Lisa Steiner’s report from the San Francisco marine mammals conference
Every two years, the Society for Marine Mammalogy hosts a conference. Over 2,000 scientists that study whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sea otters and polar bears descend on whichever city holds the conference. The last conference I attended was in Quebec City, Canada, where I presented results on male sperm whales that matched between the Azores and Norway. This year, I was presenting a poster on twelve female sperm whales and a calf that have been seen in both the Azores and the Canaries, as well as a match between the Azores and Madeira and also a single match between Madeira and the Canaries. I was also co-author on two other posters, one on humpback whales and the other on blue whale photo-identification.
The conference gives people studying marine mammals around the world a chance to see what is being done elsewhere in the world. There is not a lot of time to rest. There are five talks going on at the same time for most of the day and a couple of selected speakers have their own slot. This year saw the introduction of the 5 minute speed talk, which was challenging for both the presenters and the listeners, especially if the audience wanted to change rooms for the next talk!
On Saturday, before the official start of the conference, there was a workshop just on sperm whales. We had short presentations on all aspects of sperm whale biology & behaviour. I gave a short three minute presentation on the photo-identification work that Biosphere Expeditions and I are doing in the Azores.
Some highlights of the sperm whale session were:
- There is not a lot of genetic diversity between oceans, and this may be due to a bottleneck in the population around 80,000 years ago, when the squid populations also crashed.
- Male sperm whales in Alaska have learned how to take sable fish off the long lines. It seems that there are around ten offenders and the researchers are working on ways to help the fishermen avoid this loss or these whales specifically. Some of the males were tagged with satellite transmitters and a few of them went as far south as Baja, Mexico still heading south when the transmissions stopped.
- Russian illegal whaling may have changed the structural groups of females in the Pacific by decimating the stocks. Females in the Pacific groups are not always related, whereas in the Atlantic they generally are. This was caused by individuals forming new groups in the Pacific.
- There are some juvenile male sperm whales that lived close to a navy test site in the Bahamas for a couple of years, before they moved on to another unknown destination. I am hoping to get those flukes for matching to the Azores catalogue. The female sperm whales in the Bahamas sensibly stay in the north of the archipelago, away from the navy test site and there does not appear to be mixing between the groups seen in the Bahamas and Dominica.
- A couple of invited squid biologists gave us a bit of a different perspective on the whales as ferocious squid predators.
- And in the last presentation of the day, it was shown that the theory that sperm whales change the density of the spermaceti to help them dive and surface is not accurate.
Some highlights of the rest of the conference:
- Whales benefit the environment by recycling nutrients. In the case of sperm whales they catch their prey in deep waters, but defecate at the surface, re-releasing all those nutrients, which would otherwise be lost to the depths. Blue whales in the Antarctic drive the whole ecosystem by recycling nutrients and making them more accessible for the krill to use.
- Climate change is not good news for polar bears and probably walrus too, because they depend on the sea ice to hunt, but grey whales could benefit as new feeding grounds open up, which have previously been covered in ice. This lack of ice could also lead to grey whales re-populating the Atlantic Ocean, where they have been extinct for many years. But the fossil record shows that there may have been several re-colonisations over the years as ice ages came and went.
- Fin whales are mostly right handed lungers. Out of 800 lunges, only three or four went to the left.
- A long term photo-ID study in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park has 46 individuals with a sighting history of more than 30 years. Something I am aiming for with the Azores sperm whales.
And speaking of Humpback Whale IDs. There has been a match made between a humpback whale that was seen during the 2008 Azores expedition and then again in Norway in 2012, near Tromsø! This is the second match made with a whale actually seen during an expedition. The other match was first seen in Norway on 20 March 2010 and then in the Azores on 5 May 2010.
The humpback whales that we see in the Azores are most likely travelling from the Cape Verde Islands up to feeding grounds around Iceland and Norway or back down to the breeding grounds; although to date we have not had any matches to Iceland. We have eight Azores matches to the Cape Verdes and now eight matches to Norway as well. The whales can use the waters around the Azores as a pit stop from the breeding to feeding grounds, since most of them have not been feeding for a few months while on the breeding grounds. So far we have not had any matches to the Caribbean population of humpbacks, which is more numerous than the Cape Verde population, although this may be down to low numbers of identifications in the Azores.
The flukes in the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue are constantly being reviewed, especially with hard to match individuals, since the computer assisted matching is not always perfect.
And speaking of computer-assisted matching, I think we will be trialling a new matching system, Flukebook, during the 2016 expedition alongside Europhlukes. Flukebook is a new online matching system that shows a lot of promise. It uses six different algorithms for the matching and has machine learning too, as well as being able to plot the sightings with Google Earth. The biggest drawback will be if catalogues that I currently match to, do not join Flukebook. Only time will tell.
After the conference I had a couple of days down in Monterey Bay, looking for grey whales, since I had never seen one. The mission was a success, I saw over 20 different grey whales and around 30 humpbacks. Unfortunately none of the “friendly” behaviour from the greys – they were just migrating on their way to the breeding lagoons, where you can get the “friendlies”. No acrobatics from the humpback whales either, but I did get some fluke ID pics, which I will send off to the Pacific Humpback Whale Catalogue at Cascadia Research.
I would like to thank the Friends of Biosphere Expeditions, as well as my parents, for making my attendance at these conferences possible through their support. And thank you to all the expedition participants that make this work possible.