From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

Volodya, Ronald and I are about to board our planes in Kiev, Berlin and Frankfurt to make our way to Bishkek. Volodya and Ronald will fly to Bishkek and I will go via Novosibirsk in Russia. This is where we have quite a bit of expedition equipment stored still from our Altai expedition. We’ll bundle this into a truck and drive about 2,000 km across the plains of Kazachzstan to Bishkek. While I try to keep my eyes open and on the road, Ronald and Volodya will organise the cook, check out the hospitals that we will hopefully never need, photocopy the datasheets that we will hopefully need lots, and generally get things ready for the arrival of team 1.

kazach plains

All being well Ronald, Volodya and I will meet up in Bishkek in a few days. There’s the small matter of the border crossing with a truck full of camping gear. Wish me luck for this, otherwise you’ll all be sleeping out in the open under the stars 😉 Safe travels Team 1. We’ll see you in the not so grand Grand Hotel on 9 June.

Regards

Matthias

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From our snow leopard volunteering expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan)

Welcome to the first entry of our new Tien Shan snow leopard expedition. My name is Matthias Hammer and I am the founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions. I’ll be with the first group, start this diary off and then hand over the baton to expedition leaders Ronald Seipold (groups 1-3), as well as Paul O’Dowd (groups 3-5). More about us, as well as our expedition scientist Dr. Volodya Tytar, is at http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/about.We have all been very busy getting this trailblazing expedition ready for you. Ronald, Volodya and I will make our way to Bishkek on 1 June and set things up for you there and in the field. As you can imagine, setting up a new expedition is a heck of a lot of work. We’ll do all we can, but it’s essential that you come with an expedition, not a holiday, attitude. Please expect the unexpected and be prepared for things to go wrong and all of us having to help (each other) out whilst having a laugh about it all. In return you get the bragging rights of having been on a real trail-blazing expedition into the wilds of the Tien Shan mountains, not some cushy wildlife tour in an air-conditioned bus. Talking about tours and/or safaris, if you are hoping to see a snow leopard, please make sure you visit your local zoo (see http://www.snowleopard.org/find-zoos-with-snow-leopards). As I am sure you’ve understood by now, seeing a snow leopard is not the be all and end all of our expeditions by any means. We’re focused on the research and gathering data for conserving them, not on taking pictures or seeing them with our own eyes. Personally, I don’t get the obsession with seeing something yourself anyway. Isn’t it enough to know you are in snow leopard habitat and working towards protecting this and its flagship species? But that’s another story we can mull over by the campfire soon….

Onto the research. We’ve put some resources of maps, datasheets, field guides, a methodology manual, etc. on https://app.box.com/s/xzi0d9dln6flh6bvnrt2 for you. A map of our study site including the cells we’ll be working in/through is at http://goo.gl/maps/oBIPN. “Cells” I hear you ask? By way of explanation we’ve put a video of our methodology below for you as well.

It would be great if you could watch the video and use the resources provided to do some studying before you arrive. We’ll hit you with lots of information in the first couple of days and the more you’ve swotted up on things beforehand, the more you will remember, and the more useful you will be in the field. The datasheets and methodology may be confusing to start with, but if you read up now, we can explain things in the field more easily if you come with some background knowledge already.

Once you’ve seen all the materials, including the itinerary, all your last hopes of a relaxing holiday in the mountains with snow leopards dancing around base camp whilst you sip your martini outside your luxury tent should evaporate like the tufts of cloud whisking around the peaks of Ala Archa national park 😉 …. only to be replaced by the knowledge that soon you will be part of something genuinely new, important and useful in snow leopard conservation in Kyrgyzstan. And what, I ask, has more value? You could have opted for a beach holiday. Instead you are going to spend your time and money helping Volodya and our partners NABU out in the field. Thank you – I take my hat off to you for that.

That’s it for now. We’ll be back in touch with updates to the resources and from Bishkek when we get there. We hope your preparations are going well – do find some time to read through the materials we’ve made available.Best wishes

Matthias

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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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