Friday, 29 August 2014

A whale not seen for 20 years!

We were amazed this summer when we photographed an adult male we didn't recognise and after some searching realised he had last been seen in 1994! Yes, 20 years ago! 9459 is the code it was assigned when first seen and added to the catalogue of Icelandic killer whales existing at the time. Since then it had never been seen again until our first day out in the water this summer. There he was, in a large aggregation of whales just off Geirfuglasker in Vestmannaeyjar.

9459 seen in Vestmannaeyjar.
This incredible sighting shows us some interesting things. First, it tells us he is an old male! Most likely he is at least in his 40s, since he was already a fully grown adult male when first identified in 1994. Second, it shows how little we still know about this population. Unlike populations in other parts of the world, there haven't been dedicated long-term efforts following Icelandic killer whales. Studies first started in the 1980s by the Marine Research Institute, but much of what has been studied about these animals since then has come from opportunistic studies or short-term studies, with dedicated effort for a few years.

Much of the difficulty of studying killer whales in Iceland comes with unpredictable changes in their distribution as they follow their herring prey which changes its location throughout the year and between years. And of course, many locations where whales occur are difficult to access or exposed to weather making working conditions, well, unworkable! This is why it is so important to have as much help as possible! Sighting reports from anyone out at sea that comes across killer whales makes it possible to understand which whales go where.

Of course some animals may be only occasional visitors in Iceland and so will not be seen for long periods of time simply because they are elsewhere. But we don't know if this is the case! Long-term studies and wide coverage make it possible to have an idea of the residency patterns of whales in Icelandic coastal waters that help us answer questions such as that.

And it is not just knowing the whereabouts of whales. By regularly following who is around we can better understand birth rates, mortality rates and we can even estimate how many whales are likely to live in Icelandic coastal waters. All this information help us understand if the population is doing well or is facing any threats. As top predators, these whales play a very important role in the food chain so knowing more about them is crucial to our understanding of the whole ecosystem.

Find out below how you can help!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Thank you team!

This summer we went back to the beautiful Westman islands. For most the weather was terrible in the Southwest of Iceland, but somehow on 'killer whale land' things seemed to work out! We had beautiful weather to start and to end our season but a variety of weather conditions in between. Yet luckily the whales changed their distribution throughout July and came ever closer to Heimaey, the island where we were living. In the last two days the whales were just hugging Heimaey's west coast (we could see them from the window of the house) and made for a spectacular sight to all the locals that went out to see it. It is not often you get such calm waters in Vestmannaeyjar as we had in our last couple of days (see video), what a nice way to say goodbye to this wonderful place.

The slow change in the location where whales were found made it possible for us to make use of short weather windows to go out in the water. Key to this was searching from Heimaey's weather station. This is the highest point on the island and it has incredible views over the southern part of the archipelago. It allowed us to check what the sea state looked like in different parts of the archipelago and, most importantly, spot where the whales might be! In fact going to the weather station to spot for whales was a daily routine and helped us make sure we could quickly get to where the whales were. Time was of the essence when high winds were fast approaching!

The team (David, Filipa, Gaëtan, Katy, Leticiaà, Paul, Sara and Volker) at the weather station looking at a passing humpback whale. A great place to see all the islands and spot whales!
Dr. Volker Deecke and PhD student Leticiaà Legat from the University of Cumbria joined us this summer and with them brought a towed hydrophone array. With this we were ready to multitask! We could use the towed array to make acoustic recordings while on the move following whales to get photographs for photo-id. Whenever possible we also attempted to collect skin samples which will be used for studies on the whales' diet, genetics and pollutant levels. The only thing the short weather windows did not allow us to attempt was tagging. This was because the tag, attached with suction cups, stays on the whale for a few hours during which we follow the whale to then recover the tag once it comes off and floats at the surface. But getting the tag on is anything but easy and so requires a longer day out in the water.

Despite the weather we managed to collect enough data to end with a very happy smile in our faces. But none of this would have been possible without the rest of the team: Katy Gavrilchuck, David Gaspard and Gaëtan Richard. Katy and David were the skilled skippers and Gaëtan helped with everything from acoustics to biopsy sampling. The next few months will be spent analysing all the precious information we collected and we will keep you posted on our findings. But in our memories will remain the good times we spent in Heimaey with a great bunch of people!

Thank you everyone for making this a fantastic field season!

Adult male surfaces with Heimaey in the background (photo by Sara Tavares).


Sunday, 20 July 2014

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Week 1

It's been one week since we arrived in Vestmannaeyjar to start the summer field season of 2014. We arrived to stormy days but as we needed a few days to work on the equipment and Tango this gave us the time to be ready for the good weather when it arrived. And Sunday was the day! Beautiful weather, the kind you rarely get in this part of the world. Flat seas, blue skies, sun shining and no wind. Perfect!

