Summer bonanza

As the northern summer truly arrives in Húsavík, whales have been enjoying the feast of fish and krill provided by warmer water and 24-hour daylight. Humpback whales are now being spotted on every trip, with many minke whales and even a blue whale spotted in the last few days. We are also noticing more frequent and larger pods of white-beaked dolphins- a true resident of Icelandic waters. As summer progresses, dolphins will make increasing use of Skjálfandi, with dramatic aerial displays frequently observed in July, their breeding season.

It’s not just the number of whales that has increased, as we now have two more researchers! As mentioned in the last blog post, Danny and Katy have completed their batchelor’s studies in the USA and are keen to contribute to conservation. Thanks to the extra hands, we can now collect large quantities of data, weather and whales permitting. Each of us will contribute to vessel-based and land-based observations whenever possible.

Fortunately, we’ve had pretty good luck in the past few days, with calm seas and amazing whale encounters. In particular, during the evening trips we have seen some incredible lunge-feeding. Often these involve multiple whales, which may cooperate to herd their prey towards the surface. During one unusual encounter, we spotted two whales in the distance, one of which was repeatedly breaching. Upon reaching them, they abruptly stopped all surface activity and appeared to start feeding. After a few minutes, this feeding moved to the surface, with one whale lunging on its side and one whale lunging vertically upwards. There could be a large number of explanations for this change in activity, but it is certainly possible that our presence led to the change in behaviour. This certainly doesn’t happen every time- the presence of boats sometimes seems to encourage whales to breach- but whale watching vessels certainly have the potential to impact whale behaviour. In a similar vein, we have encountered a few resting whales (logging at the surface) on morning trips- in each case this season, the whale has dived on close approach of the vessel, and reverted to resting after the vessel’s departure.

Finally, last night’s encounter deserves special mention. Mother-calf pairs are very rare in the bay, so it was a true privilege to see a calf apparently playing in the waves, lobtailing and raising his fluke in the air. For a few minutes, they were even accompanied by another adult whale. In breeding grounds, this animal would be considered an escort- an adult male interested in mating with the female. In a feeding ground, however, we cannot be so sure. One thing is certain- we want to make sure that the future generation of whales, including this calf, won’t suffer from human activities.

Next week, Alyssa and Tom are joining the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) on their expedition around Iceland (follow their journey here: http://iwdg.ie/iceland2018/). With several matches of humpback whales between Iceland and Ireland, the IWDG hopes to establish links with Icelandic researchers and discourage whaling, which still persists in Iceland. Sailing from Reykjavik to the West Fjords, we hope to collect useful data from areas that aren’t exposed to such intense whale watching as a comparison to the whales of Skjálfandi Bay.

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Two of the three lunge feeders
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Sometimes the boats can’t help it, sometimes it can
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Not all about humpbacks- minkes whales also join the feast
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Jumping white-beaked dolphin in front of Lundey (Puffin Island)
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There’s more than one way to lunge-feed
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Mother and calf- a rare sight in the bay
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Monitoring whales from the cliffs

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Hail the rangefinder, allowing us to track whale movements at sea

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