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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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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