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Peter Holden & Joanna Bluemel

Life in a tropical paradise

The mere mention of the Seychelles evokes images of blue seas and skies, sun kissed beaches and islands fringed with golden palm fringed sands. Diving and fabulous marine life might also come to mind.  Beneath the waves is to be found the highest marine mammal diversity in the Indian Ocean: 13 whales, 13 dolphins and the ever fascinating dugong. The Marine Conservation Society Seychelles (MCSS) and the Island Conservation Society (ICS) have formed a partnership to research the diversity and abundance of marine mammals in the waters around the islands.

What does all this have to do with Coombeshead Academy?Two key people working on the project are Peter Holden, an acoustic and marine mammal researcher, who along with his wife Dr Joanna Bluemel used to be students at Coombeshead College as it was then.Peter came over to Coombeshead from Newton Abbot College to study Sound Engineering in the Sixth Form. He left in 2006 to take up a place at Cardiff University where he studied Sound Engineering and Acoustics.

After leaving Coombeshead Jo went onto Cardiff University achieving a doctorate in Genetics and Evolution.They met at university, soon realised their Newton Abbot connections and got married earlier this year. They have both worked over in the Seychelles for the last three years since graduating and have recently returned to work on the island of Desroches.

Jo is both project co-ordinator and senior scientific researcher of the conservation project. Between them she and her husband have trained 31 people in the Seychelles in marine visual monitoring techniques; 11of whom are from the neighbouring islands of Alphonse, Aride, Desroches, Farquhar and Silhouette. The marine mammals of this area of the Indian Ocean are highly valued targets for a range of products. However, more recently, the indirect death of dolphins and porpoises which has increased dramatically is now a major concern.

The project team under Jo and Peter’s direction have learnt how to visually identify and monitor marine mammals and also how to use Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) techniques.A combination of the two methods makes data collection more accurate and the whole process more robust. Peter gave the Desroches Conservation Centre an autonomous recorder – a static sound recorded device- which was used suspended over the seabed in a remote area offshore.

The mammals’ vocalisations underwater are recorded and the full spectrum of sounds are analysed on a monthly basis. Scientists can work out the species present and what they were doing. Different sounds are associated with different activities – navigation, reproductive behaviour, social interaction and searching for food. Regular boat patrols also help to record species, enriching the local wildlife list.

All this information will allow a greater understanding of species diversity, their distribution and abundance and marine ecology. Many of the mammals are on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The mammals use sound to communicate, find food and protect themselves using echo- location to sense their environment. Since the early 1980s rich oil reserves have been tapped in the Seychelles.

The extraction techniques can negatively impact on marine mammals but so can the seismic exploration techniques which disrupt behaviour with sometimes devastating consequences. Skilled experts like Peter and Jo are a vital resource in the efforts being made by the conservation groups to protect and conserve this very special part of our Blue Planet.