Zanzibar Humpback Whale Project

Zanzibar Humpback Whale Project

Zanzibar Humpback Whale Project The aim is to provide information that can assist local communities to start up whale watching as a new economic activity.

The Zanzibar Humpback Whale Project started in 2006 with the objective to research the seasonal occurrence, abundance and population structure of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off east Africa. We also help address the problem that humpback whales get entangled in th...e local fishing nets. We are based in a small village on the south west coast of Zanzibar called Kizimkazi Dimbani. We c

Timeline photos 14/09/2012

After the end of the a very successful season the team visited a local school to explain the aims of the project and educate the students about the importance of conservation.

Timeline photos 07/09/2012

Another exciting day for the Zanzibar Humpback Whale team with the recovery of the hydrophone buoy .The has been recording all underwater acoustics in southern Zanzibar for the past month and will hopefully deliver some really interesting results :-)

Timeline photos 02/09/2012

great sightings in the past week with this energetic calf being the best for the research team

Timeline photos 30/08/2012

Hey guys, here is a sneak peak at how the acoustic recordings are anaylsed in the form of a spectogram.Any questions regarding this feel free to post :-)

Timeline photos 27/08/2012

Great survey today , here is the team in action :-)

Timeline photos 23/08/2012

mother/calf pair + some great acoustic recordings =one happy Captain Foum


Eid Mubarak Zanzibar!


The research team has just completed a great week with seven survey days in a row. Unfortunately, Kristin left us but our new research assistant, Jessica, joined us and she seems to have brought with her some luck with weather and sightings. Here is a recap of the week in Zanzibar from Jessica's perspective:

"Awesome acoustics of singing humpback whales; capturing a shot of a breaching whale with a perfect landing; Getting my feet wet, literally! First sighting of humpback dolphins! Working with some incredible marine biologists, minus the lovely Kristin Öhman! Also sad to see Lynne Payne's departure but had a nice celebration for her last night!

Later part of the week - Sun burnt to a crisp! Learning Swahili all over again; and Lovin' the sunsets over the water every night! ;)

*Best moment - Sitting on a wooden bow sprit (arched on top with open water underneath) with bottlenose dolphins energetically swimming right below!

**And the strangest thing that I had ever encountered - Sitting next to a raw cow hide in a white bucket on a dala dala (large truck with loads of people in each other's "personal spaces")!"

Karibu (welcome) to the Zanzibar Humpback Whale Research project Jessica :)

Timeline photos 19/08/2012

Humpback whale showing off it's huge pectoral fin during a pec slap during a photo-ID survey this week!


A great start to the week! Two whales yesterday and then today we started with calm seas (sea state 1) then shortly after leaving the beach we spotted a mother/calf pair resting and conducted a lovely photo ID and behaviour survey on them. Later, after surveying to Makunduchi we re-sighted them again. While with them we dropped the hydrophone and had the best acoustic recording so far this year!

Timeline photos 12/08/2012

The disentanglement teams that were trained in 2010 and 2011 respond to whales that get entangled in nets and use specialised gear provided to free whales from the nets. The teams gave a demonstration at the Workshop of the gear and procedures for how to disentangle whales. There is currently one set of specialised gear and the disentanglement teams expressed the need for a second set so that there would be one available in the south and one in the north of the Island facilitating response in the two main fishing and likely entanglement areas. The Workshop agreed that it would be beneficial to demonstrate the use of the existing gear as an argument when seeking funds for a second set.

Timeline photos 12/08/2012

“Weak-links” make the nets break into smaller panels of nets if a whale swims into the net and can thus prevent entanglement which saves both whales and the fishers’ nets. Two weaklink nets were made in 2011 and have been trialled during the past year. Mr Pandu, the fisher responsible for the weaklink nets, reported that the nets have worked very well and had similar target fish catch as non-modified nets. No whales had been entangled in the weaklinks nets during the trial year so it was not possible to assess their effectiveness to prevent whale entanglements. Mr Pandu still encouraged all fishers to introduce weaklinks in their bottom set and drift gillnets. After some discussion all present fishers agreed that they would implement weaklinks in their nets. Last year fishers were provided with the materials to make weaklinks and arrangements were made at the Workshop for distribution of the materials.

Timeline photos 08/08/2012

Disentanglement and Whale watching 12/07/2012.

The humpback whales in Zanzibar coastal waters are being entangled in artisanal drift and bottom set gillnets and in lines to fish traps. This is bad both for the whales that may die unless they can free themselves from the gear and for the fishers that risk losing their equipment and only source of income. To address this problem and to assist in the development of sustainable whale watching as a potential new source of income to the local communities we just finished a 2-day Workshop 10-11 July 2012 at Kizimkazi-Dimbani on the south coast of Zanzibar. The Workshop built on two previous Workshops held in 2010 and 2011. The first day of the Workshop was dedicated to bycatch mitigation using “weak-links” as a possible mitigation measure which was introduced during the previous years’ Workshops and to assess the effectiveness of the disentanglement teams that was trained in 2010. The second day of the Workshop was dedicated to developing guidelines for sustainable whale watching. Each day was introduced by presentations for each Workshop topic by Dr Omar Amir (Zanzibar Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries) and Dr Per Berggren (Newcastle University) followed by discussions and recommendations from the Workshop.

