Photo archive of the 2016 expedition:
You may have thought we had sunk without a trace, but fear not, we are back after a brief radio silence on the blog front. And what a final few days it has been to conclude the 13th year for Biosphere Expeditions in the Azores.
I am not superstitious, but our third group of volunteers seem to have had luck on their side. After the double blue whales from the first day at sea, they scored humpback whales on day two – our first records of this species for 2016. One of the three humpbacks recorded was first identified in the Azores on March 8th of this year, so it has been hanging around for a while, but just playing hard to find.
Our next day brought another epic encounter with sperm whales, this time south of Faial, and no sooner did one fluke and disappear to the depths, another appeared to the chorus of ‘blow’. The photos identified at least 14 different individuals, including one of Lisa’s favourites; whale number 19. This female was first recorded in 1987 and has now been identified at least 10 times in the Azores over the past 29 years, underlining the great value of long-term data sets in illustrating the importance of the Azores for certain cetacean species.
The afternoon brought more encounters with bottlenose dolphins, who were also observed ‘hassling’ the sperm whales at the surface. The latter responded in there own aromatic way, and inhaling the smell of whale pooh is perhaps something none of us are keen to repeat!
After a day’s break on shore we returned to the seas, and this was just another ‘ordinary’ day, if such a thing exists, of only baleen whales. It does give me the chance to highlight some of our other survey targets, which I have hardly had chance to mention – the seabirds and turtles. And let me not forget our close encounters with sunfish and sharks circling the boat – not every fin we see belongs to a cetacean! All contribute to clarify the ‘health’ of these waters.
Our fifth day brought diversity, and a magnificent seven cetacean species, with multiple encounters with fin and blue whales, social sperm whales that just wouldn’t show their flukes, and a chance discovery of yet another humpback whale. Common, bottlenose and striped dolphins also featured, but attempts to get to a group of false killer whales were thwarted by too many random encounters with baleen whales – yes we got stuck in traffic, whale traffic!
Our last day at sea for 2016 saw us head north out of the harbour, for the first time this year. Sometimes it pays to do something different. Not only did we find more fin whales, and one with a calf that circled the boat, we also observed five different species of dolphins in one day including striped (for a fifth day) and the false killer whales that had evaded us earlier. Personally speaking, it is great to achieve something new and unexpected, and a fine way to end our fieldwork for 2016.
I hoped the variety of sightings would match the diversity of our group, and we weren’t disappointed. I haven’t even had chance to tell you about fluking blue whales, breaching humpbacks and the jumping acrobatics of the striped dolphins. Another time…..
But let me say huge thanks to our hosts at Banana Manor (Jim, Claudia and Tiago), to our skipper (Gyro) and the support team at Norberto Divers, and of course to Lisa for all her scientific input, direction and all-round cetacean knowledge that guides the project. Final thanks of course go to all our hard-working volunteers.
Your collective efforts have enabled a staggering level of data collection. Which will of course be analysed and published in the expedition report. But in summary, we have recorded (at least) 10 different cetacean species, from over 220 encounters, recording in excess of 1500 ‘individuals’. Not bad for a month’s work.
What are you doing next April?
Until next time
Welcome to our third and final team for 2016. While it is our smallest group, what they lack numbers they make up for in diversity. Our group truly embraces the international nature of Biosphere Expeditions, coming from Portugal, France, Germany, Greece, the United Kingdom, Brazil and the USA.
As part of this team, we additionally benefit from having three (local and international) Master’s students from the University of the Azores. They gain valuable field resesearch experience and we (hopefully) improve our knowledge of Horta and perhaps our Portuguese!
So with the team in place, and briefings and training completed, we set out to sea on our first afternoon of survey. Many people may be familiar with Performance Indicators at your place of work. But how do we assess our first day at sea? Simple, a baseline indicator is to have more cetacean sightings, than people ‘feeding the fish’! Finding your sea legs is all part of the learning process, and whilst not easy for all, the day was definitely a success.
Perhaps predictably we encountered common dolphins first, who were the most social group so far, and we then went off in search of a blue whale known to be in the area. We soon got more that we bargained for as a blue whale surfaced close to the boat only moments later. It is not often you get a blue whale as a ‘random sighting’, and so close that you can almost see down its blow hole!
