Friday, 9 August 2013

National Geographic Weekend

The research on Icelandic orcas was featured in the National Geographic Weekend radio show last Sunday. The 2-hr programme features several stories and you can hear each one or the whole podcast online. Check out the website detailing last Sunday's programme here.

Friday, 2 August 2013

A challenging season

This was definitely one of the most, if not THE most, challenging field season we have ever had in Vestmannaeyjar! The weather was not on our side and when the wind did calm down, there was such a thick fog we couldn't see anything more than a few tens of meters ahead of us. Searching for whales was definitely not easy! First there was the one sunny day with little wind but with huge swell coming from further south where a storm was brewing. We decided to do only photo-ID since tagging, acoustic recordings or anything else in those conditions would have been a nightmare. Photo-ID was the only thing we could do...or so we thought! The swell made it really hard to get pictures of dorsal fins and saddle patches because there was usually a big wave between us and the whale! It took a lot of careful driving to position the boat as close as possible to get those pictures without disturbing the whales. And when we did get close we saw this was a group of 4 whales, all of which we already knew from our catalogue. The picture below shows the Marvin, the second boat we used, with students Sara Tavares and Timothy Carden on board and our collaborator Páll Jónsson skippering and the whale we call IS28.

For days after this encounter we couldn't go out. We started thinking: "That was it! That's the only whales we will be able to see this summer..."

We had a break in the wind so we decided to go for it despite the thick fog yet again! When looking for whales was pointless because we couldn't see them even if they were right next to us, we decided to listen if they were around. The Marvin was our acoustic listening station and after a few attempts in different locations over the wide area where we have seen whales in previous years, Tim, Paul and Páll shouted: "We hear whales!". We were just close to Heimaey, so the whales were very close to our home island. It took a lot of manoeuvring the boat, trying different locations, to figure out where we heard the calls loudest and finally see the whales in the middle of the fog. Quite an experience and certainly nothing like we have ever had to deal with before! We stayed with the whales for as long as we could, we quickly figured out the best way to keep tracking them was by switching off our engines when they dove and just listen for the blows when they came up to breathe at the surface. Acoustics was our guide that day, first underwater and then in air, as our ears guided us to where the whales were heading.
The Marvin team placing the acoustic array in the water to listen for whales.

We first found one group of whales and thought that was it. But we lost it and then heard blows in the distance, so we thought we had found them again, quickly rushed to that spot just to find different individuals. We stayed with them for a while but then lost them also. When our third attempt to catch up with a group led us to different individual yet again we realised there must be a large aggregation of whales around us and we don't even have any idea, because we can't see anything! When the fog cleared that evening, and we were still working in the same area the picture revealed itself. We were indeed surrounded by whales in all directions. We had a perfect ending for a rewarding day and we thought maybe there was still hope for the last days to come.

Spotting whales in the fog.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Back in Vestmannaeyjar

We are back in Vestmannaeyjar for the month of July, to complete our summer field season. It is great to be back, see the familiar places and faces. We are waiting for our research boat to arrive and then we will be ready to properly start our field work. It will be a few more days but in the meantime we can go out with Viking Tours or search from land to try to spot them!

We are staying in the island of Heimaey, the only inhabited island of the archipelago, and the picture above shows one of the best spots on the island to search for whales - also happens to be the windiest spot in the whole of Iceland with record wind speeds! From here we can see all the other islands of the archipelago and the places where in previous years we regularly found the whales.

Over the next 4 weeks we will be posting regular updates of our activities on this blog. We have heard there is lots of herring around so, even though we haven't spotted whales yet, we hope they are not far!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The end...for now!

Over the last couple days the whales disappeared...not completely but as they gave us a couple days off we decided to take in the beauty of this place and went hiking up one of the mountains to enjoy this amazing view. The light was just incredible, there is something different about a sunny winter day in the bay of Grundarfjordur that makes us appreciate how lucky we are to be here...

