Azores : Summary of the 16th expedition

Looking back on the 16th edition of our Biosphere Expeditions whale and dolphin citizen science expedition, the word that comes to mind is: remarkable.

It was the first expedition to run after two years of the Covid pandemic. A total of 23 whale and dolphin volunteers from all corners of the world joined Lisa, our scientist, and myself in Horta for whale and dolphin volunteer action. Except for one brave man, it was women power all around on this 16th expedition!

We were reminded of the volcanic nature of the Azores archipelago with a lot of seismic activity on the nearby island of São George, but an eruption never came. After two years of lockdowns, many of us had were keen to explore new horizons, gain news skills and most of all contribute to the conservation of these fascinating animal group of cetaceans.

No citizen scientists tested positive, there were no major issues, great sightings, excellent team spirit, a wealth of data and high degree of satisfaction for those involved. Let me summarise our findings in a nutshell for you:

In total three groups of Azores volunteers spent 16 days out at sea, adding up to almost 100 sea-hours while covering 1,674 km around the islands of Faial, Pico and São George. Our search effort resulted in 127 sightings of 10 different cetacean species. Every group was treated to a subset of these and each one had their unique sightings and highlights.

For Group 1 it was very impressive to come across a group of 75 false killer whales feeding on tuna with seabirds all around. Group 2’s most exciting moment was spotting our first blue whale in sea state 6 ‘all hands on deck’ and Group 3 definitely wins the prize of the rarest sighting ever, seeing a leucistic white humpback whale.

Working our way through the species list, no one will be surprised to hear that common dolphins ome in first in terms of abundance, with 48 sightings and a total of 1,800 individuals. Second comes the iconic sperm whale, Lisa’s main research focus, with 59 sightings. Baleen whales are known to migrate through Azorean waters in spring, hence the timing of our expedition. We were treated to six humpback whales during three different encounters, one minke whale just outside Horta harbour and three majestic blue whales. As for dolphins, most of which are resident, the well-known bottlenose dolphins were spotted five times, we saw mysterious Risso’s dolphins on four occasions and had two encounters with striped dolphins. Last but not least, group 1 also got lucky to see five elusive beaked whales.

But Biosphere Expeditions obviously goes beyond listing species and counting numbers. The main purpose of our expedition is to understand population dynamics, local movements, seasonal migration patterns, as well as group composition and reproduction. Out of the total of 59 sperm whale sightings, we managed to identify 44 individuals of which 18 (40%) are known individuals and 26 (60%) are new individuals of which fluke shots were added to the catalogue. We actually repeated one individual within the expedition, sighted both on 28 March as well as 19 April. Within the known individuals, there are three well-known groups: the one of nr 19 first seen in 1987, the group of 1598 and the group of 2808-2448-3483-6089 with calves of last year. We also spotted a few male sperm whales, one of which is known as Tiktok, that seem to be more resident around the Azores archipelago, often sighted close to São Miguel. This is rather unusual, as most males migrate to the Northern Atlantic for food, while the females are known to stick around.

As for the humpback whales, one of the North Atlantic experts for the species confirmed that one fluke shot we took was matched to an individual seen in October 2014 and in January 2015 in the Tromsø–Andenes region in the north of Norway. Our white humpback whale, called Willow, is rather unique, being the only known white individual in the Northern Atlantic. So based on this feature together with its fluke ID, we were able to confirm that this individual was seen in the breeding grounds of Guadeloupe in 2015, 2019, 2020 as well as in the feeding grounds of Spitzbergen in 2012. A tissue sample had been taken there, indicating Willow is a male. This demonstrates how every fluke photo adds pieces of the puzzle that make up the life history of these long-lived migrating baleen whales.

Regarding the blue whales, the two individuals we spotted travelling together were resightings from the Azores. One was seen there before in 2010 and the other one in 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018, as confirmed by the expert Richard Sears, showing that at least some individuals use the same migration routes.

Dorsal fin photos were sorted by our whale citizen scientists and sent off to Karen Hartmann, expert of Risso’s dolphins, and to other colleagues working on bottlenose dolphins and false killer whales. These species are considered resident around the islands and we recognised some individuals with distinctive dorsal fins in groups of varying sizes, so as more feedback comes in form the experts, it will also generate increased understanding of these dolphin species.

