Azores: It’s September already

On the last day of August, the lookout said he had seen four sei whales to the south of the islands. What he forgot to mention was that the wind was whistling through the channel between Pico and Faial, making it extremely difficult to spot the whales. We waited in the area for almost an hour, moving slowly towards the west, when finally, I spotted a blow! A single sei whale seen in between the waves. It seemed to be avoiding the boats, so we did not stay too long. The camera stayed safely tucked inside its case. I am not sure if I would have obtained an ID photo anyway with all the waves and unpredictable movements of the whale, but there was a very good chance the camera would get wet!

Summer was back on 1 September. We went a long way down the south coast of Pico, where I was expecting to see the “Whitehead” group yet again. But when the first whale showed the fluke, I was surprised, it was not the “Whitehead” group after all. Finally some different individuals. There were two seen, one with a fairly small calf. When matching the flukes later in the day, I got a second surprise, “1368” has been seen in 1990, 2015 and now 2020. The other individual had been seen in 2015 as well.

After the sperm whales we were directed to a group of pilot whales. I do not think I have seen such calm pilot whales in a very long time. At one point there was one individual about 3 m from the boat. Although at the end, they “woke up” and all dived quite quickly. We also had a couple of groups of common dolphin on the way home. One of the common dolphin had quite a distinctive fin, probably from an encounter with monofilament fishing line. The light was amazing and I even managed to get a couple of nice photos of the main seabirds that we see in the Azores. The Cory’s shearwater and common tern.

On 2 September, we were again working towards the north of the islands. The lookout had seen sperm whales as well as baleen whales. We were lucky to find the sperm whales, because they had just started to socialise at the surface, which means they are not clicking, so we would not be able to use a hydrophone to find them. There was a very very small calf with three adults. It appeared to be a “meet the calf” encounter. The calf had a floppy dorsal and flukes that were still curled as well as distinct foetal folds. Luckily, the whales showed some of their flukes while socialising, so we did get the ID images. They also showed their heads out of the water with their mouths open, giving us a chance to see their teeth. Then it was further out to sea to where a couple of sei whales were feeding with spotted dolphin. One of the sei whales made a few lunges to scoop up schools of baitfish, unfortunately a bit far to get good images.

The north of the islands has been full of whales the last few weeks and we were back to the north again on 3 September. First stop was a sei whale that may have been feeding at depth, it was making dives of 2-3 minutes. The sperm whales were a bit further out today and they were next, with a group of spotted dolphin seen along the way. At one point there seemed to be sperm whales in every direction. I got five flukes in the morning and then in the afternoon, we saw three different groups of sperm whales. First it was the same as the morning, with a sei whale surfacing about 200 m from where one of the sperm whales dived! This sei whale was the same as the lunging whale from yesterday. It was time to see some dolphin and a group of spotted dolphin were feeding, with a few making some spectacular leaps (when the camera wasn’t pointing their way). As we headed for home, we thought we might detour towards where the sei whale had been seen, but instead we found a group of six sperm whales that became seven just as we were leaving. Only one of these whales showed its fluke, it appeared that a social group was forming. But the sperm whales weren’t done with us, because I spotted yet another blow as we were on the way back to harbour and this time it was one of the “Northern Ladies” one of our well-known groups from the north of Faial. Matching photos in the evening, I had another surprise, more long-term matches. Two of the whales from the morning were first seen in 1995! We also saw a large group of striped dolphin, which were their usual shy selves.

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On 4 September, the weather began to turn and we headed to the shelter behind Pico, rather than have a very bouncy wet trip in the north. The lookout had seen a sei whale early on, but then rain obscured his view. We headed out to a group of bottlenose dolphin, hoping that the whale would re-appear. And we were lucky, after a spread-out group of feeding bottlenose dolphin and another group of spotted dolphin, we observed a single sei whale moving in large circles making dives of a few minutes, most likely feeding at depth. On the way home, we encountered a group of common dolphins that had a small mating group within it. There was also an individual with anomalous markings. There was also a group of 200 spotted dolphin, one of which had a chopped dorsal fin, probably like the common dolphin above from an encounter with monofilament fishing line. As a bonus we also spotted the same group of bottlenose dolphin as the morning, which although still spread out were exhibiting some signs of socialising, with spectacular leaps.

Another interesting bit of news came up. I was contacted by the researchers that spotted a mother and calf humpback in the Mediterranean to see if I recognised the fluke photo. I didn’t, but put them in contact with other people around the Atlantic and a match was found, with the Happy Whale program. The adult had been seen previously in Dominican Republic in 1986 and was spotted off Genoa in late August! It is very unusual to see humpback whales in the Mediterranean. Hopefully she will find her way back out, otherwise they will be on their own, without any con-specifics in the future. This is the link to the photo of the match, but if you want to see the rest of the info, you will have to scroll down on their page: https://www.facebook.com/associazione.menkab/photos/pcb.3532459813454641/3532349790132310

And while we are talking about links, there is now a page on ResearchGate, a networking site for scientists and researchers to share knowledge and contacts, that lists all the expedition reports and other publications that have come out of our expeditions in the last 16 (!) years. The Azores is the longest-running Biosphere Expeditions project and I could not have done all this work over the years, or been on the water as much in this coronavirus year, without the help of the hundreds of citizen scientists who have joined me over the years. Thank you very much! I hope to be welcoming you to the Azores again in 2021.

The weather has now turned windy for the next few days, which can happen sometimes in September, hopefully we will get a couple of days out on sea next week, before the next unsettled weather arrives. Signs that winter is coming.

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