Saturday, 24 June 2017

Fieldwork 2017 - the first 2 weeks!

Commentary by Sara Tavares

We’ve started our 2017 field season in Vestmannaeyjar and the first two weeks of fieldwork are completed! We’ve had our first Earthwatch team joining us and despite the periods of strong winds, rain and fog, we had some amazing sightings from the land station and encounters from the boat.

Adult male killer whales close to Heimaey. Photo by Sara Tavares.

Our land station is on Stórhöfði, a peninsula at the southern end of Heimaey which is the place of a meteorological station (officially the windiest place in Iceland!). From there, we can use using high-magnification binoculars to search for killer whales and other marine mammals and record their position using a theodolite. This will give us information on how groups of animals use the area over the season.

From the land station we saw killer whales, humpback whales, porpoises, potentially a beaked whale species (but it was not possible to confirm it), and pilot whales. And the observations of pilot whales could not have been more amazing! They appear in groups of hundreds and can be seen arriving from far away, in the horizon, since so many whales swimming so fast do a lot of splashing in the water!! And it’s incredible to see these large groups of whales arriving and the killer whales just moving away as the others come closer, eventually disappearing. The pilot whales are chasing the killer whales away! It was incredible to witness this from the land station.

Land station. Photo by Filipa Samarra.

Scanning for whales. Photo by Filipa Samarra.

We had awesome encounters from the boat, we saw many familiar killer whales (including a particular one with a distinct deformity in the spine, see our Facebook post here), minke whales, pilot whales and also an incredible sighting of a carcass of what looked like a shark. We could see the shark gills in the carcass on the sides of the head. It could have been a Basking shark but it was not possible to confirm the species due to the degradation of the carcass.

Killer whales travelling. Photo by Graeme Ellis.

Pilot whales coming close to the research boat. Photo by Graeme Ellis.

Shark carcass encountered floating on the water. Photo by Graeme Ellis.

From the boat we took photo-ID pictures and behavioural observations of the killer whales. And we were pooped on by gannets… a lot! It is very common to have countless gannets flying in circles above the boat.

These weeks were a very successful start of fieldwork. It was great to have such a fantastic Earthwatch team joining us in the field and it was wonderful to work with them all! We’ll have a second team joining us soon and we’ll keep you updated on new encounters and observations over the next couple of weeks!