So our first slot of 2015 in the Azores has come to an end, and it only seems like yesterday that we started.
It is amazing what you can pack into just a few days when you try. We’ve been lucky to encounter four species of dolphin – Risso’s, common, bottlenose and false killer whales. The last three numbered in their hundreds over our five survey days.
And as for the whales…. the blue whale was a great way to kick-start the surveys – any day you encounter the largest species that has roamed our planet, has to be a good day. We’ve had breaching humpbacks and sperm whales, and several encounters with the elegant fin whales.
The team also broke a record, documenting the highest number of loggerhead turtles by any Biosphere Expeditions team, and we also completed the set with a leatherback turtle record.
A great team, all doing a fantastic job, and all the encounters equate to vital data. What more do you want from a week at ‘work’?
It was inevitable that it would happen eventually, the last day of our first expedition at sea.
The team are now working like a well-oiled machine – arisen, eaten and out the door with time to spare when we arrived at the harbour.
We set off with the sea as calm as a pond. Our first encounter of the day was with a couple of pods of common dolphins who kept us busy for half an hour; then over the radio came sightings of blows off yonder.
We headed towards the island of Sao Jorge and arrived to see a fin whale, no two fin whales; no, three fin whales – who delivered great dorsal fin shots for our photographers (Lisa & Simon). Though it is always nice to get the ID and artistic shot!
We parted ways and headed off to investigate the blows of a potential sperm whale sighting. As I was doing the data sheets today, I can assure you they were indeed, but not just one – there were 23 sperm whale encounters and up to 43 individuals including calves!
The day was rounded off with seven female sperm whales in a line, side by side when an enormous male came into view and made himself known. Some of the females disappeared and one of them breached out of the water causing a tremendous splash before the male and the remaining females dropped below the surface.
We could not have hoped for a better ending to the day and the first group of 2015.
Bad weather stopped play. Our surveys were curtailed by the winds, but it did not stop the work. Saturday brought a day of data sorting, image matching and cetacean naming.
The team were introduced to the process of image sorting, matching tail flukes and giving our study subjects some form of identifier. Image processing and specially designed fluke matching software aid the process, but there is no substitute for a keen eye when it comes to trying to identify sperm whale flukes by matching them to previous records.
The Risso’s dolphins are identified by the marking on their dorsal fins, so a creative mind and an ability to say what you see, definitely helps in giving them a recognisable name.
Sunday was a well earned day off, giving us a chance to explore our temporary home town of Horta, and the wider island of Faial. Tomorrow we are back out on the ocean.
There were no signs of the Monday morning blues as we set out to sea after two days ashore. Rightly so, as the sun was shining, the sea was calm and snow dusted the top of Pico.
Aside from our normal encounters with common dolphins and loggerhead turtles, the first main event to document was with a mighty fin whale, second only in size to the blue whale. It is not often you can spend your Monday morning tracking fin whales.
However, the day was to get better. Reports were coming in of a pod of false killer whales. So we powered along the south coast of Pico island and sure enough came across a large pod (100+) of the false killer whales – sleek, black, torpedo-shaped and a member of the dolphin family.
This species is often found in association with bottlenose dolphins, and we weren’t disappointed. A flurry of data collection and photography ensued, as the teamed work to document the encounter (and individuals) but also enjoy the show, as both species moved in to the ride the bow waves of our boat.
As we finally parted ways, and went back on one of our survey transects, the day was neatly rounded off with yet more fin whales and a passing encounter with a small group of Risso’s dolphins.
Our third day at sea was the perfect illustration of why fieldwork brings both freedom and frustration.
The whales were using the freedom of the ocean to disappear without a trace and we were being drawn into a nautical game of hide and seek. How hard is it to find 50 tonnes of whale? – very, when they can dive for 90 minutes on one breath and descend to 1000 m below the surface.
But the team are a determined bunch. With ‘eyes all around’ looking in every direction the sperm whale had to ‘blow’ its cover at some point.
We also had one other trick up our sleeve, as Annabel deployed the hydrophone – an underwater microphone to listen in on the whale’s world. We then had a better sense where it may be moving. The audio-visual vigilance paid off and a single male sperm whale was finally spotted and photographed for the identification records.
The weather also conspired against us, with increasing winds restricting our movements around Faial. With a limited search area, the dolphins also proved elusive, with just a handful of common and bottlenose sighted. The turtles were the only ones keeping up a regular appearance and giving any consistency to the data.
