15 years of Azores expeditions: the power of long-term datasets

Whale watching can be undertaken in a morning, but watching whales to better understand their movements and ecology takes time – fifteen years (and counting) to be precise. Biosphere Expeditions has just completed its 15th year of expeditions in the Azores, monitoring the cetacean movements, covering over 15 different species.

Many research questions focused on the natural world cannot be addressed (with any certainty) in a month or a single year. Data collection may take a decade or longer, to reveal meaningful patterns and this is the case with the cetaceans of the Azores.

Rewards can be faster. Images of sperm whales and blue whales taken this year, have already been matched to other locations in the Azores, Norway and Ireland. But many more whales have still yet to be matched, revealing the range of their movements and the importance of different parts of the oceans.

This year’s project still has a lot of data to process, from 122 cetacean encounters over 22 days at sea, sighting over 1000 individuals. But some species are absent from this year’s research findings and dolphins have been found in lower numbers.

With the expedition fieldwork now commencing in March, “it has also been great to get out on the water earlier in the year”, says expedition scientist Lisa Steiner, “and collect data on a range of species, across a broader time span. The value of this work is very significant, as we would not have documented the 18 blue whales recorded, or the many other species, since there are very few other boats out at this time of year”.

Understanding spatial and temporal patterns of so many cetaceans is key to their long-term protection and conservation. And undertaking field research, especially when others are not around, reveals new information such as species being absent or present in lower or higher numbers compared to other years. But the true conservation context can only be gained after many years of work.

“The ability to collect such data is greatly enhanced by the annual contribution of citizen scientists”, says expedition leader Craig Turner, “and underlines the value of long-term datasets in illustrating the importance of the Azores for many cetacean species”. Steiner adds that “not only are we able to match individuals to catalogues in the Azores with these data, but often from elsewhere in the Atlantic too, sometimes even beyond, elevating the power and value of the data”.

In the end it will all be about appropriate conservation management based on scientific facts to ensure these much-loved whale and dolphin species continue to thrive not just in Azorean waters, but elsewhere in the wider Atlantic Ocean.

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Azores: Final entry for 2018

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago   www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores.

That’s all folks. Once again our expedition in the Azores has come to an end. Our citizen scientist have departed, the kit is packed and now myself and An must make our travels north, back to Scotland and Belgium. We’ve collectively had a great six weeks in the Azores. I have said this before, but expeditions offer many things, including difference, difficulty, diversity, discovery and of course data.

The last group have successfully added to that data in their last days, adding more records of loggerhead turtles, common dolphins, fin whales and seemingly the obligatory blue whale. I can’t remember a year on this expedition when we saw so many blues!

Before we talk about the discovery and data, let me initially offer some thanks. First off, to our citizen scientists, who stepped up to the daily challenge of data collection to achieve our collective goal of better understanding the ecology of the cetaceans and turtles of the Azores. You’ve all contributed to advancing this knowledge, and making this expedition a success. Thank you!

However, we must offer more thanks. Firstly to the back office staff at Biosphere Expeditions. There is always a lot of unseen work and preparation for any expedition. Secondly, thanks to Jim (and family) at Banana Manor, who have been our hosts for the past few weeks, giving us all a second home. I also extend our gratitude to Eugenio, Carey and Pete, who (amongst others) have catered for our variety of dietary needs. I must also not forget our skipper Jairo, 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 Jairo. And finally, our enormous collective thanks go to Lisa, our leader in all things scientific. It is indeed a privilege to share in your world and work with such a dedicated field biologist and cetacean scientist.

This year we’ve collected data earlier than any other previous expedition, giving us a unique and extended insight into cetacean movements. The lack of cetaceans on some days, or the challenging sea states may have frustrated us on occasion, but overall we’ve been able to amass a huge amount of data, that without Biosphere Expeditions, wouldn’t have been collected.

Here are just some of our highlights:

  • We’ve deployed four teams into the field, comprising 11 different nations, including people from 18 to 80+ years old;
  • We completed 22 days at sea, totalling in excess of 120 hours of surveys, covering 100s of miles of the ocean, and only ‘fed the fish’ on a few occasions;
  • We’ve collected data on at least 9 different cetacean species (5 whale and 4 dolphin species) and 1 turtle species;
  • Our total encounters with cetaceans exceed 120, and yes, simple statistics will tell you that almost one for every hour at sea;
  • We’ve also sighted and recorded over 1020 different individuals, and a staggering 57 loggerhead turtles;
  • We’ve also recorded 18 blue whales. Yes, we’ve ‘run into’ the biggest creature that has ever graced our planet, almost everyday we went to sea;
  • We also already have matches for three species of whale (sperm, blue and humpback) to other locations; and we continue to work on the matching and ID work undertaken by each group.

