During our 2018 field season, we experienced some once-in-a-lifetime experiences while studying whales in north Iceland. Without doubt, the main goal of our research is to encourage marine conservation and make a positive difference to the lives of whales. However, we also realise our incredible privilege- encountering whales on a daily basis in their natural habitat. That we can share these experiences with others, promoting ocean conservation in the process, makes them all the more special.
Our job may seem somewhat repetitive- spending every day on the boats, watching humpback and blue whales. However, our experiences are like the seas around us- ever-changing, presenting a unique face and experience every day. They touch each of us in different ways, weave a different thread into our lives. To celebrate this variety of experiences, in this post we each talk about our favourite moment of the 2018 field season.
During my experience in Iceland, I had a special opportunity to join the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group on a two-day sailing excursion from Dalvík to the island of Grímsey, before making it back to Skjálfandi Bay. While sailing in the open ocean was an adventure in itself, with swells up to three metres high, the encounters with whales made it truly unforgettable. Not only did we spend an hour with our engine off while a blue whale and her calf circled around us, but we also encountered 20+ humpback whales. During our traverse from Grímsey to Skjálfandi, there were at least 12 pairs of humpbacks feeding at the mouth of the bay. We shut off our engine for almost two hours while they all circled around us, eating. It was incredible to be in complete silence while all we heard was occasional breathing. One whale even made a Chewbacca noise! This was the first time I heard a whale make this noise and it completely overwhelmed me. To top it off, there was a double breach in the distance. I will never forget my days in Iceland, especially this trip.
It is hard to just pick one favourite whale moment from a season that was filled with so many. However, there is one night in particular that does stand out in my mind. This night, or perhaps more properly described as early morning, was one of the most incredible of my entire life. During the summer months of Iceland, there is period of time where the sun never actually sets. The sun touches the horizon and then begins to rise back into the sky. It is for this reason that we are gifted with colours of a sunset and sunrise for hours. It is hard to describe the exact colour the water turns in Iceland and the golden light you see on the mountains. The ocean changes to a silvery pink and purple, and almost appears to be thick in consistency. Members of the Whale Wise team know that I tended to freak out in excitement over the colour of the water almost as much as the whales themselves!
This particular evening, we were out late and into the early morning, assisting with a blue whale tagging and acoustics project. This was the first time I had ever seen a blue whale, and it was just as magical as I thought it would be. Although it is hard to tell their grandness from the surface, the sound of their blow is a sure sign of their size. It is a powerful and beautiful sound that honestly just takes your breath away. There is something about hearing a whale breathe that instantly gives you a sense of peace and understanding. The actual blow is beautiful in itself, watching the vapor float through the air. That evening and morning we were surrounded by colours and lighting that I didn’t know existed. The water reflected the sky and birds, and remained calm despite what appeared to be an impending storm in front of us. It was a magical night to say the least, and one that I will remember forever.
We were lucky enough to experience a field season riddled with unique experiences that most people never get the chance to have. As hard as it is to choose between jaw-dropping and heart-stopping moments, I would say a particular experience stands out. Katy and I had the opportunity to travel with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group into the Arctic Circle for a brief visit to the island of Grímsey. Upon our return to Skjálfandi Bay, we encountered an absurd amount of humpbacks, probably upwards of 20 individuals. The weather was a tad bleak, and we spent the majority of the trip ensconced in a grey sheen of cloud and rain. The humpbacks repeatedly popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, within this disorienting grey haze. As we travelled along, frantically darting from side to side to collect what data we could from the numerous whales, we puzzled over the appearance of a new pair. Without quite realizing it before we continued to snap pictures and take waypoints, we had been surprisingly joined by a mother and calf blue whale amongst the sea of humpbacks.
Sadly, it took a boat full of seasoned whale observers (and us) a second to recognize this new pair wasn’t indeed another pair of humpbacks. As we all shouted with excessive joy over the appearance of the largest animal on the planet, we were overtaken by the gravity of the sight. Witnessing an animal that dwarfs the size of even the largest, most awe-inspiring animals of land and sea, at nearly 200 tons and 30m of length, is nothing short of a blessing. The calf alone matched the size of your average humpback. As the frenzy of our data collection died down, we turned off the engines, and sat in silence in the eerie grey daylight. Standing alone at the stern of the ship, a gentle mist now falling amongst us, I was entranced by the pair now swimming freely along the surface, paying no heed to our presence as we drifted along. The sight of the mother and calf, the most momentous species to grace the planet, took me aback as their powerful exhalations split the silence of the now sombre crew. An endangered species. A mother and her child. A part of this world unlike any other.
Blue whales are indeed one of the greatest wonders of the world.
A 15-metre behemoth lunges from the depths. It opens its giant mouth expands its throat pouch to take in tons- literally tons- of prey-filled water. Inside, you can see 400 baleen plates and a giant tongue, perfectly positioned to filter out its food. Massive, beautiful, fascinating- this is a humpback whale feeding, and to witness this is one of my greatest privileges.
Encountering any lunge-feeding humpback is an incredible experience, a reminder of a whale’s power and supreme adaptation. On one particular trip, however, this feeding was taken to the next level. It started out as a fairly standard trip (if whale watching can ever be called standard), with a few whales fluking in the distance. However, on reaching the western side of the bay, our luck changed dramatically as whales started rising from seemingly nowhere. We often joke about the whale portal- a magic door through which whales can somehow appear or disappear without a trace- and this was no better demonstration. There was clearly an excellent choice of food on offer, as these whales were literally hurling themselves out of the water. Some were lunging vertically and some on their side- whatever it took to capture the fish that were almost frothing the surface.
This in itself was an honour to witness (I had long lost the power of speech by this point), but the greatest spectacle was still to come. Mothers and calves are generally rare to the bay. Not one, but two of these calves were attending whale school today, and were seemingly learning to feed alongside their mothers. They clearly had a way to go, as they hadn’t mastered the art of actually closing their mouth after they had taken in water. To witness this learning process- so crucial to the future of these beautiful creatures- was totally overwhelming. We were quite literally witnessing the future of this entire population being prepared for their life ahead. We even saw a couple of calves grow more and more independent from their mothers as the season went on. Humans are not the only great teachers- an important life lesson for all of us.