer, “all is well”. I imagined my first night here to be slightly different. But still, we are lucky to be high and dry in our 4×4 roof tent.

The next morning it cleared up, and the wind found its peace. “Coffee”, I say to myself. I climb down the ladder, look over the bay with a satisfied smile, and start thinking about what we need for breakfast. A moment later, I hear the zipper of Tamara’s tent open, followed by a cry of excitement! A blow, a whale! And yes, right in front of us in False Bay, we see several blows from various humpback whales. They may be miles away, but this is what we came for.

We are at the beginning of our exploration, which we will undertake along roughly the entire South African coast. We want to visit as many whale safari companies and research institutes as possible to get a good idea of ​​what there is to do here in the field of whales. The ten organizations we will visit are well spread out along the coast, starting in Cape Town, then going through Hermanus, Knysna and Port Elizabeth to St Lucia in the northeast.

Besides visiting whale safari companies and whale researchers, we also want to go out on the water as much as possible to see whales and dolphins. We are in the right season; the humpback whales and southern right whales have already arrived here to mate and calve, after they fed themselves in the Antarctic.

 

Our first real stop is in Hermanus, the whale capital of South Africa. And rightly so, it turns out later. The first day here, we can’t get on the water yet; the ocean is too rough. No worries! There is always a lot of beauty to discover on land, as well, in South Africa. At Miller’s Point we enjoy the African penguins, antelopes, and zebras. And in the Fijnbos area of the ​​Waterfall nature reserve there are plenty of sugar birds and sun birds (honey suckers).

The first full day on the water with Southern Right charters, we immediately see three species of whales. Fantastic. The first species, the Bryde’s whale, even appears so close to the boat that our zoom lens is almost too big. And to our great pleasure, we immediately see calves near the humpback whales. These are still relatively small, and the smallest calf can only be a few days old. Skipper Ashley says he has never seen such a young animal. (Besides being relatively small, the calves also look a lot lighter than their mothers).
The southern right whales don’t have (small) calves yet. However, small? A newborn Southern right whale easily weighs about 1,000 kg, which does provide unique pictures. The animals regularly appear two by two off the sloping coast of the hinterland.

Ashley and Dave of Southern Right Charters tip us to try our luck at “Koppie Alleen” area in De Hoop Nature reserve. And so there we go. Via a beautiful road, along which we see Cape vultures, baboons, cranes, ibises and geese, we arrive in a beautiful dune area. De Hoop already offers enough animal and plant species to spend weeks and discover everything, but we only want one thing. We want to see the southern right whales. Hundreds of them can gather just off the coast in this area. We wonder why we have never heard of this before.

Between several elands (antelopes) and mountain zebras, we arrive at the last row of dunes on the Indian Ocean and park the car. Not a single other person can be seen. Are we at the right spot? Yes, of course, just look at the signs! ‘Have a whale of a time’ and ‘Koppie Alleen’!

Once we arrive at the viewpoint, we are not disappointed. We see whales blowing everywhere, along with fins and tails coming out of the water.. What a place! “There must be at least 15 here by now!”, I shout.

Koppie Alleen is one of the prime locations for Southern right whales along the South African coast. The animals stay in the shallow water so close to the coast, because here, the calves are less at risk from sharks. It is a pity, but also understandable that you cannot go on the water here. That is why we continue our journey and follow Dave’s second advice, to cross the Breede river with the ferry at Malgas.

We arrive in Knysna, one of the three parts of the Garden Route National Park, halfway to Port Elizabeth. We really want to get out on the water here, and we will. Under the guidance of Captain Stephan of Ocean Odyssey, we drive with the necessary helmsman ship between the rocks of the “the Heads”, out of the Knysna estuary and into the Indian Ocean. Here, Stephan quickly points out the first dolphins of our trip. These are humpback dolphins (Sousa plumbea), a very special and rare species. They can only be found off the ZA coast. On their backs, these dolphins have a hump, after which they are named. These are dolphins of shallow waters and the surf, where they feel safe and hunt for fish. It is not easy to take pictures of these dolphins. They swim zigzagging underwater, so you really don’t know where they will come up again.

We can’t and shouldn’t really get any closer to the animals, either, because of the danger of getting stuck and chasing the animals. Meanwhile, the albatrosses and great skuas skim above our heads. And right there in front of us! Isn’t that a blow? Yes, there is a humpback whale above the surface. And then another one! Humpback dolphins and humpback whales – what an abundance. In the afternoon we go for a second drive on the water. Now there is a considerable swell further out at sea, and now and then it seems as if we are lower on the boat than the whales in the ocean. We must look up to see the swimming whales.