This year we collaborated closely with the University of the Azores by testing the beta version of the Monicet app, which was released just before the start of the expedition. Our team provided several recommendations, which will be included in an improved version to be released by the end of April. The idea is to roll out the use of the Monicet app to all whale watching vessels in the Azores to further increase data collection and sharing.

We look forward seeing the first results published and were glad to contribute to these. We also worked with more advanced GPS units, which allowed to record tracks and sightings as you can see from the included maps, which show our sightings during March and April.

Lisa will continue to use this GPS and as more data get uploaded, it will give further insight into movements in space and time of different species, while understanding which are hotspot priority areas for feeding and resting that merit further protection.

Thanks again to Lisa for sharing her expertise with all of us, to captain Siso for sailing us safely through sometimes rough seas, to all lookouts on land for spotting the animals for us and to Jim and Claudia for being excellent hosts. Last but not least, a big thank you to an international team of expeditioners joining us and dedicating their free time, energy, resources and enthusiasm to collecting data and contributing to the conservation of these magnificent creatures of the sea. We hope to welcome more expeditioners in 2023 for expedition nr 17 to continue our long-term monitoring work.

Best wishes

An Bollen
Expedition leader

Azores : Sperm whales and dolphins galore to end the expedition

On Tuesday our marine volunteer team headed out to the north of Faial for some great sperm whale encounters. One after the other came up to the surface, making us head into all wind directions trying to get those perfect photo ID shots. While we were hoping for flukes all around, a lot of them did shallow dives and then disappeared making it difficult to identify who we were actually dealing with. Yet we did get what we came for and one male, named ‘Tiktok’ known to hang around São Miguel was one of the ‘usual suspects’. So yes, these creatures can be elusive. But once caught on camera, the detective work starts and completes insight to their walks of life. No more secrets for the whale citizen scientists on board.

Along our track we were also treated to another two sightings of Risso’s dolphins. Karin Hartman, Lisa’s friend and colleague, confirmed that on our previous Risso’s sighting, one female called Albi was seen for the first time with a calf. The group we saw also had calves. And of course our most loyal friends, the common dolphins, joined us for a little while too. A day without them no longer feels complete.

On Thursday – the last day of the expedition – our Azores volunteers headed out eastwards for the channel between Pico and São George where – yes, you guessed it – there were more sperm whales. And on our final day, we were spoiled by smooth sailing, a flat sea surface and limited wind. Sea legs all around and even the photographers on board no longer needed ‘support’ from their fellow citizen scientists to keep standing. Bryony got top marks for scoring a double sperm whale fluke shot. We also saw mothers and suckling calves and sperm whales not finishing their meal. This meant we had parts of octopus floating around on the surface near the area where they were foraging and feeding. Even these bits were photographed and sent off to experts for identification. Lisa confirmed during the debriefing that these were ‘new’ sperm whales not sighted before.

The Risso’s dolphins made another graceful appearance and of course on this last day, the bowriding common dolphins had to be present as well. On our way back, we had our goodbye sighting of this year’s expedition: a large group of bottlenose dolphins jumping on the horizon and then coming closer and displaying all their grandeur near the boat, leaving us with a sunset in the background. It could not have been more perfect.

It was very silent on the catamaran, each and everyone of us absorbing this special moment, leaving us with gratitude for a week well spent, full of magnificent sightings, while each and and every one of us had contributed to data collection sent of to different experts. Another great team effort, contributing to fundamental research that is required to set conservation measures for the great Azorean cetacean diversity. We were all glad to be part of it.

At the end of this season, I would like to say a special thank you to the vigias – lookouts on land. From their viewpoints spread over Faial and Pico, they scan sections of the ocean all day long tell us where to go. Nearly 80% of all our whale sightings are thanks to their work and dedication, with the other 20% a result of listening to the hydrophone or by spotting blows off in the distance by chance. So we owe them big time for the amazing sightings and it was always a lot of fun to hear their contagious enthusiasm on the radio…’uma baleia’ ( a whale). We get the close and personal encounters while they spend their working lives on the cliffs. peering into the distance. Muito obrigada!

