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

Bad weather has stopped play. High winds, rain and large waves have temporarily halted our progress on the water.

Consequently, Tuesday presented the opportunity for most of the team to explore Horta and Faial – by foot, bike, moped and car! On Wednesday, the team were back at the scientific ‘coal face’ sorting data, organising photographs and matching images.

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The great news is we have ‘matches’. At least four (possibly five) matches of sperm whales, identified from their fluke images taken by slot 1 on the 14th April this year. These individuals were previously recorded on multiple occasions as far back as 2004, when Biosphere Expeditions first worked in the Azores. It is great when all the hard work pays off and you can link the data points collected between the different expeditions.

So whilst we would have preferred to celebrate Earth Day out on the water, documenting new encounters with false killer whales, bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales, the team were able to join some data dots and complete another piece of the cetacean puzzle.

Our only whale of the day came in the form of a birthday cake for John – Happy Birthday.


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

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

Chris, Craig’s assistant for group 2, here this time:

Blue skies, calm sea…the second day seemed promising. Fears of churning stomachs were replaced with optimism as we took off in search of the cetaceans. The question is would they be more co-operative than on Sunday?

With no information from our lookouts, it looked like the flip of a coin would decide where to go. We headed to the south of Faial, where noone was looking. Some common dolphins made a good start, surfing our bow wave. Bob got the chance to do his job with the hydrophone, in the hope to hear some ‘metronomic clicking’, which would lead us to some sperm whales. Unfortunately these toothed whales were silent, but the dolphins were singing.

With wind from the southeast, we trailed west and suddenly the shout came: “Bloooowww”. Four fin whales travelling south of Faial were kind enough to show us some of their impressive white lower jaw, blow holes and dorsal fins – identification shots were bagged. Some bottlenose dolphins also gave us a fleeting encounter.

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The faint clicking of the hydrophone suggested the sperm whales were out there, but our efforts to find them were interrupted when we suddenly ran into a school of 150 striped dolphins, jumping and racing along. Not a common sight here; and all were happy to be the first Biosphere Expeditions group this year to encounter these beautiful animals.

A sperm whale finally revealed its location by breaching with a huge splash in the far distance. Our pursuit was thwarted by rougher seas, but not before being waved goodbye by a sperm whale’s fluke. Random sightings of these mammals are rare, so also capturing the photo ID was a bonus.

While closing our circle around the island of Faial we encountered another single fin whale passing to the north. As the wind strengthened, it was time to head for the harbour. The data scores were better than yesterday, with more encounters and species. Our only zero was on the turtle front – the first time the expedition has failed to record one this year.

More to come…


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

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

After a whistle-stop weekend of introductions, briefings and training sessions, our new team were probably not expecting fish food and ‘rock ‘n’ roll’, as they set foot onto the Physeter – our research vessel.

The whales were playing ‘hard to get’, and the dolphins were a ‘no show’ for whole afternoon at sea. We eventually tracked down two fin whales, whose constant diving made them even harder to locate in the rise and fall of the large swell. As the boat pitched, rocked and rolled, any romantic notions of cetacean watching in calm sun-kissed seas quickly evaporated from the minds of many – replaced with the nauseous reality.

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Momentary distraction and the highlight of the day came in the form of a captured loggerhead turtle. This sizeable specimen was tagged (in the hope of recording future movements), vital statistics taken and returned to its ocean home.

So a tough first day ’at the office’ with cetaceans hard to find, but the silver-lining was the first turtle tagging of this year’s expedition…and the fish also got fed (more than once)!

Expeditions are about taking the rough with the smooth, and hopefully we’ll get the latter soon…

In the meantime an article about our work on the Azores has appeared in a major Portuguese newspaper http://observador.pt/2015/04/19/vida-selvagem-mergulha-nos-acores/ and we hear that supremely dim Pippa Middleton reports having eaten whale meat http://www.wildlifeextra.com/go/news/Pippa-Middleton-whale.html#cr….


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

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

So our first slot of 2015 in the Azores has come to an end, and it only seems like yesterday that we started.

It is amazing what you can pack into just a few days when you try. We’ve been lucky to encounter four species of dolphin – Risso’s, common, bottlenose and false killer whales. The last three numbered in their hundreds over our five survey days.

And as for the whales…. the blue whale was a great way to kick-start the surveys – any day you encounter the largest species that has roamed our planet, has to be a good day. We’ve had breaching humpbacks and sperm whales, and several encounters with the elegant fin whales.

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The team also broke a record, documenting the highest number of loggerhead turtles by any Biosphere Expeditions team, and we also completed the set with a leatherback turtle record.

A great team, all doing a fantastic job, and all the encounters equate to vital data. What more do you want from a week at ‘work’?

Safe travels and enjoy a well-earned rest.

Until next time….

Craig & Anthony


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

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

It was inevitable that it would happen eventually, the last day of our first expedition at sea.

The team are now working like a well-oiled machine – arisen, eaten and out the door with time to spare when we arrived at the harbour.

We set off with the sea as calm as a pond. Our first encounter of the day was with a couple of pods of common dolphins who kept us busy for half an hour; then over the radio came sightings of blows off yonder.

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We headed towards the island of Sao Jorge and arrived to see a fin whale, no two fin whales; no, three fin whales – who delivered great dorsal fin shots for our photographers (Lisa & Simon). Though it is always nice to get the ID and artistic shot!

We parted ways and headed off to investigate the blows of a potential sperm whale sighting. As I was doing the data sheets today, I can assure you they were indeed, but not just one – there were 23 sperm whale encounters and up to 43 individuals including calves!

The day was rounded off with seven female sperm whales in a line, side by side when an enormous male came into view and made himself known. Some of the females disappeared and one of them breached out of the water causing a tremendous splash before the male and the remaining females dropped below the surface.

We could not have hoped for a better ending to the day and the first group of 2015.


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

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

Bad weather stopped play. Our surveys were curtailed by the winds, but it did not stop the work. Saturday brought a day of data sorting, image matching and cetacean naming.

The team were introduced to the process of image sorting, matching tail flukes and giving our study subjects some form of identifier. Image processing and specially designed fluke matching software aid the process, but there is no substitute for a keen eye when it comes to trying to identify sperm whale flukes by matching them to previous records.

The Risso’s dolphins are identified by the marking on their dorsal fins, so a creative mind and an ability to say what you see, definitely helps in giving them a recognisable name.

Sunday was a well earned day off, giving us a chance to explore our temporary home town of Horta, and the wider island of Faial. Tomorrow we are back out on the ocean.


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

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

There were no signs of the Monday morning blues as we set out to sea after two days ashore. Rightly so, as the sun was shining, the sea was calm and snow dusted the top of Pico.

Aside from our normal encounters with common dolphins and loggerhead turtles, the first main event to document was with a mighty fin whale, second only in size to the blue whale. It is not often you can spend your Monday morning tracking fin whales.

However, the day was to get better. Reports were coming in of a pod of false killer whales. So we powered along the south coast of Pico island and sure enough came across a large pod (100+) of the false killer whales – sleek, black, torpedo-shaped and a member of the dolphin family.

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This species is often found in association with bottlenose dolphins, and we weren’t disappointed. A flurry of data collection and photography ensued, as the teamed work to document the encounter (and individuals) but also enjoy the show, as both species moved in to the ride the bow waves of our boat.

As we finally parted ways, and went back on one of our survey transects, the day was neatly rounded off with yet more fin whales and a passing encounter with a small group of Risso’s dolphins.

Monday was definitely a dolphin day.


 

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

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

Our third day at sea was the perfect illustration of why fieldwork brings both freedom and frustration.

The whales were using the freedom of the ocean to disappear without a trace and we were being drawn into a nautical game of hide and seek. How hard is it to find 50 tonnes of whale? – very, when they can dive for 90 minutes on one breath and descend to 1000 m below the surface.

But the team are a determined bunch. With ‘eyes all around’ looking in every direction the sperm whale had to ‘blow’ its cover at some point.

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Eyes around

 

We also had one other trick up our sleeve, as Annabel deployed the hydrophone – an underwater microphone to listen in on the whale’s world. We then had a better sense where it may be moving. The audio-visual vigilance paid off and a single male sperm whale was finally spotted and photographed for the identification records.

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Deploying the hydrophone

 

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Sperm whale fluke success

 

The weather also conspired against us, with increasing winds restricting our movements around Faial. With a limited search area, the dolphins also proved elusive, with just a handful of common and bottlenose sighted. The turtles were the only ones keeping up a regular appearance and giving any consistency to the data.

This is why we are here – to better understand the patterns of appearance and disappearance. After all, any record or none at all – they are all still valuable data.


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

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

If our first day at sea was about diversity (with blue, sperm and humpback whales; not to mention the common and bottlenose dolphins), our second day was all about intensity.

After the obligatory turtle sighting from Carlos (winning the prize for the first spot of the day), common dolphins were again added to the sightings list, but this time with calves. Our lookouts (Anthony and Simon) then proved their worth with a dolphin shout that turned out to be Risso’s, again with calves. With hieroglyphic scratches covering their bodies, this not only makes them distinctive, but also gives a window on their history.

Risso’s dolphin sighted off Pico Island – the scratch marks on the dorsal fin aids identification. Picture courtesy of Craig Turner.
Risso’s dolphin sighted off Pico Island – the scratch marks on the dorsal fin aids identification. Picture courtesy of Craig Turner.

Body art was also a theme for the part of the day, as we observed the ‘chevron patterns’ of several fin whales – these markings behind the head are partly used to identify individuals.

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Trying to identify a fin whale from its chevron markings. Picture courtesy of Craig Turner.

The afternoon was reserved for sperm whales by the dozen. Keeping the team busy recording blow rates and fluke photographs for identification of individuals. Several of the females observed were also with calves. There must be something in the water!

Until tomorrow.

Craig


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

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

This is Anthony, Craig’s assistant expedition leader, reporting on our first day out at sea.

Datasheets at the ready, we set sail this morning. Within moments of leaving the dock, we spied our first pod of common dolphins. In the rush to get the corresponding paperwork to document this event, a turtle was spotted by Annabel. Now hurriedly looking for the turtle sheet we were now in the bay and into the blue.

common dolphin (1)
Common dolphins
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Turtle

With the early records documented, we saw our first blow in the distance. It belonged to a humpback whale. Before we could get there, it had dived. Luckily, however, the radio, operated by our spotters on land, reported sightings of a baleen whale, so we powered in that direction.

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Humpback whale

 

When we arrived we discovered it was the mother of all baleens, the mighty blue whale. We patiently watched it as it swam gently on its way before diving and giving us five minutes or so of Meerkat-style peering around in all directions to see where the next blow came from.

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Blue whale

 

Eventually we headed off and happened upon our humpback again, waving at us with his enormous pectoral flipper.

The day was rounded off with a group sperm whales until we had to make our way back to the harbour and call it a day.

Sperm whale
Sperm whale

All in all we could not have hoped for a better first day. What will tomorrow bring…?


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