16th Anniversary of the Flying Scouts Aerial Dugong Survey
Last year’s Survey Mission – 2022 began an expanded survey area which encompassed Surat Thani. This year the mission are was also extended to include Satun province after several local fishermen reported Dugong sightings, and feeding trails were observed near the Malaysian border.
When a new survey area is identified, the next step is to select the nearest suitable runway. Since Satun lies quite far from Trang and Hat Yai province, it was decided to try and reactivate an old Thai Airforce (Wing 56) aerodrome built right in the middle of Satun Town. VTSA is the designated airport code.
Initially the runway was manually inspected so that Capt. Ed could asses its suitability for landing Miss Dippy there. He determined it was feasible if large debris could be cleared first , and plans were made to do a low level approach and flyby during the Trang Survey.
Phang Nga bay was the start of the survey during mid February 2023. The bay used to host Dugongs, but it has been many years since they were last observed here. Nevertheless, two survey flights were conducted and Finless Poipoises were observed in Ko Yao Noi.
Curiously, one of the last sightings in Phang Nga bay was right in front of Phuket Airpark.
After Phang Nga bay, the survey mission moved to Krabi, based at VTSG – Krabi Airport.
For a few years now, part of Miss Dippy’s function is to act as spotter for drone operations. Current drone technology is still quite limited in terms of distance range, and camera payload, so for now the hard work of finding the Dugings and then guiding a boat to their location via VHF radio, so the drone can be launched in close proximity, still relies on fixed wing aircraft.
No doubt in the not too distant future, drones/Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV’s) will ultimately replace the need for piloted aircraft like Miss Dippy, but not for a few years yet!
As you can see from the video below, the footage from a drone/UAV is very stable.
During the survey a group of Kasikorn Technology graduates toured our survey mission. They are currently designing artificial intelligence capable of automating the survey process using UAV’s, and also automatically identifying animals by distinctive markings on their bodies.
This group represents the next generation of animal conservationists, and it was fun to host them, explaining the old fashioned way we survey presently!
The Krabi survey was very challenging due to high on shore north easterly winds. Apart from mechanical turbulence, the wind made the water conditions very turbid, and dugong observation was very limited.
In addition the majority of Thailand was blanketed in thick smog during this period, which Krabi was also partially affected by, leading to several delayed early morning departures until the morning sun could burn some of it off.
Nevertheless, there were two very clear days, thankfully one of those coincided with the drone flight, and two large groups of 20 Dugongs were observed.
Following Krabi, the survey mission relocated to Trang Airport (VTST). The weather and visibility were much better at Trang. It is remarkable what a difference 10 days can make with regard to changing weather conditions.
For the Trang mission, the Flying Scouts were joined by K. Amy from Phuket Airpark, and K. Orr a Marine Biologist based in Samut Sakhon.
K. Amy flew in with her Zenair CH701 affectionately named “Moo Deng” or Red Pig.
Moo Deng is slower than Miss Dippy, so ideal for flying over the hotspots to take some stunning images.
This was an unusual sighting of an adult Dugong grazing inshore from K. Talibong.
The reliability of our aircraft during these missions is paramount. We have to rigorously preflight especially given the high number of flying (2-4 hrs) hours each mission takes.
Very accurate flying each and every mission ensures the data collected is valid to a very high standard, year on year.
Trang province is the home of the largest population of Thailand’s Dugongs.
As part of the survey flights, we also record any other species we encounter such as turtles and dolphins.
Sea Turtles are an essential part of the local marine ecosystem. They feed on jellyfish amongst other things. We observed less turtles this year, but many more jellyfish which is a worrying indication about the turtle population. At the same time we observed much more tourist activity in all survey areas – a correlation?
The Thai government is very committed to the Dugong conservation. Considerable resources are given to support the survey mission as part of that conservation effort.
Photography & video (c) DMCR
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