Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Fieldwork 2016 - the end! What a great season...

 Commentary by Julie Béesau and Marie Louis

Our 2016 summer fieldwork is now finished. We have packed all the equipment and left the beautiful archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar. We had a very successful data collection this season and a month full of good weather, great orca encounters and an amazing group of people! Team members Julie Béesau and Marie Louis share with us their thoughts about the season. 


It was a pleasure to come back to help again the Icelandic Orca’s team, now in the summer place in Vestmannaeyjar. I discovered this wonderful area that is completely different from the winter fieldwork, I cannot compare the two areas. It’s just so amazing to be on the boat with the amazing wild animal named orcas. I spent two weeks there to participate in the data collection, in particular photo-ID.
As always the team atmosphere was really great, everyone on the boat was so happy to be in this beautiful landscape with whales and try to collect as much data as possible.
We had some great encounter with orcas and we saw some breaching and socialisation like the “pink lamprey”… I would like to thank everyone for this wonderful two weeks spent there.

Happy killer whale around Vestmannaeyjar. Photo by Julie Béesau. 

Amazing sunset after our last day on the boat. Photo by Julie Béesau.


Fieldwork and staying in Vestmannaeyjar was amazing. We had really great weather during the last 8 days and could go out at sea every day. We saw lots of killer whales in large feeding aggregations. One of the highlights of the season was to see hundreds of killer whales swimming very fast away from the pilot whales! It was very impressive!
Thanks everyone for a great time!  And a special mention to our favourite friendly whale Cray-cray featured in the last blog post!

Spy-hopping killer whale. Photo by Marie Louis.

The A-team enjoying the last very sunny and warm survey day (yes this photo was taken in Iceland!). Photo by Marie Louis.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Fieldwork 2016 - on the last week already!

 Commentary by Gary Haskins

Gary Haskins joined the Icelandic Orca project fieldwork this season as a skipper. This blog post is about his experience over the first 3 weeks with us.

We have been testing out the feasibility of utilising a land based crew to monitor and track orca movements using a theodolite. This system allows us to record the positions and movements of whales, boats, tidal flows/upwellings, etc., on map in real time. This is cool as firstly the land based team can direct boat teams on the location of whales, but also you get large scale movement and behavioural data that can be then related to lots of environmental factors or even boats in the area. This gets even cooler when you place a listening device, moored at sea visible from the land station so that behavioural activity can then be monitored in conjunction with ‘listening in’ on the associated vocalisations a’ la the NSA. Unlike the NSA however, we welcome whistle blowing.

This is all good in theory (and in practice eventually) but theodolites are fickle beasts, otherwise known as pieces of precision equipment. They have to be set up carefully and once set up, they must not be knocked. They become difficult to use at rock concerts, and I imagine they are a right pain in Space, but of more relevance they are a bit iffy in windy places. It turns out that our land observation point, Stórhöfði, is the windiest place in Iceland. Literally. (The actual meaning of literally, not the silly new meaning, where literally has literally become the antithesis of itself).

OMG! Jen was so happy to be collecting data she literally died.

In short the theodolite has to be levelled and any movement by a tiny margin will give false or no readings. Therefore wind can hinder the set up. But, we went from taking two patience sapping hours to being able to do it effectively and accurately in 10 minutes. We successfully tracked orca and collected some nice data on minke presence and movements for our undergrad student, Jenifer Stollery. We even recorded a sneaky anomalously pigmented (white) harbour porpoise calf.

A porpoise is in this picture somewhere. Photo by Jen Stollery.

