Azores: good weather & sightings

We have been out on the water several days in a row, since the weather has been fantastic. The sightings have also been extremely good.

There have been sightings of sperm whales every day. The “Whitehead” group is still around (they were first sighted on 24 June) and the male sperm whale that we saw on 2 July hanging out with them, has been seen again on 11 July, with a different group of females. It is a bit unusual for the big males to hang around so long, because they are usually looking for females, going from area to area. But I guess because there have been several different groups of sperm whale females passing through, he can just stay put and let the females come to him! And once again, you can see the size difference between the fluke of the male and the fluke of the female as they dive together. One morning, we saw three different groups of female sperm whales spread out from the south of Pico to the south of Faial.

One day, we had a sperm whale make four tail throws, with poo! This is basically an upside down breach. The whale makes a quick dive and we were expecting a breach, where the whale jumps out of the water, but got the tail end instead. When they breach or tail throw, they often defecate, possibly due to muscle contraction involved in the activity. Breaches, lobtails or tail throws are usually signs that the group is going to socialise. They can also be done to slough skin or parasites, as well as communication.

Some of the fluke matching shows a couple of individuals that were seen in São Miguel in 2015, as well as a couple from a different group that were sighted last year. A couple of the groups have not been previously identified. There was a bachelor group of four males seen on one day (when males leave the family group, they hang out in groups of young males for a few years, before becoming more solitary); none of them had been seen before. One of the bachelors decided to have a look at the boat, with a headout, before resuming his course and diving. Sperm whales see down and out to the side, so when they lift their head, they are looking along the surface. I don’t know what caused the white scarring on its head.

With such calm conditions, we have also seen Sowerby’s beaked whales a few times. These whales are usually shy of boats and difficult to spot. They are deep divers eating squid. Another squid-eater has also been seen, i.e. more pilot whales just hanging about, with a bit of socialising from some of the juveniles.

Groups of dolphin have also been seen: spotted, striped and common, all with small calves present. The striped dolphin, surprised us one day by bowriding! This species in the Azores tends to keep its distance and only rarely comes towards boats. Spotted dolphin have been making some incredible aerial displays, which are fantastic to watch, but quite difficult to photograph. These aerial displays can be social or a way to herd fish and if they enter the water cleanly, they can be diving deeper.

One group of spotted dolphin had a melanistic individual, meaning darker than usual. More often, we see leucistic, lighter than usual, sometimes blotchy, cetaceans, but occasionally the darker versions appear as well. These are genetic variations.

We are expecting some wind from the east this week, so will have to hope it doesn’t get too choppy to get out to sea.

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Covid-19 and sustainable tourism: information resources and links

Dr Spenceley, a leading authority in sustainable and responsible tourism, has compiled an excellent resource and information list “Covid-19 and sustainable tourism: information resources and links“.
Dr Spenceley
Dr Spenceley focuses on biodiversity conservation, protected areas and transfrontier conservation areas, certification, indicators, concessions and public-private partnerships, triple bottom line assessments (i.e. economic, social and environmental), value and supply chains, small enterprise development and poverty reduction.

Azores: matches & amazing sightings

First some match information and what what it means

In 2009, the match from the other day, “3724”, was seen with quite a few well-known animals “2044”, “2067” and “2726”, which have usually been seen in the spring or autumn. We just weren’t lucky enough to see them. This group doesn’t usually hang around for very long, so I am not sure if we will get a chance to see the rest of the group. But good to know anyway! “2044” has been seen on several Biosphere Expeditions.

ID photographs confirm that female sperm whales spend their whole lives together; it is the juvenile males that leave the group. Some of the animals observed in previous years have been seen together for 29 years. Usually when one animal from a group has been seen before, the rest of the animals in the group have also been seen. Sometimes, like this sighting, it is not possible to identify all the animals of a group on a given day, but repeated sightings of the same group over time give us more chances to catalogue all of the individuals from that group. Sperm whales live for around 60-70 years, so some of these animals re-sighted in the Azores have been recorded for almost half of their lives.

Also, the humpback whale we saw the other day has been matched to the Cape Verde Islands via the dorsal fin! Pedrin from Bios.cv made the match. This whale was first seen in the Cape Verde Islands by Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group in 2003, then by Bios.cv in 2015 & 2016 and finally by Beatrice Jann in 2018! Most of the sightings in Cape Verde were in Sal Rei Bay, Boa Vista (thanks Fred Wenzel). This is the first time it has been photographed in the Azores, maybe next time it will show us the fluke too!

Since 2004, the expedition has contributed 22 ID photos to the catalogue, which produced one match to the Cape Verde Islands in 2010 plus this new match and one to Norway in 2018 (unpublished data). The Cape Verde matches made by the expedition, as well as data collected outside the expedition and by Fred Wenzel and colleagues, suggest that most of the humpbacks that are seen in the Azores are part of the endangered Cape Verde population, rather than the Caribbean population, which was taken off the endangered list in 2016. Matching movements and populations is important, because little is known about the movements of the eastern Atlantic humpback whales and as an endangered population, it is good to monitor its status in order to take action as soon as possible if a decline is noticed.

And then for some amazing sightings over the past few days

We have had some spectacular weather the last few days and the whales and dolphins have not disappointed us. Eight different species have been recorded!

We have had sightings of sperm whales, including a big male hanging out with a couple of well known ladies from the “Whitehead” group. Males do not stay with the groups of females, they spend more time in the north, where there is more food to support their bigger body size.

We have also seen a very relaxed group of pilot whales, just resting at the surface, going slowly past the boat. And a group of curious false killer whales, which came over to investigate the boat. Both of these species appear infrequently, but we know from photo ID that some of the pilot whales have been seen in Madeira and some individual false killer whales have been identified over multiple years and also seen in Terceira & São Miguel. The false killer whales may be resident, just spending more time out around the banks. At least one of the false killer whales has been seen in a previous year in Terceira. More matching is taking place, so I should have some more info soon. The pilot whales are the short fin species and they spend more time in warmer waters, so in the winter, they probably move further south towards Madeira and maybe even the Canaries.

We have also seen sei whales a couple of times. The first time was a single individual travelling to the west, making one blow at the surface and then diving, returning to the surface around 3 minutes later. The second time, two individuals were travelling slowly through a glassy sea. Sei whales that have been tagged previously in the Azores by the university have almost all headed towards Labrador, where they spend the summer feeding, before returning to the south to breed.

We have also had a couple of sighting of striped and common dolphin, the striped dolphin making some spectacular leaps as they go away from the boat. In other parts of the world, they will bowride, but here in the Azores they usually avoid the boats. Often common and striped dolphin swim in mixed schools. The larger size school makes it easier to find food and also stay safe from any predators.

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Spotted dolphin have also made another appearance, although on this occasion, they were more interested in travelling to the southeast, than playing with the boat. There were many calves in the group.

With the calm seas, it is also easier to spot beaked whales. There is not a lot known about any of the beaked whales, because they are very deep divers and usually avoid boats. The groups that we have seen have been mother-calf pairs. The larger group stayed up for a few minutes allowing us to get a better than average look at these reclusive animals. One of the females had an overbite. Judging by the fact that she had a calf and appeared in good condition, I do not think this was affecting her feeding ability.

Also easier to spot with calm conditions are the loggerhead turtles as they bask at the surface. You can see two fish swimming over the turtle, possibly black sea bream. The fish eat the algae that grows on the turtle’s shell and also get a bit of protection by hiding their silhouette from any predators lurking below.

With some more good weather coming this week, what will we see next?

You can see our sightings on the Seafari App May & June 2020 on Google My Maps.

Germany: Community expedition without international citizen scientists

We were looking forward to continuing our active wolf monitoring for the fourth year in a row. But then corona came.

Still, thanks to the Biosphere Expedition’s coronavirus appeal and the generosity of the donors, we can still run a small field campaign this year (there are still €451 missing to our target, so if there is anyone out there feeling generous, there is still time to make up the shortfall; we can run the community project as is, but with the extra funds, we would not have to compromise on a few things).

Preparations are underway and we have found an alternative base, because our usual ‘Herrenhaus’ base will not reopen until August. We are in contact with our friends from the state wolf bureau, the State Forests and are ready to get going soon. The team will comprise myself, Lotte Steinberg (who now works in wolf conservation in Thuringia), some wolf commissioners and also some former local citizen scientists who have attended the expedition every year since its start (and therefore are very experienced and do not require any training).

The wolf population in Germany continues to rise and there are some local hotspots where livestock is predated upon. In addition, wolves are pushing into new areas, which never fails to create anxiety within local human populations affected. There is an intense debate going on in Germany about wolves.

This is why baseline data are essential and it’s great that we can continue to collect data this year, in spite of corona, even if it is on a much smaller scale and without the help of international citizen scientists. You will be missed, not just because of the data you collect, but also because of the team spirit you create.

