Status update December 2020 – First we helped our local conservation partners. Now it’s time to think about our own survival.

After the coronavirus appeal to support our local partners, please also now consider the Biosphere Expeditions survival appeal to help us make it through the crisis too

Our coronavirus appeal from 1 April to 1 December 2020 was all about getting our local conservation partners through this crisis. This appeal raised close to €50,000 and enabled community expeditions and projects in 2020.

Although there is now light at the end of the pandemic tunnel with several vaccines about to be rolled out, restrictions are likely to be with us well into 2021 and beyond, mainly because vaccine rollout across the world is going to take well over a year, perhaps even two or three.

This means that on top of the near total loss of income in 2020, it will still take some significant time until expeditions are up and running again, let alone back to something approaching normal. In fact, we do not expect operations to approach something near normal until well into 2022, perhaps even later.

All this means that after the coronavirus appeal for our local conservation partners, it is now time to think about Biosphere Expeditions’ survival in these very testing times. So please help us survive the crisis, whilst also avoiding redundancies, by giving to our survival appeal. All donations, large or small, are very welcome and highly appreciated.

There is light appearing over the horizon, but for Biosphere Expeditions it is still far away

 

Community expeditions update December 2020

The coronavirus crisis affects us all. All citizen science for 2020 had to be deferred from March onwards and only two out of a dozen expeditions had a citizen science element to them. Therefore, our partners were and are hard hit by lack of funding and citizen scientist helpers. Yet we were determined that conservation efforts continued despite, and even because of, the very difficult circumstances. This is why we ran a coronavirus appeal from 1 April to 1 December 2020 – to help get our local conservation partners through this crisis. The appeal raised close to €50,000 from 162 donors.

Here is a summary of what the funding has achieved so far:

In the Azores (whales & dolphins) our scientist Lisa Steiner was able to be out on and off the water from April to the end of the season in November. She has a written a detailed blog of what she saw and the data she could collect through the support of the coronavirus appeal.

“The funding from Biosphere Expeditions allowed me to get to sea and document that, for a second year in a row, the number of baleen whales passing by in the spring was lower than it had previously been. I only documented a few blue whales, one humpback and one fin whale, during April/May. There were also fewer Risso’s dolphins, one of the resident species. Sei whales, however, were regularly present throughout July, August, September and even into October. 2020 was a very good year for sperm whales. I was able to document several of the ‘regular’ groups of sperm whales and take over 100 different sperm whale ID photos. I also logged the resident bottlenose dolphins several times – in September with a couple of new calves – as well as false killer whales. Finally there were lots of spotted, common and striped dolphin, sometimes displaying incredible aerial activity. It’s all in the blog. My sincerest thanks to Biosphere Expeditions and those who supported their coronavirus appeal!”
Lisa Steiner
Expedition scientist, Azores

Lisa Steiner

 

In Germany (wolf), a small community expedition took place in July and there is also a blog. The community expedition walked about 250 km, covering 15 cells of the pan-European 10 x 10 km grid and collecting 163 wolf signs. From this they were able to glean evidence of seven wolves, amongst them one known breeding female. Three individuals were new to science, which is exciting.

“Thank you so much to Biosphere Expeditions, its coronavirus appeal and all donors towards our community expedition in Germany. Without the funding provided by the appeal, and in the absence of a citizen science expedition in the summer of 2020, there would have been no data collection and we would have had a big gap in our knowledge about wolves in our study area. Instead we were able to get out into the field, producing some exciting results. Thank you for making this possible despite the challenging circumstances.”
Peter Schütte
Expedition scientist, Germany

Scientist Peter Schütte (left) with a Germany community expeditioner

 

In the Tien Shan (snow leopard), our community camera trapping team have done very well to capture more snow leopard photos and to run a community expedition in September, collecting valuable data in the absence of our annual citizen science expedition. This meant we could produce a combined 2019/2020 research report showing snow leopard presence and making conservation recommendations.

“On behalf of Ilbirs Foundation and myself, I would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Biosphere Expeditions for providing financial support for wildlife monitoring and environmental protection in collaboration with local communities, despite the fact that the pandemic is growing worldwide and the world is facing a very difficult situation. I express my solidarity with the fact that Biosphere Expeditions is continuing its work this way, providing opportunities to all worldwide conservationists in protecting wildlife around the globe.”
Askat Dabyrovich
Ilbirs Foundation, Kyrgyzstan

The Tien Shan community expedition team (with Askat Dabyrovich on the left)

 

In Costa Rica (sea turtles), the project continued with just the local leaders, one research assistant and the biologist. The nesting season has finished and the research station is closed until next year, when our partners are hoping to reopen it again in time for next season, pandemic permitting. The green turtle season in 2020 was slow, for reasons that are not known but not because of the pandemic, with just a few nests. Because of this, the success rate of saving nests from poachers was almost 100%! For leatherbacks, the hatchling numbers were similar to previous seasons. The eventual poaching rate was around 40-50%, depending on the month. This is higher than in years with citizen science support, but is still very good, given the very difficult circumstances.

