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.

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