Back in the beautiful Westman islands. The view from the top of Eldfell on Heimaey island, showing most of the other islands of the archipelago in the distance.
We started heading West to where we had seen killer whales in previous years while the land team was searching the area southwest of Heimaey, all the way to Surtsey, where we know the whales are seen regularly too. This way we covered most of the area where we were likely to find them. After about 2 hours of sailing and searching we get the call from the land team: whales near Geirfuglasker. We were close so it was perfect timing!

Herring laying at the surface of the water (after being stunned by the whales tail slaps) is snatched up by the many seabirds flying above feeding whales.
When we arrived we saw this was a large aggregation of whales and we stayed in the area the whole day. We recognised some individuals right away and particularly one whale which we knew only from a picture donated to us by one of the tour guides of the Viking Tours boat. Sighted in 2010, the whale we numbered IS118 was easily recognisable due to the shape of its dorsal fin. It was like seeing someone you know but haven't seen in a really long time although we had actually never seen him ourselves! What an amazing sight!

IS118 seen in Vestmannaeyjar.

It was a perfect day that ended with an unexpected sighting of pilot whales! We had never seen pilot whales in these waters and talking to some of the locals they had neither, so it was quite a rare event. We saw a group of about 12-15 individuals swimming fast, but the report of one of the Ribsafari boats suggested there was another group also swimming fast nearer to Surtsey so there may have been different groups in the area. We didn't stay for long as we had to start heading home but we still managed to grab some pictures of this unusual sighting.

Over the next 2 days the weather got progressively worse but we still managed to work for half a day on both days. The whales have been consistently in the same general area and it looks like it has been mostly the same groups that are around. Week 1 has been eventful and we have been extremely lucky to find so many whales and get so much done already. We will keep you posted how the rest of the month progresses and in the meantime keep our fingers crossed for good weather and plenty of whales!

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Keeping an EAR on the whales

In the last winter season sometimes it really felt like the whales were playing tricks on us! One day we went early in the morning for our daily morning check to see what the weather looked like and whether there were any whales in the fjord. As soon as we arrive at the viewpoint, perched high above the inner part of Kolgrafafjordur, we spot the whales! The weather however is not good so we can't go out, but at least we can try to photograph them if they come close to shore, for example to go under the Kolgrafafjordur bridge. We come back home to tell the rest of the team what the plan is, fetch the photo-id camera and head back to the fjord. The whole round trip must have taken 15 minutes, we go back and the whales are gone! This happened not just once but on a few occasions.

The view from Kolgrafafjordur viewpoint. In the centre you can see the bridge separating the inner fjord from the outer part of the fjord. A great place to spot the whales!
A common sight last winter: people waiting at the bridge for the whales to go under. It did make for a spectacular show particularly when the whales had to cross against the strong current.

Luckily this year some of the hard work was done for us. Better yet, we could keep track of the whales for 24 hours a day and even in stormy weather! We had an autonomous acoustic recorder called the EAR (Ecological Acoustic Recorder). Thanks to Dr. Marc Lammers, from the Oceanwide Science Institute, we deployed an EAR in late February on the inner part of the fjord where the whales spent most of their time. It stayed in the fjord for more than one month, recording the sounds in the environment for 5 minutes every 10 minutes. This meant that by the end of the season we had more than 400 hours of recordings to go through! But because the EAR was there for such a long time it provided us valuable information about when whales were present in the inner part of the fjord, as long as they were producing sounds.

Deploying the EAR buoy
400 hours may sound like a lot, but going through all these recordings has been fascinating. We have learned that the whales came to the fjord to feed often during the night! This type of information would have been impossible for us to gather with our usual methods, as we cannot work during hours of darkness.

But it is not like the whales were only feeding at night. Or for that matter it's not even like they would be there every night. So what is it that determines their choice of when to go feeding in a particular area or when to leave? Our photographic records seem to suggest that the whales may come to the fjords for a few days but then leave and only come back a few days (or weeks) later. Where they go in the meantime is unknown. But it certainly looks like they are constantly on the move!

It is not uncommon for killer whales to move around. Our recent post about the movements between Iceland and Scotland is a testament to just that and long movements are known also in other populations. But we are still far from understanding the finer details of what drives killer whales to move between areas or to temporarily leave what seem to be good feeding grounds, as they do in Iceland.  

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Update on IF-4

Since the last post we have received new pictures of the sighting of IF-4 in Caithness and the news is not is now possible to see that she looks very emaciated, that is, in poor nutrition condition which indicates she hasn't been getting enough food for a while...

