By Alyssa Stoller.
Quiet. Real quiet. The kind of quiet where you can hear a bird’s wings move through the sky.
It is rare to find this type of silence, where there is truly barely any sound. You can clearly hear your own breath, and you can clearly hear the breath of another species. In this stillness a whale’s breath booms and echoes. On the boat our stillness suddenly changes when we catch this sound, and we spring into action.
“Blow! I heard it! Where is it? Where is the whale?”
“There! Four o’clock!”
It is now a scramble for gear and observation. Who is this whale? Have we seen it before? What is it doing? It is surfacing frequently? Is it resting? Is it feeding?
Before we can literally launch into aerial imaging (drone images of the whale to measure body condition) or blow sampling, we first must take note of the whale. If we have encountered this individual previously we need to continue our search. However, if this is a new whale we need to try and conclude exactly what kind of behaviour it is displaying. A feeding whale can be quite tricky to aerial image or blow sample, because often they are quickly surfacing and then diving back down for a couple minutes. The perfect subject is a whale that comes to the surface and takes an average four to seven breaths before diving back down. Our drone pilot, Abigail, then has time to catch up with the whale and take photos or collect a blow sample.
This week for the first time we have been able to use a small research inflatable – a true game changer when it comes to collecting data. We now have the freedom to get out on the water at any point throughout the day. Since the sun sets here in Húsavík around midnight and rises at around 2:30 AM, we are not limited by darkness. It is nearly a 24-hour window for data gathering. So, when there is good weather and a very determined group of people, it creates a somewhat potent combination. Many late nights, many early mornings, and naps scattered throughout the day.
On average the weather in Iceland tends to be much calmer starting in the late evening through the early morning. This is also the time when hardly any whale watching boats are in the bay. In order to collect baseline data for the blow sampling research, some samples need to be gathered without the presence of any whale watching boats. We would very much like to acknowledge, however, that our inflatable of course is still a boat. Our presence and the noise of engine we can imagine still creates some kind of impact on the whales, but to minimise this we aim to stay a minimum of 200 meters away for the whale and work as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Once the drone is launched the team communicates to Abigail exactly where the whale is, who is looking down at an iPhone screen searching the ocean. It can be surprisingly difficult to spot a giant in a sea of blue, but luckily Abigail is a talented pilot. Again depending on the whale’s behaviour, images and blow samples can range from easy, difficult, or impossible to collect. We try to do this again as quickly as possible, but most times it takes more than one surfacing from the whale to be successful. So therefore, there is another disturbance in of itself we must consider – the drone. Most whales do not seem particularly bothered by the drone, but occasionally there are whales that do appear to change their behaviour once the drone is hovering above them. If we do notice this, we leave the whale alone and move on.
As scientists we think it is very important to acknowledge all aspects of the research and be truthful, so that we can share the most accurate results. In research there are mistakes, but without sharing these mistakes, it is impossible to learn from them.
We are so excited that so far this week we have collected seven aerial images and six blow samples, with hopefully many more to come.