Monday, 24 July 2017

Fieldwork 2017 - the first 2 weeks of July!

 Commentary by Tom Bean

Tom Bean joined the Icelandic Orca project fieldwork this season as a skipper. This blog post is about his experience over these last 2 weeks with us.

Data collection with Earthwatch team 3 started in haste with particularly good weather, and clear views of the glacier – the calm before the storm! We found whales right away and were treated to some unique experiences. Namely, four whales had moved closer to the land station, and both the boat and land teams were treated to observing killer whales in and around the cave under Suðurey.

Killer whales inside a cave! Photo by Sara Tavares.

On the same day we managed to collect two herring samples from a feeding event.

Measuring the size of the prey fish collected during a feeding event. Photo by Filipa Samarra.

The days following this became more difficult to conduct boat surveys with limited weather windows. We rose from our rest between 5 and 6 on one morning, attempting to find a break in the weather of just a few hours. Unfortunately, the weather was not as predicted and we were not so lucky. Increased effort was focused upon the land station with more pairs of eyes and binoculars!

Land station seen from the boat (can you see those little dots at the top??!!). Photo by Sara Tavares.

Outings to the land station always bring excitement – foremost for the diversity of wildlife sightings in general, but also accounting for a stunning landscape, weather and sheep behaviour! It’s edge of the seat perseverance working in such a remote and alien environment. Personally, I often strain my eyes with my keenness to find something in an eight-hour survey period. Stopping to think about our location really drives home how privileged we are to be working here. Let me orientate you - behind us to the northeast there’s a huge glacier, Eyjafjallajökull (remember that one that erupted in 2010, cancelling all the planes?). It’s super stunning on a rare clear day. In front, to the southeast, is a myriad of islands, stacks and underwater volcanic mounds – lined up but spaced out in near precision – a physical documentation of eruptions through time (a bit like Galápagos). Not forgetting Surtsey, the furthest island from us, the extent of our survey area and one of the newest islands in the world, created by a sudden upwelling of magma in the 1960s.

Eyjafjallajökull visible at the distance. Photo by Sara Tavares.

If that wasn’t enough, we’re perched on the edge of an inhabited active volcanic island in an archipelago south of Iceland, peering over a one hundred metre sheer cliff, surrounded by 800,000 pairs of Atlantic puffins – the biggest colony in the world. Again, adding to the awe, we’re surrounded daily by stunning birdlife – ravens, great skuas, fulmars and snipes to name a few. Ravens are one of my favourites to watch, just for their sheer size, perceptual intelligence and noisy attitudes. Although male snipes put up a good fight in the noisiness contest, drumming their tail feathers in courtship displays.

Fulmars being fulmars... Photo by Sara Tavares.

OK, so we’ve walked the distance from the car to our station, seen some birds in their summer breeding rhythm (before the days grow short once more), but now the real work begins. We’re here to find whales! Our priority is to locate a group of animals for the boat team to gather some discrete focal data. Ideally, a small feeding group where every individual is photographed followed by a prey sample collection and a tissue biopsy – our main focus here is foraging ecology. So while one person commences the search, the remainder of our team sets up the theodolite, laptop and tent, simultaneously ready to record a sighting or shelter from any weather thrown at us. Our purpose is twofold: finding whales and reporting on the weather across the archipelago. As such, the boat and land station teams are in frequent contact and our role is critical to the success of the data collected from the boat. Intermittently we’re joined by our friends – the sheep. Big eyed, hungry and shaggy. Their fleeces are messy, and I mean hanging off their backs!

A killer whale checking us out! Photo by Sara Tavares.

During our land-based effort, it was a pleasure to speak with and educate tourists and school groups from around Europe and North America about our conservation and research work, and for some people to see their very first whales! It reminds me of my first wild cetacean encounters – the awe and wonder of a short snapshot in the lives of large and independent animals going about their business to feed and survive. No regard for the shopping centres, pop culture, advertising and fast-paced lives so many of us are now accustomed.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Fieldwork 2017 - June completed! What will July bring?

Commentary by Sara Tavares

Two more weeks have past and we couldn’t have been luckier with the weather! We had the second Earthwatch team joining us over these weeks and we went out on the boat and worked in the land station almost every day.

Adult male killer whale travelling. Photo by Filipa Samarra.

We started this second study period very apprehensive, since we had read on the news about the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) exercise just South of Vestmannaeyjar running from the 23rd of June until today. We had no idea what this exercise involved but wondered if something could have an impact on the killer whales and make them move away from Vestmannaeyjar. So on the 26th of June we went out on the boat, and we searched for whales the whole morning around Heimaey. Nothing… No killer whales or any other marine mammal. The land station also looked for whales the whole morning and 3 different people saw a minke whale only once (!) and at different times… And never saw it again. They started calling it a ghost whale… Was it even real?

It seemed like a “dead sea” to us. And we were wondering: “Could this be connected to the NATO exercise? Did all the whales move away from here?”… But not giving up, in the afternoon we opted for a different route and looked for whales over the Northwest, further away from Heimaey where the land station only has partial view of the North of Vestmannaeyjar. And there they were!!! Killer whales everywhere! They were still here and it was around that area that they spent most time of these 2 weeks. We had amazing observations of feeding events in these area! We even had spy-hops and breaching whales at some point.

Humpback whale sighted from the boat. Photo by Filipa Samarra.

Adult male killer whale. Photo by Sara Tavares. 

The land station could follow the movement of these whales in the area and also saw other marine mammals from there, including pilot whales in the South of Heimaey. These were some amazing two weeks with lots of data collected. It shows that we can never get discouraged if we don’t find whales. Also, it is important to know that the whales are not in a specific area, so that we can learn how they use this herring spawning ground. As many researchers say: no data is good data!
We are looking forward to meet the third Earthwatch team and to continue data collection over the next two weeks. We can’t wait to see what these amazing killer whales will do next!

Kittiwake feeding near killer whales. Photo by Sara Tavares. 
Killer whale breaching. Photo by Sara Tavares.