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: