Azores: Plenty of sightings

On 22 August the day was split, with the morning spent to the north of Faial and the afternoon to the south of Pico. We started out with a group of bottlenose dolphin that included some small calves, followed by a few groups of feeding spotted dolphin. The sperm whales were next and after initial matching, have not previously been seen. The vigia also spotted a sei whale, so we detoured further offshore to see it. On arrival, looking at the dorsal fin photos, it was one of the sei whales seen the day before in the channel between Pico and São Jorge. It appeared to be feeding again. We saw the right side of the animal and it had a healing wound just below and behind the dorsal fin. At this moment, I do not know what caused the injury. Most likely is either a shark or orca attack, but it could have been something else.

In the afternoon, we started out with sperm whales. After the first fluke, I identified “2578” of the “Whitehead” group. I don’t know how long they are going to stay, but they have been here for two months now, which is remarkable. The lookout also spotted a group of pilot whales further offshore. On the way to the pilot whales, we came across a small group of bottlenose heading rapidly the other direction, so after a few minutes, we continued on to the pilot whales. There were no calves in the group of pilot whales that we saw, which is a bit unusual. So it is likely that the calves were in a part of the group that we did not see. On our way back towards Horta, we came across the same six bottlenose dolphin, this time heading back the other way! They did stop for a quick minute to ride our bow, but then continued on their way. Just before we got to Horta, a much larger group of bottlenose dolphin was seen to the south of Faial, probably the same group that we had seen in the morning.

On 23 August, we were looking to find a bit of calm water, since the wind had arrived a bit earlier than predicted. Unfortunately, the sperm whales had other ideas. They were spotted to the north of Faial and although the lookout said the conditions were ok, they were not great. We were delayed by a group of bottlenose dolphin just as we arrived to the north of Faial, that were heading towards Pico, so we didn’t remain with them for very long, since the conditions were only going to get worse where the sperm whales had been located. The sperm whales were not easy to spot in between the white tops of the waves, but I did manage to get a couple of fluke photos. Whether this was part of the same group as yesterday morning, I don’t know. But the two individuals I photographed do not appear to be in the catalogue. On the way back, we headed in closer to the coast to find some shelter. We also found at least 1500 spotted dolphin! They were small pockets that appeared to be feeding on baitballs and the group was very spread out, all heading towards the west.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the afternoon, we headed out to the south of Pico, where the mountain blocked some of the wind. Only dolphins had been spotted when we left the harbour. First up was the group of bottlenose dolphins that has been seen for the last couple of days, with the calves. A couple of the individuals look quite scarred up from interactions with other bottlenose dolphin. One of the juveniles did a huge spyhop (head out of the water), but I only caught the very last part as it was sinking back down into the water. Then it was onto a couple of groups of common dolphin. The first group appeared to be feeding as they moved towards the west, with a lot of common terns flying overhead, hoping for scraps. The second group was headed in the direction of the first group! Then came the shout over the radio “Blows”! The lookout had seen a sperm whale. So we raced offshore to the southeast. We didn’t arrive in time to see the first fluke, but over the hydrophone sperm whale clicks could be heard, so we were in the right area. It took a while, but eventually two whales came up and as they double fluked, I identified the 2014 calf of “2776”, yes you guessed it, from “Whitehead’s” group. Another whale popped up, this time it was Whitehead herself. Then we had a long bumpy ride back against the waves to Horta.

There are a few days of windy weather now, so onshore entering data into the SEAFARI App, so there will be a nice map for all the August sightings.

On 24 August, I received sad news from Pico, the harp seal has died in Lajes do Pico. Hopefully a necropsy will be done to determine what was the cause of death. There was some speculation that maybe it was dehydrated, since in addition to water from their prey, they eat ice when in their normal habitat. So a very sad ending to an unusual encounter.

Azores: An unexpected visitor

After a few days ashore due to windy weather, I was finally back on the sea on 19 August. The weather was still not very settled. We managed to find the “Whitehead” group off the south of Pico in choppy conditions. I managed to photograph one fluke, which was of “2776”. The other whale was not in a good position when it dived to show the markings on the trailing edge. I believe that I caught a glimpse of the small nicks of “2776’s” 2014 calf, but don’t know for sure. We did not spot any dolphins, probably more down to the choppy seas, than absence of animals.

