Azores: Halfway headlines

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago  (

We have reached the halfway point of this year’s project. And the last two days at sea have seen us extend the species list for 2018, with a fleeting glimpse of striped dolphins. We were also fortunate to encounter a group of Risso’s dolphins, whilst still spotting sperm, fin and blue whales.

While the striped dolphins may have been fleeting, the baleen whales provided the most frustration with both blue and fin whales constantly disappearing, and then reappearing minutes later behind the boat – or at ‘6 o’clock’, as the team would shout.  Our aft observers were kept busy. Never did I think that two of the biggest species could give us such the run-a-round!

Team 2 has managed to extend the species list to four dolphin species and five whale species now recorded in 2018, and a staggering 36 loggerhead turtles recorded in just the past week! More impressively, not only do we have matches for one of the humpbacks, but one (of the four) blue whales spotted has been matched to another Azores record in 2012, and some of the sperm whales have been matched to multiple years around the Azores, as far back as 2003. So that is confirmed matches for three species already!

However, perhaps as impressively, one of our citizen scientists (Thomas) brought a sperm whale fluke image he had taken in Norway, and Lisa was able to match that to another record just off Pico! Now that illustrates the power of citizen field science.

We say a huge thank you to Team 2, and their collective contribution and hard work at sea. Even down to the last hour on the boat, they were ever vigilant, with a final fin whale spotted, of course by our aft observer, at ‘6 o’clock!’. Nice work Veronika!

So as we bid Team 2 farewell, we wait to welcome Team 3, and hope they too bring the luck with the whales and the weather. And don’t forget to look behind you!

I’ll let the pictures and expeditioners speak for themselves, though…

Azores: Patience rewarded

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago  (

It has been a busy past couple of days, ‘having’ to work over the weekend. And our patience has been rewarded.

Saturday started like many other days, with an initial encounter with common dolphins, but in low numbers. But the day also saw the species list for 2018 increase again, this time adding the fin whale to our records.

We had to work for it though, travelling several miles to the south of Faial and Pico in search of cetaceans, and not in great visibility. You still have to put the hard yards in and maintain concentration to find some of biggest species we know. This was rewarded with encounters with fin whales, the second largest species recorded in the Azores, and a possible sighting of a beaked whale.

Sunday brought better weather and better luck. Again we found the common dolphins and fin whales, but were also rewarded with our first encounters with blue whales – two to be precise. These are the largest beasts you find in these waters, and made the group extremely happy.

We also had a record-breaking day on the turtle surveys, recording eleven loggerhead turtles in one day. The calm seas definitely helped with spotting them.

With two survey days to go for this group, we hope our luck and the good conditions continue….


Azores: Whales, at last!

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

After our initial success at sea, we have been restricted to another day on shore due to the weather. But this presented us with an opportunity to work through some data, and begin to learn and look at the photo identification of our different target species.

Having observed an estimated group of 30 bottlenose dolphins the day before, Katharina and Corinna were able to work through several photos and assign identifications to every individual in the group. The final data total from the photos was 24 individuals and no doubt some weren’t photographed. So a pretty good estimate by the team at the time of the encounter!

The next day saw us back at sea. This started like other days. Firstly an encounter with some 70 common dolphins, soon followed by a group of bottlenose dolphins, including some of the individuals we encountered only two days ago. The difference was the size of the pod. Now numbering some 150 individuals spread over several hundred metres. Those images will take some sorting….

Then we heard that word, which until now, had been missing from this year’s expedition: ‘blow!’. Our skipper (Jairo), had spotted what he thought was a sperm whale exhaling with a spray of water. Different whale species have different blows and can be identified by them.

But it had been so long since he had seen one, he was doubting his own eyes. We had faith. And sure enough, we closed in on our very first whale of this year’s expedition and it was indeed a sperm whale.

Seemingly like the weather, our luck had changed as the team identified multiple blows in different directions. The challenge then was to follow and photograph the fluke of each individual. No easy task, as our nominated photographer for the day, Silke, can attest.

But our day was not done. Jairo had been busy on the radio talking to a very excited lookout on the north side of Pico. Humpback whales had been spotted, and we made haste. In less than 20 metres of water depth and no more than 300 metres from the coast, we encountered three humpbacks. These were duly observed and photographed.

Our day ended with an excellent talk by Rebecca Boys on how photo ID day can feed into population modelling of sperm whales, which will ultimately inform appropriate management and conservation of this species. And as for the humpbacks, well, by the next day (our rest day), one had already been matched to another sighting off Norway – result!

So our first whales, our first match of 2018 and clear illustration of the usefulness of the data. Let’s hope our change of luck continues….



Azores: Team 2 has arrived, dolphins logged

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

It is great to back in the Azores. After an early start for the final pieces of preparation, we can finally say a big Azorean welcome to our next group of citizen scientists.

But before I go any further, let me first say a big thank you to the first group of expeditioners and their leader, Catherine. A great effort but all, under challenging conditions. Such is the joy of fieldwork!

Team 2 have all arrived safely. With initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, stretching our legs we had 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.

Day two saw the real work commence with equipment and science training, followed by the boat orientation. With that completed, we put to sea, with everyone nervously assuming their new job roles. The pressure was on for our lookouts Corinna, Silke and Lara.

They soon delivered in the form of common dolphins. A firm favourite of the expedition and this encounter was a very social group of up to 50 individuals. This was followed by an encounter with their larger ‘cousins’ – bottlenose dolphins. Individuals of this species are much larger, and can be recognised by markings on their dorsal fin. The trick is getting clear dorsal fin shots, and that challenge was Katharina’s, as she was the designated photographer for the day.

So a solid start to the first day at sea, with data collected and noone getting seasick. The whales may have eluded us, but surely not for much longer…..

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

Group 1 of our 2018 Azores whales, dolphins and turtle expedition has finished.

The weather has thrown everything at us: high winds, rough seas and torrential rain. But the team has stayed strong in the face of adversity. The atmosphere on Physeter, our research vessel, has been positively buoyant even on the toughest of days and we managed to get all the work done. The weather has made it difficult for this group to work on all the species that we usually see on this expedition, but as our scientist Lisa says, the zeros are as important as the ones in science. Humankind still has much to learn about these creatures, which is why data collected on expeditions such as these is so important.

Over the course of last ten days we recorded 5 loggerhead turtles, 1 blue shark, 3 Risso’s dolphins and today, 16 March, as a final farewell we documented a pod of 80 common dolphins, which swam beside us for 40 minutes. Their playful nature and agile forms were a sight to behold, and once we had taken our necessary ID shots, we relaxed and enjoyed their spirited freedom.

Thank you team for being an amazing group, and for finding the humour in every situation. I especially enjoyed our meal times together, and sharing your birthdays. I hope I have the pleasure of meeting you again on the high seas some day and I will let you and the pictures speak for themselves below.

I hand over the baton to Craig now, who will lead the next three groups.

Best wishes, Catherine

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

With training and trial sea day complete, we embarked on a full research day on 11 March. It began foggy, with the volcano on neighbouring Pico island completely obscured. Silvia spotted a fin half an hour into our first transect and we identified three Risso’s dolphins exhibiting their unique white markings, originally caused during socialisation, never to fade.

By 11:00 our scientists Lisa decided to deploy the hydrophone, a microphone designed to be used underwater for recording or listening for the communication clicks of the sperm whale. She couldn’t hear any whales, but was alerted to some dolphins nearby. Soon enough three common dolphins emerged in front of our catamaran, and spent 10 minutes bow-riding, giving us a delightful break from our on-board duties.

Heavy rain then cut our day short and we returned to base for hot showers, a good meal and a slice of birthday banana cake!

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

The weather played havoc with arrivals – planes were delayed, cancelled and diverted to neighbouring islands, and at the assembly time of 14:00 on 8 March only half of the team was present. Lisa Steiner, our scientist, and I decided to press on as we had no idea when or even if the others would eventually arrive. We were pleasantly surprised when ten minutes into our first briefing a taxi pulled up, and Donna leaped out, having just driven straight from the airport! Bex, Silvia and Anke missed the afternoon sessions, but arrived just in time for dinner. All in the same situation, they had gravitated towards each other at the airport and it didn’t take long for everyone to form an enthusiastic team.

Unfortunately, high winds and torrential rain meant that we were not able to go out on the water for our training session on 9 March, but this did mean that we could get the whole team up to speed and make sure that everyone was kitted out in foul weather gear ready for tomorrow! We couldn’t decide if Bex and Donna resembled fisherwomen or firefighters!

We also used the time to take some videos for the world to meet some of the team and learn about their motivations and  aspirations:

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

Greetings from São Miguel!

Due to bad weather in the Azores yesterday my flight to Horta was cancelled and I was flown to a neighbouring island. I am currently in the airport waiting to hear if my flight this morning is going ahead.  My preparation plans are now delayed somewhat, but I will do my utmost to have everything ready for your arrival tomorrow.

That said,  this situation may also affect some of your travel plans as the weather forecast for the next couple of days is quite bad , so I just wanted to reassure you that if this is the case, please don’t worry, we will adapt the programme accordingly.

That plane says “Breathe” on it. Indeed 😉

As I do not yet have access to my local phone, if you are experiencing difficulty and would like to contact me, please use my UK number +44 7816 134 364 or alternatively contact Lisa Steiner our scientist in Horta on +351 929 129 515.

As with all expeditions, there are elements that are completely out of our control, weather being a prime example. All we can do in these situations is go with the flow.

I wish you all safe travels and smooth connections. Oh, and if you get there before me, put the kettle on ; )

Seventh annual citizen science expedition to the DDCR impresses with rare findings

January 2018 saw Biosphere Expeditions’ seventh annual citizen science expedition to and in collaboration with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). Participants from all over the world helped to collect ecological data on rare desert species. This will help DDCR management to define conservation management objectives in the future. Greg Simkins, the DDCR’s manager, says that ”Biosphere Expeditions not only provides us with an opportunity to engage with citizen scientists from a variety of countries to highlight our conservation work. Our joint annual survey expedition also enables us to make a rapid assessment of important species and their distribution within the DDCR each year”.

Expeditioners assessed Arabian oryx, Arabian and sand gazelle populations, monitored the status of fox dens, mapped plant distribution, set live and camera traps, and recorded fauna by observation.

Camera traps took over 4.500 pictures including several of the cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus), a bird species that has only ever been recorded in the UAE on three occasions. In total over fifty species of birds, mammals, reptiles and plants were recorded by the expedition team.

Expedition leader Malika Fettak says that “this was a very successful expedition working with enthusiastic people that share a common goal. Everyone on the team put a lot into the project and was rewarded with fantastic results of two live captures of Arabian red fox and the exceptionally rare proof of cinereous vulture within the DDCR.” Andy Trace, a citizen science participant from the UK, agrees: “I really felt like a scientist and I am certain our efforts are going to help the DDCR’s conservation goals.”

Early examination of the expedition results suggest that Arabian oryx and Arabian fox populations in the DDCR are healthy and continuing to expand. A detailed report of the expedition findings will be published in August 2018. Biosphere Expeditions and the DDCR look forward to many more annual survey expeditions to help wildlife and conservation in the unique place that is the DDCR.

The expedition was kindly supported by Platinum Heritage.

A selection of pictures and videos from the expedition is below:


From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

Hello and welcome! My name is Catherine and I will be your expedition leader for this first Azores group in 2018.

The following three groups will be led by my colleague Craig Turner, the last one with assistance from expedition leader in training An Bollen. Details of all of us are on

I was last in the Azores back in 2014, so am keen to meet up with our scientist Lisa Steiner and learn of the developments that have taken place over the last few years. Lisa has been collaborating with Biosphere expeditions since 2003, so the data tirelessly gathered by citizen scientists such as you is now really bearing fruit. Thank you for giving your time to deepen this important work.

I will be travelling out to Faial a couple of days in advance of group 1 to prepare for your arrival and I’m looking forward to meeting group 1 at Banana Manor, our assembly point, between 13:00 and 14:00 on 8 March. If you are whiling away a few hours in Horta before that time and would like to meet me for lunch, I will be at Peter’s Café Sport on the quayside from 11:30. (Just ask any of the locals where it is – it’s a very popular landmark!) My contact telephone number for emergency purposes only (such as missing assembly) will be +351 93 041 7877.

Please remember to bring all your completed paperwork, as we will launch straight into training and briefings promptly at 14:00.

The Azores are also currently experiencing a cold snap, so make sure you bring plenty of layers, including slippers or lined crocs as we leave our outdoor shoes at the door and the tiled floors of Banana Manor are chilly!

I will be in touch again once I have arrived in Horta. Happy packing and safe travels!

Catherine Edsell
Expedition Leader

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