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

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