Today we celebrate World Whale Day! So why whales and why today?

February 17, 2017 Meredith Thornton

Well, the annual celebration was founded in 1980 in Maui, Hawaii, in order to honour humpback whales, which are found in big numbers just off its coast. Whale Day is the main showcase of the Maui Whale Festival.  Crowds stream to the island every year on this day to join in the free event which is organised by the Pacific Whale Foundation. They have a lot of fun, with a float parade with lots of costumed characters and activities for children and musical events from both Hawaiian and international stars.

Whales have evoked a range of emotions, actions and debates throughout the history of mankind.  Many people view whales as a resource for food, oil, whale bone, fishmeal and other whale products, and in fact the industrial revolution would not have been possible without the oil from whales…so (sadly) we have whales to thank for our modern existence.

However, man is a greedy species and we were unfortunately overzealous in the numbers of whales that we killed…nearly decimating our blue, southern right and humpback whale populations.  Whaling was declared illegal in the 1930’s but pirate whaling still continued until the 1960’s when it was finally stopped in South African for good.  Nowadays, instead of this uncontrolled situation, we utilise our whales sustainably through a well-regulated boat-based whale-watching industry as well as aerial and shore-based whale-watching tourism.  As South Africans we can be proud of how well this resource is managed.

World-wide there are about 90 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises and in South Africa alone we have nearly 40 of these of these!  Many of our whales are seldom seen at sea because they are shy, or they occur in much deeper waters off the continental shelf, which means that some species of whales are only really known from strandings, when they wash out along our shore, dead or alive.

The reasons for these strandings are many and varied and are most likely a combination of a couple of factors.  As humans we always want to know exactly why things happen, but when it comes to whale strandings we usually have to resign ourselves to the fact that we may never know for sure why the animal died.

Here in the greater Dyer Island area we are fortunate to have whales visiting our waters all year round.  We have humpback and southern rights during autumn-spring and even deep into the summer months, depending on the prevailing environmental conditions, but we also have a more secretive giant, the Bryde’s whale, which is present all year round, feeding on locally abundant shoaling fish, like sardines and anchovy.  Several times a year we also see dead stranded whales like pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, beaked and pilot whales.

If you ever come across a stranded animal please call us immediately on 072 598 7117 and tell us the locality, if the animal is dead or alive, the size of the animal (pace it out) and please take some photographs of the head and the overall body from the side.  We will go out and attend to the stranded animal, helping it if at all possible, and to collect important scientific information that goes to universities, museum and government departments.

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Deceased white shark at Pearly Beach, Gansbaai

February 09, 2017 Alison Towner

At 7 am this morning a deceased white shark Carcharodon carcharias was reported to us at the Dyer Island Conservation Trust by Anton Barnard in Pearly Beach. Marine Dynamics biologist Kelly Baker, the International Marine Volunteers and our staff assisted to retrieve the animal with our Samel vehicle. From external observations we can confirm the juvenile shark is a 2.63m (total length) specimen, a young female. She had no obvious signs of trauma however after washing the sand off her at the International Marine Volunteers lodge, with additional input from Dr Alison Kock of Shark Spotters, we observed measured and photographed any potentially interesting markings.

There will no doubt be speculation that Orcinus orca is responsible for this mortality as only yesterday we documented the two male Orca in the area. The fact is we cannot confirm this, it could also just be a coincidence. The autopsy of this shark will take place at Department of Environmental Affairs and will hopefully reveal more about the cause of death, which at this stage is very much inconclusive. Professor Susan Dippenar from University of Limpopo was on site with us and was able to sample live parasitic copepods from the sharks mouth-an indication that this animal had likely washed up recently before found. Interestingly the stranding site is where we have retrieved two dead whale shark Rhincodon typus carcasses in the past. It is an area known for strong currents.


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International Marine Volunteers help with Ragged tooth shark dissection

February 01, 2017 Alison Towner

By Alison Towner
Marine Biologist, Dyer Island Conservation Trust

On the 31st of January we had a rare opportunity to dissect a Ragged Tooth shark, Carcharias taurus. The shark had washed up dead in Franskraal earlier in the month and was collected by Wilfred Chivell to be frozen and dissected at the International Marine Volunteer (IMV) lodge. The specimen was a 2.56m mature male. Externally he looked healthy, but there was a small knife wound to his head and an injury on the side of his mouth- possibly from a hook. His liver was in good condition and unmarked showing no signs of disease or malnutrition. When we opened his stomach he had clearly fed well, there was a Red roman, and possibly a hake and Strepie inside, as well as a baitfish bag and two metal fishing hooks with wire still attached.

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African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary Penguin Release

December 17, 2016 Trudy Malan

On Monday, 12 December 2016, we released a crèche of African penguin fledglings on Dyer Island.

Rearing and releasing African penguin chicks is always an emotional journey full of fluff (literally) and proud “parental” moments. From the first swim, when they frantically flap their flippers as if they were not made for swimming, to the independent “whatever” teenager attitude when they are ready to leave. The conservation intervention of rearing abandoned chicks is necessary to arrest the further implosion of the population. It is however a costly and labour intensive exercise, with unknown outcomes. The fledgling penguins will, like any youngster, explore their options before they settle with a partner and start breeding, hopefully bolstering the natal colony where they were removed from. This process of “finding their flippers” can take from four to six years. It is a great move towards a “kick starter campaign” but we need to add more than a drop of maturity to the mix.

Adult Penguin Release, 17 December 2016

Therefore, the rescue and release of adult African penguins is a conservation triumph. To grow the African penguin population, we need to protect the adult birds. They need to go forth and multiply. Conservation efforts must be focused on repairing their habitat, preventing disaster like oil spills and disease outbreaks and acting fast to rescue adult African penguins in trouble.
The Dyer Island Conservation Trust, through the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary is committed to making a difference. For us, conservation is about more than rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is needed because #EveryBirdCounts, but it is but one small step in the journey to rebuild the population.

“We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.” ― Mother Teresa

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An Expedition to South Georgia and the Falkland Islands

November 30, 2016 Brenda du Toit

Wilfred Chivell and Susan Visagie recently travelled to the spectacular isles of the South Atlantics for an adventure of a lifetime! At the most recent Marine Dynamics/Dyer Island Conservation Trust Marine Evening, Wilfred shared some of the images and moments of a very special trip. The Great White House was packed and everyone was keen to hear more about South Georgia and the Falkland Islands which form part of a marine protected area near South America and the Antarctic’s.

The trip was undertaken on board Sea Spirit guided by Doug and Dale from Cheesemans Ecology Safaris, experts in their field with over 35 years’ experience.

While Wilfred admits he is not one for visiting graves he was very interested to see that of explorer, Sir Ernest Shackelton.  Shackleton led three expeditions to the Antarctic. It was on his third that his ship, Endurance, was trapped in pack ice and subsequently crushed. The crew used the lifeboats to reach Elephant Island and the inhabited island of South Georgia. This distance of 720 nautical miles was covered during a terrible storm and is almost unbelievable to Wilfred that he made it. Wilfred saw first-hand how strong the wind and sea could be while out on the boat Sea Spirit so his admiration for Shackleton is now even stronger. In 1921, Shackleton returned to the Antarctic  but died of a heart attack while his ship was moored in South Georgia. At his wife's request he was buried there.

Something that struck Wilfred was that the area was pristine with no plastic or pollution in sight, a true place of wilderness. With majestic landscapes and flourishing marine wildlife he finally spotted some Southern right whale dolphins. Wilfred has travelled to many places to view one of the species he loves most, the penguin. In this expedition, including sightings in Chile, he was able to see six penguin species – the Chinstrap, King, Rockhopper, Gentoo, Macaroni and Humpboldt.

Wilfred shared some of his pictures, but with some 12 000 to go through he called upon visiting marine guide Judith Scott, herself having been on such an expedition, to incorporate  some of her photos too. All in all it made for an interesting evening.

(Should you wish to be on the marine evening mailing list, please send your details to

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Schools Donate to The African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary

November 28, 2016 Pinkey Ngewu


DICT was once again invited by Okkie Smuts Primary school in Stanford to receive a donation on behalf of the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary - APSS. As part of the school’s social development programme, the principal and learners started a coin project to assist the endangered African penguin. The school raised a total amount of R5500.00, with the grade 3 classes being on top of their game and raising more than R2500. It was such a pleasure to witness the excitement of the learners as they created a penguin with coins on the ground. We are truly grateful to the school principal and teachers initiating the project and the learners for their dedication and love for penguins.

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November 26, 2016 Pinkey Ngewu

It has been a successful, fun filled and educational year for the DICT Environmental Education Programme (DEEP BLUE). We covered 22 lessons and 3 outings for the year. In celebration of the amazing year and to reward the group for their hard work, dedication, commitment, passion and love for their environment, we took the learners to the Two Ocean’s Aquarium in Cape Town for an informative and exciting day out. They were in awe with the marine life they saw at the aquarium. They had fun in the city and were excited to see Table Mountain.

The day ended with lunch at the V&A Waterfront’s Spur. A BIG thank you to Wilfred Chivell, Marine Dynamics; Mike Gibbs, Overstrand Municipality and the International Marine Volunteers for making this outing a possibility for these young marine stewards.

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African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary Welcomes New Manager

November 21, 2016 Brenda du Toit

The Dyer Island Conservation Trust is pleased to welcome Theanette Staal to the team. Theanette will take on the role of Manager at the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary.

Theanette has a BA in Political Science but realised her true calling was with animals. After obtaining a certificate in field guiding she went on to gain a University diploma in Veterinary Nursing and is a registered veterinary nurse with the SA Vet Council. Theanette also studied for a certificate in Osteoarthritis management in small animals (Incl. Physical Rehabilitation). Theanette has had a varied career from guiding overland trips and working at a ski resort in the USA to working as a night sister in the UK, and night ICU sister at Onderstepoort . She has physical rehabilitation experience having worked at a small animal rehabilitation clinic.

Theanette’s last position was at the Donkey Sanctuary in McGregor as donkey care manager where she also co-presented "animal welfare assessment" workshops to animal welfare, law enforcement and donkey rescue organisations.

Theanette is just as excited to be working at APSS, “I grew up with a love and respect for nature and enjoyed some overland guiding for a while. I always loved animals and had a special bond with them, but especially with penguins and donkeys. Since working with penguins for the first time in 2007 at Penguins Eastern Cape, it's been a dream to have the opportunity to work with them in a permanent capacity. My main vision has always been to "Make a difference" through whatever I do, wherever I am.”

Theanette had perfect timing and arrived at the same time as the abandoned African penguin chicks off Dyer Island. As the adult penguins go into their annual molt and are unable to feed their late bred chicks, we take over that job for them. It is critical we are able to feed and strengthen these penguin chicks to be able to release them back on Dyer Island to become the next breeding generation. With a brood of over 50 penguins to look after at the moment, Theanette has been full steam ahead. Trudi Malan who has been working at the sanctuary will continue to represent the Trust at penguin forums.

The African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary is open every day with feeding times of 9h00 and 15h00 that can be observed. Coffee shop and curio shop on site.  Penguin rescue line: 0725987117

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Chick Season at the Afican Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary

November 16, 2016 Anwynn Louw

It’s that time of the year again. The APSS team in conjunction with CapeNature removed abandoned penguin chicks from Dyer Island. So, why take penguin chicks away from the island? Well each year the African penguin goes through a molting process, which takes place after the breeding season.

Molting is a phase whereby adult penguins shed old feathers. As the new feathers are not yet waterproof, a process which takes about 20 days, the penguins are unable to swim and cannot hunt for food. If there has is an overlap of breeding and the molting process starting , the adult penguins abandon their chicks, before they are fully fledged. These chicks would perish due to starvation. With the population considered endangered, every bird counts, and so we step in to feed and strengthen these chicks to help rebuild the population. Once they have reached the required weight and ready for the big blue we release them back on Dyer Island.

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Southern Right Whale Annual Aerial Survey

November 01, 2016 Meredith Thornton

All across the Southern Hemisphere southern right whales were whaled almost to extinction in the 1700-1900s. It was originally thought that there were as many as 70 000-80 000 animals in total and it is believed that their numbers were reduced to less than 500 individuals!  Fortunately southern right whales were protected internationally in 1935, but pirate whaling still took place until the 1960s.  South African right whales have recovered well, increasing at about 7.5% per year and there are now thought to be about 5000 animals in our population, although historically there were probably 15 000-17 000, so we still have a long way to go!

The South African population has been studied extensively since the 1970s, primarily by the late Professor Peter Best, through various research projects such as aerial counts, individual photographic identification using natural markings from the air and at sea, photogrammetry, theodolite tracking, stable isotope analysis, genetics, fatty acid analysis and satellite telemetry.

As a result of South African right whale numbers being so low Prof. Best decided to start annual aerial surveys in 1971.  Initially a fixed wing aeroplane was used to count the animals and then 38 years ago annual photographic surveys were started using a helicopter to hover above the cow-calf pairs and take ID shots of the unique pattern of callosities on the whales’ heads.  Each individual whale is entered into the South African catalogue and is used for analysis, producing facts and figures on calving intervals, rate of population increase, age at first breeding, population counts, geographic distribution etc.

A decline in the number of southern right whales visiting South Africa, was at first noticed a couple of years ago in the non-calving animals along the coast and now this year in the reduced number of cow-calf pairs.  This might be a cause for concern, or may simply be in response to a temporary environmental variable such as a food shortage as a result of changes in oceanographic conditions, alternatively an environmental variable could have meant that more animals than normal calved in 2014, which was a bumper year, meaning that less would choose to breed in their ‘normal’ year.  Southern right whales are thought to be pregnant one year, calve the following year and rest for a year.

In recent years cow-calf pairs have numbered in the region of 200, but this year less than 60 pairs were encountered on the aerial survey.  This result was both surprising and interesting because as always in science we have a greater number of questions than answers!  A count of a similar total was last made in about 1990.

Meredith Thornton, Research Coordinator for the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and Research Associate of the Mammal Research Institute (University of Pretoria), worked closely with Prof. Best at the Mammal Research Institute, and has been intimately involved in this work for over two decades.  The Dyer Island Conservation Trust has always played an important role in assisting the MRI aerial survey team with logistics when they stop over in the Gansbaai area and this role has been formalised and consolidated with Meredith’s move to the Trust and her continued involvement with the aerial survey and other MRI/DICT research projects.

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