To conclude this last group, let me tall you about a nice tradition in Horta: the paintings in the harbour. These are mostly done by sailors passing through on a trans-Atlantic trip or a tour around the world. It is supposed to bring good luck out at sea. These paintings turn the harbour in a colourful outdoor graffiti exhibition space, telling the many stories of those who passed by here. Of course we join in every year, this time with a design reflecting the cetacean sightings we had. Kathryn from group 1, who is an illustrator, came up with the design and outline of the drawing, Lucy from Group 2 added the names, while Group 3 added our leucistic humpback, more names and a final finishing touch of the waves. Of course I am biased, but I do think that our drawing does stand out in the harbour and deserves its place next to the ones from previous expeditions….. Safe journey back home to all our whale and dolphin volunteers and thanks for making this season a good success ! For an overview of what we achieved, stay tuned for our final blog.

Azores : Easter weekend special

All of Saturday morning was dedicated to sperm whales. Multiple individuals were spotted in an area north of Faial. There was even a group of four of them socialising at the surface, most likely two mothers with their calves. As the mothers dived to feed at depth, the calves stayed behind at the surface. Our whale volunteers managed to collect a total of eight different flukes on camera during 14 separate sightings. We got one twice, others did not dive, hence no fluke, or some fluked before we got close enough to take a photoID shot, or the fluke disappeared behind a large wave. Being out there does show the patience and dedication cetacean scientists such as Lisa must have to collect data ‘one fluke at a time’. It was a great morning giving insight into this iconic cetacean species, once the main target of whaling here, while currently being one of the most appreciated during whale watching.

The vigias contacted our captain Siso on the radio with a special sighting, so we headed to the spot they indicated. The sea surface was rather flat, when our dolphin volunteers spotted some dolphin dorsal fins. Then we saw some white ones and others much darker. Coming closer, it became clear that these were Risso’s dolphins. Some call them the ghosts of the sea and they indeed have something magic and mysterious about them. They are easy to follow under water, especially the white ones. Risso’s are dark in colour when born but as they grow, through interaction and aggression with their peers, they get scars on their body. The pigment does not get replaced and thus you get older individuals that are almost fully white…. A truly unique encounter.

Later in the afternoon our cetacean citizen scientists heard a lot of excitement on the radio channel. ‘A baleen whale….there are two …..marvelous… white, …..’ Not sure what to expect exactly, we travelled southwards and off Ribeirinha when all of a sudden a massive humpback whale comes up starboard side of our catamaran. Almost immediately after we see a fully white smaller humpback whale come up along side it. We were speechless, as the odds of seeing an albino whale are almost zero. We followed them and were treated to both of them fluking, only to discover that our white friend does have some black spots on the ventral side of its fluke. So not an albino, but a 95% leucistic individual. Migaloo is a well-known male albino humpback whale from Australia – could “our” whale perhaps be the first one in the Northern Atlantic? Although the time to return to the harbour had already passed, we could not resist and decided to follow the duo a bit longer as this clearly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Smiles all around as we returned to harbour eventually. During our debriefing Lisa matched the fluke of our white friend on the HappyWhale programme online to a white humpback seen around the Spitsbergen/Svalbard feeding grounds in 2012 (see video below). After more research by Lisa, the same individual appears to have been seen in the Guadeloupe breeding area in 2015, 2019, 2020, where it was given the beautiful name Willow. These life stories make extraordinary sightings even more interesting, unravelling where this individual has been.

On Easter Sunday we left the harbour, with a spectacular view of the cloud-free Pico volcano and could even see some snow on the top. The sea looked promising. Our first sighting was a large mixed group of common and striped dolphins. The first striped dolphins of the season for Biosphere Expeditions and our cetacean species number 10! They jumped synchronously off in the distance but were not interested in bowriding. A loggerhead turtle passed near the boat, and we saw another five ones later that day, with many Portuguese man-o-war around, one of their favourite snacks. Further ahead of us, we saw a huge blow…10 m high…must be a blue whale. And sure enough after the blow, we saw the gentle giant. It is amazing to watch its head come out, then the back and more of it and then there is even more of it still…..until you see what appears to be a tiny dorsal fin while it slides back into the water. Common dolphins were excited too and chose to bowride…you guessed it..the blue whale, what a sight !! After getting photoID shots, we saw another blow ahead of us and decided to check this one out also. It appeared to be another two blue whales. One smaller – probably a juvenile. Given their enormous sizes, it becomes a bit confusing what is a calf, a juvenile or an adult…. We enjoyed following them for a while until we got the photoID shots and then headed to Capelinhos, straight into strong winds before heading back to Horta and enjoying the view of the cliffs from the sea.

