Azores : Diversity, Discovery & Data

Update from our marine conservation volunteering holiday in the Azores archipelago, working on whales, dolphins and turtles

That’s a wrap. The end of the expedition is upon us. Five weeks seems have gone by in a blink of the eye and we must all now slowly head home via various routes. Time genuinely flies when you are having fun, but let me first (briefly) recap the last day at sea, since we still experienced some highs and lows.

On our very last day we were thwarted in our efforts to go to sea by bad weather, but this presented another opportunity to sort more data. The day prior was a great day. Heading many miles south of Pico, we were again treated to encounters with common and bottlenose dolphins, before finding yet more sei whales. These efforts lead us on to multiple sperm whale encounters, with yet more dolphins and the obligatory shark. Though initially a mix of shouts (turtle and shark – shurtle?) were heard (more coffee needed for some!), when the boat circles back around, we could confirm a shark and it does finally prove it is not only the expedition leader that finds the sharks. But better was to come…

Like all good plots, Lisa had saved the best until last – and having been left in charge of the helm – she soon spotted the back of a large whale, and very quickly the shout of ‘blue’ rang out – no confusion this time. Then clear for all to see the blue hue of the largest species ever known, drifted through the water, almost alongside the boat. The silence onboard was deafening. A species you never forget seeing and a species I never tire of seeing. A great way to end what was our last day at sea in 2023.

So that concluded our data collection, though in addition to data, expeditions offer many things, including discovery, difficulty and diversity. The last group have successfully added to and/or experienced all of these, but before we talk about the discovery and data, let me initially offer some thanks. First off, to our groups, who stepped up to the daily challenge of data collection to achieve our goals of better understanding the spatial and temporal distributions of the cetaceans and turtles of the Azores. You’ve all contributed to advancing this knowledge and making this expedition a success.

Let me also offer thanks to Henry who helped get things started this year, and the staff at Biosphere Expeditions, as this project can’t happen without the unseen preparation. I also extend thanks to all in Horta who have supported us, particularly Norberto Divers and our various caterers – whose food was more than fuel! I must also not forget our skipper Siso, who not only took us to sea, but ensured we knew the sea state, wind direction, cetacean locations and always got us back to port safely – thanks Siso. And of course, our enormous collective thanks go to Lisa, our leader in all things scientific. It is indeed a privilege to again share in your world and work with such a dedicated field biologist and cetacean scientist. But my final thanks go to Jim and Claudia who have not only hosted us for the past five weeks, but have supported Biosphere Expeditions for over ten years. Whilst this may be our last year at Banana Manor, your hospitality and garden have been enjoyed by many – and for me it is like second home. Thank you.

This year we’ve again recorded an impressive array of data that without Biosphere Expeditions, wouldn’t have been collected. In case you have forgotten, here are just some of our highlights:

> We’ve deployed four teams into the field, comprising 8 different nations, spanning multiple decades

> We completed 15 days at sea, totalling in excess of 95 hours of surveys, covering over 1500 km of the ocean

> We’ve collected data on at least 10 different cetacean species (5 whale and 5 dolphin species), 1 turtle species (8 individuals), 1 shark species (4 individuals)

> Our total encounters with cetaceans, exceed 170, and yes, simple statistics will tell you that is almost two for every hour at sea

> For the whales, we have already confirmed 46 positive IDs, and 16 re-sights, but also have 27 new flukes – i.e. individuals never recorded before.

In isolation, these may just seem like bits of data, as field research rarely gives us instant results or fast answers to our bigger questions. But we’ve collected a huge baseline of data and the full results will soon become clearer in the expedition report. The power of these data build over time.

So, it has been a successful expedition and the summary statistics highlight some of the success, but success doesn’t just come in the form of empirical data. It is influenced by the people we meet, our expectations, experience and wildlife encounters…to mention a few. We have had a great diversity on all fronts, with three great groups and from my perspective this year did not disappoint in terms of diversity, discovery and data.

For me personally it has been great to have the opportunity to return the Azores, work in this wonderful place and meet old and new friends. Thank you.

Continue reading “Azores : Diversity, Discovery & Data”

Azores : Changes

Update from our marine conservation volunteering holiday in the Azores archipelago, working on whales, dolphins and turtles

So, our luck has changed, well the weather has changed, and this meant a shore day on Saturday. High winds and waves made it very difficult to work at sea and even harder to spot any cetaceans. So some rest, relaxation and tours of Faial were the order of the day.

Sunday brought the rain, adding to the cocktail of poor weather, but this presented the ideal opportunity to sort some data, organise some photo catalogues and begin some matching. With caffeine, biscuits and some late Easter eggs in ready supply, the team managed to sort recent catalogues for sperm whales, false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins – great progress on recent data. Some even had some creative brain power remaining to add to the harbour paintings!

