Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Fieldwork 2017 - Minkes don’t eat chips

Commentary by Miguel Neves

Miguel Neves has been a part of the Icelandic Orca project fieldwork for the past 5 years. This blog post is about his experience over these last 2 weeks of August 2017.

Blue whales close to Heimaey. Photo by Filipa Samarra.

The last Earthwatch team of the season (team 5) has just left. After our one week forced break in the beginning of August because of the Þjóðhátíð1, it was a relief to see the whales were still around. This was the first time the fieldwork ran in August, and we were happy to learn that killer whales could still be found here this time of the year. But they weren’t the only thing we found. On one day we spotted blue whales from the land station and followed them on the boat to take pictures to share with researchers studying this species (did you know that a blue whale’s tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant, and their hearts as much as a car?); on another day we worked with the killer whales so close to shore you could hear the blows from the land station, in Stórhöfði!

Glacier behind Suðurey. Photo by Sara Tavares.

The day after that, the sea seemed dead. No whales were spotted from the land station. Even so the sea was so flat we decided to go out on the boat to scout further offshore. And boy were we happy we did it. Behind the islands, in the land station’s blind spot, we saw an aggregation of minke whales, and counted over 11! Minkes feed on a wide range of prey, including small schooling fish, such as herring, capelin and sand eel, demersal fish, like cod and haddock and yes, you guessed it, not chips. But they do feed on krill! And we got to see those red patches in the sea that are made up of thousands and thousands of minuscule crustaceans, and the surface of the water seemed to bubble when they swam. This is the stuff documentaries are made of.

One of the minkes of the aggregation. Photo by Sara Tavares.

Red-necked phalaropes and a minke in the background. Photo by Sara Tavares.

Video by Miguel Neves.

1Þjóðhátíð (from Wikipedia; English: The National Festival) is an annual outdoor festival held in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland […]. Locals and guests gather in Herjólfsdalur valley on the island of Heimaey for four days of various events. […] Þjóðhátíð was first held in 1874 when islanders were prevented by bad weather from attending the celebration on the Icelandic mainland of the millennium of Icelandic settlement.

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