Welcomed by giants

We write this post having spent a fantastic first week in Skjálfandi Bay. We’ve seen some incredible behaviours from the largest animals on earth: resting and feeding blue whales; breaching humpbacks; and playful dolphins. We’ve met some amazing people- researchers and conservationists dedicated to the protection of our oceans. We’ve been fortunate with some stunning weather- sunny skies and calm seas, allowing for some beautiful midnight sunsets (well not exactly, since the sun no longer sets this far north). It has been an amazing return to our field site and second home.

However, it didn’t start out like this. In fact, we were welcomed to Húsavík by snow, biting northerly winds and fog- to confirm, this is not normal for Iceland in June. As a result, it was a challenge finding whales in the bay. Nevertheless, find whales we did- and plenty of them.

The Barba blues

One of our first trips of the season was on board Barba, a Norwegian yacht, with the Arctic Whale project, out newest partner. Arctic Whale’s mission is to document and research the impact of pollution on marine mammals of the north, with a particular focus on plastic. They have sailed to Iceland for a few weeks this summer in order to tell the stories of great whales and provide a research platform for lucky scientists such as ourselves.

The Arctic Whale team for this week:

  • Andreas B. Heide (captain)- best known for his underwater encounters with orcas in the freezing waters of Norwegian winter, Andreas has decades of nautical experience and co-founded Arctic Whale.
  • Diane Sheda (crew)- biotechnologist, sailor and expert mast-climber, Diane has led plastic research for the project.
  • Hugh Francis Anderson (crew)- journalist, writer and explorer, Hugh tells the story of Arctic Whale and its inspiring crew on their whale-finding journey.

Therefore, we were understandably excited to join this awesome team. Our first trip with Barba didn’t really start in ideal conditions- heavy snow and poor visibility are hardly perfect for spotting whales. However, as the snow relented and the clouds cleared, we spotted several giant blows to the north-west. As we approached on our quiet vessel, we were treated with one of the great forces of nature- lunge-feeding blue whales. In a single mouthful, these behemoths can take in 100 tons of water (equivalent to a 10 x 5 x 2 m swimming pool), before using their elephant-sized tongue to force water out and leave krill behind. Fortunately, our presence did not stop them feeding.

Plentiful leviathans

This Barba trip set the tone for the rest of the week, as we have continued to see blue whales, with the Whale Wise team recognising at least four individuals. One tour was particularly special. On board Sæborg, with the fantastic crew of captain Arnar and guide Christian, we spent 20 minutes watching the most relaxed blue whale we have ever seen. Approaching cautiously and turning off the engine, it seemed totally unperturbed by our presence, continuing to rest and surface frequently. This encounter should act as a template for whale watching- not all encounters in Skjálfandi are this peaceful, but Arnar showed that your time with a whale is even more special when you truly respect it. Thanks for an amazing trip.

We have also seen plenty of humpbacks, the 40-ton giants now seeming tiny in comparison to our 200-ton blues. As the weather has improved throughout the week, we have been able to spot more and more, either singly or in groups, as they continue to gorge on the fishy feast in Skjálfandi. Not only an opportunity for data collection, encountering these whales also poses further questions about their lives. The theme of humpbacks for this week has been ‘dynamic groups’, with whales joining forces to feed before suddenly splitting off. Yesterday, while two humpbacks were feeding together, one suddenly breached out of the water before speeding away- from a human perspective, it seemed pretty annoyed with its group-mate. Do humpbacks make friends? Do they have arguments, or simply say farewell? Are some humpbacks more popular than others? We may never answer these questions, and our human way of thinking may prevent us from ever doing so. As long as we respect them, perhaps that doesn’t even matter.

Bring on the data

Next week, we aim to collect as much behavioural data as possible before our drone work starts. By joining a variety of whale-watching vessels, we hope to assess the impact of different encounter types on whale behaviour. How do vessel speed, vessel size and number of vessels alter behavioural responses? This may be key to guiding respectful whale-watching whilst still allowing the industry to continue to benefit local economies and marine conservation. With luck, the weather and the whales will allow us to achieve this.

Thanks to North Sailing for allowing us to join your trips, Arctic Whale for providing a fantastic research platform, and everyone else who supports or follows us. See you next week!

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