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!

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