Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam)

It’s been an eventful beginning to this year’s Musandam expedition – a tire on our trailer blew out as we were en route to Khasab, so we had to wait for another vehicle to transport all the kit. Arriving late at the harbour meant we had no time to spare if we wanted to complete our check dive before dark, though with an attentive team, and a competent skipper and his crew this was not an issue. The dive went well and we relaxed to the light of a huge silvery moon.


The next couple of days were taken up with Reef Check training. From dawn ’til dusk the team studied, dived, and took tests above and under water.  The effort required was considerable but rewarding and by the afternoon of the third day everyone had passed all their tests and were fully qualified reef checkers. Well done! A great achievement for a team with an age range spanning 50 years! As a treat we took the speedboat and visited the local land-locked village of Kumzar, learning about the local customs and traditions from Yusef, our skipper.


It is reassuring to see from our preliminary investigation that despite being flagged as a hot spot for coral bleaching, these corals seem to have adapted sufficiently to cope with such high temperatures. Not such good news is the first ever sighting on any Musandam expedition, of the coral-eating Drupella snail at, along with a proliferation of discarded fishing nets and lines. Reef Check veteran Ayesha managed to release two banner fish caught in a fish trap, though bat fish in another trap were not so fortunate.

drupella net

So with another five surveys ahead of us and the full moon tampering with the tide and currents, we still have very few full days ahead of us. But I have no doubt that if the last few days are anything to go by, the next will be filled with enthusiasm, hard work, and good humour.

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman.

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam)

Greetings from Dubai – our preparation day has been very successful, beginning with a trip out to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) to collect our kit boxes that have been in storage there for the past year. The DDCR is our partner for our Arabia expedition (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia) which runs each January, monitoring Arabian oryx, Gordon’s wildcat, and other flagship species, and they also kindly guard all the equipment we need to run the Musandam expedition as well. Once the kit had been checked and the car loaded, we went back to Dubai in search of an essential piece of O2 delivery equipment, without which we could not set sail tomorrow. After a hectic couple of hours, it was sourced, found, and collected! Thank you Nasser for your help!

Our next port of call was the iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel where we met with David Robinson, their head aquarist. He took us behind the scenes, showing us the turtle rehabilitation work they are doing in Dubai, taking injured hawksbill and green turtles that get washed up on the beaches, and nursing them back to health for release back into the open ocean. David told us that there are only 60 breeding adult female hawksbill turtles left in the whole of the Southern Gulf of Arabia. This dangerously low figure is due to loss of habitat, unsustainable fishing practices and other anthropogenic influences.

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On our tour we saw the aquarium’s leopard shark, now 7 years old, born parthenogenetically, i.e. without external fertilisation. David was very excited, as yesterday, she too exhibited the first signs of laying her own clutch of eggs. Leopard sharks are only the 3rd species to show parthenogenesis in captivity.  David is not only working in Dubai, but is conducting research on whale shark ecology. As part of his PhD, David formed Sharkwatch Arabia, a database to collect whale shark sightings throughout the region. He recently discovered a massive aggregation of over 150 whale sharks in Qatar. Protected by the presence of oil rigs, the waters are not fished, and tourism is prohibited – a strange but effective MPA. He asked us to keep a lookout for whale shark and other shark species during our time in Musandam, as they are likely to be present in the areas we are surveying. We did indeed have a whale shark encounter two years ago, in the same location, so keep your eyes peeled – and remember, it may be above you!

So, after this very informative and enjoyable meeting we bid our farewells and rushed back to the Holiday Inn to collect another consignment of equipment – all in a day’s work!

It may be a few days before I can send another diary entry as internet connection out on the Musandam peninsula is sporadic to say the least, but I look forward to meeting you tomorrow at 09:00 – let the expedition begin!

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman.

