Mayumba National Park

Cetaceans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Whales and dolphins are members of the taxonomic group called cetaceans. Mayumba is the best place in Gabon to see cetaceans, and the unquestioned stars of the cetacean show are the Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). It is thought that as many as 10% of the world's humpbacks may migrate into the Gulf of Guinea from their feeding grounds in the krill-rich southern ocean. The migration takes place during the Antarctic winter, and whales reach Gabon from around June/July. Mayumba sees the first whales to visit Gabon, and being so far south, is also the last to see the whales as they head back south after their dry season stay in our waters, in October/November. Some animals continue up the coast towards Cameroon, Nigeria and even as far as Ghana , but a large number remain in Gabonese waters. During their stay, the adult females either give birth to their young, or mate in preparation for a calf in the following year's migration. The males, in time-honored fashion, come to vie for the females. Many parts of the globe may boast the presence of whales, but off the Gabonese coast, the frenzy of mating ensures that these whales are among the most active to be seen anywhere. Any female found to be receptive is likely to find herself courted by several amorous males at a time, and a long, drawn-out game of push and shove ensues as the males jostle for prime position alongside the female. In the general melée of fins and tails, the whales appear to be oblivious to the research boat following a short distance behind them. Other excited males engage in what is perhaps the most spectacular of all nature's wildlife displays. In order to execute a perfect ‘breach', a male swims powerfully up towards the water surface and erupts like a 30 ton missile into the clear air. The display appears as if in slow motion, and literally takes the breath away. After hanging in the air for implausible seconds, gravity takes a hand and the whale crashes side-on back into the water sending huge explosions of spray in all directions. Research teams use these impossibly spectacular displays as a means of locating whales, but they can regularly be witnessed from as little as 30 meters away!

 

Another remarkable behaviour witnessed at Mayumba is the ‘tail up'. Everyone is familiar with the image of a whale's tail moments before it sinks below the waves. In Mayumba whales are known to hang in the water column with their tails in the breeze for over fifteen minutes at a time. Explanations include thermoregulation, and even a means of locomotion: whale tail sailing! One thing is known, when a ‘tail up' is spotted, or whale disappears from view and does not reappear, there is usually as ‘singer' in the vicinity. Hydrophones are dropped, and immediately the boat crew is treated to that most haunting and magical of sounds: whale song. During the dry season, the apparently placid waters off Mayumba are in fact awash with the song of umpteen whales, the clicks of dolphins, and even the grunting of certain fish species. For those wishing to hear whale song as it was supposed to be heard, a quick dive over the side of the boat will give you the unique experience of feeling the song as it reverberates though your body. Astonishing!

 
  The dry season of 2005 was the first experience for WCS scientists of the Mayumba whales, having previously worked further to the north. The team was delighted to find that whale numbers were as high or higher than those encountered elsewhere, and as a bonus, the near shore produced many more sightings of mother and calf pairs than had been seen elsewhere on the coast. The relative ease of access to the ocean (via the Banio Lagoon mouth) also makes a trip to sea a more comforatble experience and fewer days are lost to bad weather and waves. In 2005, 28 work days at sea resulted in 105 humpback groups coming under the scrutiny of the research team, representing 245 individuals (an average of almost 3 groups per day, or 9 individuals. Only 2 days yielded no observations, and the highest number seen per day was 9 groups, or 18 individuals!). Over 7500 identification photographs were taken, any of which would make a professional wildlife photographer envious.
The research underway at Mayumba includes the identification of individual whales by photographic recognition and genetic fingerprinting. This effort is helping us to describe the size and structure of the migratory population, which in turn is of vital importance in efforts to adequately protect the whales at an international level. Analysis has also been underway to determine levels of toxic hydrocarbon build up in whales. If, as we hope, whalewatching becomes a regular visitor experience, your trips to sea will be accompanied by an experienced researcher or guide who will describe what is going on, point out individuals, and give you the chance to help out with data collection. Joining the research team or following a little behind in a support vessel will give the visitor a unique up-close experience of this most charismatic and awe-inspiring of Mayumba's natural wonders.  

Other Marine Marvels

Being at sea affords the visitor other exciting experiences, such as making contact with groups of Bottle-nosed or Common Dolphins. Playful as ever, these enchanting animals skip and flash ahead of your boat. Some have even been seen riding the bow-wave of a humpback whale. Common dolphins are the acrobats of Mayumba and frequently leap high above the waves, apparently for the sheer delight of it. A real treat is the sighting of a group of rare and endangered Atlantic Humpback Dolphins (Sousa teuszii). Mostly inhabiting very near shore waters in the south of the Park, you are less likely to see them during a whale tour, but they can be spotted from the beach, feeding just beyond the waves. While you're at sea, keep an eye open for the majestic manta ray, or an extra special view of a leatherback or olive ridley turtle, no longer encumbered by her weight on the beach, but back in her element, an open ocean wanderer, gliding effortlessly towards the mysterious depths of the Atlantic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Few places in the world can offer you such an extraordinary view of the humpback whales, caught up in their timeless cycle of migration, mating and birth, set among an unspoiled coastline in the heart of tropical Africa. Along with meeting the giant leatherback turtle, a day spent with Mayumba's whales will be a highpoint of any visit to Gabon, the memory of which will remain with you forever.

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