Azores: False killer whale bonanza

Monday was without a doubt one of the highlights of group 1. The day started out quite hazy but with calm seas and blue sky. We decided to explore the area north of Faial as the ‘vigia’ lookouts on land had spotted false killer whales. Scientists think this species is at least semi-resident around the archipelago as some individuals have been resighted several times, so it is important to get more data, including shots of their dorsal fins, so we were on a mission.

Thanks to the instructions from the vigias on the radio and the concentration of our dolphin citizen scientists on the front deck, it did not take long before we spotted them and they gracefully joined us at the bow, allowing us to take a closer look and we could even hear their wistles. These large torpedo-shaped dolphins are quite impressive and swim very fast. Off in the distance we saw more splashes and it became clear that we had a group of about 75 false killer whales that was spread out over quite a large area. We decided to have a look at the front-runners and from a distance we could see many Cory’s shearwaters flying around, indicating that the false killer whales were feeding at the surface, probably on tuna, while the seabirds were feasting on the leftovers. We stayed with the mayhem for over an hour, making it one of those sightings we will not forget, resulting in a large number of photos.

We continued our journey and lowered the hydrophone into the water to eavesdrop on the cetaceans at depth. We could still hear the whistles of the false killer whales we left behind, clicks of multiple sperm whales and … one funky sound that cannot be mistaken for any other species, a singing humpback whale! One of our whale volunteers spotted our first sperm whale of the day that nicely fluked so we could get a shot. Not very far away, two more sperm whales were sighted, with a calf in the middle. As Lisa was explaining to us that the calf was suckling from its mother, it obligingly did. Social responsibility in sperm whales entails baby-sitting and suckling each other’s babies between mothers and aunts. And we were fortunate enough to witness it ‘live’!

As the two adults dove to greater depths to feed, we could see more blows nearby and were able to take more fluke shots. At one point Lisa enthusiastically shouted, it is number 19, a female sperm whale that was first sighted in 1987. Nr 19 is a Biosphere Expeditions groupie as she has been spotted on multiple expeditions. Nice of her to honour that tradition. Many more sperm whales were recorded – we were almost losing count – glady the dedicated GPS, Monicet app and data person recorded all the details. To conclude the day, we had a chorus line of five individuals fluking one after the other. Meanwhile our vocal humpback whale continued singing, but decided not yet to reveal its identity, hopefully in the next days.

On Tuesday the weather was rather unpredictable with limited visibility but the team was determined to collect more data. We tried to look for Risso’s dolphins and the larger baleen whales, but they were not so cooperative. The common dolphins were of course at their daily appointment, which is always nice and a loggerhead also popped up its head next to the boat. This is how it goes with field research: you get days where there is cetacean action everywhere and other days where they are harder to find. Sometimes you just gotto be in the right place at the right time. To end our last day at sea, Cesar, our skilled captain sailed close to the southern edge of Horta to show us the two craters of Monte Guia, caves filled with crabs and vertical cliffs with seabirds.

Once back on land, our whale and dolphin volunteers enjoyed a nice meal at Casa de Cha that included a debriefing of our work together summarised in the infographic below.

Many thanks to Group 1 for the hard work, good sense of humor and great team spirit. We wish you safe travels back home. Lisa and I look forward to welcoming Group 2 in Banana Manor this Friday 1st April between 12:30-13:30, so we can get started promptly at 14:00 with the first briefing.

Azores: A rewarding Sunday out, after a spot of bad weather

After our epic long day out on the water, strong winds and rains were on the programme for three consecutive days, meaning onshore action instead of whale volunteer work. To start with, expeditioners were given Friday off and tempted their luck to enjoy the view of the caldeira, but alas it was fully covered in clouds. The stunning view of Capelinhos compensated for this, even if it meant getting sand-blasted by strong winds. Given the ongoing earthquakes on São Jorge island (which do not affect the expedition in any way as they are limited to that island, which is on a different geological fault line), the museum was an ideal place to learn about local geology and the volcanic origin of the archipelago. A nice coastal path to Varadouro meant we could appreciate the rough seas from a safe distance.