Monday brought a welcome (albeit slow) improvement in the weather, so we headed out to sea once again, but our foray was short-lived (41 minutes and 15 km according the GPS). A fuel filter issue on one of the boat engines meant another change of plan – a return to port – for what turned out to be a quick repair. Refuelled on coffee, our second attempt that day was far more successful.

Exploring south of Pico, we initially encountered our customary common dolphins, but this was soon followed with a sighting of a new humpback whale. From here we pursued several sperm whales with both common dolphins and sei whales doing their best to distract us. The day ended with yet more sei whale sightings.

Despite the stuttering start, we had another good haul of data, with our slightly smaller team happy to cover all jobs required, with Stefanie being kept fairly busy on the data sheets and Joel put through her paces on the camera.

As we now enter the final days of this year’s expedition, we still have a few species on our wish list, and opportunities to add to the data.

Continue reading “Azores : Changes”

Azores : Lost and found

Update from our marine conservation volunteering holiday in the Azores archipelago, working on whales, dolphins and turtles

We have commenced the final leg of this year’s expedition. With the welcomes, greetings, briefings and training sessions efficiently covered, we were all keen to get out to sea. Our potential survey area was restricted by the sea conditions, and these also challenged some of our team. We were rewarded with just our second sighting of Risso’s dolphins, which was some consolation to several of the team we ‘lost’ aft.

The next day at sea was met with some nerves, but the team needn’t have worried. The rolling swells were a thing of the past and there is nothing like finding a humpback whale to refocus the mind. This was followed by a large group of false killer whales – another first record for this year’s expedition.

Conditions dictated that we head south, where we were briefly distracted by common dolphins and entertained by the same humpback breaching very close to the boat! With yet more dolphin sightings, the day was rounded off following two Sei whales – who only blow once when they surface. so are tricky creatures to photograph – as Ed discovered.

With the winds increasing from the south, we weren’t sure how long we would be out on Friday, but again headed north (to more protected water) out to another humpback sighting. With common dolphins competing for our attention, the humpback turned out to be the same whale from the previous day, so we quickly moved on.

With the strengthening winds, our only option was to explore the channel between Pico and São Jorge, where there was less white water. After a brief passing of bottlenose dolphins, the day turned into a very productive sperm whale ‘hunt’. We manage to find and record at least six individuals, not recorded before (based on initial catalogue matching), so some great new data. The day was rounded off finding two fin whales on the way home. A great day and great data.

It is often unpredictable how things work out – this is an expedition after all. When we expect to lose out to the weather with a shorter day at sea, we actually came in slightly late having found multiple species, with several new records. A great job by all!

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Sweden : 2022 expedition round-up

Update from our Sweden bear volunteer project

The 2022 Biosphere Expeditions citizen science expedition to Sweden to study brown bears together with Dr. Andrea Friebe of Björn & Vildmark and the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project has been a success for the second year running and overachieved on its aims.

In a nutshell, the expedition documented all 24 bear dens of the study site, collected over 100 bear scats, recorded 30 day beds, 8 carcasses and a multitude of other interesting events such as gnawed antlers, encounters with moose, fox, owls and other animals. Dr. Friebe now relies on this citizen science contributions each year to conduct significant parts of her work on brown bear ecology in a changing world of climate change and forestry. In her words “essentially, if the expedition was not here to do this work, it would probably not get done” and the expedition is “a showcase of how citizen science can supplement existing research projects run by professional scientists”.

All this is in evidence in the post-expedition scientific report (abstract below). The 2023 expedition has been lengthened to 10 days to be able to achieve even more and Biosphere Expeditions looks forward to returning to Sweden in May/June 2023.

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Abstract of the 2022 expedition report

This is a report about the second year of collaboration between Biosphere Expeditions and Björn & Vildmark with the overall purpose of researching the behaviour of free ranging brown bears (Ursus arctos) in central Sweden for the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project (SBBRP). This collaboration investigates, amongst other topics, how climate change as well as human activities affect the brown bear behaviour and population, and provides managers in Sweden with solid, science-based knowledge to manage brown bears.

From 28 May to 4 June 2022, six citizen scientists collected data on bear denning behaviour and feeding ecology by investigating the 2021/2022 hibernation season den sites of GPS-marked brown bears and by collecting fresh scats from day bed sites. All field work was performed in the northern boreal forest zone in Dalarna and Gävleborg counties, south-central Sweden, which is the southern study area of the SBBRP. After two days of field work training, citizen scientists were divided into three to four sub-teams each day. All study positions were provided by the expedition scientist and only data and samples from radio-marked bears with a VHF or GPS transmitter were collected.

Citizen scientists defined den types (anthill den, soil den, rock den, basket den or uprooted tree den), recorded bed material thickness, size and content, as well as all tracks and signs around the den sites to elucidate whether a female had given birth to cubs during hibernation. All first scats after hibernation and hair samples from the bed were collected, and the habitat type around the den and the visibility of the den site were described.