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

Against the tide of bogus voluntourism in South Africa: a case study from the Western Cape

South Africa has been gaining a reputation as the home of bogus wildlife voluntourism projects. At the worst end of the scale are profiteering scams that abuse unsuspecting volunteers to walk, pet and raise lion and other predator cubs whose only purpose is to enrich the owners and be killed in a canned hunt as soon as the animals have outgrown their cute and cuddly stage. But there are genuine volunteering alternatives too, set up by locals and satisfying local need for help with wildlife research and conservation. A small project in the fynbos of the Western Cape shows how it is done.
Dr. Alan Lee, a South African biologist, is currently hosting a group of seven volunteers from South Africa, Switzerland, the UK and USA at Blue Hill Nature Reserve to assist him for two weeks in his efforts to research and conserve the unique wildlife of the fynbos.

“The volunteers helped me with big cat, small mammal and camera trapping, with analysing thousands of camera trap photos, and conducting a general biodiversity assessment using flush surveys”, says Dr. Lee and adds that “much of this work is time- and labour intensive and can only be done in groups. With only a couple of days training, I can turn laypeople into valuable research assistants, enabling me to do projects that I could not do by myself or that I simply lack the time for.”
But it does not stop just there. Dr. Lee aims to publish two peer-reviewed scientific papers as a result of the project, one on temporal patterns of abundance of medium- to large-size mammals from camera trap records, and the other on the Hottentot buttonquail, an endangered bird species endemic to the fynbos. This will add two more useful pieces of the puzzle to what is known about South African wildlife in academic and conservation circles.

Dr. Lee enlisted the help of international volunteering non-profit Biosphere Expeditions in order to recruit his volunteers and help with the logistics of the project. Fellow biologist and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions Dr. Matthias Hammer says that “Dr. Lee’s project is a showcase of how wildlife voluntourism can and should work, and we are very proud to be associated with it. Peer-reviewed publications are the litmus test for genuine research and getting two out of a two-week project with seven volunteers shows exceptional, goal-oriented focus. It also corroborates what we call our stamp-collecting argument: That voluntourism in wildlife conservation works, because tasks are simple, but laborious and therefore often ideal for the involvement of volunteer citizen scientists. Add to this genuine local demand and community involvement through Biosphere Expeditons’ placement programme, hosting Khomotso Rammala, a recent biology graduate from the University of Limpopo on the project, and you have a small, but significant project that swims against the tide of charlatan and bogus voluntourism in South Africa”, concludes Dr. Hammer.

The next expedition to Blue Hill with Dr. Lee and Biosphere Expeditions will take place from 2 – 16 October 2016.
In collaboration with the Landmark Foundation, the project focuses on monitoring two of Africa’s iconic cats: the threatened Cape mountain leopard and the caracal, in an effort to mitigate conflict with farmers and thereby contributing significantly to cat survival and their conservation. Working in the unique biome of South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom (fynbos) – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s only biome contained within one country – the project also conducts larger biodiversity surveys, focusing on cat prey species such as antelopes, as well as small mammals. The project’s ultimate goal is to develop a remote monitoring technique that will better inform landowners of the status of their prey wildlife and predatory cats, identify potential conflict areas, and use the knowledge gained to mitigate conflicts.

At 1.2 million square km, South Africa is the world’s 25th largest country. It is incredibly biodiverse, with habitats ranging from forest to savannah, grassland, thicket, karoo, desert and fynbos. South Africa is also very rich in wildlife, and is a favoured Big Five safari destination. The core of the study site is the Blue Hill Nature Reserve, a 2,300 ha CapeNature stewardship nature reserve with mountains ranging from 1,000 to just under 2,000 m and under the care of the Lee family trust. CapeNature is the Western Cape provincial conservation department in charge of the network of nature reserves of the Western Cape. The property was purchased in 2009 by Chris Lee, a retired geologist who has been awarded the Draper Memorial Award for contributions to South African geology. The land was previously used for cattle ranching. It was incorporated into the local community conservancy in 2010 and officially declared a nature reserve in 2013. The trust has an obligation to manage the land for biodiversity under a management plan administered by Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, the state organisation charged with managing the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve.

Blue Hill lies on the western side of the massive Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve and wildlife is free to move between these protected areas. The Baviaanskloof area is one of outstanding natural beauty, owing to its spectacular land forms, a diverse array of plants and wide variety of animals. The area is also part of the Cape Floristic Region World Heritage Site.


Here is a photo from the camera trap taken at the cage the night after it was deactivated! The associated video shows the leopard spooking at the entrance, and not going through… but trust our luck….