The hatchery in Costa Rica

 

In Thailand (elephant), our partners are working hard, and are succeeding, to get their local study herd of elephants through the crisis, plus those animals that are returning to the forest with their mahouts because they cannot make a living during lockdown. There are now 50+ elephants around the mountain villages or deep in the forest with their mahouts and food is running low, but fundraising has helped to buy extra fodder to sustain the animals through the crisis.

“Your tireless efforts for fundraising have helped us to continue to provide for our elephants. Our community has also assisted us to care for the many elephants that have had to return to our area for the crisis period. Every donation has contributed to this and has ensured our survival over these difficult times. Thank you to everyone who has contributed.”
Kerri McCrea
Expedition scientist, Thailand

Elephants in Thailand

 

In the Maldives (coral reefs), our local partner has instigated a new coral reef conservation project using coral nurseries to grow baby corals.

Coral nursery table

 

In Kenya (African biodiversity), we empowered local communities through technology with great success during the last international expedition that ran just before the pandemic hit and have published the report of this already. “Enonkishu is thriving as far as the wildlife goes. There were eleven lions, four wild dogs, and Kisaru, the cheetah, just on one walk last Sunday. It looks like Kisaru is pregnant again and sticking around to have her cubs in Enonkishu for a second year in a row,  which will be fantastic”, says conservancy manager Rebekah Karimi.

Kisaru cubs (c) C Flechtner

 

In Armenia (leopard, bear, wolf), the community expedition was planned for November, but had to be cancelled when the war in Nagorno-Karabagh, which is too close for comfort to our study site, broke out. With winter approaching, plans have been postponed to 2021.

Autumn in the Armenia study site

Status update November 2020 – Will there be expeditions in 2021?

Since our last status update and interview with our founder in October and his interview with “natur” magazine, light has appeared at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines are in sight and our community expeditions and coronavirus appeal to support our local partners are going well.

But what does that mean for expeditions in 2021 and will Biosphere Expeditions survive this crisis?

With no expeditions since February 2020 and therefore the almost total loss of income, survival still hangs by a thread, but we are fighting hard and are rising to the challenge. In a few months, we will be able to see whether we can pull through. Chances are looking increasingly positive and we will soon start another campaign to get us over the line.

As to expeditions, we are now hopeful that at least some European expeditions will run in 2021. The first one, the Azores, is scheduled for March/April 2021. This may be too soon. The next few weeks will reveal this and we will keep you updated on here. Thereafter it’s Sweden in June and Germany in June/July. For those, things are definitely looking up, especially because experts think we may be able to get back to some sort of normal by late spring / early summer.

As to other expeditions around the world, it’s too early to make predictions now. Much will depend on vaccine rollout across the planet, as well as on how confident people will be to travel again to remote, far-flung places, and of course whether they will have the funds to do so. We expect to be able to make some more confident predictions by January, so watch this space. in any case, the expeditions to Arabia and Kenya, scheduled for January and February respectively, were deferred to 2022 quite a few weeks ago.

What you can do to help in all this and make sure it comes true is give to our appeal, join the Friends, join an expedition (Germany and Sweden are your best bet), get vaccinated and make sure people around you get vaccinated too.

See you on the other side!

Expedition diaries up to 2011

Diaries between 2002 and 2011 were mainly text-based and are archived below as PDFs.

Diaries were not kept for the early period from Biosphere Expeditions’ foundation in 1999 until 2001.