On Saturday Lisa, our expedition scientist, trained our whale and dolphin citizen scientists on photo-identification. This method records through photographs features of a whale or dolphin that are unique, a bit like a human fingerprint. For sperm and humpback whales, the fluke is distinctive. For Risso’s and bottlenose dolphins, nicks and scars on the dorsal fin work well and for blue whales it is the mottling pattern on their back that is unique. As I am sure our Azores citizen scientists can confirm, it requires patience and concentration to go through the many photographs, sort them and try to find a match. Yet it is a nice way to unravel the mysteries of cetacean life history ‘one fluke at a time’. Long-term data and sharing photo-ID work gives insight into migration patterns, population estimates, social dynamics and more. Sure enough, Stephen found a match between a sperm whale seen at Sāo Miguel in 2013 and one seen by Lisa last year.

More heavy rains and winds meant another day staying on land. An ideal chance to visit the waterfall near the house, to go down to the harbour to find a spot for Biosphere Expeditions’ annual painting – which you will read more about in upcoming diary entries.

On Sunday everyone was keen to get back out, even if conditions were not ideal. Physeter, our catamaran, was actually the only boat going out to sea. On the front deck, the look-outs were synchronising their hip and knee movements with the waves. On the upper deck the POPA team was busy recording data on conditions, sea birds, sea turtles, trash and cetaceans. The photographers had to deal with a lot of movement – the boat, the animals, the waves, while trying to keep balance themselves. No easy conditions to get the shots needed for photo ID. But braving the elements did pay off. We had a really nice sighting of a large 16 m long male sperm whale cruising around in search of females. He even came to check out the boat, with eight women on board, but clearly not the right match for him. He did a first deep dive and we decided to stay in the area. Roughly 45 minutes later we saw him again at the surface, giving us a second chance for a fluke shot. Two more sperm whales were detected nearby. They day also brought our first encounters with three different young loggerhead turtles and the common dolphins were also around as they have been each day so far, making this a rewarding Sunday out.

Conditions are good in the coming days, so stay tuned for more.

Azores: Group 1 off to a good start

On Monday we welcomed our first group of expeditioners arriving from across three continents to volunteer with whales and dolphins. A dynamic group with a lot of women power, complemented by one brave man with a great sense of humour.

The first day and a half of training was intense. Our marine conservation volunteers received introductions to the cetacean species, the equipment, the different sets of datasheets and lots more. This year, we are also trying out the new Monicet app of the Azores University for cetacean monitoring.

Not surprisingly, our risk assessment has been fine tuned to include a strict covid protocol and I am happy to confirm that after three consecutive days of self-testing and wearing FFP2 masks, we have no positive cases in the group and no symptoms. It was nice to discover people’s smiles behind the masks.

During our first afternoon out at sea we were treated to five sightings of common dolphins, adding up to a total of 100 individuals. The animals joined us for a while, bowriding alongside the catamaran, affording great views and the chance to test our newly acquired dolphin volunteering and data gathering skills. Also, the team seems to have good sea legs, which is clearly an advantage.

On day 2, we had good weather and calm seas and no fewer than four cetacean species. The morning started off with a sighting of a minke whale, which is a rare treat, as this species is not often observed here. After this four groups of common dolphins kept us company. In the afternoon, three Cuvier’s beaked whales surfaced not far from the boat. This was a very special observation as it is only the second time since 2004 that this species has been recorded by the Biosphere Expeditions whale volunteers.

When we were cruising in deeper waters, the hydrophone was lowered into the water and we were treated to some “live audio” from a group of sperm whales. We were determined to find them, but they were playing hard to get and just as we decided to head back, we spotted their typical blow in the distance. The day ended perfectly by the lift of a sperm whale’s fluke diving to greater depths. As the sun was setting, we headed back to Horta, tired but satisfied.

After an exceptionally long day out at sea of sailing 144 kilometres for nine hours, the team enjoyed a nice hot meal prepared by our host Claudia.

The weather is looking rough for the next two days, so today we will go on a hike along Faial’s caldeira combined with a visit to Capelinhos and on Friday we switch to photo-identification training. There is plenty more to learn, study and analyse..

Azores: Greetings from our expedition base on the Azores

I have made it safely to the lush green island of Faial in the middle of the Atlantic. Heavy rain welcomed me at the airport, but by the time the taxi dropped me off at Banana Manor, the sun was shining and this pattern was repeated for most of the day. Very typical Azores weather, so come prepared. Note to self: never walk out the door again without a raincoat.

I received a warm welcome from our hosts James and Claudia and you will see Banana Manor is a very nice, clean, comfortable and quiet place to stay and within walking distance from the city centre. For me the true highlight is the lush wild garden, a green oasis with the most spectacular views in all directions.

It was also nice to see our expedition scientist Lisa again after four years and together we are transforming Banana Manor into a true expedition base: sorting out all the gear, computers, data sheets, publications etc, to have everything ready for all of us to get into action.

Our scientist Lisa Steiner

On the whale front, Lisa was treated on Monday to no fewer than 14 sperm whales of which nine were known individuals, resightings from 2009, 2010, 2014 and 2016. Amazing how after so many years of research, a detailed image of a fluke can reveal so much about an individual.  One whale was kind enough to breach three times. Let’s hope we get the same Lisa-luck from next Tuesday onwards.

14 sperm whales

Breaching sperm whale

As for Covid, numbers on all islands are going down. The last update from 9 March indicates there were 180 positive cases in Faial, three of which needed hospitalisation. If this decrease is maintained for another week, there will be no more mandatory use of masks. Other restrictions have been lifted already, so it looks like it is going in the right direction. You can follow up the most recent updates here . For now, nothing changes for us, however, and we will stick to our testing and social distancing plan until Biosphere Expeditions decides otherwise.

So, group 1, good luck in packing up – don’t forget to pack your indoor slippers, warm clothes and foul weather gear. Safe travels and I look forward welcoming you here on Monday between 12:30 and 13:30 (no meeting a Peter’s beforehand, remember).

Best wishes


Azores: we’re back on after two years!

Hello everyone and welcome to the first diary entry for Biosphere Expeditions’ Azores 2022. My name is An Bollen and I will be your expedition leader on this whale & dolphin marine conservation volunteer project to the Azores.


I now have some of the equipment at my home in Belgium (and more is stored on site).


As it happens, this will be the first Biosphere Expeditions volunteer project that is back on after two years !  I am really grateful to all of you citizen scientists for signing up and making this happen.  I am sure many of us have been longing to get back out into the field and meet new people, whilst contributing time and energy to conservation and to volunteer with whales and volunteer with dolphins.

My own travels start next Thursday when I fly out to the beautiful Azores, where I will be preparing for your arrival together with Lisa, our expedition scientist, and Claudia and James, our hosts at Banana Manor.  On the cetacean front, there is some good news already. Lisa has been out at sea and spotted the first blue whales, several male sperm whales and lots of common dolphins, so the 2022 season is off to a good start.




The weather is a bit hit and miss at the moment, as is often the case in the Azores this time of the year, so lets hope we get treated to some fine weather days and whale volunteer and dolphin volunteer action. Out at sea, it can get very cold and windy, so don’t forget to bring enough thermal wear. I find that putting on different layers works really well, combined with a wind- and waterproof jacket.

And of course, lets all be Covid smart and travel safely, as chances are that if we get infected, it will most likely be in the airport or on the plane. Don’t forget to bring your FFP2 masks (and use them whilst travelling!) and Covid self-tests so we can conduct this first expedition as professionally and safely as possible for everyone.

Remember that as part of our Covid procedures, this year we will not meet for drinks at Peter’s Café as we normally do at 11:30. Instead we will welcome you at our expedition base at Banana Manor (see position here) with all your luggage between 12:30 and 13:30 so you can get settled. Be sure to have lunch before you arrive, because at 14:00 the expedition starts officially and we get into action with introductions, talks and training.

Once I have arrived in Horta, I will send out another diary entry with my local contact details. If your family and friends back home would like to stay up to date while you are away, they can keep an eye on the Biosphere Expeditions blog (or subscribe to it for automatic updates) where I will publish diaries and photos regularly. If you are curious to see which whales and dolphins are currently being spotted out at sea, I recommend the Facebook page of our local partner Whale Watch Azores.

Looking forward to seeing you all soon !

An Bollen
Expedition leader

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