Azores: Tons of sightings and a road trip

I have been busy once again. The weather has calmed down allowing us to get to sea for a few days now. We have had a couple of extended days out since there are not many whale watching tourists and these days are funded principally by Biosphere Expeditions, covering the cost of the fuel and the lookout. Other days I go out for half a day, with whale watching clients aboard the boat as well.

On  13 July, we knew there were sperm whales, but there was also a surprise waiting for us after the first fluke. False killer whales! This was the second sighting of 2020. The group was very spread out and there were a few calves seen, including a newborn, with very visible foetal folds. These marks are caused by the calf being folded inside the womb, before birth. At one point, we saw them feeding on mahi mahi (dolphin fish). We got some ID photos of the dorsal fins and after a quick look, a few of the individuals have been seen in previous years. This could be the group that was seen further to the east the other day. This species is somewhat resident and individuals have been sighted in multiple years and between islands. I presented a poster on these findings in Barcelona at the World Marine Mammal Conference in December with some help from Biosphere Expeditions for the conference cost.

The sperm whales were the same group we had seen on 11 July, which includes a couple of animals that have previously been seen in São Miguel, 125 nm to the southeast of Faial. We know that some of these groups move around to the different parts of the Azores, while others seem to prefer one area or another.

On the way back to Horta, we came across a travelling group of bottlenose dolphin. Some of them came to the boat, while others just carried on. We could not spend too much time with them, because they were travelling in the wrong direction. Some of the individuals looked like the resident animals that we can see all year round. We identify them by their dorsal fins.

Then we went to have a look at a dead sperm whale that the lookout had seen earlier in the morning. There was no obvious cause of death and it appeared to have been dead for a few weeks/month at least, because all of the skin was white and the cartilage of the flukes was already decomposing, so there was no possibility of an ID photo. The carcass was towed to the harbour and removed so that the skeleton can be preserved.

And then we came across a large group of Risso’s dolphin on the way to the port. It was a mixed group of the “Faial Ladies” and also some unknown males, according to Karin Hartman of the Nova Atlantis Foundation, who has studied this species for 20 years. There have not been many sightings of this species so far this year, so every sighting is important to know who is around. This species is not boat friendly, yet people are allowed to swim with them. This swimming activity has been shown to affect their behaviour and it may be that the dolphins have got tired of sharing their space and move to another area. We have seen pilot whales more often this year, than Risso’s and they are eating the same food, but swimming is not allowed with the pilot whales. Time will tell if the Risso’s have relocated to a quieter area.

On 17 July we saw a group of sperm whales that have only been seen once before in 2015. We managed to get two flukes, before the group started to come together to socialise. This behaviour renews the social bonds between the individuals of the group, since the females will stay with the same group they are born into for their whole life, while the males will leave somewhere between 13-16 years of age.

On 18 July I made a road (& ferry) trip to Pico. There had been some sightings of Northern Bottlenose whales off Lajes, which is a long way from Horta and we usually don’t get that far during regular trips, so I decided to go out with another company, closer to the “hot zone”. My trip was a success and I got to see a group of about ten bottlenose whales as well as sperm whales, sei whales and bottlenose and spotted dolphin during the afternoon.

Three sei whales appeared to be milling around. They did not seem to be feeding or socialising, so maybe they were resting. We did not spend too long with them, because the sea conditions were not great and it was difficult to keep track of where they were going to surface. We also wanted to get to the bottlenose whales!

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The bottlenose whales only appear in July or August and don’t tend to stick around. It is not known why they migrate down to the Azores, from their habitual northern habitats. Maybe it has to do with removing parasites/diatoms from their skin. Orcas in Alaska are thought to make short trips to warmer water for this purpose and it has recently been hypothesised that baleen whales also get this benefit when they are in warmer waters breeding or having young. The group had covered quite a lot of sea from the morning, by the afternoon, they were halfway back to Horta! I got some good photos of the dorsal fins and for a brief moment thought we had a match to 2010, but the nick is not quite the same.

After the bottlenose whales, we went back to the area where the sperm whales were and got two flukes, which I do not recognise, so will have to run them through the matching program.

19 July saw another busy morning with four sei whales, sperm whales, pilot whales, striped and common dolphin! One of the sperm whales had been seen on 7 July as well.

The group of three sei whales of 20 July were different to the sei whales on 18 July and the lookout had seen others in the area as well. So it would seem that there are some sei whales that are appearing in the Azores during the summer and not making migrations further north to traditional feeding areas. There may be enough food for them to stay further south, like Bryde’s whales do. Good ID photos were obtained for all three dorsal fins and will be matched in the future.

The pilot whales were once again resting at the surface, mothers & calves as well as some larger males were in the group. So far 2020 has been quite good for pilot whale sightings, possibly due to a lack of Risso’s dolphin, which usually chase the pilot whales away, since they are competing for food.

On the way back to Horta, we passed by a group of dolphin, which turned into a group of dolphin and a sei whale! It appeared that there was some feeding going on with the whale tracking some of the dolphins’ movements. The dolphin were a mixed group of common and striped, which were more interested in finding food than playing with the boat, although a few did eventually come over.

And finally on 20 July, we again had “Whitehead’s” group, although I still haven’t got a photograph of her! I know she is there somewhere, so maybe tomorrow. This group has been here since 12 June, which isn’t unusual for them, they usually hang around for a while before disappearing. We also had a couple of groups of spotted dolphin, one of which appeared to be focused on mating. There was one incredible leap several metres high and a couple of the dolphin had some interesting markings, which are being investigated as to what might have caused the white patch in the dorsal fin on one and the dark patch behind the eye in another.

The weather is looking good for the next week, so I am sure we will be out on the water as often as possible.

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