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

Team 2 has arrived and yesterday was our first (half) day at sea. Five minutes out we encountered a pod of common dolphins, and five minutes after that, five bottlenose dolphins.

The lookouts had advised us that they saw baleen whales south of Pico, and sure enough; our first whale encounter was with a blue whale! We had unbelievably good fortune and right at the end of that encounter we encountered another. Then repeat; it happened again. In all, we had five separate encounters with blue whales, with at least three individuals!

The highlight of the day (as if three blue whales isn’t a highlight), we spent one encounter with TWO blue whales swimming side by side, perhaps 100 metres from the boat. It was a thrilling experience, and a rare one for even the experienced sea hands on board.

On the way back to the harbour, Lisa pointed out a skua – a bird rarely seen here in the Azores – harassing a sea gull. Skuas are kleptoparasites (literally, parasitism by theft), chasing gulls, terns and other sea birds to steal their catches. What was the skua doing with the gull flying along beside the boat? Antagonising the gull in the hope that it would regurgitate his hard-earned meal and leave it for the skua.

It’s rainy and predicted high winds for today, so it’s a shore day full of data entry for Team 2. We’ll work on animal ID today, and fingers crossed we’ll have some matches to report in the next diary entry.

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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)

Monday the sun smiled on us as we went in search of the baleen whales that our vigia (lookout) had spotted, and we were rewarded with three fin whales; a mother, its calf and another individual. Seeing them glide through the water, skins glistening in the sunlight, you could see how the ancient fishermen would liken them to massive sea serpents. After they left, we found a pod of rather uncooperative female sperm whales who refused to show their flukes. Eventually we got a few good ID pictures, and I can’t say it was a hardship to hang out and wait for them to behave properly.

Later in the day we encountered a loggerhead turtle, which we caught and tagged. We also saw a blue shark, a swordfish, a school of jumping tuna, a pod of bottlenose dolphins, and a rare random sighting of sperm whale! (Usually the vigias tell us where they are or we listen for them—we rarely stumble upon them during our transect work.) All in a day’s work!

Tuesday we had a fantastic last day on the ocean with three more fin whales to add to our data collection. The water was perfectly calm with a spectacular cloudscape above us. Eventually we tore ourselves away from the fin whales and found a loggerhead turtle en route to a pod of sperm whales. After we tagged and safely returned it to the water, we encountered our second pod of Risso’s dolphins.

Our sperm whales, at times eight abreast, were a group of females with calves, apparently too busy socialising to show us their flukes! We didn’t get too many ID pictures of that lot. On our return to the harbour we saw common dolphins, and another turtle too small to tag, so we let him drift.

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Back in the harbour, Alison, our resident artist, started our traditional Biosphere Expeditions mural on the harbour wall, and we each signed our names in the blow of her painted sperm whale. Frances and Song embellished it with Chinese calligraphy, the symbol meaning “whale”. While we laid the base of the design, it’s up to teams two and three to finish the masterpiece.

The expedition ended this morning, and I just want to say a big thank-you to Group 1 for a job well done. Thanks to your contribution, we were able to encounter the following in a time of year when otherwise no research would be done:

Common Dolphins – 29 encounters totalling 432 animals

Bottlenose Dolphins – 5 encounters totalling 40 animals

Striped Dolphins – 1 encounter with 80 individuals

Risso’s Dolphins – 3 encounters totalling 36 animals

Fin Whales – 5 encounters totalling 11 animals

Blue Whales – 1 encounter with 1 individual

and…

Sperm Whales – 59 encounters totalling 131 animals

We documented 31 different individual sperm whales (many were seen more than once), and made 9 definite matches to previous sightings. We have a possible 2 more matches that Lisa will have to do further research on.

You did an excellent job of collecting data, Team 1. Safe travels home. Team 2? We’re looking forward to your arrival!

 

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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)

With wind from the east on Saturday, the swell was large. We all bundled up into our Buffs and waterproofs and braced ourselves for it. As we crashed through the waves we encountered our first pod of Risso’s dolphins with their distinctive beakless faces and white markings. Duncan, our reluctant photographer for the day, managed to capture an amazing photo of a Risso’s as it turned course towards the boat.

We then moved on to a pod of huge bachelor male sperm whales, and had a whopping 26 encounters with them! We identified six different individuals. It was really difficult to document them in the rough weather, but the team did an excellent job. We returned to port cold and wet, yet very satisfied. Well done everyone!

Sunday morning was spent at base camp learning how to make use of the software Lisa employs to catalogue and match the sperm whales. We then broke into teams and did data entry, brought all the spreadsheets up to date, and ran the matching software. Team 1 made five certain matches to previous years here in the Azores, and a sixth possible one.

