Portuguese Man-o-War

The un-natural bloom of "Physala physalis" better known as the Portuguese Man-o-War that Gibraltar has been seeing this past week or so; can be put down to the last two months of South Westerly storms we have been having.

These winds have brought this species to our shoreline with waters from the Atlantic.

Physala physalis is a Siphonophore that uses a gas filled float to stay on the surface; the same float provides its movement through the surface waters in the direction of the prevailing winds. Other parts of the colony (it is a colony of animals all working to the same end) make up the digestive track and tentacles for capturing their prey.

The tentacles carry a powerful sting, stretching down and behind as the wind moves them forward, they should be given a very wide berth by swimmers and divers alike. They have been known to cause heart-attacks to some who have come into contact with the tentacles, which can be several metres long.  Where there is one there will be others, and it must be remembered when they are washed up on the shore line or beach the tentacles can still deliver their powerful sting.

Their main predators are the loggerhead turtle (Caretta carretta) and a small opithobranch Glaucus atlanticus  - a  sea snail minus shell, also called a nudibranch.

Notwithstanding all the above, it’s quite beautiful to look at. Do note however, that the bright colours are your first and only warning when encountered; be that shore line habitat, beach or in the sea. A wide berth is the watch word and don’t touch!

Photographs in this article were provided by R. Senior

New artificial reef created out of concrete stars in Gibraltar

Large concrete stars are being used in Queensway Quay to expand the breakwater line and create a more environmentally friendly marina. The stars, apply named “Gibraltar stars”, have been designed to establish an intricate underwater maze for a wide array of species to thrive in.




The Gibraltar Star mould was designed so that it could be reused. To further reduce wastage, the excess concrete was also poured into disused oil drums to create a more diverse habitat. As the old adage goes; waste not, want not.

 This environmental project has been instigated by developer Paul Butler, owner of Marina Properties Limited, who believes that the long term benefits of conservation trump the short term profits.

 The artificial reef provides a diverse surface which is essential for many species to survive. The underwater crevices, which the stars create, enable young organisms in particular to take shelter from the dangers of marine life.

Concurrently, the Gibraltar Stars absorb the force of the waves, instead of diverting them, so that boats within the Marina will not be damaged during rough weather. In comparison, vertical sea walls only reflect the waves, causing nearby piers and properties to be eroded over time. Breaking down this action with the Star is a very forward thinking move.

 The Helping Hand Trust has praised the marina for their “ingenuity” in combining habitat creation with swell reduction. Developers and Environmentalists are often depicted as being at loggerheads with each other, but Gibraltar is seeing that stereotype challenged.

 The initial development of the Island project on the western side has already increased the Marina’s Biodiversity dramatically and marine researchers studying the site are astounded by the success.

Dr Eric Shaw, the founder of Europe’s first Artificial Reef said, “Most marinas have little other than mullet swimming in their water. But Queensway Quay Marina has brought the water quality up so high, that there are now crustaceans, like the swimming crab and squat lobster; soft corals and over 50 different species of fish, thriving within Queensway quay Marina.”

To the overall sadness for the causal onlooker, all this work takes place below the surface of the sea and hence, goes to the great part unseen. However it helps to know that environmental projects are taking place, making Queensway Quay Marina the most ecologically friendly marina in Gibraltar.



Monkey Movies!

Science and Communication Master’s student Jessica Olid has been working with the Helping Hand this summer to create a short series of wild life videos about our Barbary macaques. Collectively, her videos have reached over 26,000 people on Facebook both locally and internationally.

Jessica has been following the macaques for a number of weeks catching some of the funniest and greatest moments on camera. With the help of Dr Eric Shaw and research assistant Tessa Feeney, Jessica has been able to create three unique videos which teach us all about how the monkeys behave.

Dr Shaw said “The videos provide a fantastic opportunity for people of all ages to learn more about the Barbary macaques, in fact I would encourage anyone and everyone to check them out’’.

In her videos she demonstrates a side to the monkeys which is rarely portrayed. From newborn macaques, to how adults resolve arguments, her videos explore the macaques’ natural behaviours away from the hustle and bustle of tourists.

Jessica is hoping that these videos will help educate the public about the Barbary macaques and change public attitudes towards them. “As a local myself, I can see that all too often the macaques are portrayed in a negative light, instead we want to show people that the monkeys are intelligent peaceful creatures with distinct personalities’’ She said.

Filming has taken place within various locations of the Upper Rock Nature reserve, including areas of the rock that people seldom visit. Throughout her time with the Helping Hand she has encountered a number of challenges that arise when filming outdoors and working with a wild species; not the least of which involved the dangers of stepping in monkey poo!

Her videos have been very successful in helping us to educate the public and spread awareness of The Helping Hand Charity. You can watch all of the videos Jessica has created on our Facebook or on our YouTube page. Make sure you Like and follow these pages, as these videos are only just the beginning of our wild life nature series. 

Watch the first chapter here:



Treasure Islands

We are excited to announce the release of Britain's Treasure Islands book and documentary series by Stewart McPherson and Redfern Natural History Productions.

The three-part documentaries series will start on BBC4 on April 12th at 9.00 pm. But before then, you can watch a free mini-documentary on Gibraltar here:

The project to document all of the wildlife, cultures and histories of the United Kingdom's Overseas Territories took four years and the result is incredible.

5,350 copies of the 704-page book have kindly been donated by Lord Michael Ashcroft to every secondary school in the UK and her Overseas Territories. Stewart McPherson was also extremely generous by giving copies of photos and film footage to locals as well as personally donating £21,300 which he divided between the territories to support conservation across the UKOTs.

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Modern Monkey Management

The future of Gibraltar’s macaques is looking brighter than ever (see our facebook post). But it took more courage and determination than you might think, so in this article we’re going to talk though the journey to what is sure to become one of the greatest success stories for modern conservation and wildlife management.

How do you know you’re doing the right thing? For any project to be successful you must investigate solutions thoroughly. If mistakes are made along the way you must recognise and learn from them, and always be willing to adapt.

Ideals of Macaque Management Guided by Research

Dr Eric Shaw became interested in getting more students and independent researchers to study and work in Gibraltar, after hitting on the idea that if he lived for 1,000 years he still wouldn’t have all the answers, but with 1,000 students searching he might get closer.

Eric and Dr John Fa founded Medambios Environmental Consultants, which was contracted, between May 1989 and November 1992, to turn Queen’s Gate (now Ape’s Den) into a tourist attraction within the MoD restricted area of the Upper Rock. Whilst feeding was still the responsibility of the Military at this time, Medambios employed five wardens, at least two of whom were on site seven days a week, to guide tourists and stop illegal feeding. But Eric and John wanted to put scientific research at the heart of the project and so research students (MSc and PhD) were brought out to collect data on macaque behaviour and numbers, which could be used to inform future management. It was an almost ideal situation. But despite the success of the project, it was stopped in 1992 when responsibility for the whole of the Upper Rock passed from the MOD to the Government of Gibraltar. The area was designated a Nature Reserve, with an entrance fee, and the management of macaques became the responsibility of a new management company, Sites Management Ltd, contracted by the Gibraltar Tourism Agency.

It was clear that the Rock Apes (Barbary Macaques) were the biggest attraction for tourists; several new feeding sites were inadvertently created and by 1999 the population had increased to 350+. But during that time Gibraltar’s urban areas expanded and household waste increased. The Government received an enormous number of complaints about macaques in Town, despite the managers sending up to ten men at a time to chase the apes back towards the Upper Rock.

The Start of a 15 Year Investigation

The Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS) was awarded the Ape Management contract in December 1999, and Eric once again found himself working with Gibraltar’s Macaques. By this time Eric was a Director at GONHS, and had founded the Helping Hand Trust. He had also set up the Field Research Station which was used by researchers from a variety of disciplines. Working though Government was trickier than the original Ape’s Den project; politics by its nature forces a focus on quick fixes to secure votes, rather than devoting resources to the search for causes and long term solutions.

The only formal data collection requirements for the new Ape Management Team were to keep records of births, deaths, and troop sizes at the feeding sites, so that population estimates could be calculated. However Eric knew that they needed to keep data on the macaques as individuals, and study all the macaque groups, not just the ones at the feeding sites, in order to learn what exactly causes macaques to go into urban areas.

When Eric Shaw was put in charge of the macaques in 1999 he got serious about data collection.

When Eric Shaw was put in charge of the macaques in 1999 he got serious about data collection.












 In order for data to be useful you need a lot of it. Eric told his new co-workers that they would need at least 10 years’ worth of data before they could analyse it and potentially use it as evidence for what the macaques are doing and why. Fortunately the other two members of the team proved equal to the challenge.

And now, after over a decade of data collection and research, we have enough information to be able to say with some certainty what is needed, and we are also able use the many published studies to argue their effectiveness to our sometimes (understandably) reluctant authorities.

In order to accomplish this investigation without interfering with normal daily activities, GONHS teamed up with the Helping Hand Trust to bring in researchers, both local and from all over the world, to study the Gibraltar macaque situation.


Macaque Team and Vet collecting data while doing a routine check-up so they can record physiological changes and dietary information as well.

It is very rare it is to have an active, full time, management programme for macaques – in fact there are only two places in the world, Gibraltar and Hong Kong, which have long-established structures. The biggest difficulty in managing the ‘macaque problem’ was that all the commonly believed solutions were untested theories. During the last 15 years a lot of assumptions have been proven wrong. For example culling was often suggested as a quick fix solution. Which sounds logical – there are complaints about a macaque in town, remove that macaque and there will be no more complaints. But in practice it never worked very effectively. During the early years of the millennium, a troop of macaques was almost permanently located in urban areas. The order was given for the entire troop to be removed. After the mass cull there were no problems in that area of town for five years but after that five year period the area was again filled with macaques feeding in the same places; this exercise clearly showed that culling by itself cannot solve the problem. And of course it is ethically challenging for many of Gibraltar´s humans.

The longest held belief is that macaques come into urban areas searching for food because they are hungry – which again seems logical enough given that when in town they are usually eating something: fruit from trees, leftover food in bins, etc. This was the theory that led to official food provisioning being started in 1918. However it didn’t really work even then; historical records show that within months complaints were received that Flat Bastion was “infested with apes”. But the theory looks so good that provisioning has been continued ever since, and presently over 100kg of food is put out every day for the (<200) monkeys.

It wasn’t until 2009 that the theory was actually tested. Collin McCabe came to Gibraltar to study the ranging data of one of the troops. But as that troop had already been measured the team decided to do an experiment and test the food theory for the first time. For three months that particular group of macaques wasn’t fed and Collin carefully recorded where they went. Everyone, including arguably the world’s top macaque expert Professor Agustin Fuentes and the local Macaque Team, was sure that the troop would increase their range and visit town more often. Instead, to everyone’s amazement, the opposite happened. The Macaques stopped visiting town and instead spent all their time in a small area of woodland foraging for wild foods. It appeared that the extra food available through the provisioning was allowing the macaques to travel without worrying about their next meal. This was a revolutionary way of looking at the problem.

Unfortunately the truth can be hard to tell. The authorities at the time didn’t want risk stopping feeding because they were unsure of how the electorate would take it, and now it is almost impossible to implement because illegal feeding is so common. All illegal feeding and open food waste would need to be eliminated, before shrinking the food provisions down to a small amount near tourist attractions, in order to encourage the macaques to forage naturally growing vegetation.

Humans seem to be very similar in this respect, how many people reading this have eaten in a restaurant even when they have a fridge full of food at home? Everyone? There is also plenty of free food for humans up the Rock- wild carrots, onions, fennel, herbs and carobs grow there and the waters are full of fish and crustaceans. It is perfectly possible for a family to live off the land and never shop for food in Gibraltar, but the time needed to search and collect enough for a meal would require all the hours of daylight. People with no other means of support would prefer to beg for money in the street or dig for leftover food in bins than spend 10 hours looking for vegetables up on the Rock.

Our research work is a never-ending task and we continue to learn more surprising and interesting information about our furry cohabitants on the Rock of Gibraltar.

Macaque management in Gibraltar is in good shape, and we’re enthusiastic about the future, though there are still more steps to be taken. We’re grateful to our collaborators past and present; below are some of the Researchers and Students who have worked with our Team:

Ruth-Sophie Sonnweber did her dissertation on the ‘Effects of Tourist Pressure on the Follicular Cycles and Reproductive Behaviour in Female Barbary Macaques (Macaca sylvanus)
She is currently studying towards her Doctorate at the University of Vienna

In her Acknowledgments she wrote: ‘…Eric Shaw, who offered me the possibility of working in the field. His support in the field and his interest in my work always motivated me. Many thanks for sharing all the knowledge about the world of the Barbary macaques. Dale Laguea and Damian Holmes for their visits at the site, for their friendship and for making my stay in Gibraltar unforgettable and joyful…’

Ruth had the pleasure of spending both her Birthday and Christmas in Gibraltar.

Ruth's Birthday  

Ruth, centre, on Christmas day 2004 at the Helping Hand’s Field Research Station in Gibraltar with Eric Shaw, Dale Laguea and Damian Holmes from the Ape (Macaque) Management Team and fellow student Nina, far right.


Liesl Mesilio, from the Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine, completed her thesis ‘A Geochemical Reconnaissance survey of soils in Gibraltar’ in 2000. Now Dr. Mesilio-Torres, she is the Chief Executive Officer at the Department of the Environment in Gibraltar


A marine biology student, Brian J. Gomila, was inspired to do a Master’s Degree in 2004 after being placed with the Helping Hand and GOHNS Ape Management Team for 12 months though a local employment scheme. His dissertation was titled: ‘Does Tourist Pressure influence group-fission among Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus) in Gibraltar? An investigation into Conflict Management during Resource Competition’

Brian wrote in his Acknowledgements:
“There are many people I would like to thank in Gibraltar who in many respects facilitated the completion of this study. The involvement of Eric Shaw from the Gibraltar Ornithological and Nature History Society (GONHS) with the macaques in establishing data banks on troop sizes, kinship and producing field guides for identification, provided the initial impetus for my personal involvement with the Gibraltar Barbary macaques, over 2 years ago. I would like to thank him and his team of ‘ape keepers’ and congratulate them for the dedicated and necessary work they carry out.”

Serendipitously, Brian’s supervisor, Professor Stuart Semple, had also researched his PhD Thesis on ‘Female Copulation Calls in Primates’ in 1998 with the Macaque Management Team in Gibraltar. Professor Semple was also the tutor for Adrian Shaw, Eric’s son.

As we approach the start of the academic year, and students and researchers start planning new projects we would like to assure you that no matter how small your investigation is, it is always valuable.