Azores: Before the remnants of Paulette

The vigias on the north of the islands have been keeping us busy. On 12 September, we had a large spread-out group of sperm whales, 10 individuals were identified between myself and a friend on another boat! Some of the individuals were previously seen in 2016. After a group of three females plus a calf dived, we headed off in search of a group of Risso’s dolphin. We were lucky and found them. They were also very spread out and it didn’t seem like I was going to get any ID photos, but in the end we found a few groups of mothers and calves that were more approachable. There was a leucistic (lighter colouration) calf seen, this is only the second “white” calf that I have seen. A local expert says this is the third light calf that she knows about. Usually Risso’s dolphin calves are born dark and get whiter as they age, but this one was already white, with the foetal folds showing as dark creases, instead of the other way around. One individual breached a few times and there were also a few lobtails, so it looked like there was some socialising going on. Photos were sent to the expert, who has studied the Risso’s dolphin off Pico for over 15 years. She recognised some of the individuals as part of the “Faial Ladies” group often seen around Faial, including Resa, who has been seen on previous expeditions. Other individuals were unknown. There have not been a lot of sightings of Risso’s dolphin this year and it is not clear why. One possible factor could be the disturbance caused by swimming with dolphins. Risso’s dolphins do not usually show much interest in boats, so to be targeting this species for swimming, probably causes more stress than in other species. They are also resident, so usually use certain areas for resting and feeding. If those areas were no longer suitable for resting or feeding because of disturbance, it is possible that they have moved to other less trafficked areas. We also spotted a loggerhead turtle basking at the surface.

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On 13 September we were back to the north of the islands. In the morning I managed to get one sperm whale fluke, visibility was not great for spotting blows, so was happy with the one I got. We also had a sei whale and some pilot whales. In the afternoon, there were a lot of sperm whales spread out over a wide area to the north of Faial. A lot of distant breaches were seen in different directions. It appeared that a social group was going to form, since most of the whales that were approached, shallow dived, without showing their flukes, another indicator, along with breaching/lobtailing that indicates social behaviour, rather than feeding behaviour. In the end, I was lucky, two of the whales in the group that we chose to follow, fluked, just as we were giving up hope of seeing any flukes! Our patience was rewarded!

On 15 September, with the remnants of hurricane Paulette lurking on the horizon, we were out to the south of Pico, the most sheltered area. The vigia had seen a group of sperm whales, which turned out to be the “Nike” group and although she wasn’t seen, I did get a photo of “2529” and her calf as well as Nike’s calf from 2018.

The last trip before the windy weather arrived was also to the south of Pico on  17 September. We went out to try and find a sei whale that the lookout had seen, instead a group of sperm whales was found with the hydrophone about 10 miles off the coast. This group was last seen in 2019 to the north of Faial. On the way home, the lookout spotted the sei whales we had been looking for. They were quite elusive, but thanks to the help of a local fishing boat, we managed a glimpse of one of the individuals, before continuing towards Horta. Since then I have been stuck onshore, with the remnants of Paulette, passing by well to the west of the islands, causing strong winds in the Faial/Pico area.

Tien Shan: off we go after all!

The community team have recovered and the coronavirus numbers in Kyrgyzstan have gone down as the country seems to be on a different curve to Europe, for example.

So the team are heading into the mountains today from Bishkek to work with the community camera trappers, retrieve camera trap SD cards, service the camera traps and engage with the local community in the absence of a citizen science expedition this year.

They’ll be on horseback to speed things up. Watch this space for updates.

 

Community expeditions update September 2020

  • In the Azores (whales & dolphins) our scientist has been out on and off the water since April and has a written a detailed blog
  • In Germany (wolf), a small community expedition took place in July and there is also a blog
  • In the Tien Shan (snow leopard), our community camera trapping team have done very well to capture more snow leopard photos; the community expedition heads into the field tomorrow, after we had to postpone things earlier when the virus hit Kyrgyzstan hard during the summer – watch this space for more updates
  • In Costa Rica (sea turtles), work to save turtle nests from poachers continues successfully with a skeleton crew
  • In Thailand (elephant), we are working hard to get our study herd through the crisis
  • In the Maldives (coral reefs), our local partner has instigated a new coral reef conservation project
  • In Kenya (African biodiversity), we have empowered local communities with technology with great success during the last international expedition that ran just before the pandemic hit and have published the report of this already.
  • In Armenia (leopard, bear, wolf), the community expedition is planned for November

 

Enonkishu conservancy rangers, Kenya. (c) Chris Taylor

 

Costa Rica: Nesting season finished

In Pacuare, we are continued to run the project just with the local leaders, one research assistant and the biologist. The nesting season has now finished and we have closed the research station until next year, when we are hoping to reopen it again in time for next season, pandemic permitting.

The green turtle season was small and slow with just few nests, but because of this with a great success rate (almost 100%) of saving nests from poachers.

For leatherbacks, the hatchling numbers were similar to  previous seasons (see reports about those here). The eventual poaching rate was around 40-50%, depending on the month.

Thank you again to all those who supported the continuation of work despite the pandemic. For most of you this was by donating from afar this year. But we hope to return in person in 2021 and our expedition dates in May 2021 are on the website. Do join us if you can!

Azores: After the wind, a couple of surprises!

After a few days of windy weather when we were unable to get to sea, we were finally back out on 9 September. We headed to the south of Pico, since the sea was going to be calmer there. We were lucky the whales were in an area without rain showers. I was expecting to see the “Whitehead” group, since it was the area they had been for a couple of months now. But much to my surprise it was the “1019” group!! I was able to get three out of five flukes from the adults, with colleagues getting one of the other individuals. “1019” was first seen in 1988, but then not again until 2006, when she was observed with “3186” and they have been seen together ever since. This group was first seen in 2020 in the middle of June for a week and then they vanished. September is a more typical time of year for them to turn up in the Azores, but they have sometimes been seen earlier. I do not know where they have been for the past 2.5 months, I will have to wait for photos from São Miguel and Pico to see if they were sighted there in the meantime. I do not think they would have gone down to the Canaries and back again in this time. They have been observed in the Canaries during the winter one year. We also saw a shy group of striped dolphin and a small group of feeding common dolphin. As we crossed the channel towards Faial, a rain shower finally caught up with us and although it didn’t last very long, it was very wet while it lasted!

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On 10 September we were also back to the south of Pico, this time because no animals had been seen in the north, by the time we left. I wondered if we were going to see the “1019” group again, since they usually hang around for a while before continuing on their way. It was not to be, but there was another surprise. The “Nike” group, which is usually seen on the south of Pico most of the summer, was back in their usual area. I photographed one individual of this group to the north of the islands in the middle of July and have been expecting them to turn up on the south ever since. I did not see “Nike” herself or one other individual of the group, but did manage to photograph three adults and “Nike’s” 2018 calf. Getting a good photo of this individual was excellent, because I only had a photo of 3/4 of the fluke from 2018 from a side fluke photo. The matching program found the match straight away though, so now I have a full fluke photo to carry on with.

We also saw a pair of sei whales milling around, possibly feeding at depth. One of them was quite thin. This time of year, the whales should be finding a lot of food to fill out the “hollows” caused by not eating for four months or so while they are on their breeding ground. Hopefully it will find enough food over the next few months to survive. Both of the sei whales had nicks on the top of their dorsal fins at the leading edge, rather than the trailing edge. This type of nick is usually caused by monofilament line, slicing through the dorsal fin. We didn’t spot any dolphins and unfortunately missed a sighting of a whale shark. It disappeared about five minutes before we arrived to the area.

Here is how our signup process works under the current circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic

Our original terms & conditions under “Terms & conditions of Biosphere Expeditions Ltd. (Ireland)” still apply. The relevant sections are under the headings ” 4. Withdrawal by you” and “5. Change to expedition or cancellation by us”. In particular, and under pandemic conditions, this means that if we cannot run the expedition if the coronavirus situation does not allow us to do so at the time, then we will offer an alternative date to those signed up already and apply deposits paid to this new date, which will usually be around the same time the year after. The same applies if we do not have enough people signed up to an expedition to be able to run it. In addition, next to the offer of deferring to the same expedition at a later date, we will also offer those already signed up the chance to sign up to any other expedition on our portfolio for the next 15 months. Deferment terms will be handled very flexibly so that you can take whatever time you need to tell us which expedition you would like to defer to. If we do need to defer, we will tell everyone in good time, which means two months or more in advance. We also strongly recommend cancellation insurance for everyone, as we have always done. We do not offer this insurance ourselves, as we are not an insurance company, but there are many commercial options out there.

Azores: It’s September already

On the last day of August, the lookout said he had seen four sei whales to the south of the islands. What he forgot to mention was that the wind was whistling through the channel between Pico and Faial, making it extremely difficult to spot the whales. We waited in the area for almost an hour, moving slowly towards the west, when finally, I spotted a blow! A single sei whale seen in between the waves. It seemed to be avoiding the boats, so we did not stay too long. The camera stayed safely tucked inside its case. I am not sure if I would have obtained an ID photo anyway with all the waves and unpredictable movements of the whale, but there was a very good chance the camera would get wet!

Summer was back on 1 September. We went a long way down the south coast of Pico, where I was expecting to see the “Whitehead” group yet again. But when the first whale showed the fluke, I was surprised, it was not the “Whitehead” group after all. Finally some different individuals. There were two seen, one with a fairly small calf. When matching the flukes later in the day, I got a second surprise, “1368” has been seen in 1990, 2015 and now 2020. The other individual had been seen in 2015 as well.

After the sperm whales we were directed to a group of pilot whales. I do not think I have seen such calm pilot whales in a very long time. At one point there was one individual about 3 m from the boat. Although at the end, they “woke up” and all dived quite quickly. We also had a couple of groups of common dolphin on the way home. One of the common dolphin had quite a distinctive fin, probably from an encounter with monofilament fishing line. The light was amazing and I even managed to get a couple of nice photos of the main seabirds that we see in the Azores. The Cory’s shearwater and common tern.

On 2 September, we were again working towards the north of the islands. The lookout had seen sperm whales as well as baleen whales. We were lucky to find the sperm whales, because they had just started to socialise at the surface, which means they are not clicking, so we would not be able to use a hydrophone to find them. There was a very very small calf with three adults. It appeared to be a “meet the calf” encounter. The calf had a floppy dorsal and flukes that were still curled as well as distinct foetal folds. Luckily, the whales showed some of their flukes while socialising, so we did get the ID images. They also showed their heads out of the water with their mouths open, giving us a chance to see their teeth. Then it was further out to sea to where a couple of sei whales were feeding with spotted dolphin. One of the sei whales made a few lunges to scoop up schools of baitfish, unfortunately a bit far to get good images.

The north of the islands has been full of whales the last few weeks and we were back to the north again on 3 September. First stop was a sei whale that may have been feeding at depth, it was making dives of 2-3 minutes. The sperm whales were a bit further out today and they were next, with a group of spotted dolphin seen along the way. At one point there seemed to be sperm whales in every direction. I got five flukes in the morning and then in the afternoon, we saw three different groups of sperm whales. First it was the same as the morning, with a sei whale surfacing about 200 m from where one of the sperm whales dived! This sei whale was the same as the lunging whale from yesterday. It was time to see some dolphin and a group of spotted dolphin were feeding, with a few making some spectacular leaps (when the camera wasn’t pointing their way). As we headed for home, we thought we might detour towards where the sei whale had been seen, but instead we found a group of six sperm whales that became seven just as we were leaving. Only one of these whales showed its fluke, it appeared that a social group was forming. But the sperm whales weren’t done with us, because I spotted yet another blow as we were on the way back to harbour and this time it was one of the “Northern Ladies” one of our well-known groups from the north of Faial. Matching photos in the evening, I had another surprise, more long-term matches. Two of the whales from the morning were first seen in 1995! We also saw a large group of striped dolphin, which were their usual shy selves.

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On 4 September, the weather began to turn and we headed to the shelter behind Pico, rather than have a very bouncy wet trip in the north. The lookout had seen a sei whale early on, but then rain obscured his view. We headed out to a group of bottlenose dolphin, hoping that the whale would re-appear. And we were lucky, after a spread-out group of feeding bottlenose dolphin and another group of spotted dolphin, we observed a single sei whale moving in large circles making dives of a few minutes, most likely feeding at depth. On the way home, we encountered a group of common dolphins that had a small mating group within it. There was also an individual with anomalous markings. There was also a group of 200 spotted dolphin, one of which had a chopped dorsal fin, probably like the common dolphin above from an encounter with monofilament fishing line. As a bonus we also spotted the same group of bottlenose dolphin as the morning, which although still spread out were exhibiting some signs of socialising, with spectacular leaps.

Another interesting bit of news came up. I was contacted by the researchers that spotted a mother and calf humpback in the Mediterranean to see if I recognised the fluke photo. I didn’t, but put them in contact with other people around the Atlantic and a match was found, with the Happy Whale program. The adult had been seen previously in Dominican Republic in 1986 and was spotted off Genoa in late August! It is very unusual to see humpback whales in the Mediterranean. Hopefully she will find her way back out, otherwise they will be on their own, without any con-specifics in the future. This is the link to the photo of the match, but if you want to see the rest of the info, you will have to scroll down on their page: https://www.facebook.com/associazione.menkab/photos/pcb.3532459813454641/3532349790132310

And while we are talking about links, there is now a page on ResearchGate, a networking site for scientists and researchers to share knowledge and contacts, that lists all the expedition reports and other publications that have come out of our expeditions in the last 16 (!) years. The Azores is the longest-running Biosphere Expeditions project and I could not have done all this work over the years, or been on the water as much in this coronavirus year, without the help of the hundreds of citizen scientists who have joined me over the years. Thank you very much! I hope to be welcoming you to the Azores again in 2021.

The weather has now turned windy for the next few days, which can happen sometimes in September, hopefully we will get a couple of days out on sea next week, before the next unsettled weather arrives. Signs that winter is coming.

Azores: Still “Whitehead” group and sei whales, plus dolphins

The windy weather eventually passed and I have been back on the water the last few days.

On  26 August, despite it still being a bit windy, we braved the elements. The “Northern Ladies” turned up for the first time this year, in their usual location to the north of Faial. There is a calf with a white head in the group, so we now have a “Whitehead Junior”, not to be confused with “Whitehead” from a completely different group! We also had a mixed group of striped and common dolphin, but it was a bit windy for the camera to come out.

On 27 August the seas had calmed down quite a bit, so it was easier to observe the animals. In the morning, we had at least some of the same animals as yesterday to the north of Faial, including a fairly new baby that we hadn’t seen yesterday (but we didn’t see the mother either). In the afternoon, we went to the south of Pico, since the whales in the north had disappeared offshore too far for the vigia to see. “2578” of the Whitehead group was seen as well as a single milling sei whale and then a mother and calf sei whale. The calf was very interested in the boat, circling us several times, appearing unexpectedly behind us a couple of times. We also saw spotted dolphin in the morning and again in the afternoon, plus a large group of bottlenose dolphin with calves in the afternoon. We also came across the biggest sunfish that I have ever seen. The fin, looked like an orca dorsal cutting through the water!

On 28 August, we were once again to the north of the islands. A very nice surprise, when I looked at the photos. “1333” first seen in 1990 as well as “2906” and “2907” first seen in 2005. Unfortunately, the wind picked up and I was unable to get more photos of the group in the afternoon.

On 29 August, we started the morning out with a sei whale before heading on to the sperm whales. Surprise, surprise, the Whitehead group are still hanging around on the south of Pico! Westerly winds prevented us getting back out in the afternoon.

And finally on 30 August, we were back to the south of Pico, where, I think, the Whitehead group was waiting for us! There was also a sei whale feeding on fish alongside spotted dolphin. We ended the morning with a mixed group of striped and common dolphin. The striped dolphin doing what they do best, run away from the boat! In the afternoon, the vigia could not see the whales, which had headed towards Pico when we left them. We will have to try again.

The final news on the harp seal is that it was an old male, judging by the teeth, and had not been feeding for some time. The only thing in its stomach were stones. Stones are not unusual to find in the stomach of seals, because they can not chew their prey, the stones help to break down the fish they are eating.