With that encounter documented, we went off in search of the ‘original’ blue whale, spotted by the lookout on Pico. The animal obliged us with an extended encounter, with Pico as the backdrop.
Heading back to Horta, we soon spotted a fast-moving pod of dolphins. Striped dolphins to be precise, but it turned out they were actually in a mixed pod with some common dolphins.
So another great first day at sea. Starting with two blue whales – the largest species that has ever lived on this planet – is hard to beat! And if the variety of our sightings matches that of our group, it will hopefully be another great week.
Little did we know what we would see, when at breakfast we enjoyed some great ‘blues’ music of John Lee Hooker. I wonder if there is a band out there called The Orcas??
So we have passed the halfway point of the 2016 expedition, but still have much ground (or ocean) to cover.
As with any field research, you will always have slow days. The objects of your study never seem to be where you are! This was the case on Thursday, which saw a repeat of Wednesday in terms of geography, but not in terms of sightings. Again we headed clockwise around Faial, but with only a few sightings of baleen whales, the cetaceans records in the afternoon, all but dried up. This time no dolphins, sperm whales or baleen whales. A testing and unrewarding afternoon for the team.
The increasing winds and rising sea state ensured another shore day on Friday. But this time to review images, consolidate data and try to match ‘fins’ and ‘flukes’ to individuals in the existing databases. This necessary and vital part of the research effort was rewarded with a notable finding.
A sperm whale previously recorded in Madeira and the Canaries was matched to the Azores. Demonstrating a ‘triangle of movement’ between the island groups for the first time and meaning Lisa now has to update her latest research poster. Always good when joining the dots means we advance our scientific knowledge!
The appalling weather of Friday (rain, low cloud) gave no indication of what was to come on Saturday. With calm seas and blue skies and an initial encounter with Risso’s dolphins, we were soon distract by fin whales, and reports of ‘blues’ in the area. Eight fin whales and two blue whales later, having observed blue and fin whales together (another rarely observed behaviour), our research was nearly done. We finished our time at sea as we started, with a blue whale.
And for those of you interested in the numbers, our 6 days at sea during this slot 2 have yielded 63 cetacean encounters with over 250 individuals, across 8 different species. Another great effort from slot 2!
Thank you again for all your hard work on and off the boat.
Safe travels home (slot 2) and to the Azores (slot 3).
If you are someone who likes to glance over the headlines in the morning, then ours could read ‘Danish duo deliver double dose of dolphins’ or ‘Sperm whale goes back to the future’.
Soon after leaving the harbour on Monday, Julie spotted the first dorsal fins, from one of the resident populations of bottlenose dolphins. Soon we were surrounded by the rest of the pod; some 30 individuals. And we rapidly tried to capture dorsal fin images to enable identification of different individuals. Working with dolphins is always a good way to start a Monday morning.
Our second sharp-eyed Dane, then sighted a few Risso’s dolphins (well spotted Camila). And so the fin photography continued.
With the wind now coming from the north, we headed to the south of Pico, both for shelter and to follow up on a report of a male sperm whale. Finally tracking him down, he continued to travel east at some speed and refused to show his fluke.
Sometimes you just have to know when to give up, so we headed east back to Faial, and as the seas grew, we eventually tracked down two fin whales before calling it a day. The increasing winds and worsening sea state meant Tuesday was a shore day – a welcome break for all.
Wednesday saw us back on the water, starting the data collection proceedings again with Risso’s dolphins. After a slow morning along the south coast of Faial, we eventually located a pair of fin whales – thanks to some local social networking (a previous Biosphere Expeditions skipper [Nuno] was out fishing, and called us with the sighting). The day was rounded off with another large single male sperm whale and a different (and smaller) pod of bottlenose dolphins, before we completed the circumnavigation of Faial.
This may sound like two ‘ordinary’ days at sea, but as with any headline or story, the devil is in the detail.
