Jean Paul Roux, the man who rescued 33 dusky dolphins in Namibia

On the 3rd of February 2016, Jean Paul Roux managed to rescue 33 stranded dusky dolphins on the Lüderitz coast. The news has been released on his facebook page “Lüderitz Marine Research”. Before reading the interview, it’s good to get to know the man.

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After a degree of biological sciences, ecology and evolutionary sciences at the University of Montpellier, France, Jean Paul Roux joined the French Antarctic Research Program for six years with field work on the French sub-Antarctic islands in the South-Western Indian Ocean and Antarctic scientific cruises.This program focused on seabirds and marine mammals.

He worked on a range of projects involving penguins, albatrosses, petrels, fur seals and elephant seals. These projects led him to his DEA (Honours/Masters degree) on the systematics of great albatrosses in 1983.

After completing his PhD on fur seals he moved to Namibia to take up a scientist position in 1987 as head of the “marine mammal section” in the Directorate of Sea Fisheries (which became the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources after independance). He currently runs the Ecosystem Section in the Ministry as a marine ecologist. This section informs fisheries management on ecosystem effects of fisheries, develops indices of ecosystem health and promotes an ecosystem approach to fisheries which includes marine biodiversity conservation issues in the management of the fisheries.

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Sea Search Africa : The whole rescue took 36 (intense) minutes, between the time I arrived and when dolphin number 33 was allowed to swim free“. How is it possible to rescue so many dolphins in 36 minutes?

Jean Paul Roux : With speed and agility” would be the obvious answer… Just after I noticed the disturbance in the breakers from about 600 m away, I rushed to the site, assessed the situation, counted the animals, and started phoning colleagues and friends to alert them of the stranding and that help might be needed. All this took less than a few minutes. Then, realizing that the tide was still incoming for the next hour or so and seeing the dolphins in distress being pushed higher and higher on the beach I concluded that any delays in the start of the rescue could make the operation much more difficult.
Furthermore, half an hour earlier I had seen between 150 and 200 Dusky dolphins feeding about two kilometers offshore of that very same beach. My experience with this species is that it is highly gregarious and responds very quickly when one of their congeners is in distress. The danger was of course that the rest of the feeding group might come in to investigate/assist the distressed animals and we could have ended with more than 100 dolphins on the beach with a receding tide.

This is the type of scenario which usually leads to a high rate of mortality as well as a mammoth task for the rescuers. Since the dolphins has been stranded for just a few minutes, they did not need special attention besides being refloated so I immediately started with the main group in the swell exposed area, by pulling each individual backwards by the peduncle just forward of the flukes. Once in about 1 to 1.5 m of water behind the breaking waves, I grabbed the animals’ girth in front on the dorsal fin and swiveled them so they were facing offshore before going for the next one.

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Some came straight back and had to be pulled again, while others started milling around behind the breakers. That was an encouraging sign and I figured that the more animals off the coastline the better as they would entice the next ones not to come straight back on the beach…

However out of the main group of about 26 dolphins that I had started working on I found three animals resisting vehemently. A mere touch on their peduncle or flukes resulted in an immediate violent thrashing response. I mentally took note of their position in the group and decided to leave them for last, as time was short and the power of those panicked animals was way above what I could handle on my own (one of those had already sent me for a dunk in an incoming wave and another slammed its peduncle and flukes so hard on the shallow sand that it started bleeding). While I was busy with this tedious exercise in water between knee and chest height, I notice two figures clambering down the rocky slope from the lighthouse.

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Upon getting closer they turned out to be a tourist couple from Israel and asked me if I needed help… Always keen to state the obvious, I told them that I was fine; however “they” (the dolphins of course) are in need of some help. They got the message and stripped to shorts and bikini and quickly came to assist with the last few dolphins. These included the panicked animals that would not allow being handled earlier… Now with two additional pairs of hands we managed to push these last animals back into the sea and they soon joined the others about 20 metres offshore.

We also had to assist three dolphins from the northern group by dragging them forward from the shallows to deeper water, and when all that was done the only dolphin left in the “danger zone” was floating sideways and was unfortunately confirmed dead on the scene. It had been noticed as unresponsive in the initial assessment and I guess he (it was a big male) was the one initially in trouble which triggered these events with other members of the group rallying to “assist”.

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I dragged him up onto the beach and within minutes, while I was catching my breath and keeping a wary eye on every fin in the bay, vehicles with additional helping hands started to arrive alerted by my earlier phone calls (the site is about 20 km out of town). By then I had completely lost sense of time but because I documented the stranding upon my arrival I could back calculate from the digital camera time stamps that the whole recue took about 36 min (although it felt like much more at the time).

SSAIs the place where the stranding occurred, a place known for strandings? If yes, why were you alone trying to rescue them?

JPR : This beach is the western most sandy beach inside Lüderitz Bay and is not “particularly” known for being a stranding “hotspot”. However we have had quite a variety of live and dead strandings within the bay over the years including Humpback whales (2), Minke whales (3), a pygmy right whale (1), pilot whale (1), pygmy sperm whales (4), Layard’s beaked whales (2) and a few species of dolphins including Heaviside’s, Dusky and Common dolphins as well as two Southern right whale dolphins (Lissodelphis peronii) on the very same beach in December 2013 (which were successfully refloated as well).

I also attended quite a few more stranding events in the region (but outside the bay itself) involving some of the species already mentioned and, in addition, a Sperm whale, a southern right whale and a Blainville’s beaked whale (and several other species elsewhere along the coast). This reflects the variety of cetacean species in the region. As I mentioned earlier the use of cell phones in the immediate vicinity of the town has facilitated the calls for help when a stranding occurs, and many people locally are always keen to help, so I did not “feel alone” as I knew that help was on its way after my initial calls.

SSA : On the Lüderitz facebook page, you didn’t really mention the circumstances following the discovery of the stranding….Can we learn more ?

JPR : The Lüderitz Peninsula offers the highest variety of coastal habitats that can be found anywhere along the Namibian coast (from lagoons, wetlands, salt pans, protected and exposed rocky shores, reefs, sandy beaches, kelp beds, north and south facing bays, seabird islands etc.) and in addition it is readily accessible from town. As such it is a wonderful place to study and monitor coastal ecology in the region. In addition after two decades of efforts, we managed to have the first marine protected proclaimed in Namibia (the Namibian Island’s Marine Protected Area or NIMPA) in 2009. It is quite large (the largest in continental Africa) being about 400 km long and around 25 to 30 km wide and centered around Lüderitz Bay.So it seemed appropriate to start some detailed monitoring of the coastal ecology and phenology right here in order to have some baseline data.

For several years now I do this monitoring at a study site around Dias Point and focus on observations of waders and seabirds (including their feeding behaviour), marine mammals, and jellyfish wash-ups etc. So that morning I was busy with one of those frequent monitoring visit. As I arrived on the beach I scanned the sea and noticed an offshore “feeding frenzy” involving Cape gannets, fur seals, Cape and white breasted cormorants and a large group of Dusky dolphins (estimated with difficulty due to the distance of more than one and a half kilometer) at about 150 to 200 dolphins. Inshore on the other hand everything was calm at the time with just one group of six Heaviside’s dolphins quietly patrolling the corner of the beach at the edge of a small kelp bed. After noting this, I moved to the back of the beach to do a bird count at a Damara tern roost. This took only a few minutes and when I came back towards the shore I immediately noticed the unusual splashing right in the breakers and on the beach about 500 metres ahead of me. So I rushed there to investigate and that is how I discovered this drama unfolding on this deserted beach for the past few minutes.

SSA : How many strandings occurred in Namibia (week, month, year)?

JPR : While all the records of the strandings I attended are being compiled into a data base for future use, one should keep in mind that most of the southern Namibian coastline is extremely difficult to access (due to the Namib Desert and the absence of coastal roads) and therefore not visited regularly. Because of this it is impossible to accurately estimate the numbers of strandings every year, let alone any seasonal trends. My guess would be between 10 and 20 strandings per year (of which less than half are reported or recorded) involving close to 20 different species overall (out of around 33 species of cetaceans recorded along our coast).

SSA:  What are the species most likely to stranding in Namibia?

JPR : Due to the paucity of data and records it is presently impossible to answer this question for the whole of Namibia. However it appears that some species do strand “preferentially” and regularly in some short sections of the coast (like pygmy right whales in Walvis Bay), but these stranding events seem to be very rare elsewhere along the coast (and in other places around the world). The reasons for these spatial discrepancies are currently unknown.

SSA : Is this the first time you have experienced this kind of stunning rescue?

JPR :Each live stranding poses different challenges according to the species, the site and sea and tide conditions. These are always in my experience “high adrenalin events” for all involved. Because of this each successful rescue is imprinted in my mind (and that of my helpers) as stunning!

This one was indeed a bit different from the others I have previously experienced as it was a “mass stranding” involving more than 30 individuals. Also, when I started assisting them, I was not thinking I could manage on my own but as I knew additional help was on its way I just went ahead to limit the potential catastrophe of having more than 100 dolphins high up on the beach with a receding tide. That was a bit special indeed. But most of the successful rescues I have been involved in also rank quite high in my memory and some were particularly “epic” involving many volunteers working hard for many hours with spades, and bucket, and making resources available (like boats and even a truck with a crane, to transport a minke whale out of a mud flat into the harbour etc.). Each of these successes are stunning in my view… because the feeling of seeing the rescued animal finally swimming away towards the deep sea after such efforts cannot be equalled to many other experiences in life.

SSA Many sperm whales stranded and died on European beaches, do you have any comments about that?

JPR : Sperm whales are quite abundant and widespread worldwide compared to many other large cetaceans. As such there are regularly several strandings recorded each year around the Great Britain coast. However Sperm whales are very deep divers and avoid shallow seas like the North Sea. This makes this cluster of strandings extremely unusual (if not unprecedented) as the North Sea is not the right habitat for this species. I know our European colleagues are working hard to find plausible explanations for this very unexpected and unusual occurrence. Were they all part of the same pod which somehow strayed away from their usual deep-sea habitat in the north Atlantic and somehow got trapped in the North Sea? Hopefully we will get some elements of answer in the next few months.

SSA : Do you plan to create a project around the rescue of marine mammals?

JPR : No, not a “project” as such. However as I started as Marine Mammal biologist in the Ministry 29 years ago, cetacean strandings were naturally part of the concerns of my section at the time and I therefore organized locally a small group of interested people as an unofficial “stranding response team”. Locally we have been quite successful in recording and rescuing quite a few cetaceans which ended up in difficulty on the shore. I hope that these efforts will be continued in the future, and taken up by the next generations. Looking back in time, I am glad to see that some local children who helped two decades ago at some of our earlier strandings are now, as young adults in town, volunteering to help within minutes of a phone call.

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About seasearchafrica

The Sea Search group is a collective of scientists and students with a strong academic background in the area of marine mammal science. Our primary focus is the production of peer-reviewed scientific research and student training. We also provide specialist consultancy services and work with industry and government to promote conservation through effective management.

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