15 years of Azores expeditions: the power of long-term datasets

Whale watching can be undertaken in a morning, but watching whales to better understand their movements and ecology takes time – fifteen years (and counting) to be precise. Biosphere Expeditions has just completed its 15th year of expeditions in the Azores, monitoring the cetacean movements, covering over 15 different species.

Many research questions focused on the natural world cannot be addressed (with any certainty) in a month or a single year. Data collection may take a decade or longer, to reveal meaningful patterns and this is the case with the cetaceans of the Azores.

Rewards can be faster. Images of sperm whales and blue whales taken this year, have already been matched to other locations in the Azores, Norway and Ireland. But many more whales have still yet to be matched, revealing the range of their movements and the importance of different parts of the oceans.

This year’s project still has a lot of data to process, from 122 cetacean encounters over 22 days at sea, sighting over 1000 individuals. But some species are absent from this year’s research findings and dolphins have been found in lower numbers.

With the expedition fieldwork now commencing in March, “it has also been great to get out on the water earlier in the year”, says expedition scientist Lisa Steiner, “and collect data on a range of species, across a broader time span. The value of this work is very significant, as we would not have documented the 18 blue whales recorded, or the many other species, since there are very few other boats out at this time of year”.

Understanding spatial and temporal patterns of so many cetaceans is key to their long-term protection and conservation. And undertaking field research, especially when others are not around, reveals new information such as species being absent or present in lower or higher numbers compared to other years. But the true conservation context can only be gained after many years of work.

“The ability to collect such data is greatly enhanced by the annual contribution of citizen scientists”, says expedition leader Craig Turner, “and underlines the value of long-term datasets in illustrating the importance of the Azores for many cetacean species”. Steiner adds that “not only are we able to match individuals to catalogues in the Azores with these data, but often from elsewhere in the Atlantic too, sometimes even beyond, elevating the power and value of the data”.

In the end it will all be about appropriate conservation management based on scientific facts to ensure these much-loved whale and dolphin species continue to thrive not just in Azorean waters, but elsewhere in the wider Atlantic Ocean.

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