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 at a ‘new’ time of year for the expedition. The full results will soon become clearer in the expedition report.

So what of the success I mentioned? Well, I think the summary statistics highlight the success, but success isn’t always easy to measure, particularly when it comes to expeditions. It is influenced by the people you meet, the new experiences you have, the challenges you overcome, the wildlife you see…to mention a few. Ultimately, it is perhaps most dependent on your expectations.

We all come on expeditions for different reasons and with different expectations. No matter whether you are a citizen scientist, a professional scientist or an expedition leader, we all go on expeditions with a varying mix of nerves, hope and expectation. For many it may be for a new experience, to explore, to be enthused, educated, entertained and even enlightened! Some are lucky enough to achieve their dreams…

As leaders, we are the lucky ones to get to experience most of this, but we are also exhausted. So as we prepare to depart, we offer a final thank you for all your efforts and look forward to returning next year. And as always, we let the expedition speak through its picture and the group in their own words.

Azores: Seafarers and citizen scientists

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago   www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores.

The expedition continues to run its steady course. These past few days out at sea have been a real treat. The blue whales have crossed our paths every single day, becoming our favourites, even if these giants tend to be slightly elusive and play hide-and-seek in a vast ocean.

Nonetheless the team managed to get relevant data and valuable photos of multiple individuals that have been sent out to the experts and are now awaiting ‘matching’ – to see where else in the world ‘our’ whales have been recorded. One blue whale we followed even turned out to be two individuals, when going through Lisa’s images. These clearly revealed distinct patterns on the back of each.

This Sunday the lookouts detected multiple blows in different directions (South of Faial) and soon we realised we were not just following one fin whale but rather three, plus another blue whale! As a cetacean citizen scientist, you can of course never have ‘too many whales’ around, even if recording data can become a bit tricky. So with that spirit in mind we managed to add a humpback whale onto the data list before heading back to port – well spoted Anne!

And it is not just the cetaceans that keep us company…. Along our boat plenty Portuguese man-o-war, a jellyfish species, sail by, of which several will be eaten by the drifting loggerhead turtles we regularly observe resting at the surface. Cory’s shearwaters can also be seen in great numbers, walking on water as they take off and gliding as true masters of the sky just above the waves hardly flapping their wings. The smaller common terns are faster and gone in a blink of an eye. A rarer sighting was the Northern gannet, a species that occasionally visits these waters.

As days go by, the waves grow taller and the winds get stronger, resulting in noticeable progress in the seafarer’s skills of our citizen scientists: solid sea legs, unfazed stomachs, enhanced whale-spotting skills, navigational insights, weather monitoring, species identification and so on. For many the being out at sea is as much part of the adventure as the cetaceans.

Winfried took on the challenge of data recording on the front deck under the spray of a series of waves, while Julia was braving flying buckets of seawater to measure temperature on the stern. The POPA (Portuguese Fisheries Department) data dream team, Annabel and Chris, now excel in keeping their heads cool while multitasking to record everything simultaneously from trash, turtles, seabirds, cetaceans and more.

When the working day is over, it is time for a break. Anne, a Biosphere returnee for the last 7 years, introduced the ‘after whale-watching drink’ at Peter’s (the infamous harbour pub), supposedly for ‘a German coffee’. By now the whole group has embraced the concept resulting in cosy and tasty debriefing sessions.

As the sea conditions in the following days go into the red, we will be focusing on data analysis onshore and exploring what the island of Faial has to offer. Stay tuned for more!

Azores: Epic – says Team 4

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago   www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores.

Cetaceans are the stuff of myths, legends and dreams. But how do you make your dreams come true? Well, citizen science may have the answer.

Dreams of cetaceans would have to wait, as we had our final change of personnel, welcoming Team 4 to the Azores; our final team for the 2018 expedition. We also extend the Biosphere Expeditions welcome to An Bollen, our ‘expedition leader in training’, who is assisting me for the next ten days.

With the welcomes, greetings, briefings and training sessions dealt with, 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 – but great job by Amy for being the last volunteer lookout standing on the front deck.

The effort was worth it – an encounter with 75 common dolphins put a smile on all faces and data in our records.

