Debbie Winton is an environmental scientist with a marine research background, passionate about field research, conservation, environmental sustainability, science communication and public engagement. I work for environmental NGO Earthwatch as a Programme Coordinator.
Name: Debbie Winton
Location: The Red Sea
Bio: Debbie Winton is an environmental scientist with a marine research background, passionate about field research, conservation, environmental sustainability, science communication and public engagement. I work for environmental NGO Earthwatch as a Programme Coordinator.
I’ve worked in a number of countries around the world on marine conservation projects, including Madagascar, Fiji, Mauritius and The Bahamas. Working with Earthwatch I am now involved in terrestrial, freshwater and marine research programmes in the Middle East. Most recently I went to Egypt to join the Red Sea Dolphin Project research team on their very first expedition with Earthwatch, which is what I will talk about here.
The Red Sea Dolphin Project is an Earthwatch supported project run in collaboration with the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA). The research focuses on increasing knowledge of the abundance, distribution and habitat use of dolphin species in the Egyptian Red Sea, in a region where little is known about cetacean ecology. This scientific knowledge is vital for indicating critical habitats for development of a representative network of marine protected areas and to make management and monitoring recommendations, to protect against threats of marine pollution, degradation of coastal habitats and unregulated dolphin-watching activities. At the same time the project is strengthening national capacity in the field of marine conservation through participation of local stakeholders and students in the research.
The Red Sea is a fascinating place, and one of the most biodiverse oceans in the world. This high diversity is in part due to the 2000 km of coral reefs, but the Red Sea also has mangrove forests, seagrass beds and salt marshes along its coasts. The huge range of marine life includes sharks, rays, sea turtles, dugongs, dolphins, whales, and over 1,100 species of fish, 10% of which are endemic. This level of biodiversity needs protecting.
The project is boat-based, which means you spend 24/7 at sea and sleep onboard moored up next to a coral reef, listening to the waves and feeling the sea breeze through your porthole. I love being surrounded by sea and everyday seeing marine wildlife in action – whether it be dolphins travelling through to get to their feeding grounds, gannets diving into ocean to catch fish, or turtles floating past as they take a breath before diving back into the depths of the Red Sea.
We had a good number of sightings during the expedition, including spinner, pantropical spotted and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. When surveying lagoons where spinner dolphin and other species rest during the day, we had the delightful job of having to snorkel alongside them to take data on group size, sex ratios, numbers of newborns and juveniles, and other population demographic data. Swimming alongside them, the inquisitive juveniles would inspect us and come up really close – it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
On the ugly side, the hardest part was watching commercial dolphin-watching boats and how they interacted with and exploited dolphins resting in the lagoon. We were monitoring dolphin-watching activity in the lagoon, logging numbers of boats and people in the water, and the behaviour, numbers and movements of the dolphins. Some tourists boats demonstrated responsible dolphin-watching practices and respected the animals, but others showed us some truly upsetting behaviour. We witnessed large day boats driving right up to the dolphins and dropping their tourists on top of them, and small zodiac boats chasing them around the lagoon to get their tourists closer. At times the dolphins would split up and spend more and more time diving underwater, in what we could only interpret as attempts to avoid the people in the water.
The other tough thing was the heat! When there wasn’t a breeze to take the edge off the 35-40°C temperatures, you felt like you were melting on deck. Luckily though our daily schedule was split into 30 minute slots and ensured we alternated tasks indoors with those outdoors so we didn’t have to suffer too long. Heat exhaustion is a real risk in Egypt in the summer!
Top Tips for research in this environment:
1) Be prepared for hot weather and take all the necessary precautions – going out on deck without a hat, a bottle of water and suncream is tantamount to suicide. In fact, my best tip on this subject would be to soak a head scarf in cold water before going out on deck – bliss!
2) Spend as much time in the water as you can get away with! Not only is it a great winding down activity after a tough day, but the coral reefs and marine life are astounding in the southern Red Sea.
3) If going swimming, snorkelling or diving anywhere in the Indian Ocean, pack a long wetsuit or long sleeved rash vest and long shorts, just in case you react to stinging plankton in the water. It doesn’t affect everyone, but if you are sensitive to it (and I speak from experience…), it can cover you with rows of bumps and rashes that itch like crazy! If you cover up though, you’re completely protected, and I guarantee you’ll get a much better night’s sleep
4) If you have bought new snorkelling kit, make sure you’ve tested it and followed instructions to prepare it. New masks tend to mist over and need treatment with special liquid, or rubbing toothpaste on the lens often works. And make sure you have suitably large fins for being able to swim in choppy water – short fins are often not good enough. Also, wearing neoprene socks under fins avoids the risk of blisters or cuts from them
5) Always check the Travel Advice on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, but don’t automatically avoid a country or area just because you’ve heard some bad news in the media. The FCO give unbiased and up to date information about what is happening and is far more reliable than getting your information from media sources.