Twenty-six winter positions of 21 different bears were investigated. Two bears shifted their dens at least once during the hibernation season. In total, the expedition found 23 dens; two soil dens, eight anthill dens, one anthill/soil den, one stone/rock den, four dens under uprooted trees and seven basket dens. Unusually, one pregnant female that gave birth to three cubs during winter, and four females that hibernated together with dependent offspring spent the winter in basket dens. Normally basket dens are mainly used by large males.

Excavated bear dens had an average outer length of 2.0 m, an outer width of 2.2 m, and an outer height of 0.8 m. The entrance on average comprised 28% of the open area. The inner length of the den was on average 1.3 m and the inner width was 1.1 m. The inner height of the dens was on average 0.6 m. Bears that hibernated in covered dens used mainly mosses (47%), field layer shrubs (36%) and branches (14%) as nest material, which reflected the composition of the field layer and ground layer that was present at the den site. However, bears that hibernated in open dens such as basket dens, preferred branches (43%) followed by grass (26%); mosses (19%) and field shrubs (12%) as nest material. The expedition found two first post-hibernation bear scats at the den sites.

Ten bears selected their den sites in older forests, and eleven bears in younger forests, only two bears hibernated in very young forest. The habitat around the dens was dominated by spruce (Picea abies) 37%, scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) 35% and birch (Betula pendula, Betula pubescens) 27%.

As part of its intensive data collection activities, the expedition investigated about half of all winter den positions that the SBBRP recorded in 2021/2022 and collected 64 scats at cluster positions, which represents all scat samples that the SBBRP normally collects during a time period of 14 days. A detailed food item analysis will be performed in 2025 and the data will be published.

It appears that climate change is altering bear denning behaviour and may reduce food resources that bears need for fat production. Overharvesting (hunting) of bears and habitat destruction are the major reasons why brown bear populations have declined or have become fragmented in much of their range. In Scandinavia, human activity around den sites has been suggested as the main reason why bears abandon their dens. This can reduce the reproductive success of pregnant female brown bears and increases the chance of human/bear conflict. Understanding denning behaviour is critical for effective bear conservation. Further research is needed to determine whether good denning strategies help bears avoid being disturbed. Additionally, enclosed dens offer protection and insulation from inclement weather. A continued fragmentation of present bear ranges, inhibiting dispersal, together with an increasing bear population, might lead to bears denning closer to human activities than at present, thereby increasing human/bear conflict. The dens that were investigated by the expedition were visible from 22 m on average. Cover opportunities and terrain types not preferred by humans are thereby presumably important for bears that are denning relatively close to human activities, but further research needs to be done to validate this theory.

Through all of the above, the expedition made a very significant contribution to the SBBRP’s field work in a showcase of how citizen science can supplement existing research projects run by professional scientists.

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Some photo impressions of the 2022 expedition:

Continue reading “Sweden : 2022 expedition round-up”

Azores : Blue!

Update from our marine conservation volunteering holiday in the Azores archipelago, working on whales, dolphins and turtles

After a much needed day off exploring Faial and Pico, and recharging all ‘batteries’, it was time to embark on a final day at sea for group 2. Conditions dictated that we would head south of Pico due to the increasing winds.

With the now customary common dolphin sighting, we were soon in the company of more sperm whales. This meant the team could seamlessly start documenting each individual and record flukes as they dived – for once the whales were largely behaving. They were soon joined by a group of bottlenose dolphins – not uncommon to see these dolphins hassling sperm whales. With two species to document, it was all hands on deck and kept Gernot very busy on camera.

The look-outs soon reported a possible baleen whale, not to far away, so off we went in pursuit. This turned out to be a pair of Sei whales, another new record for the expedition, as we had hoped in the previous blog! They only surface once (briefly) so can be a tricky species to find. We were then directed to another baleen whale sighting which also turned out to be another pair of Sei whales.

These encounters were relatively brief, which meant we could soon return to the sperm whales. A few individuals later, our skipper (Siso) spotted a large blow – this turned out to be a blue! A single blue whale gave us a great sighting as it almost circled the boat. A great last whale sighting for group 2.

With over 540 km travelled over 5 days at sea, the group has been able to almost double the species list for the expedition – now standing at 9 species. Numbers of encounters and individuals have also increased. A great effort by all.

So, as we bid group 2 farewell, we wait to welcome group 3, and hope they too bring the luck with the whales and the weather. Safe travels all.

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Azores : New direction, new sightings

Update from our marine conservation volunteering holiday in the Azores archipelago, working on whales, dolphins and turtles

The weather has turned in our favour for much of the past week, which meant improving conditions and calmer seas. Music to ears of many. It also meant we could venture in a new direction for 2023, south of Faial. This paid dividends with not only another humpback sighting, but also a fin whale.