It has to be said, the teamwork on board was amazing, Barbara and Suzie ensured the datasheets were filled in despite all the commotion going on. Madeleine and Suzanne took excellent photos and the front deck whale volunteers Shelagh, Ellen and Bryony showed great determination and stayed out on deck through wind, sea spray and lots of waves. Lisa made sure to record all these incredible sightings on the Monicet App of the University of Azores for their cetacean monitoring programme. This will be an Easter weekend none of us will forget.

Azores : Wind, waves and surfing bottlenose dolphins

Another team of eight great women joined Lisa and me from the UK, US, Germany and the Netherlands for cetacean volunteer action. Our intensive two-day training phase kicked off the expedition as usual. Fully saturated with information, everyone was eager to test their sea legs and get into the onboard and offshore work. Regrettably, the weather gods were not in favour, so we had to postpone our first trip out.

On Wednesday our Azores volunteer team had a day off to explore the island and enjoyed intrepid walks as well as several viewpoints around the island with the highlight being the scenery of Capelinhos. It just is one of those unique locations not to be missed with the lighthouse as a landmark. Sandblasting treatment also freely included this time.

On Thursday there was no stopping our citizen science volunteers. They were ready to start putting sea hours in regardless of the forecast. One of the lookouts on land had spotted a baleen whale, most likely a humpback north of Horta, so we rushed to the scene. All eyes on board had a dedicated section of the sea to scan for blows. One might think how can you possibly miss a large baleen whale ? Yet, with white caps all around and slow rolling waves putting up walls of 2-3 m, it is just not that straightforward. Our research target managed to play hide and seek quite effectively, so we decided to look for more cooperative cetaceans. A nice pod of bottlenose dolphins was travelling by and decided to give us quite the show by surfing the waves surrounding us. We spotted two calves in the group and spent some good quality time observing them. Ellen, our Monicet app person on this day, and Susie, dedicated GPS log person, made sure the location and data were recorded. Meanwhile Barbara, our dedicated photographer tried to capture as many dorsal fins as possible for later photo-ID work. A few more blows were seen by the look-out nearby, but with even bigger waves, it was next to impossible to locate the animals. On the upper deck POPA data capturers Sheilagh and Lisa adhered to a tight schedule with matching ringtones for turtle, bird and trash times. The bird data loggers were treated to hundreds of Cory Shearwaters and their aerial acrobatics. As we turned back home, some of the clouds surrounding us were like from a painting. Suzanne and Madeleine were the last women standing on the front deck. Respect! While we would have loved more sightings, it was a nice warm-up for group 3 and we will see what tomorrow brings.

Azores: Patience pays off

Thursday was the first day on shore after five continuous days out at sea for our Azores volunteer group 2. The day was dedicated to photo-identification training, meaning matching flukes for sperm whales, sorting dorsal fins of Risso’s and bottlenose dolphins seen the day before and the false killer whales seen by group 1.

It takes a lot of concentration and patience to check the nicks, scars, trailing edges of the fins that distinguish individuals. Karina and Irina found it a true zen task and after dinner I would still find them behind the computers going through more photos… the sorting got somewhat addictive. Total respect for these truly dedicated whale and dolphin volunteers! The full team joined in the effort and got a better understanding of the back office ‘dry’ work that is required after days spent out at sea. Lucy organised a yoga session and added a new pose ‘the fluking whale’ in between the downward dog and cobra positions.

With rough winds and large swells forecast for Friday, we initially did not plan to go out, but when the vigias spotted sperm whales north of Pico, sheltered from the winds, Lisa decided to gather the troops and give it a go. The team was more than happy to put in extra sea hours. We thought we had experienced all acceptable sea states by now, but level 5-6 with 3 metre waves added even more adventure to our experience. This time, it was upper deck only and literally ‘all hands on deck’ holding on to the boat railings to keep our balance. By the time drew near to the sperm whale area, they had already left. Yet, mother nature had a surprise for us: an encounter with the gentle giant of the seas…. a blue whale ! The one species everyone was so keen to add to their list. All of a sudden the high waves no longer mattered and the huge blow helped us to follow her (or him ?). Size does make a difference and we estimated that she was at least twice the length of our 12 m catamaran. It is an awe-inspiring humbling experience to spend a few moments close to the largest-ever living species on our planet and I would say possibly the best possible farewell from the mid-Atlantic to group 2.

