The majority of the research conducted for Whale Watching Wisely takes place in Skjálfandi Bay, from the town of Húsavík. An area subject to intense whale watching, we hope to document differences in behaviour and movement patterns in the presence and absence of vessels. However, this cannot tell us how the whales would behave in areas without a whale watching industry. For all we know, whales exhibit permanent behavioural changes in areas subject to whale watching.
Therefore, for the last week, Tom and Alyssa have joined the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) on their Ireland-Iceland Humpback Whale Expedition. Sailing from Reykjavík in the south-west to Ísafjörður in the Westfjords, we passed through areas with varying degrees of whale watching activity.
When conducting whale research, you must always keep this in mind: you can never predict where the whales will be. This was especially important during our trip, for we unfortunately did not spot any humpback whales during the week. However, we had a brilliant time on board the Celtic Mist, a beautiful 56-foot sailing boat, with a group led by Dr Simon Berrow.
Our journey started positively when leaving Reykjavík, with bow-riding white-beaked dolphins, many minke whales and calm seas. From here, stopping at Akranes on the way, the next known cetacean hotspot was the mountainous Snaefellsnes peninsula, whose waters attract both sperm whales and orca. Despite spending two days in the area, based at the port of Ólafsvík, and hearing many sperm whale clicks (a sign of foraging) with a hydrophone, we left having only seen two sperm whale blows. Meanwhile, the local whale watching vessel spotted both orca and sperm whales during this time. This should serve as an important lesson: a lack of sightings does not mean a lack of life.
From here, we sailed across Breiðafjörður, one of the largest bays in Iceland. The blue whale hotspot of Iceland about 20 years ago, these giants are now a very rare sight in Breiðafjörður, with most whales seen on the north-eastern coast of Iceland. After this, we reached the Westfjords, well known for their dramatic scenery and twisting coastline. They certainly did not disappoint, with foreboding cliffs guiding us into the sheltered, waters of Tálknafjörður, teaming with birdlife, where we anchored for the night.
Finally, we spent a rainy day sailing to our final destination, Ísafjörður, home to a university and a thriving fishing community. By this point, expect for one dolphin, we had not seen a cetacean in three days- sometimes, this happens. Despite this, we had a fantastic week of sailing, with relatively calm seas, and made great friends with the IWDG crew. We cannot thank them enough for their kindness and hospitality. We also met whale watching guides and other researchers at the various ports, hopefully leading to collaboration in the future!
For the next couple of weeks, we will shift our attention to drone sampling, joining the Celtic Mist once more. Flying a drone equipped with petri dishes through the exhaled breath of humpback and blue whales, our aim is to measure the levels of stress-related hormones, particularly cortisol. If we can sample blows before and after whale watching encounters, we can potentially infer the physiological stress induced by these encounters. To achieve this, we have welcomed Mark Romanov to Iceland. A wildlife cameraman and film-maker from California, Mark has huge experience in using drones to film cetaceans, often in quite challenging conditions. Putting these skills to the test, we have two weeks to collect as many samples as possible. Read next week’s blog to learn about the progress of this work!
To read more about the IWDG Ireland-Iceland Expedition: