Our first year as Whale Wise has been an incredible journey. We completed our first field season, collecting crucial data on humpback and blue whale behaviour. We collected the first ever blow samples from Iceland and are well on our way to measuring hormone levels from these samples. We’ve set up a website, blog, social media pages (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and have participated in talks, public events and conferences. Hopefully, with our hard work and our passion, we are starting to make a positive difference.
As a group, we have had some incredible high-points, from data collection to magical encounters and meeting life-long friends. We have also had our fair share of lows: observation challenges, watching whales strand and being unable to help them, pure exhaustion from our research efforts. However, every single experience has been important, an opportunity to learn, grow and improve. With this in mind, bring on 2019. We have big plans and a research team ready to go.
Keep droning on
Perhaps the highlight of last season was collecting our first blow sample from a humpback whale, with our off-the-shelf drone, two coat hangers and a Petri dish. The most northerly blow sample ever collected, it sent an important message- despite a lack of funding and resources, we can conduct ground-breaking research.
In 2019, we will build upon this work and aim to collect 100 blow samples from both humpback and blue whales. To achieve this, we have welcomed Abigail Robinson to our team. With experience in capturing drone footage of humpback whales in the Cook Islands, Abigail will bring her expertise to Iceland for nearly two months. This year, unlike last year, we also have access to a small research vessel (a 5-metre RIB). This is crucial in reaching blue whales, which are usually further out to sea. As with last year, we aim to measure the concentration of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, in each sample, with the ultimate goal of assessing stress responses to whale watching encounters. Learn more about our lab work here.
This field season, we also plan to monitor body condition of individual whales. Using our drone once again, we can capture aerial images of whales and calculate their surface area-to-length ratio as an indicator of body condition. From this, we will attempt to answer several important research questions. At any given time, how does body condition vary within the population? How does body condition change throughout a field season? Are there any ‘critical’ periods when average body condition is particularly poor? Conducting these body condition assessments are Flo and Beverly, based at the University of Edinburgh.
Finally, we will continue our behavioural observation, both in the presence and absence of vessels. This is key to assessing the potential impacts of whale-watching encounters on whale populations.
Our progress so far has taught us to dream big. Therefore, this year we plan to make a documentary about our work and the whales we are privileged to study. We want to give people an insight into our team and our work, something which is often missing in wildlife documentaries. We want to convey our passion for the marine environment and show our dedication to the cause. However, this won’t be a one-sided fantasy- we want to tell the true story. The challenges we face, disagreements within the team, exhaustion, desperation. Euphoria and disappointment, highs and lows – research isn’t plain sailing but can still provide amazing experiences. We also want to convey the huge amount of support we receive, from Icelandic locals, other academics, whale-watching guides, family and friends. Finally, we of course want this story to be about the whales, their lives and the challenges they face- after all, that’s why we’re all here.
We also hope that we have the content to make a beautiful film. The incredible Icelandic scenery, with the most unbelievable midnight sunsets. The diversity of marine mammals and other wildlife. The passionate and charismatic people who form and support Whale Wise. Moreover, with access to a research vessel this year, we have a great opportunity to record unique footage. To capture all of this, we have purchased two video cameras, a Sony camcorder and a GoPro. Alyssa Stoller will manage filming and editing, hopefully realising her dream to make her own wildlife documentary.
We are so lucky to continue working with our partners from last year, the University of Edinburgh, University of Iceland and Húsavík Whale Museum. Without their support and advice, Whale Wise simply would not exist. This year, we are excited to further develop our collaboration with the whale museum:
We also couldn’t wait to announce our 2019 partnership with Arctic Whale by Barba, a collaborative group with the mission of communicating the impact of pollution in the Arctic. Specifically, this year they plan to document plastic pollution in sub-Arctic ecosystems in an expedition from Norway to Iceland. Together, we hope to use whales and other marine life to spread an important message: our ocean ecosystems are threatened and together, we have the power to save them. With extensive media experience and a beautiful sailing vessel (Barba), Arctic Whale provides us with a fantastic opportunity to conduct world-leading research and work with other passionate marine conservationists. As small groups who dream big, collaboration is surely the way forward.
As ever, in the conservation world, outreach is key. We can do all the research we like but if we don’t share it with others, it has no worth. Inspiring and educating other is how we can make change, and our duty as scientists. Therefore, we will continue to prioritise outreach in our work. Specific field season plans include:
Staying true to ourselves
With big research and public engagement goals, we cannot wait for the 2019 field season to begin. However, there is one aim more important than everything else: staying true to ourselves. We formed Whale Wise because we are passionate about saving whales and the marine environment. We wanted to form a group that did not ignore or intimidate those who disagree with us. We are all from different cultures and different backgrounds- judging those who think differently is not the way forward. It isn’t fair on them and won’t lead to long-term, sustainable conservation. Rather, we want to work with everyone- share stories, educate, inspire. While we continue to grow in number and reputation, we must remember to stay true to this central principle.