Research output for all expeditions and years is on Research Gate.

pdf Altai 2003
pdf Altai 2004
pdf Altai 2005
pdf Altai 2006
pdf Altai 2007
pdf Altai 2008
pdf Altai 2009
pdf Altai 2010
pdf Altai 2011

pdf Azores 2004
pdf Azores 2005
pdf Azores 2006
pdf Azores 2007
pdf Azores 2008
pdf Azores 2009
pdf Azores 2010
pdf Azores 2011

pdf Brazil 2006
pdf Brazil 2007
pdf Brazil 2008
pdf Brazil 2010
pdf Brazil 2011

pdf Caprivi 2008
pdf Caprivi 2009

pdf Honduras 2006
pdf Honduras 2007
pdf Honduras 2008
pdf Honduras 2009
pdf Honduras 2011

pdf Maldives 2011

pdf Musandam 2009
pdf Musandam 2010
pdf Musandam 2011

pdf Namibia 2002
pdf Namibia 2003
pdf Namibia 2004
pdf Namibia 2005 (spring)
pdf Namibia 2005 (autumn)
pdf Namibia 2006
pdf Namibia 2007
pdf Namibia 2008 (Caprivi)
pdf Namibia 2009 (Caprivi)
pdf Namibia 2010
pdf Namibia 2011 (rotation 1)
pdf Namibia 2011 (rotation 2)

pdf Oman 2006
pdf Oman 2007

pdf Oman 2008
pdf Oman 2009
pdf Oman 2010
pdf Oman 2011

pdf Peru 2003
pdf Peru 2005
pdf Peru 2006
pdf Peru 2008
pdf Peru 2009
pdf Peru 2011

pdf Slovakia 2004
pdf Slovakia 2005
pdf Slovakia 2006
pdf Slovakia 2007
pdf Slovakia 2008
pdf Slovakia 2010

pdf Spain 2008

pdf Sri Lanka 2005

pdf Ukraine 2003

pdf Western Australia 2010
pdf Western Australia 2011

Azores: Wrapping up the 2020 season

2020 is drawing to a close.

I was able to get out to sea a few more times in October and twice in November.

On 15 October we headed once again to the South of Pico, where the lookout had seen some sei whales and dolphins. After a quick look at the common dolphin, because the lookout was impatient that we get to the sei whales, we headed further down the coast. But first we found a group of bottlenose dolphin, followed by spotted. As we were about to head out, another boat found some Risso’s dolphin closer to the coast. There have not been many Risso’s sightings this summer, so we headed in to see them first. And it was a good thing that we did. I sent the ID photos to Karin Hartman of the Nova Atlantis Foundation, who has been studying the Risso’s for a long time. One of the individuals we saw was S9c, who was first seen in 2002! She had not seen him for some time, so was extremely pleased with our sighting. There appeared to be some bottlenose dolphin interacting with part of the Risso’s dolphin group too, which isn’t seen very often.

In the end, we were lucky to find the sei whales, because the lookout had lost them. In the morning, it is sometimes difficult for the lookout to see to the east, depending on the glare (past expedition members will know this term well!) of the sun on the surface of the sea. At first, they were travelling very fast, up to 13kts to the NW, but eventually slowed up and may have found some food or decided to socialise, because we saw a head out from one of them. The angle that we saw from the boat, made it appear to be a sperm whale to start with! Which would have been extremely surprising, since the lookout hadn’t seen any around. It was confirmed by the photos, that it was the underside of the jaw of a sei whale that we saw. We thought there were two sei whales, but in the end there were three based on the ID photos.

On 16 October, there was a huge group of spotted dolphin feeding with 100s of Cory’s shearwaters and tuna! The dolphin, shearwaters and the tuna are all after the same bait-fish, in this case snipe fish. The whole feeding frenzy was spread over about a mile or so. And then we were lucky to find a group of bottlenose dolphin that had escaped the eagle eye of the vigia.

On 28 October we went to see some bottlenose dolphin, using the dorsal fin IDs, it is the same resident group that we have been seeing the last few trips out. Most of the dolphin were not interested in the boat, but a couple did come over and bowride as the group moved to the southeast. There were some quite large swells around and those made for some good photos as the dolphin either came out of them or surfed down them. One of the bottlenose dolphin had a cookie cutter shark bite on the tail stock. These small sharks attach and take small circular bites out of whales usually, but sometimes they can also have a dolphin snack.

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On 6 November, I made a road trip to Pico, since that was the only likely place to get to sea. Unfortunately, the sea down there was really rough. And although we saw some spotted dolphin, the camera stayed in the case!

My last day out of 2020 was 7 November. And that was unexpected. I was not planning to go out, but the vigia called to say he had sperm whales! This was the first time in a while that sperm whales had been seen instead of sei whales. So I decided to go out on my own and see who was around. Some more surprises, 1019’s group was still hanging around! They have been here since the middle of June, with another sighting at the beginning of September. This group has been to the Canary Islands in the past, so not sure if they will be sticking around here or making the trip south. Anyway, it was a good decision to go. The whales were only a mile or so from the area we covered on the 6th. We also came across a dead Cory’s shearwater, probably a young one that had just left the burrow. It is a steep learning curve when they get out onto the water for their first year. There was no obvious cause of death and we didn’t have any thing to bring it back to shore in, for a more thorough investigation.

During the downtime in between trips, I have been working with a new fluke matching algorithm. The results are amazing, with the program finding matches that had not been previously found. Attached are a few examples. One where instead of three separate IDs there is only one, another where there were some significant changes to the fluke, but the algorithm saw that the basic contour was still the same and another with a few changes. There will be more to come on this program soon, it is almost ready for its public launch.

Thank you very much to Biosphere Expeditions and its donors for the support to get out to sea whenever possible this summer. Hopefully things will be different in 2021 and the expedition will be back up and running as usual.

Stay safe everyone and see you on the water!

Lisa Steiner

P.S. SEAFARI sightings are now online for August/September and October.

Community expeditions update November 2020

In the Azores (whales & dolphins) our scientist Lisa Steiner has been out on and off the water all the way back since April and has a written a detailed blog.

Lisa Steiner

In Germany (wolf), a small community expedition took place in July and there is also a blog.

Scientist Peter Schütte with a Germany community expeditioner

In the Tien Shan (snow leopard), our community camera trapping team have done very well to capture more snow leopard photos and to run a community expedition in September, collecting valuable data in the absence of our annual citizen science expedition. This means we can produce a combined 2019/2020 research report, the publication of which is imminent. Check the Tien Shan research output page for details soon.

The Tien Shan community expedition team

In Costa Rica (sea turtles), work to save turtle nests from poachers continued successfully, despite the pandemic, with a skeleton crew. The nesting season is now over and the research station closed.

The hatchery in Costa Rica

In Thailand (elephant), we are working hard to get our study herd through the crisis.

Elephants in Thailand

In the Maldives (coral reefs), our local partner has instigated a new coral reef conservation project.

Coral nursery table

In Kenya (African biodiversity), we empowered local communities with technology with great success during the last international expedition that ran just before the pandemic hit and have published the report of this already. “Enonkishu is thriving as far as the wildlife goes. There were eleven lions, four wild dogs, and Kisaru, the cheetah, just on one walk last Sunday. It looks like Kisaru is pregnant again and sticking around to have her cubs in Enonkishu for a second year in a row,  which will be fantastic”, says conservancy manager Rebekah Karimi.

Kisaru cubs (c) C Flechtner

In Armenia (leopard, bear, wolf), the community expedition was planned for November, but had to be cancelled when the war in Nagorno-Karabagh, which is too close for comfort to our study site, broke out. With winter approaching, plans have been postponed to 2021.

Autumn in the Armenia study site

Status update October 2020 – Our expeditions and fight for survival

Biosphere Expeditions is still here, albeit with all hatches battened down in an effort to survive the storm. Here’s an update to an interview with our founder and executive director, Dr. Matthias Hammer, about the situation at the moment.

Q: Our last interview was on 18 August 2020. What has changed since then? What’s the new situation and thinking?

A: When we last spoke, there were hopes for a vaccine by the end of 2020. Now most expert think mid-2021 is more realistic and even this will not be a “silver bullet” that will bring a swift end to the pandemic and a return to normal. We should expect masks and social distancing to be in place for 2-3 years.

Of course this presents a huge challenge to what we do. We are not expecting there to be many expeditions with citizen scientists in 2021. In fact, we recently postponed our Arabia and Kenya expeditions, planned for January and February 2021, for a year to 2022. I expect many other expeditions to follow suit. If conditions are favourable, we may be able to run the odd expedition in Europe later in 2021, but our honest assessment is that not much else will be possible in 2021. It may even not be possible to run any expeditions at all in 2021.

Q: What does that mean for the survival of Biosphere Expeditions?

A: To be honest, it will be very tough. We can probably weather the storm until the end of 2021. Getting there will be hard and we have to be very careful and plan well, which we are doing, of course, but beyond that it will become very difficult indeed to survive without expeditions running.

Q: What can people do to help?

A: First and foremost support our coronavirus appeal. The focus of the appeal is on our local partners and enabling them to continue with their critical conservation work despite the crisis. They too face a tough struggle and the more we can support them, the better for them and their conservation initiatives around the world. The appeal will finish on 30 November and we’re going for a final push over the next few weeks. We’re 80% there (from 124 donors) and hope to raise the last 20% (just under €10,000) too as we reach the home straight. Please give generously! Thereafter we will run a Biosphere Expeditions survival appeal to help us come out the other end.