This could be a result of having made the long journey from Iceland to Scotland and feeding little during the journey, but if she has reached this state of poor condition the prospects for the future of this 'old lady' are not good...on the other hand, if she finds a regular and plentiful supply of food in Scotland she might just recover! Our knowledge of how these whales cope with periods of low food supply is limited, to say the least, but going through these periods may actually be more regular than we think.

It just goes to show how much we can learn from the pictures you take and provide to our research. We will keep an even sharper eye next winter and hope to see the familiar fin of IF-4 breaking the waters of Kolgrafafjordur, but in the meantime if you have any sightings of her or any other whales near you do please get in touch!

Friday, 16 May 2014

From Iceland to Scotland!

We have just heard the breaking news! IF-4, one of the old timers of Iceland, first identified in the 1980's, has been seen off Caithness, in the North of Scotland by the Caithness Seacoast tour company just a few days ago. But here's where it gets interesting, just a few months ago we were sailing the waters of Kolgrafafjordur following this female up in Iceland! So this is exciting stuff, these whales do go far for a bit of food. Check out their facebook page where you can see a picture of the right side of this female and look below - see if you can spot the similarities!

Left side of IF-4
Right side of IF-4

We are conducting a study gathering all our years of photographs from Iceland to look at the movements of orcas around these waters, and relating it to other locations where they might be found, such as Scotland. So contributions from local tour operators and the public are crucial to our understanding of where these whales go throughout the year. So if you see whales near you get in touch.  

Thursday, 15 May 2014

A study on pigmentation of killer whales

A new study has recently been published looking at the pigmentation features of North Atlantic killer whales. Pirjo Mäkeläinen from the University of Helsinki and her colleagues analysed photographs of the saddle and eye patch patterns of whales from Norway, Iceland, UK, Spain and Greenland. Both the saddle patch (the lighter grey area found behind the dorsal fin) and the white eye patch are commonly used to help identify individual killer whales.

This study found that throughout the North Atlantic there is little variation in saddle patch shapes, but more variation in eye patch shapes. However, a small group of whales found in the Hebrides (UK) stood out from the rest due to its unique downward sloping eye patch shape. These results suggest that this small group of whales is reproductively isolated from the rest of North Atlantic killer whales, which adds to existing concerns over the future of this community. If you would like to read the full study please go here.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Sinking Tango, damaged cars...

Yes, the final weeks of our field season had their troubles! Following one, if not THE, worst storm we had during our 2 month stay in Grundarfjordur we woke up to a damaged car. Our car had been damaged by a piece of metal that in the super high speed winds had been lifted off the ground. As the morning progresses and we try to deal with the logistics of this incident we get a phone call from Gisli, the whale watching boat captain: "Tango is sinking! Come quick!"

We arrive at the harbour to the harbour master and some other local fishermen looking at our boat, like us, in disbelief of how full of water it got and wondering how to solve this now...the boat was so heavy with all the water inside that now the stern was also underwater, which meant water just kept coming in and we feared soon the boat would go under. The harbour master had an ingenious solution! "Lets all stand in the bow and use our weight to push the stern up just enough that we can keep water from coming in and then we can use the buckets to take all the rest of the water out". It worked! It took a while to get all the water out and once that job was done there was all the maintenance checks to make sure nothing had been damaged by being soaked. The Tango was back in business for the last few days.

Just in time! The last days were magic, like the Grundarfjordur we remembered of 2013! Whales everywhere! Perfect weather! There were even whales we hadn't seen in a long time, like one particular male we hadn't seen since 2011 so these were days of plenty indeed. It was a wonderful way to say goodbye to Grundarfjordur. We are now getting ready for the July season in Vestmannaeyjar, it's coming soon and we can't wait!

Saturday, 8 March 2014

What a day!

It was around 8:15am when we got the call from Cathy Harlow, one of the Discover the World guides. Whales had just gone under the bridge and were in the inner part of the fjord! The news we had been waiting for. Just the previous day Julie and Miguel from our team had been onboard the Laki Tours boat and saw a group of whales outside the fjords. So it looked like after a short trip outside the whales were back in Kolgrafafjordur.

Check out this video taken by team member Miguel Neves of the whales going under the bridge.

We got ready to go out and soon were deploying the Tango. Bjarni, the farmer from Eidi farm, has been helping us this season picking up and deploying the Tango every day we go out with his tractor. With his help we were out in the water and ready for some work again! Conditions were good, not so much wind and no rain or snow. So we start by doing some photo-id to identify which whales were around. The whales seemed spread out, with smaller groups in different locations, so we took the opportunity to do some acoustic recordings with a hydrophone array that allows us to locate where sounds come from. This way we could tease apart which of these smaller groups was producing sounds. Between photo-id and recording sessions the morning went by and with the sun out and warming us (slightly!) we had lunch. It was a quiet and perfect morning, just what we had been craving for after some days without whales.

