Group 1 of our 2018 Azores whales, dolphins and turtle expedition has finished.
The weather has thrown everything at us: high winds, rough seas and torrential rain. But the team has stayed strong in the face of adversity. The atmosphere on Physeter, our research vessel, has been positively buoyant even on the toughest of days and we managed to get all the work done. The weather has made it difficult for this group to work on all the species that we usually see on this expedition, but as our scientist Lisa says, the zeros are as important as the ones in science. Humankind still has much to learn about these creatures, which is why data collected on expeditions such as these is so important.
Over the course of last ten days we recorded 5 loggerhead turtles, 1 blue shark, 3 Risso’s dolphins and today, 16 March, as a final farewell we documented a pod of 80 common dolphins, which swam beside us for 40 minutes. Their playful nature and agile forms were a sight to behold, and once we had taken our necessary ID shots, we relaxed and enjoyed their spirited freedom.
Thank you team for being an amazing group, and for finding the humour in every situation. I especially enjoyed our meal times together, and sharing your birthdays. I hope I have the pleasure of meeting you again on the high seas some day and I will let you and the pictures speak for themselves below.
I hand over the baton to Craig now, who will lead the next three groups.
With training and trial sea day complete, we embarked on a full research day on 11 March. It began foggy, with the volcano on neighbouring Pico island completely obscured. Silvia spotted a fin half an hour into our first transect and we identified three Risso’s dolphins exhibiting their unique white markings, originally caused during socialisation, never to fade.
By 11:00 our scientists Lisa decided to deploy the hydrophone, a microphone designed to be used underwater for recording or listening for the communication clicks of the sperm whale. She couldn’t hear any whales, but was alerted to some dolphins nearby. Soon enough three common dolphins emerged in front of our catamaran, and spent 10 minutes bow-riding, giving us a delightful break from our on-board duties.
Heavy rain then cut our day short and we returned to base for hot showers, a good meal and a slice of birthday banana cake!
The weather played havoc with arrivals – planes were delayed, cancelled and diverted to neighbouring islands, and at the assembly time of 14:00 on 8 March only half of the team was present. Lisa Steiner, our scientist, and I decided to press on as we had no idea when or even if the others would eventually arrive. We were pleasantly surprised when ten minutes into our first briefing a taxi pulled up, and Donna leaped out, having just driven straight from the airport! Bex, Silvia and Anke missed the afternoon sessions, but arrived just in time for dinner. All in the same situation, they had gravitated towards each other at the airport and it didn’t take long for everyone to form an enthusiastic team.
Unfortunately, high winds and torrential rain meant that we were not able to go out on the water for our training session on 9 March, but this did mean that we could get the whole team up to speed and make sure that everyone was kitted out in foul weather gear ready for tomorrow! We couldn’t decide if Bex and Donna resembled fisherwomen or firefighters!
We also used the time to take some videos for the world to meet some of the team and learn about their motivations and aspirations:
Due to bad weather in the Azores yesterday my flight to Horta was cancelled and I was flown to a neighbouring island. I am currently in the airport waiting to hear if my flight this morning is going ahead. My preparation plans are now delayed somewhat, but I will do my utmost to have everything ready for your arrival tomorrow.
That said, this situation may also affect some of your travel plans as the weather forecast for the next couple of days is quite bad , so I just wanted to reassure you that if this is the case, please don’t worry, we will adapt the programme accordingly.
As I do not yet have access to my local phone, if you are experiencing difficulty and would like to contact me, please use my UK number +44 7816 134 364 or alternatively contact Lisa Steiner our scientist in Horta on +351 929 129 515.
As with all expeditions, there are elements that are completely out of our control, weather being a prime example. All we can do in these situations is go with the flow.
I wish you all safe travels and smooth connections. Oh, and if you get there before me, put the kettle on ; )
January 2018 saw Biosphere Expeditions’ seventh annual citizen science expedition to and in collaboration with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). Participants from all over the world helped to collect ecological data on rare desert species. This will help DDCR management to define conservation management objectives in the future. Greg Simkins, the DDCR’s manager, says that ”Biosphere Expeditions not only provides us with an opportunity to engage with citizen scientists from a variety of countries to highlight our conservation work. Our joint annual survey expedition also enables us to make a rapid assessment of important species and their distribution within the DDCR each year”.
Expeditioners assessed Arabian oryx, Arabian and sand gazelle populations, monitored the status of fox dens, mapped plant distribution, set live and camera traps, and recorded fauna by observation.
Camera traps took over 4.500 pictures including several of the cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus), a bird species that has only ever been recorded in the UAE on three occasions. In total over fifty species of birds, mammals, reptiles and plants were recorded by the expedition team.
Expedition leader Malika Fettak says that “this was a very successful expedition working with enthusiastic people that share a common goal. Everyone on the team put a lot into the project and was rewarded with fantastic results of two live captures of Arabian red fox and the exceptionally rare proof of cinereous vulture within the DDCR.” Andy Trace, a citizen science participant from the UK, agrees: “I really felt like a scientist and I am certain our efforts are going to help the DDCR’s conservation goals.”
Early examination of the expedition results suggest that Arabian oryx and Arabian fox populations in the DDCR are healthy and continuing to expand. A detailed report of the expedition findings will be published in August 2018. Biosphere Expeditions and the DDCR look forward to many more annual survey expeditions to help wildlife and conservation in the unique place that is the DDCR.
I was last in the Azores back in 2014, so am keen to meet up with our scientist Lisa Steiner and learn of the developments that have taken place over the last few years. Lisa has been collaborating with Biosphere expeditions since 2003, so the data tirelessly gathered by citizen scientists such as you is now really bearing fruit. Thank you for giving your time to deepen this important work.
I will be travelling out to Faial a couple of days in advance of group 1 to prepare for your arrival and I’m looking forward to meeting group 1 at Banana Manor, our assembly point, between 13:00 and 14:00 on 8 March. If you are whiling away a few hours in Horta before that time and would like to meet me for lunch, I will be at Peter’s Café Sport on the quayside from 11:30. (Just ask any of the locals where it is – it’s a very popular landmark!) My contact telephone number for emergency purposes only (such as missing assembly) will be +351 93 041 7877.
Please remember to bring all your completed paperwork, as we will launch straight into training and briefings promptly at 14:00.
The Azores are also currently experiencing a cold snap, so make sure you bring plenty of layers, including slippers or lined crocs as we leave our outdoor shoes at the door and the tiled floors of Banana Manor are chilly!
I will be in touch again once I have arrived in Horta. Happy packing and safe travels!
The team has now left the DDCR, base camp is packed up and stored for next year and all that’s left is this final diary entry to conclude a successful expedition.
We were a relatively small team this year and we are extremely grateful for all the hard work everyone has put in to get through the survey schedule. It was a sizeable piece of work, but I am sure that you will all miss waking up to a desert sunrise, star gazing at night and trekking over the dunes with the anticipation of an exciting sighting just over the next ridge.
Before I go into detail with our findings, I would like to thank everyone who was involved and helped making this expedition happen. A special thanks goes to Platinum Heritage for their support and taking the team on a wonderful night safari in their classic Land Rovers. After a fantastic meal in their style desert camp, we very much enjoyed an introduction to astronomy, listening to Esra’s explanations, while perfectly couch potatoed in the seating area, our eyes on the constellations of the night sky. It was a night to remember.
In terms of scientific results, here are a few salient points:
All 46 2×2 km quadrants were surveyed with circular observations and all 220 fox dens checked for signs of activity. Our 17 camera traps recorded over 4600 photographs, including an observation of cinereous vulture, which is only the third record for this species in the UAE, a very exciting result! We also had some good reptile sightings in the last few days, including Arabian toad-headed agama, hissing sand snake and tracks of sand boa. Although many fox dens, originally recorded on a baseline survey a few years ago, are now inactive, we discovered new active dens and the numerous fox tracks and captures on camera traps indicate that the Arabian fox population in the reserve is healthy. Our live traps also caught two Arabian foxes, for which biometric data was collected. Over 50 species of bird, mammal and reptile were recorded by the team this year and we finally managed to identify the mystery duck at the large waterhole as a female garganey.
There are plenty of photographs from this year’s expedition (see slideshow), perhaps even one or two of Arabian oryx :), and we are looking forward to seeing the footage Andy shot with the drone. The film, once it is finished, we will happily share through our channels.
Greg was really pleased with the amount of data we collected, although it will take him a while to analyse and see what it all means in detail. The results will be published in the near future in the expedition report and also help identify the most appropriate research objectives for next year’s expedition.
Thanks again everyone for your input, effort and contribution. I hope you’ve enjoyed our time in the desert as much as we staffers did. Without your input, none of these data would get collected and these surveys would not get done, so we hope to all of you again some day, somewhere on this beautiful planet for another conservation and citizen science adventure!
P.S. And don’t forget to share your pictures and videos too.
The team all arrived safely at the DDCR on Saturday. First stop was the DDCR office for an introductory briefing from Greg about the history of the reserve and its conservation objectives. We then transferred to base camp for lunch and started the team training in the afternoon. This included the GPS devices, which are an essential part of the expedition enabling us to navigate in the desert, find survey points for species counts and record locations of species sightings. The GPS is also an important safety tool enabling the vehicle to be relocated after a desert walk. To practice survey skills and get the data collection started we ventured out close to camp, in quadrat 19, making a circular observation and checking several fox dens for signs of activity. With time left before sunset, Greg and Paul took the expedition drivers: Dirk, Cat, Toby and Andy, for driver training. As well as learning important driving techniques, the sand driving was good fun and everyone managed to get over a challenging dune. Going over the dune ridges is a bit like being on a roller coaster.
On Sunday we split up into three survey teams and went out to set up camera traps and live traps. The live traps are checked first thing every morning and we will check the SD cards of the camera traps for results at the end of the week.
On Monday morning the central team (Andy, Toby and Rick) had an Arabian fox captured in their trap and the south team (Paul, Dirk and Anjum) recorded cat tracks around their trap. Andy, our cameraman along this expedition, was able to get some footage of the fox being recorded and released. Andy also has a drone, which he has been using to get aerial shots of the beautiful desert scenery. Monday night after dinner we took UV lights out to search for scorpions and although they are not very active at this time of year, our efforts were rewarded when we found a small Arabian death stalker scorpion.
On Tuesday we had another trapping success with a feral cat caught in one of the live traps. Although it would be nice to trap a Gordon’s wildcat, capture of a feral cat is important because one of the biggest threat to the Gordon’s wildcat as a species is interbreeding with feral cats, so trapping data on feral cats and the opportunity to remove one from the reserve is useful.
As well as good sightings and data collection for our larger mammal target species including Arabian oryx, sand gazelle and Arabian gazelle, we have seen a lot of other interesting wildlife including pallid harrier, desert whetear, spotted eagle, lappet vulture, McQueens bustard, white spotted sand lizards and Cheeseman’s gerbil. Yesterday evening Paul caught a Baluch rock gecko in the camp fire log pile, which we managed to get some nice photographs of.
Everyone arrived safely at the DDCR. Our day was packed with briefings, theoretical & practical lessons. Writing this, at I am at the office while everyone else has gone to base camp after dinner. I believe they will all be asleep when I arrive! It’s been a long day for all of us with lots of information & learning new skills. Tomorrow we start again at 6:00 a.m., so I hope everyone will have a good first night in their tents. Here are just a few impressions of today.