As our first field season draws to a close, we can celebrate a successful season of whale research. We won’t pretend that it was all plain sailing: the last four months have been tiring and frustrating at times, as we faced challenges both expected and surprising. We soon realised the true difficulty of monitoring whales in their natural habitat, and that we needed to adjust our original plans. However, it has also been a season full of incredible experiences, thanks to both the whales and the people. We have seen breaching, bubble-net feeding, playful calves, curious humpbacks and even blue whales, the largest animal known to have existed. To encounter these gentle giants, these living leviathans, whilst hopefully contributing to their protection, is the greatest privilege.
Throughout our time in Iceland this year, we have given it our all to conduct as much research as possible. To give you an idea of our achievements during the last few months:
- 360 hours on whale watching boats, monitoring whale behaviour, during 120 trips
- 80 hours spent watching whales from land
- 15 blow samples collected from humpback whales
- 20 locals and whale watching employees interviewed, for their opinions about whales, whale watching and conservation
We hope that the results from this fieldwork, in addition to our efforts in future years, can be used to encourage a truly sustainable whale watching industry, respecting and protecting the whales we love to watch. Judging by the support we have had since Whale Wise started, including encouragement from whale watching employees, we fully believe that this is possible.
This year has also taught us that you should not limit yourself in the research world; especially with marine mammals, where you never know what you will encounter. Whilst it has been a fantastic season for humpback whales, we have also had some unexpected visitors to the bay- northern bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus). A normally deep-water species, they have appeared at times confused and distressed, culminating in fatal strandings in the bay and around the coast of Iceland. In order to figure out why this happened and to prevent future fatalities in the, we are also studying the behaviour and movement patterns of this species. Samples were taken from the dead whales and will be analysed by various research groups in due course, which will hopefully provide further clues as to the cause of this tragedy (read more in our next blog).
Despite the success of this field season, we realise that, as with everything, we can improve. In order to ensure a meaningful contribution to marine conservation, we are always seeking to enhance our research methods and translate our research into action through public engagement. Therefore, in addition to continuing our work from this year, we have the following goals for the next field season:
- Collect more blow samples. In 2018, our blow sampling efforts were limited by awful weather and a short blow-sampling period of only two weeks. Next year, we hope to extend our blow sampling season to at least a month. We would also love to use a research boat to increase our ability to collect blow samples, particularly from blue whales, which are still listed as Endangered and are very susceptible to human disturbance (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/2477/0).
- Formally present our research to whale watching companies. This year, we have been able to discuss our work with many whale watching employees, whilst fine-tuning our research methods, and we are so grateful for the support and kind words that we received. Next year, we aim to present our research and conservation plans to the companies themselves in the hopes of forming a productive relationship that prioritises marine conservation.
- Expand public engagement. Maintaining this blog and active social media accounts has really helped to share our work with the public. However, we can take this further, especially in terms of presenting our research face-to-face. We started this by giving a talk on board a cruise ship two weeks ago, and we hope to continue this progress over the next year. In particular, Tom works at the local whale museum and is keen to use their facilities for regular presentations.
Finally, we would like to thank all of you for supporting us and reading about our work throughout this field season. We hope that you’ve enjoyed our stories from the field and we would love to continue to share our work. Only by engaging with you can we make positive change towards protection of whales, dolphins and marine life generally. Therefore, if you have any comments or suggestions, we would love to hear them! You can comment on this blog, message through social media (@whalewise on Facebook and Twitter), or email email@example.com.
In our next blog, we will describe the national tragedy of whale strandings that has swept across Iceland over summer and discuss possible explanations. In the meantime, check out some of our photos below from the last few weeks- including an incredible, close-up encounter with blue whales for Danny and Katy.