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.

2 Replies to “Azores: Migrating humpback whales”

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