On Saturday the team went off exploring the volcanic wonders of Faial on land, getting a glimpse of the caldeira view, inhaling sand and ash from the unique moonl-ike landscape of Capelinhos, while stretching their sea legs for a hike. They were treated to moments of sunny weather alternated with heavy downpours, even hail and everything in between. As the locals say: here you live with the elements of nature.

It was another great 10 days together of working, exploring, laughing and sharing … a true team effort. As our summary presentation of groups 1 & 2 below shows, for cetacean encounters so far, we have now increased the list to eight different cetacean species observed after a total search effort of 64 hours, covering more than 1000 kms around Faial and Pico. We spotted a total of 6 loggerhead turtles, hundreds of Portuguese man-o-war and enjoyed lots of sea bird action. These aerial acrobats are often good indicators of what is happening just beneath the sea surface.

Thanks again to all involved and Lisa and I look forward to welcoming our third and final Biosphere Expeditions group of the Azores 2022 season for more cetacean action and research. See you at Banana Manor next Tuesday!

Azores: Migrating humpback whales

Since the start of their Azores volunteer expedition, our second group has had ‘the pleasure’ of experiencing different ‘sea state’ levels. Last Sunday the sea state reached level 5 with white caps all around and larger waves, on Monday the winds and waves decreased to a sea state 2 & 3, which is what we have most of the time.

Tuesday was really unusual – we started with sea state close to 0 ‘like a mirror’, increasing to 1 meaning small ripples on the surface, but what a joy to experience a flat sea and hardly any wind. Today, Wednesday, our whale and dolphin volunteers were prepared for a rougher sea state and impressive winds, but the captain made sure to steer us in the waters north of Pico, where we were sheltered. So just like the four seasons in one day here on land, the sea conditions vary a lot during consecutive days. Sisendo, our captain, witnessed the team’s stamina and commented they are now ready to go work in the Bering Sea. So sea legs all around on board! Back to the cetaceans, the main reason we are here. On Monday we were treated to a full morning of sperm whale sightings. And not just any sperm whales, well-known friends of Lisa’s, numbers 2808, 2448, 3483 and 6089 – females with calves from last year! They spent most of last summer to the north of Faial/Pico, but today they were in the south. They have also been observed in the winter, so these ladies seem to be one of the resident groups. They were kind enough to fluke in front of the camera and we got lucky that one came up right in front of our boat, allowing for a face-to-face experience. After the ‘ohs’ and the ‘wows’, it suddenly was very quiet on board when this gentle giant slid by in front of our bow. The sperm whales kept us busy for most of the morning and in the afternoon we went out to the open sea to look for baleen whales, ideally a blue one, but they were still playing hide and seek. Tuesday we had gorgeous weather and not long after sailing out of the harbour, the vigia told us about a special sighting. Before actually making it to the spot of the action, we encountered a group of a hundred common dolphins. Nothing special, one could think, as these are our regular daily friends, but the sea conditions were so ideal that we could see the whole group under water. It was excellent visibility and the photos will give even you readers a feeling of an up close and personal encounter. Magical!

Ahead of the common dolphins, near Capelinhos, the far west and terra nova of the island of Faial, we saw a blow, no two blows, wait a minute, even a third one, then white pectoral fins under the water surface. Our well-trained team had seen this one before. Sure enough we had three migrating humpback whales in front of us. It is rare to see several individual together on their long migration, so this was a very special sighting. It became even more epic after we managed to get photo-ID shots of all three flukes, some with the volcanic landmark of Capelinhos in the background. Lisa said they were probably on their way from their feeding grounds in Norway or Iceland to the warmer breeding grounds in Cabo Verde. The rest of the afternoon we were in search for other baleen whales, but they were not cooperative, instead the common dolphins passed by bowriding again on several occasions.