From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa.

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam)

For those of you still under the impression you are coming on a cushy diving “cruise”, we thought you might like to see the itinerary and dive sites 😉



Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman.

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)


We ended as we started, with a small transportation hiccup. The minibus driver managed to get himself lost on the way to Blue Hill. So we loaded everyone and their kit into two of the four wheel drives, and headed out to intercept the bus on a dirt road, and ensure that flights weren’t missed.

I can hardly believe our first expedition in South Africa is already over. Let me start by thanking our team. First off, our volunteers, for being pioneers, willing to take the expedition leap of faith and believe in a new project – you’ve all made a great contribution (see below). But firstly, we owe a big thank you to the Lee family, particularly Anja, Eli and Charlie, and Chris and Elaine (our collective hosts) for your endless hospitality. Grateful thanks also go to Melda and Stefan, for the continual provision of culinary delights, and their botanical and camera trap ID wisdom! And finally, our enormous collective thanks go to Alan, our leader in all things scientific. It has been a fantastic privilege to share in your world.

So what about that contribution I mentioned? We achieved the following:

– 15 new camera traps have been deployed both across the Blue Hill area and in the Baviaanskloof, to monitor leopard, caracal and other mammal activity and movement patterns.

– Over 3500 camera images from Blue Hill have be analysed, identified and catalogued, revealing activity of leopards, caracals and African wildcats across a number of locations.

– 20 km of flush transects surveys have been completed across the Blue Hill area, and the first-ever flush survey was completed in the Welbedacht section of Baviaanskloof.

– We completed the first series of small mammal trapping surveys in the Blue Hill area of the fynbos, and demonstrated the presence of Namaqua rock mice, which was previously unknown in this location.

– We identified the location of more Cape rockjumper nests (a bird endemic to the fynbos), and installed camera traps to monitor chick development and feeding behaviour.

– We completed more radio-telemetry surveys on tagged rockjumpers, to assess activity and distribution patterns.

– We located an active nest of the endemic jackal buzzard, with two chicks and again installed a camera trap to assess prey species brought to the nest.

– Four species of bat have been identified in a small survey area around Blue Hill, and a cave roost of the Cape horseshoe bat has been identified.

– New locations and examples of rock art have been discovered.

That broadly covers the headlines, but our work is still not complete. Data still needs to be crunched from the various field surveys and just think of all those new camera traps still clicking and collecting data….long beyond our departure.

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The keen-eyed amongst you will have realised that this is nine different, and in several cases, new achievements, in nine full days, by the collective efforts of nine people. Full marks and many thanks for this great contribution.

Don’t forget to share your pictures and you’ll hear from us again when the full technical expedition report comes out in a few months. Safe travels home and we hope to see you on another expedition again at some stage, somewhere on this beautiful planet of ours.

Craig Turner
Expedition leader

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa.

From our conservation holiday volunteering with jaguars, pumas, ocelots, primates and other species in the Peru Amazon jungle (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/amazonia)


Thanks to everyone for sharing your pictures. Here are a few highlights…

Continue reading “From our conservation holiday volunteering with jaguars, pumas, ocelots, primates and other species in the Peru Amazon jungle (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/amazonia)”

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam)


Hello and welcome to the first instalment of the Musandam diary.  I am Catherine Edsell your leader for this year’s expedition to the Musandam Peninsula. I have led this expedition for the past three years and feel privileged to be able to take you to such a stunning environment – we have a great expedition ahead of us. I trust all your preparations are going well, and I look forward to meeting you in Dubai at 09:00 on 25 October in the foyer of the Holiday Inn Express Jumeirah, our departure point to the northernmost tip of Oman.

It is our aim to replicate the surveys we performed in 2013 and 2011 as only by obtaining comparative data can we gain an insight into the true state of reef health. This year is an El Niño year. Sea surface temperatures are rising and as I write this, corals around the world are dying due to the intensity of this phenomenon. The temperature of the waters surrounding the Musandam Peninsula are always higher than the global average, making it a unique study site, as the corals here are already adapted to warmer temperatures. It will be interesting to document how much resilience they have and whether they are being affected. This is our quest.