The latter is another new record for 2023, and appeared at random, whilst ‘on transect’ less than 10 m in front of the boat! Quite a surprise for all, including our skipper. This was followed by more sperm whale encounters off the far west of Faial, which then gave us the opportunity to complete the circumnavigation of Faial before returning to Horta, only interrupted by a few common dolphin sightings, and a great encounter with sociable bottlenose dolphins.

The next day saw us head south again, this time off Pico. In addition to the usual, dolphin, and less common turtle and shark sightings, it again turned into a sperm whale day. Whilst they were doing their best to frustrate us, with not many fluking, so ID pictures were limited, they saved the best until last. We managed to see one breaching some distance from the boat, but were then treated to three breaches a few hundred metres from the front of the boat – think flying giant cucumbers!

With the weather changing and winds building on Thursday, we pursued a suspected sighting of more than one blue whale, several miles north of Faial. This turned out to be a fairly challenging day, with the boat making way into oncoming weather and waves, peaking at force 5 – which makes staying upright a challenge – let alone doing any data collection. However, persistence often pays off, and we were rewarded with sightings of three blue whales. A great job by all to get the data recorded and stay on the boat….

With photos sent off to various collaborators, we now await news of possible matches, to work out where there whales may have come from or go to…….watch this space. After four consecutive days at seas the team are having a well-earned rest before we make the final push on Saturday.

Continue reading “Azores : New direction, new sightings”

Azores : Patience pays off

Update from our marine conservation volunteering holiday in the Azores archipelago, working on whales, dolphins and turtles

Having welcomed group 2 on the expedition, we embarked on the first two days of orientations, equipment and scientific survey training. This all went to plan until it was time for our first session on the boat – the weather (and sea conditions) had other ideas!

This lead to an impromptu afternoon on shore, followed by a day sorting existing data and images. An important task , which gives real context to the field surveys. But soon the howling winds abated, meaning we could head out to sea on Monday.

The wait was worth it; with multiple sperm whale records and more common dolphins. We were also able to record both Risso’s dolphins and striped dolphins for the first time in 2023. Great effort considering we were still working in 4-5 m swell and the various species weren’t making it easy to record them, let alone obtain good photo ID imagery. A special thanks to Cord, Bendine and Nina for stepping up to the task in the way you did.

With the weather set to continue to improve (for the next few days at least), we look forward to even more sightings now that we have our sea legs, hopefully.

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Kenya: Goodbye

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

We have spent the last 10 weeks fully immersed in our Maasai Mara project, but we have now packed up, dropped the cars back to the hire company and waved our final goodbyes to the local team and our expeditioners.

The last week has been challenging with the ground becoming waterlogged and muddy due to the early onset of the wet season, but group 4 mastered it all with great attitude. They faced down all adversity with aplomb and persevered in all conditions. Well done!

Here are some collated headline data from our biodiversity monitoring research:

64,801 total animals recorded

915 raptors and endangered birds

47,204 mammals recorded on vehicle transects with a total distance of 1,124 km including sightings of lions, cheetahs, elephants, leopards and bush pigs

170 km driven on transect in Enonkishu, 342 km driven on transect in Mbokishi and 533 km driven on transect in Ol Chorro

Foot patrols recorded 274 samples of scat and 212 of footprints over a total distance of 48 km

126 hours of waterhole observation with 14,783 animals recorded

1,899 iconic species/ interesting animal activity recorded via mammal mapping

11,211 images captured by hotspot cameras that contained images of animals

Now that the Kenya expedition has come to a close, we would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all the people that made this expedition successful.

The team at the Wild Hub who looked after us. The who logistics team kept us and the vehicles from Market Car Hire going for the whole ten weeks, despite a difficult start. The rangers at Enonkishu, Mbokishi and Ol Chorro who have been alongside us through rain and shine and imparted so much knowledge and information on us and our expeditioners. We couldn’t have done this without you, so thank you for your hard work.

Thank you also to our expedition scientists Roland and Rebekah for their committment, insights and hard work. And most of all thank you to the 49 citizen scientists who gave up their valuable holiday time to assist with and money to fund this research – we absolutely could not have done this without you. We know that you could have spent the 13 days on a beach somewhere sipping mojitos, but you came to Kenya, woke up at 06:00 every day and worked relentlessly, so that we could collect these data. We appreciate each and every one of you, your hard work, dedication and ability to put up with our bad jokes even when you are exhausted from a full days work. We really hope to see you on another Biosphere Expedition very soon. Take care and we hope that you will cherish the memories of Kenya as fondly as we will.

Best wishes

Johnny Adame
Expedition leader

Continue reading “Kenya: Goodbye”
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