A lone harp seal has been observed on the coast of Faial! This seal species is normally much farther to the north in countries such as Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Norway. It is a male at 1.8 m. Some people from the environment department have been to see it and do not believe it is in a poor condition, so will not intervene at this point. I think it looks a bit thin, but they will be monitoring it as long as it remains near the coast of the island. I managed to see it on 21 August in Porto Pim Bay. The officials watching it said when the tide came in, it left the rocks, but luckily, just as I was going to leave, it came back and tried to haul out again. These islands are not very easy for seals to haul out in most places, with their rocky shorelines, but there are a few easier places, such as the boat ramp in Castelo Branco and the sloping rocks around Porto Pim. I do not know how long it will stay, so I was very pleased to get a glimpse of it. This is only the second record of a harp seal in the Azores. The previous record was a dead animal that washed up on the coast of Pico in 2002.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the afternoon of 21 August, I was back to the north of Pico and we saw feeding sei whales with hundreds of spotted dolphin. You can just see a snipe fish that got away in the photo of the lunging sei whale! Also seen was the group of sperm whales that has been here since the end of May, including one individual I hadn’t yet seen this year. I guess there is plenty of squid around for them to eat, if they are sticking around this long.

The weather looks good for the weekend, but deteriorates next week again, I guess winter is coming! I bet the harp seal is hoping for some cooler weather.

We’re still here, hanging on

Biosphere Expeditions is still here, albeit with all hatches battened down in an effort to survive the storm. Here’s a short interview with our founder and executive director, Dr. Matthias Hammer, about the situation at the moment.

Q: Will Biosphere Expeditions survive this pandemic?

A: The honest answer is that I do not know for certain, but probably. We’ve made contingency plans A, B, C, D etc. But even the best plans are pointless if we run out of money. The contributions that our citizen scientists make constitute the lion’s share of our income. Of course this has collapsed to almost zero since March and it does not look like it will be coming back anytime soon. Even if there was to be a genuine vaccine by the end of 2020, then I doubt many people will have the inclination or funds to travel in 2021. Of course there are some grant and other support schemes that we have applied for, and a portion of our coronavirus appeal was for our running costs, but if the pandemic continues into and over 2021, as we now expect it to do, with no or very few expeditions happening in 2021, then survival will start to become a tough struggle indeed. But we are optimists by default, backed by good planning, and we are also fighters. Watch this space for updates as 2020 continues and turns into 2021.

Q: What is the outlook for expeditions in 2021?

A: Early on during the pandemic we suspended all citizen science elements of our 2020 expeditions and concentrated on continuing our conservation work with local partners and staff, and supporting our local partners in this time of crisis through our coronavirus appeal.

Realistically, we think expeditions are unlikely in 2021, especially those outside Europe. As I have said, even if there was to be a genuine vaccine by the end of 2020, then this would only be the beginning of the end and I doubt many people will have the inclination or funds to travel far and wide in 2021. This means our expeditions in Africa, the Americas and Asia are bound to suffer, and we are doing all we can to support our local partners through this. At the moment, however, all 2021 expedition are online and we will assess how things go as time progresses. If there are enough people to run an expedition and if we decide we can reasonably do so, then we will run expeditions as planned – for conservation, for our local partners, for our citizen scientists and because we strongly believe that conservation work must continue despite, and perhaps even because of this crisis.

Q: How’s the coronavirus appeal going?

A: I was amazed by the generosity of people and would like to say thank you again to all donors here. Today we stand at 113 donors, 52% raised and four projects fully funded. There was a very generous initial surge of support, but things have slowed down now, which is not surprising as almost everyone will be negatively affected by this pandemic by now. We continue to promote the appeal and to fundraise and hope we can find the funding for all our local conservation partners, because it is desperately needed. If anyone reading this can help, please do so.

Q: What can people do to help?

A: The three most helpful things are to join an expedition (European ones are probably the best bet), give to our appeal, or join our Friends.

Q: If someone wants to sign up for a 2021 expedition now, how does that work under pandemic conditions?

A: Good question. Basically things will be handled very flexibly so that nobody misses or loses out. How exactly it all works is described here.

Azores: New group of sperm whales, finally!

On 10 August our start was a bit delayed, because the lookouts had not seen any whales due to poor visibility and rain at the start of the morning. Just as we were about to pack up and go home, a boat on the way offshore to a dive site spotted some sperm whales to the south of Faial. Since there was going to be a small lee in that area, we decided to risk it. The lookout that was in the north of Faial, re-located to the south to help. We caught up with the whales, just as they were entering the lee and we followed them until they were just about to leave it, perfect conditions! I didn’t recognise the flukes when the whales dived and in the afternoon confirmed that this is a new group that has not been seen before. It will be nice if we can see this group again, because there were several individuals, that I missed getting ID photos of.