Before we hit the water to look for bottlenose dolphins and other cetaceans in Algoa Bay, we make a stopover in Addo Elephant National Park. We do this because it is too wild at sea. That is not a punishment, though. Addo has a lot to offer, especially elephants, but also the entire Big Five, hyenas, and mountain zebras. What can I say? The park is home to the Big Ten: In addition to the lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhinoceros on land, in the marine part, in Algoa Bay, you can also see whales, dolphins, fur seals, penguins and sharks. And that’s exactly what we’re going to see later.

With the crew of Stampede Cruises, we see this whole list, which starts when skipper Juandre shouts “I see something big”. A humpback whale jumps out of the water right in front of us. Splash! However, that was a one-off. After the jump, we don’t see the animal again.

Here in Algoa bay, Many African penguins breed on the island of St. Croix and bottlenose dolphins swim around every corner. With some luck, you can also see large groups of common dolphins (Dephinus delphis) here. They are often close to the coast when the sardines they hunt are also close to the coast. This happens during the so-called sardine run, the annual migration of these fish off the coast of South Africa to Mozambique.

We continue our journey and after a route through the interior of KwaZulu Natal, we arrive in Durban. With skipper Bennie, we discover what the ocean offers at the cliffs of The Bluff. While enjoying a “Durban Bunny Chow” (Indian stuffed bread) we see humpback whales jumping out of the water from the Whale watch restaurant. ‘There hasn’t been a single place by the sea on this trip where we have not seen humpback whales!’

From Durban, the drive to St. Lucia is short. This town is sandwiched between the beautiful and very wild natural parks of iSimangaliso, Hluhuwe/iMfolozi and the Indian Ocean. There is so much to see here that you could stay here for months. In the middle of the friendly-looking town, we are warmly welcomed by Riette at the office of Advantage tours. She takes the time to chat with us and offers a “Hippo and Croc cruise” on the estuary and a trip on one of their boats on the ocean. St. Lucia is a really lovely town. It has excellent restaurants,bars, shops and a fruit market on the main street. There are no fences or bars around the gardens and houses, although you would expect them from the many warning signs for the hippos roaming around at night! We never encountered a hippo on our evening walks from the campground to the town, but hundreds on the cruise.

The next day is an experience we will never forget. We gathered with some others in front of the entrance of the office. Here, we are asked to take a seat in a covered wagon that is pulled by a tractor and drives us to the beach. Arriving here, we walk to the boat that lies somewhat obliquely on the beach. Once all aboard, Arne, the skipper, explains that we will get wet as we sail through the surf. A long steel beam is placed between the tractor and the boat and then, the boat is pushed into the water.

Once clear of the bottom, Arne gives full throttle, and we spray through the surf into the ocean. The seawater is indeed splashing in all directions, and I am glad that the camera is watertight. This special way of entering the water is due to the sand blockade that was created in the former exit of the estuary. There is now no longer a connection between the fresh water and the ocean, and there is therefore no longer a harbor from which you can enter the ocean.

 

After this spectacular start, we all focus on the water surface, looking for whales! Here too, we expect at least humpback whales. And it doesn’t last long. One swims in front of us, and we see two more between the ship and the mainland. We quietly follow the humpback whale that is nearby. With the necessary experience, you will know and see at some point when a whale is going to dive. We have the camera’s stand by. But you can’t anticipate the right spot when they jump out of the water.

After one humpback dove deep into the ocean, we were mesmerized. A movement in the corner of our eye catches our attention, when two humpback whales jump out of the water at the same time. We just saw them fall back into the water. No one was able to take a picture, but it didn’t matter. This image will stay in our minds forever.

However, the show is not over yet. Tamara hears the skipper shout, “Manta ray!” and less than 5 seconds later, “Hammerhead!”. I see the manta, but I just have to believe the skipper about the hammerhead. Where was it then? It was right behind the manta ray. I had to laugh about it. What an experience. Then I hear Arne shout again: “Hold on! Cameras in your bag!”. At high speed we drive through the surf again, back on the beach, where we come to a stop with a jerk. Wow! We had a whale of a time!

With “All for Nature travel”, we offer the first half of this trip as a 16-day whale watching excursion in South Africa. The journey will go from Cape Town to Addo NP and Port Elisabeth. Part of the raised money will go to local nature conservation projects.

 

Whale Poo Ambassadors

Besides enjoying whales and dolphins visually, Stichting Rugvin actively contributes to conservation. One of their latest projects is called Whale Poo Ambassadors. After reading articles on the effect of these marine engineers on the climate and biodiversity, we are also astonished that little or no research is being done in Europe. Whale droppings, the whale pump, carbon storage and more are so important for the marine environment and we believe more people should know about it. That’s why we created the Whale Poo Ambassadors and our own ‘seamulation’ (simulation). On www.whalepooseamulation.com you can learn about whales, phytoplankton and climate. It’s worth checking out!

 

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