Timeline photos 04/08/2012

Having completed four boat surveys and not seeing a whale it seems they have not arrived in great numbers yet. In recent years the project established a whale sighting network consisting of local fishers who call in reports of whale sightings and, although we received a couple reports of whales this week, we were not quite at the right place at the right time! The project’s main survey area is the Menai Bay Conservation Area (MBCA) and is approximately 400 km2. Our project survey vessel is fairly slow, so often we cannot follow up on sightings reports because they are too far. In addition to visual surveys we were able to conduct hydro drops but have not yet had any acoustic detections.

Despite the lack of whale sightings this week the season is still early and we anticipate we will soon be busy when the animals start arriving in greater numbers to breed and have their calves!

PIC: Even when there are no whales to survey we regularly spot dolphins

Timeline photos 03/08/2012

Lynne and Kristin listening for whales.

Timeline photos 03/08/2012

Typically, during a boat survey, we sail a survey route and team members visually scan in a way that all areas around the boat have search effort. If we spot a group of whales or dolphins we leave the survey track and begin photo-ID and behaviour data collection. Ideally, survey routes are randomized with as even coverage of the survey area as possible. Unfortunately, in reality, many other factors, such as weather and fuel, affect when and where we can survey. In addition to visual data, we regularly conduct hydrophone (underwater microphone) drops to listen for and record singing whales. Around Zanzibar we are often restricted where we can go for ‘hydro drops’ due to the reefs; these areas are important ecologically but are noisy and restrict where we can do acoustic surveys. Despite the reefs, we have found locations where we can make clear recordings of humpback whale songs, data which contributes further to occurrence and behavioural data collection.

Timeline photos 02/08/2012

New student Khamis K. and Kyla scanning for whales

Timeline photos 02/08/2012

The first few days of vessel surveys are a lot of work and with the new team members we spent time introducing them to the research protocol and life in general on the project. Not long after Dr. Per, Nat and Lynne’s arrival to the island and prior to our first vessel survey, we spent a day meeting and discussing the project and protocols. Per summarised the project’s history including previous research on dolphins, the addition of research on the whales, by-catch issues for both, and the current status of conservation activities as related to marine mammals in Zanzibar ( Although this was a long day with lots of information we ended it with a better understanding of the project and field research activities.

Timeline photos 01/08/2012
Timeline photos 01/08/2012

Departing from Kizimkazi-Dimbani beach for a boat survey first thing in the morning is always inspiring! Any sleepiness from waking up early quickly fades with the cool morning breeze, the beautiful morning sun on the water, smell of the sea and the hum of the engine. Despite a busy first week of settling in to life in Kizimkazi-Dimbani we had good weather and were able to conduct four vessel based surveys aboard Piccolo, the project’s trusty 12 m, local wooden Mashua!

Timeline photos 30/07/2012

Nat scanning for whales at the Makunduchi lighthouse

Timeline photos 30/07/2012

When we arrived we piled out of the car and looked up at a beautiful red and white (but peeling and somewhat faded!) stone lighthouse looming above us. Two local men (Mr. Abdallah and Mr. Maneno), responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the lighthouse, were there to meet us and show us around. After a brief exchange of greetings in Swahili we were soon climbing the 165 steps to the top of the 27 m building (44 m above sea level). The climb was definitely worth it…views of the sea along the east and south coasts and the villages and low, scrubby forests of the island stretched out before us. It was quite peaceful at the top of the lighthouse with the sound of sea breezes and goats bleating in the shrubbery below.

We were keen to spot whales and immediately began scanning with our binoculars but, unfortunately for us, there were no whales this time. It is early in the season so we anticipate whales
soon and after seeing the lighthouse decided it will be a feasible location for a pilot study.

Timeline photos 30/07/2012

Dr. Per, Nat and Lynne landed in the Stonetown airport, Zanzibar on the morning of Saturday July 7th. Kristin and Kyla had arrived some days earlier and taken care of the first weekly food shopping in Stone town before meeting up with Per, Nat and Lynne at “our” house in the village Kizimkazi-Dimbani (on the southwest coast of the Island). Almost immediately after arriving to the house Juma, the owner of our house, a local friend and working partner through IMS, drove us to Makunduchi to see the lighthouse. The drive from Kizimkazi-Dimbani to Makunduchi is only 20 minutes but from the village to the lighthouse the track was not good at all; we bounced over sharp coral rag and sharp bushes scratched and squeaked along the sides of the car! We cringed with each squeak and hoped Juma’s car was not too damaged by the trip.

Timeline photos 28/07/2012

Just before arriving to the project, we received news that we had permission to conduct surveys from the Makunduchi lighthouse located on the southeast tip of Zanzibar Island! In addition to the vessel based surveys we would like to add a land-based component to the research this year. Land-based surveys are useful because they are less restricted by weather conditions and do not affect the data collection by disturbing the animals. Prior to initiating land-based surveys we wanted to visit the lighthouse to check if it would be suitable for binocular and theodolite surveys; if it was suitable the pilot study would be initiated over the next couple of weeks to collect additional data on humpback whale occurrence and behaviour.

Timeline photos 22/07/2012

This year the research team consists of three returning and three new research staff and students: Kristin, will once again be the Field Principle Investigator (her fourth season!); Kyla, will be a research assistant (her second season) and will take over for Kristin when she leaves in August, and Yussuf, is returning as one of our local Zanzibarian research assistants (his second season). Yussuf graduated from the University of Dar Es Salaam last year and currently works with the Institute of Marine Sciences in Stonetown and we are very happy to have him back! In addition to the returning staff, we welcome four new assistants for 2012 including: Nat (Nathaniel Stephenson) and Lynne Payne, two, undergraduate 3rd year students from Newcastle University; Khamis, another Zanzibarian student from IMS; and, in mid-August, Jessica, will be joining us as a research assistant until the end of the season. In addition to the research team we will be working with our local captains, Khamis and Foum, again. Khamis has been working with the project for 15 years now and Foum 5 years and we are lucky to have them with us for another humpback whale research season!

Timeline photos 20/07/2012

It’s hard to believe it’s been eight months since Zanzibar Humpback Whale Research Project team last conducted surveys in the waters of southern Zanzibar but, after much anticipation and planning, the team is back in Kizimkazi-Dimbani! Most of us arrived a week ago and from the get-go have been busy, busy sorting out permits, stocking the house with food and supplies, organizing research equipment, training new team members and looking at a site for land-based surveys for a pilot study we will conduct this year. This has been a very productive week and we even completed four boat surveys. The boat surveys are conducted to study the occurrence and behaviour of the humpback whales arriving here, for breeding and mating, from the waters of the Antarctic where they spent the winter feeding!


Today is a very sad day. Not even a year since the last ferry accident, it happend again. A ferry from Dar es Salaam capsized not far from Stone town. Our sincere condolences to everyone affected by this terrible incident.

Timeline photos 16/07/2012

The 2012 Zanzibar Humpback Whale Project team (left to right): Khamis Juma, Nathaniel (Nat) Stephenson, Kyla Graham, Kristin Öhman, Dr Per Berggren, Foum Rashid, Yussuf Salmin & Lynne Payne. All very happy after having had our first whales yesterday.


We're back!!! A new season has just began and today we had the first day out on the waters :) Whales have already been reported in the area, but we didn't see any today. Instead we saw a group of 20+ Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and 3 I-P humpback dolphins. We're looking forward to a great season! On the boat today: Kristin, Kyla, Nat and Lynne, Foum and Silima.

Timeline photos 25/09/2011

As Zanzibar tries to address its problematic power supply with now scheduled 1-2hourly power cuts we again are plummeted into darkness with hamna umeme (no electricity) but still the work must go on, so todays behavioural data gets entered by candelight


Progress is also being made towards redistributing ‘pingers’ (acoustic alarms) which act as deterrents to the dolphin population by alerting them to the presence of the nets. However, further research into this area is required and funding needs to be secured in order to achieve substantial mitigation efforts. New pingers also need to be purchased as each has a life expectancy of about 2 years, with each fisherman requiring 6 pingers per (500m) net.

Timeline photos 25/09/2011

We are currently continuing in our efforts to develop ‘weak links’ that can be incorporated into the nets, in theory allowing the net to break if a whale swims into it preventing a whale from becoming entangled completely, however this potential solution still requires further developments, time and money!

Timeline photos 25/09/2011

This week, news of two broken nets close to shore here at Kizimkazi Dimbani filtered through from our fisherman network turning our focus back to the imminent bycatch issue in these drift and bottom set gillnet fisheries as accidental drowning in fishing gear is an all too common problem for coastal marine species.

Timeline photos 25/09/2011

Seeing the amount of nets actually out on the water every day brings home just how much of a threat the drift and bottom set gillnet fisheries around Zanzibar (Unguja Island) pose to both target and non-target coastal marine species. Out in the field our efforts of collecting vital behavioural data and photo ID’s for future conservational efforts are interrupted as we watch another mother and yoy navigating dangerously close to and through areas thwart with nets. We sigh with relief with each safe passing as they just about avoid becoming caught up in and entangled in the gear.

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