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.