This is why we are here – to better understand the patterns of appearance and disappearance. After all, any record or none at all – they are all still valuable data.
If our first day at sea was about diversity (with blue, sperm and humpback whales; not to mention the common and bottlenose dolphins), our second day was all about intensity.
After the obligatory turtle sighting from Carlos (winning the prize for the first spot of the day), common dolphins were again added to the sightings list, but this time with calves. Our lookouts (Anthony and Simon) then proved their worth with a dolphin shout that turned out to be Risso’s, again with calves. With hieroglyphic scratches covering their bodies, this not only makes them distinctive, but also gives a window on their history.
Body art was also a theme for the part of the day, as we observed the ‘chevron patterns’ of several fin whales – these markings behind the head are partly used to identify individuals.
The afternoon was reserved for sperm whales by the dozen. Keeping the team busy recording blow rates and fluke photographs for identification of individuals. Several of the females observed were also with calves. There must be something in the water!
This is Anthony, Craig’s assistant expedition leader, reporting on our first day out at sea.
Datasheets at the ready, we set sail this morning. Within moments of leaving the dock, we spied our first pod of common dolphins. In the rush to get the corresponding paperwork to document this event, a turtle was spotted by Annabel. Now hurriedly looking for the turtle sheet we were now in the bay and into the blue.
With the early records documented, we saw our first blow in the distance. It belonged to a humpback whale. Before we could get there, it had dived. Luckily, however, the radio, operated by our spotters on land, reported sightings of a baleen whale, so we powered in that direction.
When we arrived we discovered it was the mother of all baleens, the mighty blue whale. We patiently watched it as it swam gently on its way before diving and giving us five minutes or so of Meerkat-style peering around in all directions to see where the next blow came from.
Eventually we headed off and happened upon our humpback again, waving at us with his enormous pectoral flipper.
The day was rounded off with a group sperm whales until we had to make our way back to the harbour and call it a day.
All in all we could not have hoped for a better first day. What will tomorrow bring…?
After an early start for the final pieces of preparation, we can at last say a big Azorean welcome to our expeditioners.
The team all arrived safely, from the north, east and west; via a mix of routes and modes of transport. The good news is they are all present and correct and very excited. So the first slot of 2015 officially begins.
With initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, we stretched our legs with a whistle–stop orientation around Horta. Whilst important for us to impart the initial project knowledge, it has been great to learn about our new team. The day was rounded off with our first dinner, created in-house by the team – a tasty vegetarian pasta it was too!
Rested and recuperated from the travel and briefing exertions of yesterday, the science training began today. Familiarisation with equipment was followed by data records training, and rounded off with a boat orientation – though the latter was slightly delayed, as our vessel went (without us) to the aid of another boat stranded engineless in the harbour – always be prepared for the unexpected!
Slightly less than unexpected was the small ‘weather spanner’ thrown into the workings of the expedition, as our training session at sea was postponed by high winds. Tomorrow looks more favourable, so it will be all systems go as our team put their new-found knowledge into practice. The whales won’t have to wait for us much longer 😉
The weather delay meant Lisa (our scientist) could give a background talk on cetaceans, and the team could acquaint themselves with the data entry and the fluke matching process – how we identify and track individual whales.
The day was rounded off learning key identification features of species we will hopefully encounter, the team are now poised and ready for action. All we need now is a good night’s rest and the right weather for whales…
Our migration to the Azores is complete. After a great flight from Ponta Delgada, staring at the sea below whilst passing the towering volcanic peak of Pico island, Anthony and I are now in Horta. Yesterday and today we have been preparing for your imminent arrival.
It has been great to re-orientate ourselves around town, meet up with our hosts (Jim, Claudia and Tiago) and catch up with Lisa (our scientist) to hear about all the recent sightings. We can share more detail on that once you’ve arrived (or you can have a look at Lisa’s Facebook pag at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Whale-Watch-Azores/113978598781878?fref=ts). We now just hope that the weather and whale gods are on our side and we can look forward to some great fieldwork (and data collection) over the next few days.
Easter Sunday has greeted us with liquid sunshine, but it won’t dampen the preparations or enthusiasm for the first group of the expedition. So safe travels to those of you still en route, and we look forward to meeting you all on Monday.