This Wednesday morning, fewer than 24 hour after the humpback whales were sighted, Lisa informed us that the Norway expert responded and confirmed a match of one of the humpback flukes we recorded to an individual seen in October 2014 and in January 2015 in the Tromso – Andenes region in the north of Norway. This confirms their feeding grounds up north. So far no matches were found by the colleagues from Cabo Verde or the Caribbean, but it might just be a matter of time and more upload fluke IDs to unravel the full life story of this individual and shedding more light on the species in the Northern Atlantic.

During our trip this morning, the our Azores volunteers added another species to their list: 40 bottlenose dolphins were spotted to the north of Pico, a group with several calves. We did try our luck to find more cetacean action, but with strong winds and white caps all around, sighting conditions were rather challenging. Tomorrow the team will get trained in matching flukes and dorsal fins, to understand even better why the photographs we take are key to research, new insights and eventually conservation.

Azores: Group 2 off to a flying start

Our second group includes marine citizen scientist volunteers from Israel, Russia, US, Switzerland, Germany and even Australia. With Lisa and me included, we have an all women international expedition team of 10. We like to think that Sisenando, our captain and only man on board, is in good company! The first two days of training was full-on and intense as usual, explaining the work and different roles of our Azores volunteers on board, giving insight into the different research we contribute to and learning about the diversity of cetacean, sea turtle and sea bird species that can be observed here.

On Saturday afternoon the team was ready to try out their newly-gained skills and test their sea legs. Our captain decided to sail to the north of Faial. While Karina pointed out the many seabirds, we realised there were more and more as we progressed on our journey. Ahead of our catamaran ‘the Physeter’ we spotted at least a thousand Corey Shearwaters and as we got closer, many common dolphins also appeared. We clearly had arrived just at the end of a feeding frenzy, where both dolphins and shearwaters had been feasting on mackerel or other small fish. The abundance of both species was very impressive. A lucky start for this second group.

In the meantime, amidst all the commotion, the ‘vigia’ shouted ‘baleia de bossa’ over the radio and shortly after we saw the blow, dorsal fin and fluke of a humpback whale not far from the boat. The dolphins and sea birds that were the main attraction just minutes ago, immediately became a side show and we managed to follow the humpback whale for a while. This is the main season when migrating humpback whales can be seen around the Azores and maybe it was one of the ones we heard singing during group 1.

On Sunday, the day started with heavy downpours and strong winds, so the conditions were not looking great to head out. Yet our whale and dolphin volunteers were up to braving the weather elements, so we decided to give it a try and headed to the south of Faial. Our brave marine volunteers got soaked several times with either sea spray from the waves below or from heavy rain from above and discovered which ‘waterproof’ gear actually lived up to the definition and which did not. Luckily, the Physeter has fisherman suits on board, which do the job.

When on a cetacean expedition, there is a certain hierarchy regarding the data we want to collect: the larger whales (blue whale, sperm whale and other baleen whales) get first priority, after that the dolphin species for which we do photo-ID and in the last position we get the non photo-ID dolphins and sea turtles. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that there are smiles all around when the “low priority” common dolphins make an appearance. They have been our daily companions since day 1 and this was no different today. With higher waves and strong winds, it is quite a show to see them surfing the waves and coming up bowriding. One made a backflip and the photo revealed it was a male.

As we made our way to the south of Pico, the hydrophone picked up vocalisations of sperm whales and arriving on the scene we were treated to three, one with a large white patch on the side. For some of our whale volunteers it was their first sperm whale ever, so a special moment. I am not totally sure how Lisa managed to get the flukes photographed in these high waves without falling over, but clearly 20 years of experience counts! So two more flukes were recorded for cetacean science and conservation and appear to be new individuals.

Irina was our photographer on duty and she earned 10/10 for effort, but will be doing a bit more practicing in calmer seas before she sets off on a National Geographic photographer career. Deb managed to keep flying buckets on the lower deck under control to take the water temperature. The POPA ladies, Sue and Lucy, struggled to keep the data sheets dry, but collected all the required data and made sure we can deliver a dry clean and readable copy to the Ministry of Fisheries. So all in all, a memorable first two days for a diligent team keeping up high scientific standards in extreme weather conditions. Well done all!

%d bloggers like this: