For many, Sunday is a day of rest. And that is what the weather gods had given us. With increasing winds and 6 metre swells, we weren’t going to sea. So a much-needed break from the boat work was enjoyed by all. A chance for the team to explore Faial.
Monday saw us all glued to the computer screens. Days at sea generate hundreds of images that are used to identify individuals of different cetacean species. But these images need to be sorted and organised, and so the team spent much of the day sifting through photos of sperm whale flukes, pilot whale fins and Risso’s dolphins.
After a first edit to select the best images these can then be collated, for later ‘matching’ to the existing catalogues of known individuals. This way we can begin to identify which cetacean individuals (and species) have been where and when before – a match!
For many species, each image can also be cross-referenced to GPS co-ordinates, and thus we can continue to deduce patterns of whale/dolphin movement (both for species and individuals) over space and time in the Azores. Such data sets not only take time to collect in the ‘field’, but take almost as long to sort on computers – as our team will testify.
But the reward can be quick. Images of sperm whales collected just this last week, were matched to four individuals first recorded in 2014 and one individual from 2010. We cannot only match individuals to catalogues in the Azores but sometimes from elsewhere in the Atlantic, elevating the power and value of the data. To have matches so early in the expedition is great news.
Tomorrow we may record some more as we hopefully return to the ocean, if the weather gods are on our side…
So it was the weekend and we had another day at the ‘office’.
With the winds having changed overnight, and now coming from the north, we headed to the calmer waters south of Pico island. This still meant crossing the slightly rougher waters in the channel between Faial and Pico.
To motivate the team, I had foolishly offered a prize for the first (non-dolphin) sighting of the day. Lynn had clearly had her coffee and soon shouted “Cory’s shearwater” (one of the common bird species we record every day). Lesson learnt. Next time I will be more specific – first non-dolphin cetacean sighting!
Our exertions of hanging on the pitching and rolling boat were soon rewarded with a cetacean sighting, and in the normal fashion, with what else, a fin whale. There was a rumour of a blue whale in the area, but our efforts were only rewarded with repeated fin whale encounters. It is hard to be disappointed.
Reaching the calmer waters, we had a change of focus with the lookout on Pico reporting sperm whales in the area. We tracked the 1000 m depth contour and soon enough we had a first encounter. As the afternoon progressed, one soon became nineteen, including encounters with mothers suckling their calfs. Initial analysis of the images suggests at least 8 different individuals (not including the calves). Calves don’t dive with their mothers and thus don’t show their flukes for identification. They patiently wait at the surface for the their mother to return some 45 minutes later!
So in our toughest conditions yet, the team did a great job. And credit to Susanne for getting great images to aid the sperm whale identification, and to Celine for keeping her upright. Lynn was rewarded with her bar of chocolate – which she graciously shared – thank you!
We now have a well-earned day’s rest, followed by some data analysis. We’ll let you know what else we find when we crunch the numbers and numerous images!
Fin whale (taken by Craig Turner)
Fin whale (taken by Craig Turner)
Sperm whale fluke (taken by Craig Turner)
Sperm whale fluke for ID (taken by Craig Turner)
Cory’s shearwaters (taken by Craig Turner)
Sperm whale with Cory’s shearwaters (taken by Craig Turner)
Tracking a Fin whale (taken by Craig Turner)
Recording sperm whale data (taken by Craig Turner)
Recording sperm whale data (taken by Craig Turner)
As we left the harbour at 09:00, our fourth day at sea started as others had, but with no hint of what was to come.
Not long out of harbour, heading along the south coast of Faial, we’d already encountered common dolphins, loggerhead turtles and some Risso’s dolphins, very much following the broad pattern of previous days. The first shout of “blow” was for a fin whale – again in keeping.
But after one, came three fin whales. The day was improving. Having documented those, we headed towards the next ‘blow’ sighted by Ralf. This was associated with three whales seemingly resting at the surface, and whilst they dived before we reached them, the expert consensus was that they were a species of beaked whale – a new find for this expedition.
That set the tone, as we then located a minke whale with calf – another new find for 2016. A species not commonly recorded in the Azores, as it is hard to see, and locating one with a calf is a real bonus. Following that trend, our next fin whale sighting was also with a calf. Such data at its simplest level demonstrates the importance of Azorean waters for many cetacean species.
We’d barely reached early afternoon at this point, so we continued west of Faial in pursuit of sperm whales. This quest was interrupted by a pod of bottlenose dolphins. And our photographer for the day (Dominique) demonstrated her skills in capturing their aerial acrobatics as the dolphins entertained all on the boat.
We quickly refocused to document several more sperm whale encounters, and record the flukes for later identification. And we still had time for another fin whale and more turtles.
We returned to dry land after 17:00, having sailed over 100 miles and recorded multiple individuals of 7 cetacean species (3 dolphins and 4 whale species) and 7 turtles in one day!
We probably all have to work 9-to-5 at some point in our lives; but as days at the ‘office’ go, in the words of our German team members, this was “not so bad”!
Our third day at sea saw us venture into new waters, for the 2016 expedition. This time we headed south of Faial.
Under rather grey skies, common dolphins and loggerhead turtles were among the first sightings of the day. They have been the consistent ‘data points’ for each day so far.
For the second day running, we also encountered another fin whale. A relatively brief encounter, but nevertheless an important one. With GPS positions logged (as we do for all sightings), data recorded and photos documented, we moved on. Heading further off the southern coast of Faial.
As the weather improved in the afternoon, so did our luck, with multiple sperm whale encounters. At one point we were trailing five individuals in a line. There won’t be many days when you get to linger behind five sperm whales! Though when trying to document the tail flukes of each whale, as well as monitor blow rates, activity on the boat can get fairly frantic. And you can always guarantee that multiple sperm whales will appear when we have some of the team on bird or turtle surveys.
The upshot was another great day of data collection, aided by some great weather and calm seas. More of the same tomorrow please!
Fin whale (taken by Craig Turner)
Sperm whale (taken by Craig Turner)
Sperm whale fluke (taken by Craig Turner)
Sperm whale fluke for ID (taken by Craig Turner)
Multiple sperm whales (taken by Craig Turner)
Following sperm whales (taken by Craig Turner)
Celine recording data (taken by Craig Turner)
Southern coast of Faial (taken by Craig Turner)
Some of the team on lookout (taken by Craig Turner)
Fieldwork invariably offers variety and the unexpected.
We started our first full day at sea with a hint from our lookouts that we could probably expect to see bottlenose dolphins. The strange-looking dolphins that we soon encountered were in fact false killer whales – not a whale, but another dolphin species that is less common than the bottlenose dolphins in the Azores, so a great find.
False killers were quickly followed by a false alarm, as two dark objects with ‘long fins’ were spotted on the sea surface, silhouetted in the glare of the sun. As we approached we quickly realised that the two kayakers wouldn’t add much value to our data set!
With our error forgotten, we were quickly surrounded by some 30+ individual false killer whales, spread over several hundred meters, and close to the coast of Pico island.
After an hour-long encounter, we decided to head further south. But our ‘hunt’ for our first true whale sighting was interrupted by several brief encounters with Risso’s dolphins.
And then…..nothing and more nothing. The weather and sea conditions were almost perfect, but the cetaceans were ominously absent, as we sailed on and the hours ticked by, the whale sighting count stayed firmly at zero. We continued to sail south, towards a 500 m deep sea mount, and with the hydrophone deployed, we finally located a sperm whale.
And then our luck truly changed, with the sighting of a solitary fin whale – the second-largest species of whale.
Fieldwork can often also be frustrating, but it will also often reward persistence and patience!
Our multi-national team all arrived safely, via a mix of routes and modes of transport. So the first slot of 2016 begins.
With initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, this morning we dived headlong into the research element of the expedition – the main reason why we have all travelled to the Azores. The scientific training began with familiarisation of equipment, which was followed by data records training, and rounded off with a boat orientation.
Our volunteers have clearly been good to the climate gods, as they have brought great weather with them. The team’s new-found cetacean research skills were soon put to the test, with sightings of common dolphins.
The luck continued, with a loggerhead turtle sighted during one of our designated ‘turtle time’ survey periods. Normally we see them outside ‘trutle time’, when they are logged as ‘random sightings’. A great job by Ralf in spotting the turtle, and custom has it, that such a sighting means our scientist Lisa buys a drink for each member of the team – thank you Ralf!
The sightings continued with a small group of Risso’s dolphins, located close to Pico Island. This species is resident in the Azores. When born they are very dark in colouration, but become ‘scratched’ with age, through social interactions, exhibiting unique hieroglyphic markings on the bodies and dorsal fins. The scratch marks can be used to identify individuals.
The day was rounded off learning key identification features of species we will hopefully encounter. The team are now poised and ready for action. So a great start to the expedition and the data collection. The whales will have to wait for another day…but you always have to have something to look forward to…
It’s time for the initial introductions. I am Craig Turner (on the left below) and I’ll be your Expedition Leader in the Azores this year.
If expeditions are a journey with a purpose, then the first part of that journey is complete. I arrived in the Azores (coming from Scotland) on Friday to prepare the expedition. It wasn’t quite all as planned, as we had an unscheduled stop in Porto, for a medical emergency on the plane. The delay meant I ending up chatting to a Brazilian academic about his PhD work on film translation, and on the second flight I bumped into Jim, one of our hosts from Banana Manor.
It is great to be back again and to meet up with friends and colleagues from previous years, not least, our scientist Lisa Steiner (looking through the ladder below). If you want to find cetaceans in the Azores, then she is the person to find them. Last year, our first day at sea scored our one and only humpback whale for the expedition – so you never can be too sure what ‘data’ we will collect. With Lisa already reporting sightings of humpbacks and sperm whales, we could be lucky again. We now just hope that the weather and whale gods are on our side and we can look forward to some great fieldwork (and data collection) over the next few days.
I hope you’ve all been eagerly reading your expedition materials and know to bring many layers of clothing. The weather can be a bit like four seasons in one day, so prepare for warm, cold, wet and dry. Like the weather in Scotland! Don’t forget your waterproof trousers – you’ll thank me when you are stationed on the bow as a lookout and the weather is choppy (so also bring your motion sickness pills/patches – if you know you need them!).
So with the local team in place, whale sightings already logged by Lisa, all we are missing is you. This Monday morning is hopefully one we are all looking forward to….. It will be great to meet you all.
This reminds me to mention communications on the island. There’s cell/mobile reception on Faial in addition to internet here and there, but remember the golden rule of no cell phones while we’re at sea. Hopefully you can resist the need for frequent international comms, and why not go off the grid for the expedition, and soak up the experience of Atlantic island isolation. My mobile number here is (+351) 962 338 060. Hopefully you and I won’t need it, but there you have it, just in case of emergencies, such as being late for assembly.
Safe travels and we look forward to meeting group 1 on Monday and groups 2 and 3 in due course.
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 5May 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.
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.
Decade of data from citizen science confirms cetacean hotspot
Information on cetacean sightings collected by Biosphere Expeditions’ citizen science volunteers in the Azores are confirming the importance of this region for a variety of species, amongst them humpback, sperm and blue whales – the largest species ever to exist on our planet.
Recent data have highlighted the importance of ‘site fidelity’ (the same individuals returning to the same location again and again) for species such as sperm whales. Indeed some individuals have been recorded multiple times since 2004, when Biosphere Expeditions first collaborated with Whale Watch Azores on this long-term project.
Cetacean specialist Lisa Steiner, the expedition’s scientist, says that “the collaboration with Biosphere Expeditions has led to repeat sightings of blue whales in different years, as well as matching humpback whales seen in the Azores to the Cape Verde Islands. We often encounter sperm whales that have been observed more in the early or late part of the year, and such information will help determine if there are ‘winter’ and ‘summer’ whales.”
But the decade-long data collection has not only revealed patterns of the lives of whales and dolphins around the Azores. Fluke identifications have been matched with individuals recorded further afield, such as in Norway. The project supports initiatives with both the University of the Azores and University of Florida, resulting in multiple novel scientific publications on the marine life of this unique archipelago.
“The volunteer data collection effort is vital”, says Dr. Craig Turner, the 2015 expedition leader, “as it helps unravel the detail in the lives of not just one ocean giant, but also resident species such a Risso’s dolphins and migratory species such as loggerhead turtles. The project is developing an insight not just into which species are here, but what these species are doing, where and when. This knowledge is vital for any conservation efforts, if they are to be effective.”
Dr. Matthias Hammer, Biosphere Expeditions executive director, adds: “The Azores is one of our longest-running projects and our collaboration with Lisa Steiner has given hundreds of people a unique insight into cetacean research and conservation over the years. It has also yielded a vast amount of data. We may not have headline-grabbing news every year, but it’s the steady chipping away at the block that makes the difference here, because the data collected by our citizen scientist volunteers are the bedrock on which effective conservation sits. The project as a whole is also a showcase of how volunteer-led commitments can go well beyond the support of a few years that are usually offered by grant-giving bodies. Lisa has shown an outstanding dedication to marine life that now spans several decades, so this long-term support is what is needed. We are proud to be helping Lisa in her efforts and look forward to many more years of working with her.”
Sunday was finally a sunny day with calm seas and almost no wind. The first time this week!
The lookout on Pico Island had spotted some blows of sperm whales in the south. So accompanied by a school of common dolphins, we headed out. Pico’s summit was cloudless and gave a beautiful background to the calm sea.
The sperm whales surprised us and kept us busy the whole day counting their blow rates, taking ID photographs of their flukes and milling around while waiting for them to resurface after their deep dives – up to 45 minutes.
Two beautiful loggerhead turtles were seen, but they dived away before we could even get close to catch them for tagging.
Finally Blue Monday and with it the last day of the expedition arrived. I am not about to break into the New Order classic but these two words perfectly summed up the.
The first whale of the day was blue, and so was the second, and then the third. By midday it was already a remarkable day. However, three fin whales, at least four sperms whales and three more…yes, three more blue whales followed. Six blues in one day…it was one hell of a finale to the expedition.
And the best was saved until last, as our very last sighting was a fluking blue whale. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the synchronised double fluking sperm whales earlier in the afternoon.
This was a fine reward for our team. Patience was tested over the last few days, with difficult sea conditions, challenging weather and sightings not always easy to come by!
But today the whale gods smiled on us. After a tense first hour, the sightings just didn’t stop, all day. This is the great thing about expeditions; they will always test you and then reward you in ways you don’t expect.
So we ended as we started, with blue whales. Yes this is great data, but also a humbling experience. Sharing the same piece of ocean with the largest creature that has ever graced our planet, can’t fail to stir the emotions.
So huge thanks to both teams, our scientist, Lisa, my two assistant leaders (Anthony & Chris) and our skippers (Nuno & Gyro). It has been a great expedition and we look forward to doing it all again next year.