This change in killer whale presence in the fjords coincided with the end of our field season. As a lot of the equipment we are using needs to be sent back for other projects we had to take our mighty boat Tango off the water and pack everything. And just as we did that the orcas showed up just outside the harbour, literally! As some of us cursed our luck, others had the better thinking that the whales came just to say goodbye.

Either way, it seems that over the last few days things have been changing. The whales have been appearing later in the day and sometimes not at all, probably because they have started following the herring that is migrating further offshore. We certainly hope so because that means we have good chances of finding them again in the summer, off Vestmannaeyjar, where our summer fieldwork will take place!

It has been an amazing season in Grundarfjordur. We were welcomed by all the locals, even though we were constantly hassling everyone asking for help with equipment failures, boat breakdowns and various other things. We thank everyone here for these times we won't forget and we already look forward to next year!

In the meantime we will continue posting on the outcomes of our time here and our experiences, so stay tunned as it ain't over yet!

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Onboard the Láki

Team member Miguel writes about his experience working in Grundarfjordur onboard the Láki, the whale-watching boat that goes out every day. The tours are run by Laki Tours and Discover the World.

My name is Miguel Neves, I am a Master degree student, and I’m currently part of the team conducting the Icelandic orca research in Grundarfjörður.

I spend great part of the time onboard the whale watching boat Láki, along with Julie Beesau. We’re in charge of doing photo-ID sessions of the individuals we encounter during the trips, as well as sound recording sessions, with a single hydrophone. When we get home we backup the data, and if possibly try to analyze some of it. It can be tiring, but is always great being able to see in firsthand all the data we got throughout the day, so we usually rush and do it. So I can say we have a great daily routine.

It wouldn’t be enough telling I’m having the time of my life, doing what I dreamt doing when I was younger, and doing it with such an amazing team as this is. Great workmates, in a place with amazing landscapes and such nice and helpful people I’ve been meeting along the way. What more could I ask for? Maybe just that this isn’t the last time I’m doing this.

Miguel Neves

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Tag on!

Finally the sun has been shinning and we have been working hard for the last 4 days making the most of it! And with the good weather we got a chance to try tagging and succeeded. We are using Dtags originally developed by Mark Johnson and Peter Tyack at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to study the underwater behaviour of whales. The tag records the movements as well as the sounds of the whales and give us an amazing view into the underwater world that is beyond what we can see from the surface. Hopefully these data will give us great insights to how the whales behave underwater, so we are excited to start analysing it! But before that the good weather is staying for one more day so tomorrow we go for it again!

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Snow, snow and more snow

A MODIS satellite picture of Iceland

Over the last few days we have been in the middle of a storm. Strong winds have kept us home, working on our computers instead of out there studying the whales. But today brought a whole new element to this incredible show of nature: snow, and lots of it! If this was what you could see of Iceland yesterday from space, today all we could see was a few meters out of the front door, if we were lucky.

In Grundarfjordur we are staying in a 2-storey house made up of two separate apartments, one on each floor, connected by an outside staircase. It sounds lovely and spacious, except when you can't find the steps on the staircase because it all just looks like a mountain of snow! Hopefully the weather will improve over the next few days and we can be out in the water again. Still, it's amazing to witness the power of the weather in this part of the world.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Looking out of the kitchen window...

Welcome to the Icelandic Orca blog!

We have started the first winter field season of this project and we couldn't have asked for a better start! The whales have been around this area since late November and we see them regularly.

The team arrived to Grundarfjordur in the beginning of February and after some time spent training and setting up equipment we are now on full working mode. The only thing we have to be patient about is the weather, it is winter after all! When the weather is too bad to go out, like today, we often still see the whales very close to land, sometimes just outside of the harbour. It is quite a treat to have lunch while watching whales from the kitchen window...

Our fieldwork will continue until April and we are aiming to investigate the underwater and acoustic behaviour of these whales, particularly when they are feeding. So stay tuned as over the next few weeks team members will post updates on the different aspects of the work we are doing here.