The Tango being deployed in Kolgrafafjordur by Bjarni.

Out of the water and ready for the next time the whales show up!

After lunch the whales started travelling and moving out of the fjord. We followed them, the weather was not too bad on the other side of the bridge and we could attempt some biopsying. This year we are trying to collect biopsies of identified individuals to investigate their genetics, diet and pollutant levels. It is incredible the amount of information we can collect with such a small sample of their skin and outer blubber layer. We try to be very careful to only biopsy whales we haven't sampled yet and soon we managed to sample one of the adult males we needed. The whales kept travelling slowly out of the fjord but the weather was deteriorating. Wind increased, it started snowing and continuing work was becoming a challenge. Even seeing anything was a challenge when snow was hitting our eyes! We managed to get one more sample and we decided to stop then and come back home. It was the right decision; the weather kept getting worse and worse and for the rest of that day and the following day it was impossible to work even though the whales were back inside Kolgrafafjordur.

These two days have lifted our hopes that the whales are around and maybe we will get some more chances to work before the end of the there have been no sightings but the weather is not very good and a storm is expected tonight. So again we wait for nature to give us one more chance to have another incredible day.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Waiting for whales...

For the last few days whale sightings have been few and far between...we occasionally have seen a small group towards the end of the day but nothing like earlier in the season when whales could be seen most days and earlier. 

Is this a sign of the end of the season? We don't know, but things do look different. There have been a few reports of whales further out, nearer Olafsvik and just two days ago we followed a group of 3 whales heading in the direction of Stykkishólmur so it could be that there are plenty of whales out in the bay of Breiðafjörður but we just can't get to them because they are too far. When weather allows members of our team still join the Láki Tours boats which can go further afield than we can on the mighty (albeit small) Tango. So if they are around we will certainly find them!

One of the 3 whales we followed two days ago out of Kolgrafafjordur and heading East. This group was composed of this adult male and two females.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

New year, new field season

We are back in Grundarfjordur but this year things are very different indeed! So far we have only seen a few whales at a time, usually one or two groups and they tend to go to the inner part of Kolgrafafjordur, a place where we never saw them last year. There are whitebeaked dolphins, grey seals and lots of seabirds around so the wildlife spectacle is impressive. Not to mention the dramatic scenery that is typical of Iceland and, particularly, the Snaefelsnes peninsula. We have seen some familiar fins, but definitely not the same numbers of whales that we were spoiled with last season. There is a lot less herring around and that might be the reason why we are getting fewer visitors. Or it could be that the whales found a better place to spend their winter, we just don't know. This is the beauty of studying wild animals, nature is in charge and all we can do is try to understand what lies behind the changes we observe.

The Icelandic weather however is still playing its tricks on us. For most of last week we were land-bound due to very strong winds. The sea was rough, even in the sheltered inner fjord where the whales now tend to come. It just so happened to be the week of Whale Fest, organised by Discover the World, so we were happy to have time so see a lot of interesting lectures featured in the programme. We also got to share our latest results with the public and meet some of the people that travelled all the way to this beautiful part of Iceland.

Today we got a chance to go back out again and we resighted some individuals we hadn't seen in more than a week - maybe this means some whales are coming back? We hope so and that the whales stay around for a little while longer.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The underwater world

One of the aims of our project was to try to understand how the whales may change their feeding behaviour depending on the behaviour of their prey: the herring. This might seem like an easy enough task, but think again...the waters where we find the whales have very low visibility. Try putting an underwater camera in the water and within a few seconds, as the whale moved just a few metres, you can't see anything but the blue. So, observing the feeding behaviour of a whole group of whales like that is just impossible!

Luckily we can rely on a cool piece of kit: a multibeam sonar. The sonar scans the water and provides us with a picture of what is going on. Because it emits pulses of very high frequency it provides a higher resolution image than a traditional echosounder and its this image that we can use to see how the whales behave when feeding on herring. It also has a very wide horizontal beam and gives us an image up to about 100 m distance. Suddenly a whole new underwater world is visible.

The support of Teledyne RESON has made it possible for us to use one of their sonars and some of the images we have obtained can now be seen here. We will be using the sonar again in 2014 so hopefully we can continue exploring the underwater world of feeding killer whales.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Happy 2014!!

We are getting ready for a new field season starting already in February! We can't wait to go back to Grundarfjordur and see the whales again. We have been busy analysing the data that was collected last year and we got a chance to present some of our results at the 20th Biennial Conference on Marine Mammals that took place in New Zealand in December. We are still far from finishing all the analysis but time has come to prepare for a new season, as the herring and the whales have already been sighted in the fjords all December. As before, we will update the blog with news of our progress so stay tuned for more news.