Back out on the water on 12 August, to the north of Faial. It appeared that there was a group of four individuals, but towards the end of the morning, a lookout went to the north of Pico and saw some sperm whales closer to the shore. We got those in the afternoon. It turns out another one of the well-known groups from the south of Pico is starting out in the north of the island this year! We also had some large groups of spotted and common dolphin feeding on small bait balls. In the afternoon, there was a group of bottlenose dolphin travelling and socialising towards Faial, making some amazing leaps.

On 13 August we were again in the north of Faial. The same whales from yesterday morning were still there, we saw two whales twice and one that was making a bit shorter dives, three times. The lookout then spotted a very large group of striped dolphin. They were “flying” across the water. They were also avoiding the boats as they normally do, unfortunately, one of the boats kept chasing them at high speed, breaking the group up into three parts, so we never got very close, since we did not want to add to this stress. In the afternoon, back to the north and the same whales, but there were now four individuals, at one point socialising. We left the social group and went to find the ones that were diving. When we were a very long way away from the social group, we saw some breaches, leaps out of the water! There was even a double breach!! I have a long lens, but not long enough to capture those images in focus, unfortunately. There were also groups of spotted and common dolphin too. The spotted dolphin were travelling to the west, while the common dolphin were headed in a more easterly direction.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On 14 August we spent the morning to the north of Faial, with the same group of sperm whales that has been here since the end of May, a couple of feeding sei whales and hundreds of spotted dolphin along with small group of bottlenose dolphin. In the afternoon, the sperm whales to the north had moved out of range, so we headed to the south of Pico, where we found that the “Whitehead” group of sperm whales is still around! There was also a small group of spotted dolphin travelling to the west, not very interested in the boats and we came across a very large group of bottlenose dolphin on the way home. At one point, several dolphin started leaping high into the air in different parts of the group. It was amazing to see dolphin jumping 5-7 m in the air!

Some windy weather is headed our way, so will probably be on shore for a few days now.

Azores: Sperm, sei, pilot whales & spotted dolphin

Sei whales stole the morning on 6 August. We had to wait a bit for confirmation that there were whales and we headed towards an area where sperm whales had been seen. But in between the time we left the harbour and arrived to the area, a few sei whales had moved in! We saw four in total, a group of three that split into two plus one, and another single. One of the sei whales had a hole in its dorsal fin, which will make it a little easier to identify when matching fin photos.

The sperm whales were playing hard to get, with the calm conditions making the blows all but invisible. “Blow” shouted the skipper of one of the boats, only for us to see a fluke rise in the distance where the last blow had been seen! The first and last blows are usually the most powerful and visible in the sequence.

So we headed offshore to see some dolphins, but only about two minutes into watching a group of spotted dolphin, the lookout directed us further out to sea. We missed one whale, but he said there was another and we managed to see Whitehead show her tail. After that we decided to start making our way back to the harbour. On the way, we were waylaid by a group of spotted dolphin, then a small group of bottlenose dolphin and lastly a large group of milling pilot whales. There were loads of small babies in the group, swimming next to their mothers.

After lunch, we had a bit more luck with the sperm whales, although we did have to wait a bit, since we arrived just after one of them had dived and since they can spend up to 55 minutes on a dive, we were lucky to only have to wait for about 40 minutes! We got two different flukes from the Whitehead group and then started to make our way back, trying to find some dolphin. We didn’t find any dolphin, but we did find a group of beaked whales that were not too shy and so we managed to watch them for about five minutes before they disappeared into the waves. Since the wind was getting up, we made our way slowly back to Horta.

On 8 August, I was out in the afternoon, in the north of Faial. The same group is still hanging out there! We saw one fluke and then found a socialising group of three that turned into four. There were some heads poking out of the water and one side fluke, when a whale is swimming on its side. After a few shallow dives from the group, another whale appeared on the surface. This one also shallow-dived and we thought they were going to join together and socialise, but in the end they all fluked! Two individually and another two fluked together! Altogether, I got six flukes from the group in the end. We didn’t see any dolphins, but did come across a juvenile hammerhead shark and a devil ray. While picking up some plastic trash, one of the guides got stung by a strand of Portuguese Man O’ War tentacle hanging onto the box. Not a very nice thing to experience. She could feel the effect all the way up her arm and into her jaw and chest. As soon as we arrived back to the harbour, she put some vinegar onto the sting, which is supposed to help a bit, but as a precaution, we also went to the hospital to get her checked out. Portuguse Man O’ War have one of the most poisonous stings of the jellyfish and although not usually deadly, it can cause quite a bit of discomfort and pain.

On 10 August there were some scattered rain showers around, which dampened things on the boat. The sea was flat calm for a while, making it difficult to spot any blows. But the Whitehead group was found in the end and I even got a fluke of Whitehead herself. While we were waiting for another whale, we headed out to some spotted dolphin and a sei whale turned up too! Then the showers came, so we decided to watch the dolphin a bit longer and then head for Horta, where the sun was shining. Just before we got to the Faial/Pico channel, we came across a group of fast moving spotted dolphin. The sunshine and the backdrop of the islands made for some nice photographs of the leaping dolphin! They were heading away from home, so after 10 minutes we turned back for home ourselves.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Azores: Sightings still going strong

On 27 July we had one of “Nike’s” group north of Pico, in the morning. It was the 2010 calf of Nike, which we saw twice. We did not see any other individuals of the group, although we could hear them clicking. I doubt it will take the Nike group very long to get to the south of Pico where they usually hang out. Finally, this afternoon, Whitehead decided to show herself on the south of Pico! She was hanging out with a few of the Winter Whales, although she was headed west, while the others were headed east, so maybe it was just two groups passing each other. One of the Winter Whales was curious about the boat, circling us three times! Loads of spotted dolphin around and a solo sei whale too! Have you ever seen a whale “footprint”? As the fluke moves, when the whale is close to the surface or when diving, the water gets disturbed and leaves a smooth circle where the whale has just been. And I can’t forget the “bowriding” hammerhead and a small group of devil rays to top things off!

On 28 July we were again back to the north of Faial. The lookout had spotted some sperm whales and spotted dolphin. The mother & calf did a double fluke! The calves only begin to dive at around two years of age, so this one was learning the ropes. These two whales appeared to be the only ones up there, until we were getting ready to leave, since it didn’t look like the whales were going to dive a second time, when out of the blue there was a breach of a sperm whale a mile further out to sea! We then headed closer to the coast where there was a large group of spotted dolphin socialising. A few of the younger animals were leaping occasionally. It is pretty amazing how bendy the spotted dolphin is.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Too windy on 29 & 30 July, giving me a chance to catch up on some paperwork.

We were back out on 31 July in some challenging conditions. But those conditions can sometimes be good for taking photos, if you catch the right moment! The Whitehead group is still around, although they were a long, long way from Horta today, heading to the eastern end of Pico. I managed to get four of the individuals. I guess since Whitehead herself showed herself the other day, she didn’t feel the need to check in today.

Hard to believe August has arrived already. We were back to the south of Pico again. There are still sei whales around, also a large group of pilot whales and sperm whales too. A tiny bottlenose dolphin calf and a high-flying spotted dolphin was part of what appeared to be a mating group.

On 2 August we got word from the vigia in the north of Faial that sperm whales had been seen up there, so off we went. It turned out to be a group that was seen on 28 May and was first seen in 2009. After a few flukes, including a couple of individuals that hadn’t been seen in May, we headed for some pilot whales. The group was quite spread out in smaller groups of about 20-30 and appeared to be resting. There was a fairly newborn calf in the group, since foetal folds were visible on the flanks. A sei whale was also close by, although was a bit elusive to the boats, moving quite quickly in various directions. We could see the power of the blow emerging from the blowhole. On the way back to the harbour, a small group of spotted dolphin were also seen. They were feeding on some small baitballs close to the surface. It wasn’t clear what they were eating. In the afternoon, we were also back to the north, but the wind had increased, decreasing blow visibility. The lookout did manage to find one individual, but it wasn’t diving. At first glance, it had a white scar on the right side and it looked a bit like Nike’s calf, which had been seen in this area a few days ago. But on a closer look, it wasn’t the same. We also saw what was probably the same sei whale from the morning, doing the same thing and a small group of spotted dolphin.

The weather has turned a bit windy again, so hopefully a bit of time to check out the new sperm whale flukes with the matching program.

You can see all of the 295 July sightings on Seafari App sightings July 2020.