Azores: Seafarers and citizen scientists

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago   www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores.

The expedition continues to run its steady course. These past few days out at sea have been a real treat. The blue whales have crossed our paths every single day, becoming our favourites, even if these giants tend to be slightly elusive and play hide-and-seek in a vast ocean.

Nonetheless the team managed to get relevant data and valuable photos of multiple individuals that have been sent out to the experts and are now awaiting ‘matching’ – to see where else in the world ‘our’ whales have been recorded. One blue whale we followed even turned out to be two individuals, when going through Lisa’s images. These clearly revealed distinct patterns on the back of each.

This Sunday the lookouts detected multiple blows in different directions (South of Faial) and soon we realised we were not just following one fin whale but rather three, plus another blue whale! As a cetacean citizen scientist, you can of course never have ‘too many whales’ around, even if recording data can become a bit tricky. So with that spirit in mind we managed to add a humpback whale onto the data list before heading back to port – well spoted Anne!

And it is not just the cetaceans that keep us company…. Along our boat plenty Portuguese man-o-war, a jellyfish species, sail by, of which several will be eaten by the drifting loggerhead turtles we regularly observe resting at the surface. Cory’s shearwaters can also be seen in great numbers, walking on water as they take off and gliding as true masters of the sky just above the waves hardly flapping their wings. The smaller common terns are faster and gone in a blink of an eye. A rarer sighting was the Northern gannet, a species that occasionally visits these waters.

As days go by, the waves grow taller and the winds get stronger, resulting in noticeable progress in the seafarer’s skills of our citizen scientists: solid sea legs, unfazed stomachs, enhanced whale-spotting skills, navigational insights, weather monitoring, species identification and so on. For many the being out at sea is as much part of the adventure as the cetaceans.

Winfried took on the challenge of data recording on the front deck under the spray of a series of waves, while Julia was braving flying buckets of seawater to measure temperature on the stern. The POPA (Portuguese Fisheries Department) data dream team, Annabel and Chris, now excel in keeping their heads cool while multitasking to record everything simultaneously from trash, turtles, seabirds, cetaceans and more.

When the working day is over, it is time for a break. Anne, a Biosphere returnee for the last 7 years, introduced the ‘after whale-watching drink’ at Peter’s (the infamous harbour pub), supposedly for ‘a German coffee’. By now the whole group has embraced the concept resulting in cosy and tasty debriefing sessions.

As the sea conditions in the following days go into the red, we will be focusing on data analysis onshore and exploring what the island of Faial has to offer. Stay tuned for more!

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