To be able to collect accurate data, Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt our expedition scientist, and I will first need to train you in Reef Check methodology, so please have a look at all the training materials available on our website (see your dossier for details), as the more familiar you are with the indicator species of fish and invertebrates and types of substrate we will be studying, the better!

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman.

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

Many of us come on a Biosphere Expeditions project with a desire to contribute to field science and conservation. But we also come on expeditions for many other reasons and with different expectations – perhaps to meet new people, experience new places or see wildlife.

The first two often begin to be realised, as soon as you arrive on the expedition site. But the latter takes time and effort and often it is too easy to focus on this at the expense of immersing yourself in the expedition experience as a whole.

Here in the fynbos, we have all been fortunate enough to experience and document new species to each of us, whether, they be grysbok, sengi (elephant shrew), black harrier or some of the many flowering species. They may not always have been what we all hoped for, or expected, but nevertheless they offer something new – new data and new experiences. But this project has given us more; the opportunity to remove our biological blinkers and appreciate the wider setting at Blue Hill.

Our field work, in the form of flush transect surveys and mammal trapping, has allowed us to appreciate the landscape and begin to marvel at the millions of years of geological history beneath our every step – gratefully aided by a presentation from Chris Lee (Alan’s Dad) who is a professional geologist.

This also helps give perspective on the historic people of this land, through the observation of ancient rock art, which seems to adorn every cave wall or rock overhang – showing people, antelopes and big cats. Leading us to speculate as to who was here thousands of years before us, and how they interacted with the wildlife?

And sometimes these differing interests collide. As an aside to our main work, we’ve been deploying a bat detector in the evenings, which has detected, amongst others, the endemic Cape horseshoe bat – a species which is becoming rarer. Alan, knew of a cave roost, but not which species inhabited it – cue a mini expedition to the cave. Whilst we could confirm the presence of horseshoe bats, the use of high power spotlights also revealed more cave art, not seemingly visible in daylight; and not previously known to Alan.

In just a few moments, we had learnt more about the Blue Hill area than any of us expected. But also realised there was so much more to learn.

And at the end of each day, you hopefully get to appreciate the nocturnal landscape. To me, the African night sky is synonymous with stars. Many of us are not always fortunate enough to experience them with such vibrant clarity….and yet here we can ponder on what we still have yet to experience or learn and perhaps dream up where we should next explore…

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa.

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

The fynbos is famed for its wildflowers in all their diversity and beauty. There is no doubting we are working in a Floral Kingdom – the Cape Floral Kingdom to be precise.

It is easy to obsess about charismatic species at the expense of others and whilst we may not exactly be tripping over leopards, caracals, kudus or klipspringers, we are surrounded by a wildflower wonderland. And once you start looking at them, I mean really looking in detail, they reveal all manner of shapes, sizes and colours.

In many respects, flowers power the fynbos. Several small mammals (the subject of our trapping studies) are reliant on protea flowers for food. Many species of butterfly, moth and horseflies are specialised for extracting nectar from tubular flowers and at the same time perform a pollination role. While orange-breasted sunbirds and Cape sugarbirds, which are endemic to the fynbos, not only act as pollinators, but the latter relies on proteas and pincushions for food and shelter. All of this is vital as it underpins the charismatic species that we seek.

Once you stop to look at the flowers and your immediate environment, you begin to discover a variety of other species, whether they are birds, insects or amphibians, and interactions between them. An eye for such detail is a great asset for field work.

Such an approach, lead one of our volunteers (Marty), to discover an active nest of the Cape rockjumper – another bird species endemic to the fynbos. This species also forms part of Dr. Alan Lee’s (our project scientist) ongoing studies. The nest had three eggs, which hatched the next day – the first time both have been recorded. And this is only the fourth active nest to be recorded at Blue Hill. All important data.

Camera traps have now been set around the nest to record the chick development, resource provisioning by the parent birds and any nest predation. Time and imagery will advance our knowledge.

It is amazing what you can learn by just looking at the immediate world around you. For all the technology that could be deployed, to record a host of environmental parameters and species movements, there is still no substitute to spending time in the ‘field’, simply observing.

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa.