Research Collection

Marine Mammal Research at Bayworld

Early days

Although the research collection started later, marine mammals (whales, dolphins, seals, dugongs, etc) have been collected by, what was then the Port Elizabeth Museum, since 1897. In that year a sperm whale skeleton was obtained from the local whaling firm, Coles & Searle. The massive lower jaw is still on display, in the upper Marine Hall. The second specimen was one of the last southern right whales harpooned in the Algoa Bay, in 1902.  Its spectacular 19 metre long skeleton is suspended from the roof of the Marine Hall. Further specimens were collected in the early 1900’s by the then director of the museum, F.W. Fitzsimmons, primarily for educational displays. While Fitzsimmons was more well known for his herpetological work, he published his observations on marine mammals in 1920 in his series entitled “The Natural History of South Africa”. Further work on marine mammals only took place in the 1960’s when marine biologist Nancy Teitz published research on records of unusual cetaceans, including a rare beaked whales. She was followed by the team of animal behaviourist Graham Saayman and oceanarium curator Colin Tayler, who conducted globally pioneering work in the 1970’s on dolphin acoustics and behaviour, through observations of both wild and captive animals.

The start of a collection

 A true marine mammal collection was only started, however, with the appointment to the museum of the visionary Graham Ross in late 1968. Graham recognised two important characteristics of the Eastern Cape coastline. Firstly, that a great diversity of marine mammal species were found offshore, and secondly, that the many semi-cardioid, or half-heart shaped bays along this coast (such as Algoa Bay) led to weak and dead animals being washed ashore. This made the region a major source for marine mammal specimens. Graham therefore started a systematic programme of responding to marine mammal strandings along the coastline, from Mossel Bay eastwards. This programme continues today. While the museum only possessed 48 specimens of marine mammals when Graham arrived, it had grown to comprise some 1 400 specimens by the time he left. He remained involved in the collection until his departure in 1989. He not only collected the specimens, but also conducted valuable research which led, amongst other things, a PhD in 1984 and also to the recognition of two species of bottlenose dolphins worldwide. The collection is named after him.

Continued research and growth of the collection

Graham was followed as curator by Vic Cockroft. Vic increased the collection greatly, adding many specimens from the KwaZulu-Natal coast. He also expanded research in the tropical Indian Ocean. Vic departed in 1998 to set up the Centre for Dolphin Studies in Plettenberg Bay. While the collection was without a curator for seven years following Vic’s departure, it was looked after by research technician Wendy Kant and continued to grow. In 2005 Stephanie Plön joined the museum as a contract biologist and remained at the museum for the next six years, initiating many research projects. She is still involved with the collection. A number of other staff and students have also contributed to the growth and management of the collection, including Vanessa Isaacs, Leszek Karczmarski, Mzi Mahola, Mike Mtati, Sibu Ngqulana, Mthoko Nsele, Carolyn Stewardson, Frikkie van der Vyver, Gill Watson and Debbie Young. Bayworld also relies on links to a number of other organisations to increase the collection, including the Cape Nature Conservation, Department of Fisheries, Forestry and the Environment, East London Aquarium, East London Museum, Eastern Cape Parks, KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, National Sea Rescue Institute, Nelson Mandela University, Oceans Research, South African National Parks, Stranded Marine Animal Rescue Team, and various regional municipalities. The current curator is Greg Hofmeyr, who joined the museum in 2006.

Putting Bayworld on the map

Since marine mammals live in an environment that humans are not adapted and, thus where it is difficult to observe them, information from stranded animals is especially important. Museum collections are therefore very important. This is especially so for large collections, such as Bayworld, which is probably one of the ten largest in the world, and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Specimens from this collection have been used by researchers from all over the world, and this work continues. Of note, Bayworld hosted the 5th African Marine Mammal Colloquium in 2018. This was the largest gathering yet of marine mammal biologists and enthusiasts from around Africa with over 60 delegates. Also attending was the president of the international Society for Marine Mammalogy.

What is in the collection?

Currently the collection comprises over 6 100 specimens of 44 species of cetaceans (whales and dolphins), 12 species of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) and one species of dugong. Amongst the more interesting specimens are skulls of a walrus and an Amazon River dolphin. Little known and threatened species include the humpback dolphins, both the pygmy and the dwarf sperm whale, and nine species of the elusive beaked whales. Included is a valuable specimen of Longman’s beaked whale, one of perhaps only 12 held in collections worldwide. The collection also holds the type specimen for the fossil beaked whale, Izikoziphius rossi, named after the founder of the collection.

The most common group found in the collection are the two species of bottlenose dolphins, with over 1200 specimens. The common dolphins are not far behind with more than 1000 specimens. These two groups make up some 40 % of the collection. Another 40 % of the collection are specimens of seals. The majority belong to three species: the Cape, Antarctic and Subantarctic fur seals. This part of the collection has grown considerably over the past few years.

Where do these specimens come from?

The majority of the specimens originate from strandings and bycatch animals collected along the southern and eastern coasts of South Africa, east of Mossel Bay. However, some 20 % of specimens are of seals from Southern Ocean islands. This section has grown rapidly since 2014 with over 500 specimens collected during recent expeditions to Bouvet, Marion and Gough Islands.

The collection continues to grow by some 80 specimens per year. Current efforts to increase the value of the collection include ensuring that researchers worldwide are able to use the specimens and data for their research. The collection is also augmented through a very active stranding response programme and local and international institutional links.

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