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

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.

Lisa Steiner at her poster
Lisa Steiner at her poster

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.”

2015 expedition slideshow:

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

Addendum of pictures of the 2014 expedition

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

Thursday we had four encounters with blue whales, one of them a breathtaking experience. The joke on board the Physeter was, “Now we know what blue whales play with—us!” because our first blue whale of the day circled the boat three times before heading off on a deep dive—directly under us! A couple of fin whales, one humpback, and encounters with common dolphins as the first and last encounters rounded out the day.

Friday the team had another remarkable day. First, the team reported a random sighting of the sun 🙂

Our first cetacean encounter was with two blue whales and a fin feeding together. It was another action-packed day with plenty of whales spotted by the vigias, as well as several random sightings of animals we spotted on our own. “Eyes to the back of the boat” was the motto of the day, and sure enough, many of the cetaceans chose to sneak up behind us today. We spotted an uncooperative humpback, which only fluked once. Luckily our photographer for the day, Simon, caught it right as its tail disappeared into a wave.

Humpback whales are unusual here in the Azores, and while there were reports of a few sightings of humpbacks before team 3, only team 3 actually saw them. Counting today’s last humpback encounter, Lisa was downright giddy that this was our fifth individual seen this season.

Another unusual occurrences war the “norm” for team 3; Lisa had just pointed out a few petrels – a species of bird that is generally not present this time of year – and had commented on how she had never before seen so many. There were around 150 birds and then we saw the reason why; they were feeding on a dead whale.

We estimated that the whale carcass was about 3-4 months old. Indeed, it was far gone (luckily our skipper kept us upwind). The species was unidentifiable, but the enormous amount of floating blubber did not leave any doubt as to what it was. In general the team agreed that it was a privilege to see the dead whale, an honour to bear witness to the cycle of life having also seen young whale calves during our time here. We also were privileged to see several blue whales, pilot fish, and the now-positively identified Wilson’s storm petrels.

A big thank-you to all team 3 members for your hard work. Your efforts catalogued:

Bottlenose dolphins – 0 encounters (much to Martina’s dismay…)

Common Dolphins – 18 encounters totalling 522 animals

Risso’s dolphins – 4 encounter totalling 36 animals

Fin whales – 11 encounters totalling 19 animals

Sei whales – 9 encounters totalling 11 animals

Blue whales – 16 encounters totalling 21 animals

Humpback whales – 5 encounters with 5 individuals

Sperm whales – 22 encounters with 15 identified individuals

and

Loggerhead turtles – 4 encounters with 4 individuals (with 1 tagged)

Saturday was the last day of the expedition and we obviously did our training job well in the Azores because after we said good-bye to team 3, I received a phone call from Martina at the airport…Diana had spotted a fluke! The two confirmed a humpback whale right off the coast of the island. Good work team!

Indeed good work everyone this year! A sincere thanks to all our hard working participants who came out with us this year. Your contributions in effort and time really made a difference in our research here – we simply would not have been out on the sea at this incredible time without you making this expedition happen. Thanks for braving bad weather, choppy seas, seasickness and POPA paperwork.

Overall stats for all three slots combined:

Bottlenose dolphins – 8 encounters totalling 60 animals

Common dolphins – 62 encounters totalling 1429 animals

Risso’s dolphins – 8 encounter totalling 82 animals

Fin whales – 20 encounters totalling 36 animals

Sei whales – 21 encounters totalling 37 animals

Blue whales – 19 encounters totalling 25 animals

Humpback whales – 5 encounters with 5 individuals

Sperm whales – 91 encounters totalling 276 animals

and

Loggerhead turtles – 11 encounters with 11 individuals

Leatherback turtles – 1 encounter with 1 individual

It was great to meet all of you and a privilege for Lisa and I to work alongside you. I hope to see you on another expedition. Can someone give me a water temperature please?

Alisa

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

Tuesday we came close to breaking the Biosphere Expeditions record for the highest number of individual sperm whales catalogued in one day…we sighted 15 individual animals! We did, however, break the number of sperm whale breaches, with an astounding SIX breaches. Plus we saw another two sperm whale tail lobs. A tail lob is when a large whale positions themselves downwards vertically and then slaps the water surface with the stock of their tail.

On the way back to base we also saw two pods of Risso’s dolphins and a small group of striped dolphins.

Wednesday Ana Besugo, a researcher with the Departamento de Oceanografia e Pescas, Universidade dos Açores, came on board with us. Thanks to her we caught and tagged our first loggerhead turtle of Team 3. Volunteers saw Ana in action taking samples from the loggerhead, including barnacle scrapings and the turtle crabs. Most loggerheads have one or two crabs that live underneath the shell of the turtle close to the anus in a symbiotic relationship. The crabs clean, and the turtles provide protection.

The team did a terrific job again with big rolling waves and choppy seas today. We were treated to 20 common dolphins only a half hour from the harbour, then spent the rest of the day bouncing in between fin whales (6 in all), blue whales (2), and a humpback whale. The humpback was not bothered by the boat at all; matter of fact, he was downright photogenic. He fluked very close straight towards the boat, and then fluked very close going away from the boat, giving us some excellent ID pictures. (Thanks Ann for letting me post your pictures!)

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

Due to bad weather at sea, Sunday was a shore day for the group. Seven of us – Manuel, Flávio, Mónica, Diana, Sue, Lisa and I – spent our morning alongside the locals in Almoxarife participating in Faial’s Beach Clean.

Organised every year, teams of volunteers meet at the island’s beaches to pick up debris that’s either been washed up from the Atlantic or left behind by locals. At the end of the two-hour clean, all the trash is piled up in the centre of town as a monument to the volunteers’ efforts. It’s amazing what a big difference a few volunteers can make. And I admit, it was really an honour to work alongside the Faialenses and be able to give back to this beautiful island community where we are privileged to work.

Yesterday, Monday, well, I just have to say well done Team Three! It was a difficult day at sea with a rocking boat and challenging sea conditions. We had two long encounters with two blue whales, totalling four animals to add to the catalogue. En route to a group of sperm whales we saw a small group of Risso’s dolphins.

Before we arrived at the sperm whales, a report of a humpback whale came in. When this changed to TWO humpbacks, we changed our course and went down to photograph them. They were actually at the mouth of the harbour – at one point only about 100 meters off of Monte da Guia. They were magnificent to watch, with their 5 meter long flippers that we could see under water.

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

Team three arrived Thursday, and wasn’t able to go out to sea on our first scheduled day because of high winds (Team 2 knows what I am talking about!) Today, Saturday, was our first day out and we made up for lost time.

What a day! Our group saw seven blue whales. We also saw eleven sei whales, nine badly behaved sperm whales who chose not to fluke, two fin whales, one turtle and about 80 common dolphins. The second to last blue whale did fluke for us; it’s very rare that they do, but we’ve got pictures and a video to prove it

Martina was our super spotter today, with our first sighting of the day. With only eight team members, and three of them feeding the fish at the back of the boat, yours truly was “water girl” (most of the time). Kudos to all team members for filling in for others as they dropped down to the back deck one by one. And special thanks to Ann, who wrote up the POPA transects and a staggering amount of random cetacean sightings by herself on the first day!

Marília was our photographer today, and she did a great job. There were lots of Portuguese man-of-war in the water, and she captured this really nice one for the team. Actually, all of these pictures are hers.

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We have four “placements” with us on this group, Masters Students from the University that have joined the expedition as part of our capacity-building efforts. On all projects Biosphere Expeditions tries to give back to the community by using local services, guides, resources and food, as well as educating and empowering locals. Marília, Mónica, Manuel and Flávio are a great addition to our team.

 

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Dear prospective Sumatra expeditioners

During my recent visit to the island, Dr. Marcelo Mazzolli, our big cat expert, and I put most of the finishing touches to what we hope will be our next expedition launch. We were kindly hosted by Wishnu and Febri from our local partner WWF Indonesia.

People

Febri will be the scientist for the expedition and is looking forward to it all, albeit with some trepidation of being overwhelmed by foreigners 😉

Pekanbaru, our assembly point city, certainly has zero foreigners in it. Marcelo and I were treated like celebrities with frequent requests for photos. The further away from Pekanbaru we travelled, the more frequent they became, especially at the hospitals and medical posts we inspected for our medical umbrella plan. Full of smiling and laughing nurses, they looked like good places to have a twisted ankle treated in. In the field, WWF’s Subayang field station is certainly a beautiful place

Subayang

as is the expedition study site of Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve

and the gibbon wake-up calls in the morning are even better

The biggest change to what was quoted on the website so far is the dates. We have to work around Ramadan, when Febri has to fast during the day and therefore cannot be in full action in the field. Our new prospective dates are 2 – 15 May | 17 – 29 May | 31 May – 12 June || 26 July – 7 August | 9 – 21 August | 23 August – 4 September. These may yet shift by a week or so and we should know the final dates this month. When we do, we will send around the expedition briefing to the waiting list (which now has over 150 people on it). Once this is done, we just need to wait for the final ok from WWF head office in Jakarta and their signature on the dotted line of our collaboration agreement. Once we have this, we will launch the expedition hopefully sometime in June. Once launched (first to the waiting list for a few days before going fully public), places will be awarded on a first-deposit-first-served basis. We cannot accept deposits/reservations until then, but if the experiences of other launches are anything to go by, then we should be able to accommodate everyone on the waiting list on their preferred dates.

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Regards

Dr. Matthias Hammer
Executive Director

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

Well, it’s been an interesting last two days at sea for Team 2. Despite the continued high winds – and high waves – Saturday went something like this: Sei, Sei, Sei, Sei, Sei, Fin, Sei, Fin, Sei, Fin, Sei, Common Dolphin, Common Dolphin. The team was jamming all day running from encounter to encounter with 13 separate ones of them.

We photographed 21 individuals. The group also saw a group of common dolphins with babies, and a loggerhead turtle that was too small to tag.

Today, our last day at sea, the team finally got to document some Risso’s dolphins. They also saw an enormous leatherback turtle and a sei whale, all of which were random sightings. For those of you reading this diary from home, the random sightings are when the vigias, or lookouts, have not spotted anything from land. This means that Team 2 had super duper spotting ability, and picked out the animals in spite of the white-capped sea conditions. One of the whales we saw today was a match to one from earlier in the week, the one the team Dubbed “punk rocker” because of the hole in the animal’s dorsal fin.

A big thank you, again, to Team 2 for your willing attitude and efforts in data collection in less-than-ideal conditions! We documented the following amazing number of animals thanks to you:

Bottlenose dolphin – 3 encounters totaling 20 animals

Common dolphin – 15 encounters totaling 565 animals

Risso’s dolphin – 1 encounter totaling 10 animals

Fin whale – 4 encounters totaling 6 animals

Sei whale – 12 encounters totaling 26 individuals

Blue whale – 2 encounters with 3 individual

Sperm whale – 10 encounters totaling 13 animals

From these encounters we had 5 positive sperm whale matches to prior years.

And…

Loggerhead turtle – 4 encounters with 4 individuals

Leatherback turtle – 1 encounter with 1 individual

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As I write this, I cannot help but wonder what Lisa would do if we had had an encounter with TWO turtles during turtle time…

Wishing Team 2 safe travels home and we’re looking forward to Team 3 arriving.

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

Well, we had two shore days back to back thanks to high winds all around the islands.

Tuesday night Ricardo Fernandes, a masters student at the University of the Azores and one of our placement students from 2012, came and gave us a presentation on Bryde’s whales, which are the subject of his master’s thesis.

When Biosphere Expeditions talks about capacity-building, this is one of the many ways we do it. Biosphere regularly offers ‘placements’ to local students/people. They become a fully-fledged part of the team and learn right alongside our citizen scientists on expedition. For volunteers it’s a great way to meet locals, and for the locals it’s a meaningful learning experience and cultural exchange. Ricardo is using many of scientist Lisa’s identification photos taken over the more than 20 years she’s been working in the Azores.

Wednesday was a ‘dolphin day’ due to windy weather preventing us straying too far from the channel between Pico & Faial. Luckily we encountered a large feeding group of common dolphin about five minutes after we left the dock!

It wasn’t too windy on the 24th and the lookouts said they had whales and out we went. We found a couple of fin whales with a sei whale trying to blend in! Luckily the photos proved that there was a sneaky sei whale amongst fins. After those encounters we then went down the south of Pico and found some sperm whales. It as most likely a group of young males with two larger animals. In all we identified five different individuals. Lisa came back to the dock with a big smile on her face.

Yesterday we had more wind from the southwest, which meant we were going to search on the north side of Pico where we would have some shelter. The lookout that is normally on the south coast went to the north to spot for us. We put the hydrophone out and had a few listens before the lookout called to say he had found some baleen whales.

We followed his directions and found three feeding sei whales milling about. Two came quite close to the boat as they milled around giving us great ID shots. One even had a hole in its fin! This one was named “Punk Rocker” for the “piercing mark”. Then off we went with the hydrophone deployed again looking for sperm whales.

We heard them eventually, but they proved elusive & we never did see them, much to Lisa’s frustration. However, the day was not done yet, as Catherine had some eagle eyes on the way back and spotted a blow. The skipper thought it was going to be the same sei whales as before, but it was verified from the photographs to be a different one! So in all, we identified four sei whales.

Kudos to Team 2 for bundling up in their Buffs and their waterproofs and braving the wind and large waves. We appreciate your flexibility and team spirit in spite of the challenging weather.

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