Once again many thanks to all donors who have made this community expedition possible. Without you, we would not get into the field this year.

Watch this space for updates…

Peter Schütte & Lotte Steinberg

Citizen science: Now more than ever

By Nick Rice

The curious snuffling of a foraging trunk and the distant muffled crunching of leaves and branches, the hum of busy insects and a cotton-white blanket of morning mist hugging the dense, muggy jungle… these are some of the sensorial memories that drift into my mind when locked inside a small apartment in Barcelona during the confinement that began in March.

Just a few months earlier, the strict lockdown of my four walls was instead a remote Karen Hill Tribe village in the north of Thailand, a 5-hour drive from Chiang Mai. For nine inspiring days I stayed in Naklang, a temporary new member of its population of 450, and worked as a ‘citizen scientist’ for an elephant welfare project established by Biosphere Expeditions – a non-profit and award-winning ethical conservation organisation that celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019.

Citizen science is a relatively new term that describes lay people working alongside scientists to conduct valuable field research with the aim of improving and protecting nature and wildlife around the world.

Biosphere Expeditions has partnered with the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) in Naklang, working together to rescue elephants from the often-punishing reality of elephant tourism camps in Thailand, and re-wilding as many elephants as possible.

Our team for the nine-day expedition is made up of ten people; six citizen scientists from around the globe, who are taught how to observe and collect data by the founder of KSES and their resident scientist, and guided in the field by two Biosphere Expeditions leaders.

We get to study and spend time observing KSES’s semi-wild herd of five elephants; 59-year old Too Meh and her 24-year old daughter Mae Doom, Too-Meh’s grandsons, 14-year old Dodo and the 8-year old tearaway Gen Thong, and their adopted family member, 14-year old Boon Rott.

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By studying semi-wild Asian elephants in safe and natural surroundings, Biosphere Expeditions and KSES can create a rigorous scientific report detailing diet and authentic wild behaviour – the report can then be referred to and presented as a benchmark for the proper treatment and welfare of elephants in Thailand.

Each morning, after an early breakfast and preparing our gear for the day – stopwatches, data sheets, lunch – we hike into the forest, past terraced rice paddies and water buffalo loping in the river, into the general area where the elephant herd is roaming, always within range of their respective mahouts.

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Every elephant has a close bond with their mahout – normally a local man who has known the elephant for years – and this relationship ensures that human/animal conflict is avoided and dangers such as ingesting pesticides from cornfields is mitigated. The elephants live as though they would in the wild, albeit for this human safeguard.

Once the elephants are located in the forest, the expedition team separates into smaller groups and each group collects a different set of data, covering activity, behavioural data and diet. This information will form the basis for scientific reports advising on the correct care of elephants. A concrete example of this is that the data shows that elephants consume up to 248 different types of foliage in the wild. Compare this to a tourist camp diet that may consist solely of bananas or sugar cane and the poor health implications are obvious.

In terms of behaviour, we observed over the course of the expedition how social the elephants are, spending hours of each day together, interacting in a variety of ways. In contrast, some tourist camps work the elephants for long hours and then keep them apart from each other, starving the animals of social attention and comfort.

The partnership between Biosphere Expeditions and KSES couldn’t be more vital as today there are more domestic elephants in Thailand than there are wild elephants, caused by the usual culprit of loss of habitat, combined with the cultural perception of elephants as property.

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Another aspect of the Biosphere Expeditions and KSES project is monitoring general biodiversity and fostering the participation of local people in the protection and conservation of elephants through education initiatives and community-based tourism, which prioritises the development of local communities.

The Karen people, our hosts for the expedition, are unfailingly warm and sociable, opening their homes and inviting us to join them in their daily lives. We learn about and buy examples of their traditional weaving, enjoy their food, absorb a few phrases from their ‘Pakinyaw’ language, and can understand first-hand their intimate relationship with elephants.

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Now the world has changed so dramatically, it throws into stark relief how delicate the balance between humans and nature is. The coronavirus crisis shocked the planet and triggered an unprecedented halt in ‘business as usual’ in the industrialised world. One of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been the brief respite given to the natural world and its wildlife, with ecosystems all over the world given a chance to recover, at least momentarily.

Biosphere Expeditions have 13 projects running worldwide, ranging from leatherback turtle conservation in Costa Rica to protecting the snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan, and never has their work been more vital.

