Our resolution to the whales

By Beverly Tan.

Working in the field of conservation has its ups and downs, and two separate encounters recently reminded us of the vast spectrum of emotions that can arise. With this blogpost, I hope to reflect on these contrasting experiences, and synthesize the emotions and thoughts I felt. The two occasions present a clear contrast in experiences when working in conservation. One shows the joy that can come with working for the environment and wildlife and reminded me of all the reasons why I love my work. On the other hand, the second made me question if what is being done is ever enough, but at the same time only served to strengthen my resolve in doing more, and being better.

An enchanting encounter

On 27th July, Abigail, Tom and I woke up bright and early at five in the morning and got ready to take our inflatable into Skjálfandi Bay to hopefully collect some blow samples. The swell that day reached around 2 metres in height due to strong northerly winds, and I clearly remember being terrified that we were out in the swell as we were travelling into the bay. At the same time, I was also thankful that I was in safe hands with Tom and Abigail, who were much more experienced and comfortable on the water. As per protocol when out on the inflatable, we stopped our engine and looked for blows for a good couple of minutes before travelling to another point. On this expedition, this occurred several times, and despite lucking out with beautiful light as the sun rose over the horizon, the swell and fog in the distance made it challenging for us to spot the blow of whales. At this point, it seemed unlikely that the expedition would successful and we were making a decision as to whether to turn back.

By a stroke of luck (and of course, good eyesight and experience), Abigail spotted a blow about 300 metres away from where we were. We quickly started up our engines and drove in the direction of the whale, and came across a whale that was logging at the surface and seemed to be napping! Even with our engines shut off at 200 metres away, it soon realised that we were there and woke up. It then became apparent that this whale was a curious one, as it started to make its way towards our boat. At this point, we all got really excited and started filming with our GoPro and video camera.

The whale was so inquisitive – it came right up to the boat, was spyhopping around us and blowing bubbles under the surface. It was checking us checking him out. At one point, we were even wondering if it was about to tip our boat over – and we knew that it had the power and strength to do so if it wanted to.

It swam circles around our inflatable, and was constantly coming up for breaths all around the boat. It was so close that we were constantly being covered in its blow as it took a breath, and Tom excitedly got our petri dishes out to collect blow samples. We would have never imagined that we could be in such close contact with a whale that we could collect blow samples by hand, off the boat.

We later had a look at the underwater GoPro footage and could really observe how agile this magnificent creature was. It moved its pectoral fins with such grace and purpose, it was like a dance. The only word that I can use to describe this encounter is ‘magic’, and I know that this encounter will stay with me for the rest of my life.

The distress call

On the flip side, we also recently had another encounter that will stay with me for the rest of my life, as a wake-up call and reminder for how much more needs to be done. 6th August seemed to be a bad day for whale watching here in Skjálfandi Bay. Only a few whales were spotted in the bay, and before going on the whale watching boat, we had already heard of a not so pleasant encounter where a single whale was surrounded by many other boats. There was therefore an urgency by the North Sailing guides and researchers on board our whale watching boat to look for another whale in the horizon as we travelled across the bay. There was pressure from a tourism and business point of view for the tourists on board to be able to see whales, but also the contrasting pressure from an animal welfare and conservation perspective to minimise disturbance to the whales, and to abide by a code of conduct for whale watching in the bay. Thankfully, we spotted another humpback whale quite close to where we were after leaving Puffin Island, and there was only one other vessel observing this individual. This represented good news for the former whale that had already been observed by a group of other vessels, and we, alongside other concerned individuals on board, collectively breathed a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, this feeling of a respite quickly faded away as more and more whale watching vessels arrived to observe the whales. At its peak, there were six boats surrounding this one individual – three rib boats and three oak whale watching vessels. From the behaviour of the whale, it was clear that it was getting distressed – it was diving for a good ten to fifteen minutes, in contrast to when its dives were just three to five minutes a couple of days ago. And despite such long dives, it only came up to the surface for one or two breaths, before quickly diving back down deep to below the surface. Each time the whale came up for a breath, we could see all the boats surge forward and hear the revving of the engines as they charged ahead for the guests on board to catch a quick glimpse of the whale. It was emotionally intense to have been on board to witness this encounter first hand, knowing the confusion, distress and fear the whale must have been feeling during the time the boats were surrounding it.

Our promise and our resolution

While the entire Whale Wise team was sharing the emotional turmoil that we were feeling amid this encounter, Tom said something that stuck with me. He said that despite being an awful situation to be in, from an animal welfare perspective, this was exactly the type of data that we need to collect – this was great, from a scientific data collection point of view. He said that each time this occurs, despite the emotional toll that it takes out on us, we need to be here. We need to be here to collect the data, to do the science, to eventually be in a position where we have the evidence to guide future management plans. At this point, Iceland has no official laws and regulation on how whale watching companies can carry out their activities. It is through our research that we can provide evidence for the disturbance and stress whale watching might cause the whales, challenge misconceptions about whale behaviour, promote ocean harmony, and eventually create a world in which both whales, humans and all inhabitants of our oceans can thrive.

We are well aware of the needs and obligations that the whale watching companies have to their paying guests. We understand the conflict these whale loving companies, guides and captains face, and this is why Whale Wise exists. We want people to be able to enjoy the beauty of watching these magnificent creatures, but we also want whale watching to be an activity friendly to the whales. We strive for ocean harmony, and will continue to work until we achieve this goal.

This is our promise to the whales.

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