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!

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