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A ‘match’, by the way, is when we can show by comparing fluke photos that a whale has returned to the Azores (or indeed any other place where it may have been photographed around the world and where its fluke photos have been added to an international photo database). This kind of matching information is crucial to tracing whale migration routes, which is crucial for conservation efforts – you can only protect them effectively if you know where they are and move about. And we know very little about their movements, even in this day and age of total control and data grabbing. In a way it’s comforting to know that Big Brother NSA does not know everything – where a passenger jet has gone or where the whales go. We simply can’t just ask a satellite to provide the answers – how many sperm whales are left on the planet, for example. Good, old-fashioned manual labour on the ground is required for this – taking photos, tracking movements, spotting blows, etc. And this is where you, our participants, come in. Without the input of your time and money, this work would not get done. The Physeteer would not be leaving the harbour and Lisa would not be collecting data at this time of year. No pictures would get taken, no matches would be made, no conclusions drawn, no additional piece of the puzzle would be added to the big picture. So thank you for your input everyone!

The remainder of Sunday was free time. While Cil and Ryan went diving (brrr again!), the rest of the team bundled into a hired van to tour the island together.

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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)

Wednesday we had good weather for our first full day at sea. The lookouts told us there were sperm whales to the north of Faial, and so that’s where we headed first thing. We stayed with 8 sperm whales at least half the day, cataloging at least 5 individual whales.

We then moved on to transect work, and were lucky enough to see a pod of striped dolphins doing their characteristic carousel thing. We got lucky and their course change brought them quite close to the Physeter, and we were able to see the wee ones flying through the air alongside the adults. Kasia got a great photo.

Thursday was a shore day; half the team went diving (brrrrr!) and saw octopus and moray eels for their pains, while the other half trekked around the rim of the caldeira, then free-wheeled down the mountain on bikes – great fun!

Today was an incredible day beginning with an hour-long encounter with a true leviathan – a blue whale! It graced us with its presence so close to the boat we could almost smell the blow. It was quite the surprise to have him surface only twenty meters away.

The afternoon was spent surrounded by sperm whales. Spaced quite far apart, we stayed with a set of whales until they showed us their flukes, and then race off to the next group. Cil captured a great double fluke. In all, seven obligingly showed us their flukes and we’ve got them in the North Atlantic sperm whale catalogue now. Lisa, our scientist, was very pleased!

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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 1 has arrived, and yesterday was our first day at sea. We were quite successful even though the first day is only a half day. We caught and tagged two loggerhead turtles – a wee one and a larger one. Scientist Lisa obviously has had a great deal of practice netting these fellows, because they both were already diving before we could get close.

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We also saw a sperm whale, a fin whale, scores of common dolphins and met the resident troupe of bottlenose dolphins. The sea was relatively calm yesterday, yet the overcast light conditions made spotting blows and spotting floating sperm whales quite difficult. We knew where the sperm whales were, and even put the hydrophone in the water to confirm it, yet somehow they eluded us. We heard at least four of them clicking away quite loudly, and yet we never saw them despite our intensive searching.

A great start, and the seas today are predicted to be the same as yesterday, so we’re off to the Physeter to catalouge whatever animals show themselves to us today.

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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)

Greetings from Banana Manor, our base in Horta. Lisa, Catherine and I (left, right, centre) have been very busy preparing for your arrival. Base is now all set up, and we are eager to greet the first team on Monday.

Girl power (left to right: Lisa Steiner, Alisa Clickenger, Catherine Edsell)
Girl power (left to right: Lisa Steiner, Alisa Clickenger, Catherine Edsell)

You can start arriving at Banana Manor after 13:00 on start day. Training begins promptly at 14:00 so please be on time as there is a lot of information to take in during the first 24 hours of the expedition slot. (Please do not arrive at Banana Manor before 13:00 as you are likely to find it empty or in the process of being cleaned with no room for you to put yourself or your belongings in.)

Lisa, Catherine and I will be at Peter’s Café at 11:30 on Monday morning, so if anyone would like to join us we’d be happy to see you. This is an informal pre-expedition lunch and is self-pay, but since we are eager to meet you and we have to eat too, we’ll socialize there and then walk back to Banana Manor. We’ve organised luggage transportation from Peter’s to base camp, so feel free to come to Peter’s straight from your flight or other hotel if you’ve already been on the island and you won’t have to worry about rolling your luggage a couple of kms to base. Walkers get Alisa’s 2 cent tour of downtown Horta.

If we don’t see you at Peter’s, then we’ll meet you at the official meeting time between 13.00 and 14.00 at Banana Manor. Expedition briefing will start promptly at 14:00.

It’s not a cushy holiday, but if you’re still packing your things, it might be a good idea to bring some cushy house slippers. They’re not official expedition kit list, but they might make base camp life more comfortable since Banana Manor is a stone and tile building. If your slippers are in the shape of cetaceans, you’ll get a star for the day 😉

I hope you all have good journeys and if you need to contact me before we meet, I confirm that my Portuguese mobile number is xxx. Please call me if you are going to miss the assembly meeting at Banana Manor. I am eager to meet you all!

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