Whale team assembles

Hello everyone! After nearly three weeks in Iceland, we are really settling into a research routine. Our protocols are finalised for the season and our database is rapidly expanding.

This will only continue as we welcome two new researchers to the team this week, Danny Kosiba and Katy Maleta. Both Danny and Katy have recently finished their undergraduate degrees in the USA, and are keen to contribute to conservation. With four full-time researchers over the next few months, we hope to collect several hours of data per day, covering the majority of whales seen in Skjálfandi bay.

The last couple of weeks have seen large fluctuations in the number of whale sightings. Starting with calm, sunny weather and warm, southerly winds (well, warm for Iceland), there seemed to be humpback whales everywhere you looked. Swimming in groups of up to six animals, they mostly appeared to be feeding, fattening up in preparation for the southward migration later in the year. Their prey (fish and krill) were probably quite near to the surface, evidenced by short dive times and surface feeding activity.  As proof of this, we witnessed an incredible show of lunge feeding by one whale today, who repeatedly surfaced with its mouth wide open, engulfing many tons of water and fish. After capturing its prey, baleen whales then use their powerful tongue to force water and small particles out through baleen plates, which represent an efficient filtering system, leaving only fish and krill left to swallow.

We also saw many breaches during this period, including one massive leap right next to our whale watching boat (splashing everyone on board). Watching a 30-ton animal throwing itself out of the water, not ten metres from you, will always stay in your memories. We cannot say why a whale would choose to do this, because no one actually knows why whales breach- it may remove parasites, communicate messages or simply be a fun thing to do. In reality, it may be a combination of all these reasons. It’s amazing to think that this is just one of the many mysteries of humpback whales, and we know more about this species than any other baleen whale.

With the whales came the birds (another tourist attraction), with huge flocks of Arctic terns and fulmars feeding on shoals of fish near the mountains. We have also seen a large number of gannets- the largest seabird in the North Atlantic- which are typically quite rare in the area. Perhaps they are changing their range due to climate change, following the likes of mackerel and other fish on their northwards expansion.

Unfortunately, the days of plentiful whales were not to last, with a storm from the north seemingly driving the whales out of the bay. Therefore, the last week has been quite challenging from a research perspective- whales are hard to follow when your boat is fighting large swells, and even harder when they’re at least five miles from your land station! Luckily, we are up to the challenge and have managed to collect usable data despite the weather. This included a session from 11.30pm to 5am watching whales from the cliffs surrounding the bay, which was worth it for the fiery sunset alone. Luckily, thanks to the 24-hour daylight provided by an Icelandic summer, we can conduct our research whenever we want. Actually, observing whales in different types of weather can provide useful information, with substantial evidence that whales are more surface-active (and particularly breach more) in rough weather. Perhaps it can also affect their response to whale watching boats.

Nevertheless, we are hoping for better weather in the coming weeks. In the next blog, we will discuss our plans for June, including blow sampling and aerial imagery.

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Surface feeding humpback whale
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Often humpbacks use bubbles to capture prey
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Arctic tern, the bird with the longest migration
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Breach!
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Coming back down
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The second breach was too close to capture
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Tracking whales at sunset (midnight)

 

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