Reviewing the images of the bottlenose dolphins from Monday, Lisa had spotted one carrying what we believe to be a dead calf, probably stillborn. This is a known phenomenon (but very rarely observed) in several species of dolphins and whales, whereby the mother (and other pod members) keep the dead calf with them (and often at the surface) for many hours or days. Whilst scientists may be hesitant to use words such as ‘mourning’ or ‘grieving’ in describing animal behavior, it is hard not to interpret the actions of these sentient creatures through our own emotions.
And the single male sperm whale we sighted on Wednesday was matched to a previous sighting of the same individual back in 2009. Whilst there was a seven year gap in sightings, he was recorded on exactly the same day (20tApril) in both instances, with the records within 30 minutes of each other! The GPS data also revealed the sightings were almost exactly in the same area. And in both cases, this same sperm whale was recorded by a Biosphere Expeditions group!
These two separate, unrelated and relatively brief encounters give a simple and powerful illustration of the importance of fieldwork. We’ve all learnt something that we didn’t know three days ago. You can’t always say that by just reading the headlines!
Expeditions always bring variety.
In the Azores, this comes in many ways, but most obviously with the arrival of our next international group of volunteers. With a range of different travel challenges behind them, all are now present and correct. And so Slot 2 begins.
With the normal orientations and briefings completed without any issues, we were soon on our research boat heading out to sea. It is a rapid learning curve, trying to grasp new survey techniques, understand ‘job roles’ and adjusting to working on a moving boat.
Nerves are normally settled with an initial cetacean sighting, and our first one for this group did not disappoint – a blue whale. If you are waiting to see your first whale, you might as well make it the biggest! In addition to a fin whale and common dolphins, we could also add striped dolphins to the encounters list. That is two new species for the 2016 expedition on the first day at sea for Slot 2.
Our second day on the boat turned out very differently. Let’s just call it super sperm whale Sunday. We sailed to the south of Pico island, where sperm whales had been sighted, and sure enough our encounters began. One fluke followed another and before we knew it we had clocked 35 encounters – females, males and females with calves. Add into the mix some common dolphins, an unknown species of beaked whale and several turtles (including at least one during a turtle survey – cheers Lisa!) it was quite a day.
But some days just get better. One of our volunteers (Helga) had opted to cook dinner that was hugely appreciated and enjoyed by all – thank you Helga. And post dinner, at a normal review of the day, and viewing of survey images, Lisa revealed we may have sighted (subject to more detailed analysis) up to 28 different sperm whale individuals. In her words, seeing 12 would be a very good day – this was exceptional. Super sperm whale Sunday.
So we all look forward to Monday morning ‘at the office’ once more. No doubt it will be different again, but that is one reason why you come on expedition – isn’t it?
Every day at sea is different, and so are our findings.
For our last day on the research boat with our first group, we were greeted at the harbour by crashing waves. The signs were ominous. The winds had shifted, now blowing from the northwest, giving us 3m+ waves and limited shelter from the islands.
This greatly restricts our survey area, as the white water blowing off the top of each wave masks the genuine whale ‘blows’, and makes seeing any cetacean at the surface extremely difficult. But you can only try….and so we set sail, with minimal expectation.
A morning’s effort was rewarded with a fin whale, some common dolphins and some Risso’s dolphins, and of course another loggerhead turtle. Not as busy as other days, but who wants every day to be the same? Definitely worth being the only boat to leave harbour and brave the elements!
So if you have been following this diary, you will have realised we have seen 8 different cetacean species in 6 days, but the detail in the data reveals we’ve had 61 separate encounters (with individuals or groups) and sighted some 290 individual dolphins and whales. Not a bad week’s work! At all.
So as the first slot comes to end the ‘sightings bar’ has been set, thank you all for your efforts on and off the boat, and patience with the weather.
For many, Sunday is a day of rest. And that is what the weather gods had given us. With increasing winds and 6 metre swells, we weren’t going to sea. So a much-needed break from the boat work was enjoyed by all. A chance for the team to explore Faial.
Monday saw us all glued to the computer screens. Days at sea generate hundreds of images that are used to identify individuals of different cetacean species. But these images need to be sorted and organised, and so the team spent much of the day sifting through photos of sperm whale flukes, pilot whale fins and Risso’s dolphins.
After a first edit to select the best images these can then be collated, for later ‘matching’ to the existing catalogues of known individuals. This way we can begin to identify which cetacean individuals (and species) have been where and when before – a match!
For many species, each image can also be cross-referenced to GPS co-ordinates, and thus we can continue to deduce patterns of whale/dolphin movement (both for species and individuals) over space and time in the Azores. Such data sets not only take time to collect in the ‘field’, but take almost as long to sort on computers – as our team will testify.
But the reward can be quick. Images of sperm whales collected just this last week, were matched to four individuals first recorded in 2014 and one individual from 2010. We cannot only match individuals to catalogues in the Azores but sometimes from elsewhere in the Atlantic, elevating the power and value of the data. To have matches so early in the expedition is great news.
Tomorrow we may record some more as we hopefully return to the ocean, if the weather gods are on our side…
So it was the weekend and we had another day at the ‘office’.
With the winds having changed overnight, and now coming from the north, we headed to the calmer waters south of Pico island. This still meant crossing the slightly rougher waters in the channel between Faial and Pico.
To motivate the team, I had foolishly offered a prize for the first (non-dolphin) sighting of the day. Lynn had clearly had her coffee and soon shouted “Cory’s shearwater” (one of the common bird species we record every day). Lesson learnt. Next time I will be more specific – first non-dolphin cetacean sighting!
Our exertions of hanging on the pitching and rolling boat were soon rewarded with a cetacean sighting, and in the normal fashion, with what else, a fin whale. There was a rumour of a blue whale in the area, but our efforts were only rewarded with repeated fin whale encounters. It is hard to be disappointed.
Reaching the calmer waters, we had a change of focus with the lookout on Pico reporting sperm whales in the area. We tracked the 1000 m depth contour and soon enough we had a first encounter. As the afternoon progressed, one soon became nineteen, including encounters with mothers suckling their calfs. Initial analysis of the images suggests at least 8 different individuals (not including the calves). Calves don’t dive with their mothers and thus don’t show their flukes for identification. They patiently wait at the surface for the their mother to return some 45 minutes later!
So in our toughest conditions yet, the team did a great job. And credit to Susanne for getting great images to aid the sperm whale identification, and to Celine for keeping her upright. Lynn was rewarded with her bar of chocolate – which she graciously shared – thank you!
We now have a well-earned day’s rest, followed by some data analysis. We’ll let you know what else we find when we crunch the numbers and numerous images!
As we left the harbour at 09:00, our fourth day at sea started as others had, but with no hint of what was to come.
Not long out of harbour, heading along the south coast of Faial, we’d already encountered common dolphins, loggerhead turtles and some Risso’s dolphins, very much following the broad pattern of previous days. The first shout of “blow” was for a fin whale – again in keeping.
But after one, came three fin whales. The day was improving. Having documented those, we headed towards the next ‘blow’ sighted by Ralf. This was associated with three whales seemingly resting at the surface, and whilst they dived before we reached them, the expert consensus was that they were a species of beaked whale – a new find for this expedition.
That set the tone, as we then located a minke whale with calf – another new find for 2016. A species not commonly recorded in the Azores, as it is hard to see, and locating one with a calf is a real bonus. Following that trend, our next fin whale sighting was also with a calf. Such data at its simplest level demonstrates the importance of Azorean waters for many cetacean species.
We’d barely reached early afternoon at this point, so we continued west of Faial in pursuit of sperm whales. This quest was interrupted by a pod of bottlenose dolphins. And our photographer for the day (Dominique) demonstrated her skills in capturing their aerial acrobatics as the dolphins entertained all on the boat.
We quickly refocused to document several more sperm whale encounters, and record the flukes for later identification. And we still had time for another fin whale and more turtles.
We returned to dry land after 17:00, having sailed over 100 miles and recorded multiple individuals of 7 cetacean species (3 dolphins and 4 whale species) and 7 turtles in one day!
We probably all have to work 9-to-5 at some point in our lives; but as days at the ‘office’ go, in the words of our German team members, this was “not so bad”!
I wonder what they call a good day…….?