Other than that I have been skippering the boat, helping out with Photo-ID and bit of acoustics and anywhere that I can try and lend a hand. Our main goal this week has been to acquire biopsy samples from orca using an ARTS system. The ARTS fires a dart that takes a small sample from the whale (its harmless) and allow all sorts of information to be determined; diet, movements, sex, relatedness, pollutant load. Again, great sounding in theory but in practice it can be pretty tricky to get close enough to these animals. According to Craig Matkin, they act like ‘offshores’. That basically means they are boat shy and have a circle of trust, of about 25 or more meters. We can biopsy up to about 18 m so gaining access is a case of softly, softly catchee monkey. But man, those last few moments, as we edge ever closer, timing our gentle arrival to the last surface of our target animal before it dives… could cut the air with a theodolite.

Miguel with the ARTS system, as we enter the circle of trust.

Celebrating a successful biopsy, Miguel claims all the credit and won't share the sweets.

As well as boat shy, twice now I have seen these orca porpoise at high speed away from incoming pilot whales. Admittedly there were lots of pilot whales charging in like madmen but there were perhaps over one hundred orca. In addition, a local fishermen was telling us about how the whales he sees from his boat always flee when the porpoise turn up. He insists its porpoise displacing them. Orca – you used to be cool man, what happened?

Scary pilot whales apparently.

N.B. I say they are wary and boat shy, and they are. All exempt our new favourite whale, IS423 – affectionately named by Miguel as Richie Cray-Cray. Whilst the others are playing hard to get, IS423 approaches the boat and swims in our wake, less than a metre from us, seemingly attracted to the bubbles produced by our engine. He is now too close to biopsy, obviously.

Thanks to all for having me as part of the team! It is greatly appreciated.

Video of IS423 (by Miguel Neves).

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Fieldwork 2016 - the first 2 weeks!

Commentary by Marie Louis

Marie Louis is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of St Andrews joining the Icelandic Orca project fieldwork this season. This blog post is about her experience over the first 2 weeks with us.

I am helping with field data collection on killer whales in Vestmannayejar since two weeks. It has been a fantastic and interesting experience so far. Sara and Filipa explained us during the first couple of days how the material was working and how the data should be collected. 

On the boat, I am in charge of taking photo-identification data. Sara showed me during the first two trips how the photo-ID data is collected in particular for social structure analyses. The challenging but also exciting part is to get eye patches’ photos of the calves as they are fast and often stay behind their mother. It greatly helps for their identification as their saddle patch is usually faint. 

Adult male dorsal fin and saddle patch. Photo by Marie Louis.
Female and juvenile. Photo by Marie Louis.

Female, calf and juveniles. Photo by Marie Louis.
We had really great encounters with the killer whales and good weather conditions. We are re-sighting part of the same whales trip after trip, sometimes with different associates. Some of the whales (as illustrated by the below photos of the male with the floppy fin and the female with a big notch on the dorsal fin) are easy to recognize in the field. During the last trip, several groups of whales were feeding and surrounded by lots of diving gannets. There was also a humpback whale in the middle of the groups of killer whales. We sampled herring from these feeding events; Filipa will use them for stable isotopes analyses to better understand the feeding ecology of the killer whales. 

Humpback whale. Photo by Marie Louis.

Adult male with a floppy fin. Photo by Marie Louis.

An easily recognizable female with a big nick (IS035). Photo by Marie Louis.

It was also very interesting to see other parts of the data collection: acoustic recordings and behavioral sampling, and tracking data collection from land using a theodolite. I am very glad to be here, the Vestmannayejar is a very beautiful archipelago and an amazing field site. It is also a paradise for seabirds and puffins-fans!  Every evening we rotate to cook a nice meal for everyone and learned new recipes including tasty vegan cakes. We have been stuck on land due to a storm yesterday but tomorrow’s forecast is looking good. I am looking forward to see what the next two weeks will bring!

Juvenile killer whale. Photo by Marie Louis.

Gannet rock in Vestmannaeyjar. Photo by Marie Louis.

Puffin. Photo by Marie Louis.

The view from the volcano that erupted in 1973. Photo by Marie Louis.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

And we are starting!

We are starting our 2016 fieldwork in Vestmannaeyjar of 1 month… This fieldwork will be a collaboration between the Marine Research Institute and the University of Cumbria. This last couple of days have been full of team members arriving and setting up equipment! We still have some work to do on land before we get on the boat… But just yesterday some killer whales were sighted close to the main island Heimaey where we are staying! So things look promising here and we are very excited to start!

This season we will be collecting photo-ID data, behavioural observations, sampling feeding events, biopsy samples, acoustic recordings and land-based observations. With this we investigate the distribution and movements, social and acoustic behaviour and foraging ecology of the Icelandic killer whale population.

We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the fieldwork through the next weeks! Here are some pictures from these first days from Marie Louis, who's joining us this year.

The view from Heimaey. Photo by Marie Louis.

Minke whale seen from land. Photo by Marie Louis.

Killer whales seen from land. Photo by Marie Louis.

Killer whales seen from land. Photo by Marie Louis.

Team members scouting for whales! Photo by Marie Louis. 

The midnight sun in Heimaye. Photo by Marie Louis.

Killer whales seen from land. Photo by Marie Louis.

Puffin. Photo by Marie Louis.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

DNA can say so much...

Commentary by Sara Tavares

The amazing work done for more than 20 years in British Columbia, photographing and identifying (all) killer whales, gave us unprecedented knowledge about this species. The detailed photographic dataset created in British Columbia is invaluable for the conservation and monitoring of the local populations.

But sometimes photographic identification is not enough and other kinds of information from the individuals becomes important, such as its specific genetic "fingerprint" - DNA.

This blog post by Dr. Carla Crossman, molecular and marine biologist with the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute, is a great example of how invaluable genetics studies are when working with wild populations. Last April, 2 dead individuals washed out in British Columbia in a state of decomposition that did not permit identification based on appearance. But using existent knowledge of the genetic variation across populations, the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute discovered to which population the individuals belonged to by their genetic code. Working long hours to get this information as soon as possible, the molecular biologists in the Institutes’ Conservation Genetics Lab were able to tell that both whales belonged to the fish-eating resident population and more specifically to the southern community! Amazing, right? This was possible due to previous studies by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, currently senior marine mammal scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute, that discovered which variations in the genetic code distinguished the killer whale populations.

3 males traveling together. Are they from the same family and therefore genetically related? Uncovering this is one of the goals of the Icelandic Orca project.

We are currently working on building up this kind of genetic knowledge on the Icelandic killer whale population to help us monitor the status of the population. One of the goals of our project is to map the genetic relatedness among individuals and understand the genetic variability within the population. It will be some years until we uncovered all this but during the last 2 years we made great progress collecting small biopsy samples of skin from photo-identified individuals. Lately, we have been trying to find the best genetic markers to use on this population (because the variations in the genetic code are not the same among populations) so that we can start uncovering this vital information about the animals.

But, as Carla Crossman so well shows on her blog post, genetic analysis can be a slow process... Even just extracting DNA from a small piece of skin from a single individual whales takes several days! And extracting DNA is just the very first step! Then you need to test different genetic markers, optimise protocols and only once all that is complete can you start going through all the small skin biopsies to start gathering information from different individuals. So it can usually be many months until this type of analysis is complete. We will keep you posted about new developments on the very exciting genetic studies being conducted!

Thursday, 28 January 2016

My Icelandic orcas' experience

Commentary by Julie Beesau

Julie Beesau spent 2 fieldseasons volunteering with us at the Icelandic Orca project in 2013 and 2014. This blog post is about her own experience working with Icelandic orcas.

I have spent two months in Iceland, in Grundarfjörður, during winter fieldwork twice (in 2013 and 2014) with all the Icelandic Orcas' team. It was such a great experience for me. I've always wanted to see orcas in the wild and study them. I learned many things on their social and feeding behavior, and I could also enjoy the magic of their acoustic communication.
I was in charge of taking pictures and acoustic recordings on the whale watching boat. It was also nice to discuss and explain to tourists what kind of studies we can do on orcas.
I remember one day we encountered more than 100 orcas in the fjord, it was just unbelievable. I think this day was my favorite and will be engraved in my memory forever.

