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.