HAVING A WHALE OF A TIME
Breaching, spy hopping, lob-tailing, bow-surfing, logging … all of these are not just amazingly entertaining terms but actually common whale behaviours that have been largely unknown to most of us.
But, with a greater interest in marine conservation, increasing publicity around the scourge of plastics in the ocean and even outcries against whaling, the hunting of seals and seismic testing, more and more people are taking an interest in the treasure chest that is our marine environment and stepping up to protect it.
Two of these are Chris and Mathilde Stuart, highly regarded authors of a range of books, field guides and mobile applications on African mammals, wildlife and conservation.
Much of their time is spent travelling the world, searching for wild mammals and promoting conservation. Mathilde holds a doctorate from the University of Innsbruck. Chris holds an MSc from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
They have just launched their latest book, Marine Mammals, A guide to the whales, dolphins and seals of southern Africa and the Southern Ocean. It’s an easy-to-use and beautifully illustrated guide to all the whale, dolphin and seal species in the region. Small enough to squeeze into an already full backpack and light enough to whip out in a moment, it is packed with useful and interesting information.
It would be a great read in preparation for a marine spotting expedition as well as a useful resource to have on hand during your journey.
What many of us don’t realise is that there are close to 50 species along out coastlines – from the demonstrative Humpback Whale and Dusky Dolphin to the striking Leopard Seal and massive Blue Whale.
This book covers key identification features, behaviour, diet and distribution and even recommends the best times and places to view more commonly seen species. It explains signature behaviours. Most useful of all, it comes with detailed illustrations of diagnostic characteristics which include the diving outlines, breathing ‘blow’ and tail shapes of common whales.
However, because most of the focus is on the beautiful marine creatures that fill this lovely publication, we decided it was time to find out a little more about the authors behind it
We have travelled extensively and over the years have gathered an extensive image, video and sound library, as well as a vast amount of information. A good way to summarise the inspiration – a love of natural history, biodiversity and wild places and preferring to be the master/mistress of our own destiny.
O&A: You have written a number of books (Apps) that act as useful guides for travelers and conservation-conscious folks – how many have you written in total and when was the first one published?
The Stuarts: We have 34 books published, three more at the printers and many more at different stages of development. Our first book was “Field guide to the Mammals of southern Africa” published with Struik in 1988. Many of our books, but not all, were published by Struik (Struik Nature)/ Penguin Random House. Some of our earlier books are no longer in print.
Our first mobile application (App), “Chris and Mathilde Stuart’s Southern African Mammals” came out in 2017, followed by “Chris and Mathilde Stuart’s Complete African Mammals”.
Having lived in North America for three years, we produced “Chris and Mathilde Stuart’s Guide to the Mammals of North America” and, most recently, “Chris & Mathilde Stuart’s Guide to the Mammals of Europe.”
Why Europe? Our second home is in Upper Austria where we try to spend several months every second year. We are in the process of developing several new apps covering tracks and signs, natural history compilations for 12 regions and countries.
O&A: What inspires you to write these books?
The Stuarts: Chris has had an interest in natural history from a very early age and, over the years, after university and undertaking research on carnivores and other biota, it was time to branch out and go it alone by doing conservation consultancies, biodiversity surveys, independent research and of course writing books and latterly producing apps.
The team – that’s the two of us – started to expand our “production” once Mathilde retired from full time medical practice in 2013.
We have travelled extensively and over the years have gathered an extensive image, video and sound library, as well as a vast amount of information, all of which we continue to expand. A good way to summarise the inspiration – a love of natural history, biodiversity and wild places and preferring to be the master/mistress of our own destiny.
O&A: What made you write this book?
The Stuarts: Actually, we were approached by the publisher and asked if we would be interested in producing this marine mammal book but in a relatively limited time frame. With our data bank and interest, we of course said yes! We have very wide interests within the natural history world, including marine mammals, and these have been included in several of books and the four current apps.
O&A: It is amazingly detailed – how long did it take you to compile/write this book?
The Stuarts: We are often asked this question and we always point out that we have been collecting information across a broad spectrum for many years and on an ongoing basis. Once we get down to it and discipline is implemented (it helps greatly to have a Germanic organizer in the form of Mathilde as Chris has a habit of getting distracted!!!)
the actual putting together of a book usually does not take too long. This marine mammal book from start to finish, took us from June to early October – but we were also working on several other projects in tandem.
O&A: Up until now, people have visited Southern Africa to see the so-called big five. Do you believe that there is a change in how people are seeing mammals in a marine environment – are we seeing people travelling specifically to spot whales or dolphins?
The Stuarts: There is certainly a growing interest in travelling to view marine mammals. Marine mammal tourism is big in North America, Europe and to an increasing extent in Australia, South America and South Africa. One is seeing people travelling to Iceland from various parts of the world especially to view marine mammals. Southern California is a growing hotspot, also off Maine in the north-eastern USA.
South Africa has some of the finest marine mammal viewing locations in the world. One can sit in a restaurant in Hermanus watching Southern Right Whales close in shore at certain times of the year, Humpback Whales on their northern/southern migrations off both the south, east and west coasts. Bryde’s Whales close inshore, schools of Bottlenose and Common Dolphins.
O&A: In your opinion, what is the greatest threat to these beautiful species and what can we do to protect them?
The Stuarts: There are several threats facing marine mammals, especially the cetaceans – whales and dolphins. Seismic surveys by oil companies and military entities disrupt communication of these marine mammals (the latest controversy of Royal Dutch Shell undertaking seismic surveys of South Africa’s south-east coast is a case in point).
Remember that some cetaceans communicate over distances of hundreds of kilometres! There is the issue of entanglement in fishing nets and drifting ropes that kill an unknown number of whales and dolphins. Pollution is a major, but poorly understood, threat. And it seems that it is not just the visible but also the invisible, or near invisible, micro-plastics, the toxic chemical levels in some smaller water bodies such as the Baltic, Black Sea, Mediterranean and Gulf of Mexico.
O&A: As your biography on the back of your book says, you have travelled the world – what has been your best place/s to visit to see marine mammals (they can be different places or the same).
The Stuarts: This sort of question is impossible to answer as each sighting is special in its own way! Watching Belugas in the St Lawrence separating Canada from the USA, Killer Whales (Orca) and Harbour Porpoises hunting migrating salmon in Alaska’s Prince Edward Sound, Bottlenosed Dolphins in crystal clear inshore water near Esperance, Western Australia, Southern Right Whale
cows and calves off Tergniet and Reebok in Mossel Bay, the same whale species in the offshore trough at De Hoop Nature Reserve, Bredasdorp, Haviside’s Dolphins cavorting in the inshore breakers off Lambert’s Bay, Western Cape. There are many more sightings and each is very special in its own way!
O&A: If you were chatting to someone who wished to spot whales or dolphins in their natural environment (not an aquarium) for the first time, what would your advice be?
The Stuarts: Another difficult question but a few species off southern African coastlines are easily observed from the shore and, wherever possible, we have listed these in the book.
There are several boat operators that take groups offshore which may add species to your list, or give special views of those species you may have seen from the coastline. Remember that some species only occur off our shores seasonally, such as Southern Right and Humpback whales. Other, such as Bryde’s Whale, Common and Bottlenosed dolphins, are present year round. If you are visiting Namibia, a trip to Cape Cross on the Skeleton Coast will deliver on aura of sound, sight and smell with the world’s second largest colony of Cape Fur Seal.
If you’d like to know more about Chris and Mathilde Stuart’s exploits, log on to www.stuartonnature.com.