Our first full day at sea was initially met with nerves and excitement. And again emotions were soon settled with another common dolphin encounter. Word of sperm whales then came in, and the ‘hunt’ was on. We quickly located several socialising groups, but none were diving, so frustratingly, no fluke identifications photos.

Time for a change of tack; so we went in pursuit of a baleen whale, that turned out to be blue. One blue turned into two blues, which did what the sperm whales wouldn’t – fluke! And it fluked multiple times, much to the delight of all.

Feeling lucky, we decided to try the sperm whales again, after encounters with yet more common dolphins and loggerhead turtles. After following several groups for an age, only two fluked briefly.  So again we went the way of the baleen whales, but this time pursued a humpback, and again it fluked – multiple times! So more ID photos recorded.

Quite a day for many in the group – with several seeing their first whales! However, on the first day we all met, Christine had stated she’d had a dream since she was child, to see a whale fluking in the wild. What she didn’t know was that citizen science would make that dream come true, and in some style, with three species fluking in one day. I told you (in my last blog) three was a lucky number!

Great day, great data and great reactions from the whole team. Their whoops and cheers are still ringing in my ears, but Christine summed it up neatly – ‘epic!’.


Azores: Team 3 ends on multiple highs of three

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago   www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores.

Expedition fieldwork challenges us in many ways. But often the greatest challenge comes from the fieldwork we can’t undertake.

Bad weather is one challenge. Patience is another. And this is often, eventually, rewarded. Our last day started like so many before, with common dolphins; but we rapidly progressed to multiple blue whales and sperm whale encounters, with more dolphins and turtles to add to the mix as the day progressed. To say it was a busy day is an understatement. It was also a long and physical day – trying to stay upright on the boat for 8 hours is no mean feat! Well done Team 3 – for your patience, commitment, work ethic and for handling the weather.

So Team 3 located three different blue whales, had three encounters with common dolphins, and found a group of sperm whales, where one individual breached three times!

This was a first for many, including the expedition leader. Their apparent lack of grace (compared to humpback whales) means they are referred to as flying cucumbers – albeit a 20 ton cucumber – and yes, it has to be seen to be believed! Yet another reason to come to the Azores.

This was also the third whale species located by Team 3. So as that infamous song went… ‘three is a magic number’! Great job Team 3!

So we now enter the home straight on this year’s expedition, and look forward to meeting Team 4. We have high hopes.

I leave you with a final set of pictures and some feedback from the team…


Azores: Team 3 in the swing of things

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago   www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores.

Team 3 is now well into the swing of things. After a whistle-stop weekend of introductions, briefings and training sessions, we were all eager to get on with the data collection. But initially things seemed against us: an injury, acquired just before the expedition, the weather, sea sickness, etc. However, the good news is that by today, not only have we already seen more common dolphins, loggerhead turtles and a fin whale, but the group also spotted the largest group of striped dolphins recorded so far by this year’s expedition (about 50). So stay tuned!

Azores: Halfway headlines

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago  (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores)

We have reached the halfway point of this year’s project. And the last two days at sea have seen us extend the species list for 2018, with a fleeting glimpse of striped dolphins. We were also fortunate to encounter a group of Risso’s dolphins, whilst still spotting sperm, fin and blue whales.

While the striped dolphins may have been fleeting, the baleen whales provided the most frustration with both blue and fin whales constantly disappearing, and then reappearing minutes later behind the boat – or at ‘6 o’clock’, as the team would shout.  Our aft observers were kept busy. Never did I think that two of the biggest species could give us such the run-a-round!

Team 2 has managed to extend the species list to four dolphin species and five whale species now recorded in 2018, and a staggering 36 loggerhead turtles recorded in just the past week! More impressively, not only do we have matches for one of the humpbacks, but one (of the four) blue whales spotted has been matched to another Azores record in 2012, and some of the sperm whales have been matched to multiple years around the Azores, as far back as 2003. So that is confirmed matches for three species already!

However, perhaps as impressively, one of our citizen scientists (Thomas) brought a sperm whale fluke image he had taken in Norway, and Lisa was able to match that to another record just off Pico! Now that illustrates the power of citizen field science.

We say a huge thank you to Team 2, and their collective contribution and hard work at sea. Even down to the last hour on the boat, they were ever vigilant, with a final fin whale spotted, of course by our aft observer, at ‘6 o’clock!’. Nice work Veronika!

So as we bid Team 2 farewell, we wait to welcome Team 3, and hope they too bring the luck with the whales and the weather. And don’t forget to look behind you!

I’ll let the pictures and expeditioners speak for themselves, though…

Azores: Patience rewarded

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago  (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores)

It has been a busy past couple of days, ‘having’ to work over the weekend. And our patience has been rewarded.

Saturday started like many other days, with an initial encounter with common dolphins, but in low numbers. But the day also saw the species list for 2018 increase again, this time adding the fin whale to our records.

We had to work for it though, travelling several miles to the south of Faial and Pico in search of cetaceans, and not in great visibility. You still have to put the hard yards in and maintain concentration to find some of biggest species we know. This was rewarded with encounters with fin whales, the second largest species recorded in the Azores, and a possible sighting of a beaked whale.

Sunday brought better weather and better luck. Again we found the common dolphins and fin whales, but were also rewarded with our first encounters with blue whales – two to be precise. These are the largest beasts you find in these waters, and made the group extremely happy.

We also had a record-breaking day on the turtle surveys, recording eleven loggerhead turtles in one day. The calm seas definitely helped with spotting them.

With two survey days to go for this group, we hope our luck and the good conditions continue….


Azores: Whales, at last!

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

After our initial success at sea, we have been restricted to another day on shore due to the weather. But this presented us with an opportunity to work through some data, and begin to learn and look at the photo identification of our different target species.

Having observed an estimated group of 30 bottlenose dolphins the day before, Katharina and Corinna were able to work through several photos and assign identifications to every individual in the group. The final data total from the photos was 24 individuals and no doubt some weren’t photographed. So a pretty good estimate by the team at the time of the encounter!

The next day saw us back at sea. This started like other days. Firstly an encounter with some 70 common dolphins, soon followed by a group of bottlenose dolphins, including some of the individuals we encountered only two days ago. The difference was the size of the pod. Now numbering some 150 individuals spread over several hundred metres. Those images will take some sorting….

Then we heard that word, which until now, had been missing from this year’s expedition: ‘blow!’. Our skipper (Jairo), had spotted what he thought was a sperm whale exhaling with a spray of water. Different whale species have different blows and can be identified by them.

But it had been so long since he had seen one, he was doubting his own eyes. We had faith. And sure enough, we closed in on our very first whale of this year’s expedition and it was indeed a sperm whale.

Seemingly like the weather, our luck had changed as the team identified multiple blows in different directions. The challenge then was to follow and photograph the fluke of each individual. No easy task, as our nominated photographer for the day, Silke, can attest.

But our day was not done. Jairo had been busy on the radio talking to a very excited lookout on the north side of Pico. Humpback whales had been spotted, and we made haste. In less than 20 metres of water depth and no more than 300 metres from the coast, we encountered three humpbacks. These were duly observed and photographed.

Our day ended with an excellent talk by Rebecca Boys on how photo ID day can feed into population modelling of sperm whales, which will ultimately inform appropriate management and conservation of this species. And as for the humpbacks, well, by the next day (our rest day), one had already been matched to another sighting off Norway – result!

So our first whales, our first match of 2018 and clear illustration of the usefulness of the data. Let’s hope our change of luck continues….



Azores: Team 2 has arrived, dolphins logged

From our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

It is great to back in the Azores. After an early start for the final pieces of preparation, we can finally say a big Azorean welcome to our next group of citizen scientists.

But before I go any further, let me first say a big thank you to the first group of expeditioners and their leader, Catherine. A great effort but all, under challenging conditions. Such is the joy of fieldwork!

Team 2 have all arrived safely. With initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, stretching our legs we had a whistle–stop orientation around Horta. Whilst important for us to impart the initial project knowledge, it has been great to learn about our new team.

Day two saw the real work commence with equipment and science training, followed by the boat orientation. With that completed, we put to sea, with everyone nervously assuming their new job roles. The pressure was on for our lookouts Corinna, Silke and Lara.

They soon delivered in the form of common dolphins. A firm favourite of the expedition and this encounter was a very social group of up to 50 individuals. This was followed by an encounter with their larger ‘cousins’ – bottlenose dolphins. Individuals of this species are much larger, and can be recognised by markings on their dorsal fin. The trick is getting clear dorsal fin shots, and that challenge was Katharina’s, as she was the designated photographer for the day.

So a solid start to the first day at sea, with data collected and noone getting seasick. The whales may have eluded us, but surely not for much longer…..

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