Male orca. Photo by Julie Beesau.

Every day after the trip on the whale watching boat I would meet the rest of the team in our house where we shared our sightings and experiences on the boat and also a great meal.

Landscape of  Grundarfjörður. Photo by Julie Beesau.
I could also appreciate the magical landscapes of Iceland and sometimes the capricious weather.
It was a unique experience, rich in animal sightings but also rich in human contact. I met some absolutely lovely and very helpful people there (Icelandic, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Scottish, Dutch, German people).

Thank you to all the Icelandic Orcas’ team and also to Láki Tours, especially captain Gísli.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Do whales have culture?

Commentary by Sara Tavares

What is culture? Is culture something that makes us, humans, special?
This was the theme of the last Café Scientifique meeting I attended, a monthly evening public meeting in a café/bar where scientists are invited to talk about their work or another interesting topic. In the last one I attended in St Andrews, Luke Rendell talked about his latest book, co-authored with Hal Whitehead, "The cultural lives of whales and dolphins", on the theme of culture in cetaceans.

So, what is culture? 
How to define culture has been one of the biggest academic discussions. Culture is not genetic, is not in the DNA. Broadly, culture is the accumulation of knowledge that is passed across generations over time.
Different sperm whale populations have different codas (stereotyped pattern of clicks) and in the Pacific different social groups make different codas and some groups share the same dialect and temporarily spend time together. This is part of the cultural identity of these whales and is not genetically transmitted, since genetic studies showed a mix of genes between groups that mismatch the dialect pattern.

This is just one example for one species that shows the existence of culture in cetaceans. Culture is probably vital for highly social animals such as cetaceans. One of the stories presented in the Café Scientifique meeting as an interesting example of the importance of cultural identity in whales was the story of Keiko, the Icelandic killer whale. Keiko was captured when he was around 2 years old and kept for many years on his own in a small tank. 

The killer whale Keiko, star of the film Free Willy (source: Wikipedia)

When adult, Keiko was gradually freed in Vestmannaeyjar (where we conduct our fieldwork in the summer), first kept in a sea pen for habituation. In one occasion, when Keiko was accompanied by a boat with people involved in his re-introduction , he was approached by one killer whale that tried to interact with him going "belly to belly", a common social behaviour among whales . However, Keiko quickly swam away from the whale and "hid" behind the boat, possibly scared by that unfamiliar behaviour.  After full release, Keiko eventually swam to Norway where he was adopted by a fishing village and fed by humans, until he eventually died, probably from pneumonia.

Keiko couldn't be re-introduced in the Icelandic killer whale society because, after being apart from these whales since a very young age, he didn't know the culture.

Although this is just one single story of only one whale it can still suggest to us how important culture might be for cetaceans. So maybe the question shouldn't be how to define culture but how many forms of culture there are. Because human culture and whale culture are not the same, but they both exist and they are both unique.

Café Scientifique is currently active in more than 40 towns across the UK and in some cities in other countries. Check out on their website where and when is the next meeting in your town and join the discussions!

Monday, 11 January 2016

Goodbye 2015... Hello 2016!

Another year has passed... And what a year for the Icelandic Orca project. We had some amazing fieldseasons this last year, interesting findings about this unique population (you can get a full list of our project's publications to date here) and lots of new cool stuff for the project (new website, new logo and Mousa).

As "a picture is worth a thousand words" we selected some photos to share with you of moments to remember from 2015. 

We want to thank everyone who collaborated with and supported the project and that was involved in making 2015 a year full of great developments!

Thank you for the support during the past year. We are looking forward for a 2016 full of new discoveries about Icelandic orcas and to share them with you all!