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!