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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 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 67% there (€40,250 raised from 118 donors) and hope to raise the last third 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.
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.
The virus is biting back hard and most experts think that a vaccine is unlikely to become widely available before mid-2021. Our Arabia and Kenya expeditions were planned for early 2021, but with the situation what it is, we have decided to postpone them for a year to January and February 2022 respectively.
Other, later expeditions may follow suit and we will be keeping you all up to date on here.
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.
Maxim Koshkin, Askat Mukabaev + three local guides (Azamat, Janat and Shamil) are back from their 645 km camera-trapping trip and this is what they found.
Note that this is just what they found on the ground. The SD cards they brought back still need to be analysed and we will update everyone when we’ve done that.
The approach to the camera traps was conducted using horses, starting from the road running along the Western Karakol river. During the 3-4 hour ascent they observed two small groups of ibex (12 +13) moving west, including at least four male ibex. They also saw two bearded vultures, one Himalayan griffon vulture, two long-legged buzzards, one golden eagle, four ravens and one common snipe over the two days they spent in the area.
They reset and moved existing camera traps, changed SD cards and batteries.
They found no signs of snow leopard activity.
Here the team found possible snow leopard sign of activity at two of the three locations they visited (two scats and a scrape) and performed camera trap maintenance.
The team installed two camera traps at new locations along a major ridge line and possible snow leopard movement corridor, finding possible signs of activity, including a track and an old scat.
This site may be visited by snow leopards during a hunt as it is frequented by ibex according to local information. The team performed an SD card / battery swap, but found no sign of snow leopard activity.
We’ll be back with information about what’s on the SD cards and the 2019/2020 report with the results of last year’s long citizen science expedition and the results of this year’s short community expedition will be out soon too. Watch this space.
Thank you to our community camera trappers and the Ilbirs Foundation for organising the community expedition and to our donors for making it possible.
The vigias on the north of the islands have been keeping us busy. On 12 September, we had a large spread-out group of sperm whales, 10 individuals were identified between myself and a friend on another boat! Some of the individuals were previously seen in 2016. After a group of three females plus a calf dived, we headed off in search of a group of Risso’s dolphin. We were lucky and found them. They were also very spread out and it didn’t seem like I was going to get any ID photos, but in the end we found a few groups of mothers and calves that were more approachable. There was a leucistic (lighter colouration) calf seen, this is only the second “white” calf that I have seen. A local expert says this is the third light calf that she knows about. Usually Risso’s dolphin calves are born dark and get whiter as they age, but this one was already white, with the foetal folds showing as dark creases, instead of the other way around. One individual breached a few times and there were also a few lobtails, so it looked like there was some socialising going on. Photos were sent to the expert, who has studied the Risso’s dolphin off Pico for over 15 years. She recognised some of the individuals as part of the “Faial Ladies” group often seen around Faial, including Resa, who has been seen on previous expeditions. Other individuals were unknown. There have not been a lot of sightings of Risso’s dolphin this year and it is not clear why. One possible factor could be the disturbance caused by swimming with dolphins. Risso’s dolphins do not usually show much interest in boats, so to be targeting this species for swimming, probably causes more stress than in other species. They are also resident, so usually use certain areas for resting and feeding. If those areas were no longer suitable for resting or feeding because of disturbance, it is possible that they have moved to other less trafficked areas. We also spotted a loggerhead turtle basking at the surface.
On 13 September we were back to the north of the islands. In the morning I managed to get one sperm whale fluke, visibility was not great for spotting blows, so was happy with the one I got. We also had a sei whale and some pilot whales. In the afternoon, there were a lot of sperm whales spread out over a wide area to the north of Faial. A lot of distant breaches were seen in different directions. It appeared that a social group was going to form, since most of the whales that were approached, shallow dived, without showing their flukes, another indicator, along with breaching/lobtailing that indicates social behaviour, rather than feeding behaviour. In the end, I was lucky, two of the whales in the group that we chose to follow, fluked, just as we were giving up hope of seeing any flukes! Our patience was rewarded!
On 15 September, with the remnants of hurricane Paulette lurking on the horizon, we were out to the south of Pico, the most sheltered area. The vigia had seen a group of sperm whales, which turned out to be the “Nike” group and although she wasn’t seen, I did get a photo of “2529” and her calf as well as Nike’s calf from 2018.
The last trip before the windy weather arrived was also to the south of Pico on 17 September. We went out to try and find a sei whale that the lookout had seen, instead a group of sperm whales was found with the hydrophone about 10 miles off the coast. This group was last seen in 2019 to the north of Faial. On the way home, the lookout spotted the sei whales we had been looking for. They were quite elusive, but thanks to the help of a local fishing boat, we managed a glimpse of one of the individuals, before continuing towards Horta. Since then I have been stuck onshore, with the remnants of Paulette, passing by well to the west of the islands, causing strong winds in the Faial/Pico area.
The community team have recovered and the coronavirus numbers in Kyrgyzstan have gone down as the country seems to be on a different curve to Europe, for example.
So the team are heading into the mountains today from Bishkek to work with the community camera trappers, retrieve camera trap SD cards, service the camera traps and engage with the local community in the absence of a citizen science expedition this year.
They’ll be on horseback to speed things up. Watch this space for updates.
In Pacuare, we are continuing to run the project just with the local leaders, one research assistant and the biologist. The green turtle season is small and slow with just few nests, but because of this with a great success rate of saving nests from poachers.
For leatherbacks, the hatchling time has now finished with numbers similar to previous seasons (see reports about those here). The eventual poaching rate was around 40-50% depending on the month.
Thank you again to all those who supported the continuation of work despite the pandemic. For most of you this was by donating from afar this year. But we hope to return in person in 2021 and our expedition dates in May 2021 are on the website. Do join us if you can!