Azores: expedition musings

Our time in the Azores has  come to an end for another year, so it is time to reflect on the past month. I know I have said this before, but expeditions offer many things, including difference, difficulty, diversity, discovery and of course data. We all come with varying expectations and often leave with different realisations and experiences. Let’s face it, if we got what we expected, it wouldn’t be an expedition!

This year we have been challenged on many fronts and had several achievements, but before we review the details, let me initially offer some 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 (Claudia and Tiago) at Banana Manor, who have been our hosts for the past few weeks – giving us all a second home. I also extend our collective gratitude to Eugenio (and his team at Casa de Cha), and 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 out to sea, but also ensured we knew the sea state, wind direction, cetacean locations and always got us back to port safely – thanks Jairo. And of course, our enormous collective thanks go to Lisa, our leader in all things scientific. It is always a privilege to share in your world and work with such a passionate field biologist and cetacean scientist.

But my final thanks go to our citizen scientists, who stepped up to the daily challenge of data collection to achieve our collective goals of better understanding the ecology of the cetaceans and turtles of the Azores. Your contribution, attitude and application, sometimes in the face of adversity, and across all aspects of the expedition, has been outstanding. It has been a pleasure to meet and work with you all.

Our data haul this year has been different to others, and would be easy to focus on the fact that sometimes whales have been hard to find – but that is not the only focus of the project. The seeming lack of cetaceans on some days, or the  sea states may have challenged us on occasion, but overall we’ve been able to amass a diverse range of data and information, that without Biosphere Expeditions, wouldn’t have been collected.

In case you have forgotten, here are just some of our highlights:

  • We’ve deployed two teams into the field, comprising 7 different nations
  • We completed multiple days at sea, covering over 700 km of survey transects
  • We’ve collected data on at least 5 different cetacean species and 1 turtle species
  • We’ve recorded orcas for the first time on a Biosphere Expedition
  • We’ve listened to singing humpbacks for the first time in the Azores
  • We completed multiple POPA surveys (Programa de Observação para as Pescas do Açores = Observation Programme for the Fisheries of the Azores)
  • We’ve assisted the local university with their D-Tag research on sperm whales
  • We’ve field tested a cetacean monitoring app and contributed data to Monicet

Of course there is also the data entry, image processing and sorting, and not to mention matching work that has been completed so far. All helps to better understand the puzzle of cetacean patterns in the Azores. Data on absence is as important as that on presence. To truly understand cetaceans movements, their ecological needs, and distributions we need to study them over appropriate scales of space and time.

Field research rarely gives us instant results or fast answers to our bigger questions, but even the encounter rates from this year underscore the value of long-term research – this project has been running for fifteen years. The results from this year’s work will soon become clearer in the expedition report (due out later this year).

So what of the success I mentioned? Success isn’t just dictated by data, and to my mind successful expeditions are defined by experience – that which we bring to it, and that which we gain from it. Personal success is perhaps is influenced by the people you meet, the new experiences you have, the challenges you overcome, or the wildlife you see. This year we have had a fantastic blend of past Biosphereans, past Azores expedition team members, and a healthy dose of first-timers. The teams and the teamwork have been a personal highlight. You’ve all played your part in the success of this year. Your own judgement of success is perhaps most dependent on your own expectations.

We all come on expeditions for different reasons and with different expectations. No matter whether you are a citize scientist, scientist or expedition leader, we all start an expedition with a varying mix of nerves, hope and expectation. We hopefully leave with new experiences, having explored, been enthused, educated, entertained and maybe even enlightened!

If you are truly fortunate, like the cetaceans, you get to return.

Best wishes

Craig Turner
Expedition leader

Azores: fin whales and tags

After the successful sperm whale encounter, we next headed out south of Pico, this time in search baleen whales. There had been reports of ‘blows’ several miles off the coast of Pico, so who can pass up that opportunity?

Our mission was briefly interrupted by a wonderful encounter with some common dolphins, surfing in the waves and playing around the boat – a great start to any Sunday morning. Our photographer for the day (Martin) was duly put through his paces.

With our skipper (Jairo) then spotting a blow, it was time to move on. In building seas, large baleen whales are not the easiest to find, but when you have three fin whales blowing together it makes things a little easier. Spotting them was the easy bit – another new record for the 2019 expedition.  We followed them into the oncoming waves and wind that tested the resolve of all on board and made it tricky to get the ID photos.

The last couple of days have been on shore, working on images and yet more data. The team have already matched three of the sperm whales seen on Saturday to previous encounters in 2013 and 2008 – yet more small but important pieces of the puzzle.

Rui Prieto from the Azores Whale Lab also came over to the expedition base, to give a talk on his wider cetacean research and how some of the data being collected by the project is being used. And in other good news…he recovered his D-Tag (see previous blog).

Azores: whales and memories

Welcome to our second and final team for 2019. Our group truly embraces the international nature of Biosphere Expeditions, hailing as they are from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the USA.

This phase of the project started on a bright note. As you may know, Horta harbour is adorned with paintings, made by crews of the many ships that pass this way. On our first walk around the harbour, Lisa (one our citizen scientists from the UK) was able to locate a painting created by her late father, which she had not seen before.

With the team in place, briefings, orientations and training completed, we set out to sea on our first afternoon of surveying. This meant breaking new ‘ground’, as we headed for the channel between Pico and São Jorge. Our change in tactic from the first expedition didn’t prove to be as successful as we’d hoped.

After a couple of enforced days on shore, due to weather and sea conditions, we returned to the ocean. After a brief encounter with common dolphins, we were rewarded with whales – sperm whales to be precise. We followed a small group for several hours, getting fluke images of at least four different individuals, including a male.

At the end of the day, whilst following our last whale of the day, we were joined by a couple of whale watching boats from Horta. One was carrying two citizen scientists from our first group – always nice to share the whale experience.

Also on the agenda was the news of the power of our work here or more precisely, the results of photo ID at work. A long range matche of a blue and fin whale from the Azores to Galicia, Spain in 2017 has just been published. This shows how important it is to take these fin and fluke photographs to elucidate the movement of these enigmatic ocean creatures around the seas.

Azores: group 1 round-up

A sterling effort by group 1 over the past few days. We’ve covered in excess 250 km of surveys over the past three days, and again in some challenging seas. Safe to say everyone now has their ‘sea legs’.

We have also been involved in a mini collaboration with the local university, assisting them with a search for a D-Tag. This non-invasive tag (attached by a suction cup to sperm whales) can record the sounds heard, and made, by the tagged whale together with its depth and orientation (i.e. pitch, roll and heading), in a synchronised fashion throughout the dive cycle. The tag records data digitally for around 24 hours, depending on sampling rate. When if floats to the surface it gives out a radio ‘ping’, so it can be radio-tracked, once a rough position has been triangulated from land. Well, the theory is simple!

We were able to help in the search whilst conducting our own ‘normal’ surveys. Rui Prieto joined us from the local university (Dept of Oceanography & Fisheries) with his telemetry kit and all we had to do was spot a small yellow tag in the Atlantic – needle in a haystack – when dealing with 5 m waves. Sadly we weren’t successful on this front, but we did collect other cetacean data. We wish Rui luck in finding it!

Over the last few days, the team have worked their socks off, scouring much of the ocean south of Faial and Pico, up to 25-30 km offshore. The reward has been nine cetacean encounters, totalling over 125 individuals, not forgetting several loggerhead turtles. And let’s not forget our couple of expedition firsts – orcas and a singing humpback – more than data, they are truly moments to remember.

Just reward for such a great group who have personified teamwork – you have been a joy to work with, thank you. But as we say a sad farewell to group 1, we are excited to meet and welcome group 2. There is still much to discover, as we reach the halfway point of this year’s expedition.

Azores: Singing humpback

After the excitement of the orca encounter on our first day in the field, we were brought back down to earth the very next day… by the weather! High winds and worse sea states meant data processing was the only productive option.

So the team spent the morning with sorting and /or matching image files to enable identification and matching of several species, including sei and sperm whales; Risso’s dolphins and of course the orcas. Many of the orcas could not be matched with other individuals recently seen around the central island  group of the Azores, suggesting there are more out there to be found.

After an afternoon break, we were back out to sea the next day in slightly calmer seas. This began with common dolphin sightings, and four encounters later this was the only species we had seen all day, whilst navigating a loop south of Pico and Faial.

Eager for a change of fortunes, we set sail again on Wednesday. Luck was not entirely on our side. The dolphins appeared to be avoiding us, so we deployed the hydrophone to ‘listen in’ on dolphins and sperm whales but with no joy. But what we did hear – surprised all on board, including a scientist, Lisa – a singing humpback! Whilst the males are known to sing, often when in search of females, Lisa has never heard this behaviour in 30 years of working in the Azores. Another first for Biosphere Expeditions in the Azores. Fieldwork is about sights and sounds.

After several hours of searching, and with 110 km covered, we could not locate the humpback and finally had to give up on our singing cetacean. You don’t always get the result you want, but if your survey ends with ‘presence’ or ‘absence’, your data is zeros rather than ones, it is still a result.

Let’s see whether our humpback was just in rehearsal mode today, and we will get the full performance tomorrow…

Azores: Orcas!

The Azores expedition is officially up and running, and we can finally offer an Azorean welcome to our first citizen scientists of 2019. We have already been pushing the limits and the initial headline is a new species record for Biosphere Expeditions… but more about that later!

Our multi-national team all arrived safely, via a mix of routes and modes of transport. Some were hot off the plane and plunged straight into initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings. Not forgetting a whistle stop tour of Horta to get some bearings.

Saturday saw us dive into scientific training, with familiarisation of equipment, which was followed by data records training, and eventually rounded off with a boat orientation. Unfortunately the weather was against us, so we could not complete our first field trip as planned….that would have to wait. Patience is vital with fieldwork.

Sunday  saw us head out to sea. With winds blowing from the northeast, the conditions were best described as challenging. As we headed south of Pico, we eventually encountered some loggerhead turtles and a small group of common dolphins (great spots Stefi and Shantala), but encounters were hard to find.

The hydrophone was deployed in a quest to find sperm whales, but the conditions were just too extreme to follow them. With the sea state quickly reaching force 5 (the limit that we can effectively work in, and most people can stomach), we turned around and headed back towards the protection of Pico.

An inspired (if not lucky decision), for it was just off the coast (close to Lajes) that we had our first ‘whale’ encounter……with orcas! They had been seen in the area as few days before the group arrived, but normally move on. This is the first time they have ever been recorded by a Biosphere Expedition group. Great data and a wonderful encounter!

Our day was not done as we also found a group of Risso’s dolphins, with several young, as we began to cross the ‘choppy’ channel back to Horta. A quick baptism of cetacean research for some.

Field work will often push your limits, give you moments of luck, and reward your loyalty to your task. One of our citizen scientists, Neil, is a veteran of nine (!) Biosphere Expeditions and a previous participant on the Azores. Yesterday was very much payback for his commitment, in the shape of six beautiful orcas; and it was only our first day at sea.