Travel itself will likely change in the aftermath of COVID-19, with many people wanting to contribute towards a more conscious form of tourism. The fragility of our existence and the degradation of the planet is inarguably evident for all to see. Hopefully there will be an increase in travellers supporting community-based tourism and embracing experiences that promote social and economic growth in marginalised regions and which protect and conserve wildlife and the natural environment.

Dr. Matthias Hammer, the Founder and Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions says, “We have spent the last twenty years helping to build the data that improves the chances for wildlife. And we will continue to do this essential work. Without the science underpinning our understanding of the world, we cannot make rational choices in support of its future.”

Taking part in a Biosphere Expeditions project is an unforgettable experience, but if it’s not possible just yet, there is always something you can do to contribute. Biosphere Expeditions have 20 tips on how to be (radically) green, and also a Do More campaign or tips on how to beat the volunteer charlatans. Also check out their 2020 Magazine, which mirrors this new development of more activism and campaigns for our planet.

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Azores: 13 sperm whales

On Monday the lookout said there were more whales than the group of six that has been here for over a week. So off we went to the south again.

The first few whales we encountered appeared to be socialising, but did not show us their flukes and , one even breached out of the water (no photo unfortunately). The next group, however, settled into a nice rhythm of up and fluke. I don’t think we had more than ten minutes without a whale at the surface. I think at one point we had nine individuals up at the same time spread over half a mile.

After sorting out the photos, I could discern 13 different individuals. So far there is only one match going back to 2009, but I still have a few more individuals to check.

The weather is looking good for the coming week, so hopefully the animals will continue to co-operate.

Azores: Risso’s dolphins, sperm & humpback whales

We spent the weekend out on the water.

Sperm whales and only sperm whales on Saturday. Something interesting is going on with the “1019” group. There was another whale seen in the area, which has never been seen with this group before. “3768”, the “newbie” was first seen in 2009 and then again last year, by me. In between, though, it has been seen a few times in Sao Miguel. So I guess only time will tell if another individual is going to join this group. Female sperm whales normally stay with the same group they were born into, while males will eventually leave when they reach their late teens. This group, however, seems to be a bit flexible. For a long time it was only “1019” and “3186”, but then a few years ago “1198”, “2234” and 2402″ joined them.

Sunday out a bit grey, but this lifted as we left the harbour. The lookout had reported sperm whales and Risso’s dolphin! He lost the Risso’s before we got to the area, but as we were passing through, I caught sight of a dorsal fin and we had found them again. This is the first time Risso’s dolphin have been sighted in 2020. We spent a bit of time getting some ID photos and then headed towards the sperm whales, only to be stopped by the lookout. “Stop, I see a shape in the water. There must be a whale close by”. So stop we did and surprise, surprise, a humpback whale appeared! It is a bit late in the year to be seeing a humpback, but not unheard of. They are usually feeding further north  at this time of year. This whale was on a mission, travelling fairly quickly to the northwest, close to the coast of Pico. Unfortunately, it did not show a fluke for the ID photo, but we did get a photo of the dorsal fin, so will have to hope someone recognises it.

Finally it was time to head to the sperm whales. The lookout sent us off São João, quite a way to the east. We put the hydrophone in and found that the whales were behind us! Oh well, it is very unusual for the lookout to get it wrong, but I guess the whales changed their mind on the direction they wanted to go to. So we had to head back the way we came. Along the way, we came across a second group of Risso’s dolphin! So maybe it is like the bus, you wait a long time and then two turn up at once 🙂

We did eventually make it to the sperm whales and they were the same group as we saw yesterday. “3768” was still there, today with a juvenile and we also saw “1198”. We didn’t have enough time to wait for the other individuals, hopefully tomorrow there will be more.

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Azores: sei whales

Thursday morning the lookout had a “small” surprise for us! A couple of sei whales travelling to the west. Unfortunately the wind and the waves made it difficult to get photos. But I did manage to get one of the dorsal fin ID pics.

Sei whales often pass the Azores a little bit later than the other baleen whales and have actually been seen from April – September. The name sei whale comes from “seje” the Norwegian word for pollock or coalfish, which appear off the coast of Norway at the same time as the sei whales.

We didn’t stay too long with the sei whales, because sperm whales were spotted a little bit further out. Off we went and once again, it was “Whitehead’s” group, although no sign of the lady herself.

It was not the easiest working conditions, blows were difficult to spot, so we had a bumpy ride back to the harbour a bit early, after snapping a photo of “2578” again.