Azores: Final entry for 2018

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

That’s all folks. Once again our expedition in the Azores has come to an end. Our citizen scientist have departed, the kit is packed and now myself and An must make our travels north, back to Scotland and Belgium. We’ve collectively had a great six weeks in the Azores. I have said this before, but expeditions offer many things, including difference, difficulty, diversity, discovery and of course data.

The last group have successfully added to that data in their last days, adding more records of loggerhead turtles, common dolphins, fin whales and seemingly the obligatory blue whale. I can’t remember a year on this expedition when we saw so many blues!

Before we talk about the discovery and data, let me initially offer some thanks. First off, to our citizen scientists, who stepped up to the daily challenge of data collection to achieve our collective goal of better understanding the ecology of the cetaceans and turtles of the Azores. You’ve all contributed to advancing this knowledge, and making this expedition a success. Thank you!

However, we must offer more thanks. Firstly to the back office staff at Biosphere Expeditions. There is always a lot of unseen work and preparation for any expedition. Secondly, thanks to Jim (and family) at Banana Manor, who have been our hosts for the past few weeks, giving us all a second home. I also extend our gratitude to Eugenio, Carey and Pete, who (amongst others) have catered for our variety of dietary needs. I must also not forget our skipper Jairo, who not only took us to sea, but ensured we knew the sea state, wind direction, cetacean locations and always got us back to port safely – thanks Jairo. And finally, our enormous collective thanks go to Lisa, our leader in all things scientific. It is indeed a privilege to share in your world and work with such a dedicated field biologist and cetacean scientist.

This year we’ve collected data earlier than any other previous expedition, giving us a unique and extended insight into cetacean movements. The lack of cetaceans on some days, or the challenging sea states may have frustrated us on occasion, but overall we’ve been able to amass a huge amount of data, that without Biosphere Expeditions, wouldn’t have been collected.

Here are just some of our highlights:

  • We’ve deployed four teams into the field, comprising 11 different nations, including people from 18 to 80+ years old;
  • We completed 22 days at sea, totalling in excess of 120 hours of surveys, covering 100s of miles of the ocean, and only ‘fed the fish’ on a few occasions;
  • We’ve collected data on at least 9 different cetacean species (5 whale and 4 dolphin species) and 1 turtle species;
  • Our total encounters with cetaceans exceed 120, and yes, simple statistics will tell you that almost one for every hour at sea;
  • We’ve also sighted and recorded over 1020 different individuals, and a staggering 57 loggerhead turtles;
  • We’ve also recorded 18 blue whales. Yes, we’ve ‘run into’ the biggest creature that has ever graced our planet, almost everyday we went to sea;
  • We also already have matches for three species of whale (sperm, blue and humpback) to other locations; and we continue to work on the matching and ID work undertaken by each group.

In isolation, these may just seem like bits of data, as field research rarely gives us instant results or fast answers to our bigger questions. But we’ve collected a huge baseline of data at a ‘new’ time of year for the expedition. The full results will soon become clearer in the expedition report.

So what of the success I mentioned? Well, I think the summary statistics highlight the success, but success isn’t always easy to measure, particularly when it comes to expeditions. It is influenced by the people you meet, the new experiences you have, the challenges you overcome, the wildlife you see…to mention a few. Ultimately, it is perhaps most dependent on your expectations.

We all come on expeditions for different reasons and with different expectations. No matter whether you are a citizen scientist, a professional scientist or an expedition leader, we all go on expeditions with a varying mix of nerves, hope and expectation. For many it may be for a new experience, to explore, to be enthused, educated, entertained and even enlightened! Some are lucky enough to achieve their dreams…

As leaders, we are the lucky ones to get to experience most of this, but we are also exhausted. So as we prepare to depart, we offer a final thank you for all your efforts and look forward to returning next year. And as always, we let the expedition speak through its picture and the group in their own words.

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