Continue reading “Status update October 2020 – Our expeditions and fight for survival”

Azores: Autumn surprises

I have still been able to get out to sea around the windy days. After the remains of storm Paulette passed to the west, there were still some choppy seas for a few days. Once back on the water, it was nice to see that there are still sperm whales and sei whales around.

On the 27 September we even saw five species. Sperm & sei whales, as well as common, spotted and bottlenose dolphin and a turtle too. The group of whales is known as the “Chrissie/Willie” group and were first seen in August. They are usually on the south of Pico, but this was the second time they were seen to the north of Faial.

Nike’s group has also been seen to the north of the islands a few times. But they didn’t stay there. On 28 September, they were in the north, then on 2 October, they were on the south of Faial. They didn’t stop there and continued to the south of Pico on the 5th, where they have remained, at least up until the 11th. So they have circumnavigated Faial!

On 30 September we went to the north of Faial/Pico. Four sei whales had been seen in the morning and we managed to find them in pretty much the same place in the afternoon. They were making some short dives, circling in the same area, so probably feeding at depth. The sea was quite choppy, so not easy to spot them under the water or see footprints as we usually do. The large waves can make for some pretty spectacular photos, if you catch a whale at the top of a wave or coming out of one.

We went a very long way down the south coast of Pico to see some sei whales on 4 October. There have been sightings of them lunge-feeding in that area for a few days. Unfortunately, not while we were watching. They both had very well marked dorsal fins, so the long haul was worth it.

On our way back to Horta, we also got a glimpse of a whale shark. There were three in the area and one swam past our boat. These animals are not usually seen in the Azores, but there had been sightings for a few days and the lookout can see their large fins above the water. Whale sharks are filter feeders, eating plankton and small fish out of the water column. They are sharks, because instead of bone, they have a cartilaginous skeleton. They are called whale sharks, because of the huge size they grow to, the one we saw was at least 9 m. This is the first whale shark I have seen in 32 years of working in the Azores!

On the 5 October we were again to the south of Pico. Nike’s group present and accounted for close to Lajes, a group of common dolphin feeding with some Cory’s shearwaters and another whale shark encounter on the way home. This time, the visibility was much better and we could see the whole body of the animal as it swam slowly past our boat twice.

On 8 October, we were back to the north of Faial. It was quite choppy, but with the help of the lookout, we found sperm whales and then false killer whales found us! Only one of the sperm whales fluked, the others shallow dived and whether it was a response to the false killer whales in close proximity or they were going to socialise, we don’t know. There were quite a few head-outs and some changes of direction of the sperm whales. False killer whales aren’t known to attack sperm whales and it was also only a small group of them (4-6 animals). It was difficult to get photos of the dorsal fins, due to the choppy seas, but I got two. Hopefully they will match to the false killer whale catalogue. False killer whale sightings are few and far between – they usually follow big pelagic fish, such as tuna or mahi mahi. And we know that there are individuals that have been seen repeatedly since 2005. It is unknown what caused the marks on the sperm whale fluke; suggestions have included a virus, fungus or even a shotgun. The marks are well healed, if indeed it was an injury and not genetic.

On 10 October we were again south of Pico and Nike’s group showed up again after a short stop with some bottlenose dolphin. We were very lucky to arrive just as three of the sperm whale group were at the surface, although two weren’t at a good angle for photographs, but thanks to some very distinct markings one of them, it was identified, as well as the one we were actually following. We waited for the whales to return to the surface, but instead saw a different individual. The lookout then directed us in towards the shore and a group of around 30 false killer whales that was traveling along the coast. This time it was easier to get some dorsal fin ID photos. There were several calves in the group, swimming next to their mothers. The last couple of weeks, the south of Pico has had large schools of tuna, according to fishermen, and this is what the false killer whales are there for. We also had a small group of spotted dolphin, one with a very distinctive “flash” on the dorsal fin. We passed by the whale shark again, but this time only saw a bit of a shadow under the surface. Since they breathe via gills, they do not have to come close to the surface and it is only sometimes if they are feeding close to the surface that we can see them well.

And finally on 11 October, we once again spotted Nike’s group on the south of Pico. A small group of four bottlenose dolphin was then followed by a large group of common dolphin just outside the channel between Pico and Faial.
The main season is now finished on Faial, so I will have to wait for some good weather days to try and get out again.

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Armenia: community expedition postponed

As you have probably read in the news, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has flared up again with a vengeance. As our study site is close to this area, all project work there has been suspended and there will be no community expedition as planned for late October / early November.

Please watch this space for further updates.