Looking back on 2019

by Tom Grove
Writing this blog on December 26th, it’s incredible to think that I’ve spent another year with Whale Wise. We’ve had 12 months of adventure, challenge, triumph and belief. Working as part of an incredible team of people, we have grown in strength and determination. Combining research, public engagement and a simple passion for whales, we are heading towards our goal – promoting ocean harmony. We obviously have a long way to go – as long as whales face threats from humans, our work isn’t over – but we’re getting there.
Looking back, it’s amazing to think about our adventures. In 2019, we could share these at the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona, a chance to discuss marine conservation at a global scale. We joined 2,700 other attendees to celebrate whale research and plan its uncertain, exciting future. The conference was a massive success and prioritised young researchers, students and research in developing countries. This being our first big conference, we loved the informal atmosphere and the way in which everyone, from top scientists to young students, interacted with each other. Thanks so much to the organisers and to everyone we met – we left Barcelona inspired and equipped to make change. In this blog, I wanted to use our time at Barcelona to write about our year as a whole. We presented three pieces of work, each representing our progress.
First up, Flo presented a poster about measuring body condition of humpback whales in Iceland. This was achieved using drones, a major feature of the field season (June – September). Photographing whales in areas across the north of the country, with Abigail as our drone pilot, we wanted to check if we could use this technology to track changes in body condition and health over time. As we aim to assess the impact of humans on whales, this method is essential to our future work.
We flew the drone both from land, such as the dramatic seabird cliffs of Langanes, and from a research boat in Skjálfandi Bay. We were fortunate to witness feeding humpbacks under a midnight sun (with no other boats around) and meet locals on the way. Working with a variety of partners was essential to this work. These include Arctic Whale by Barba, a Norwegian whale conservation project, the University of Iceland and locals who provided key information on whale hot spots.
Main finding: we can measure body condition, but this presents a challenge in the murky waters of this summer feeding ground. In particular, it was difficult to measure the height of the drone above the whale, an important number for measuring whale length. Luckily, by talking with other research groups in Barcelona (special thanks to Ocean Alliance and Eadin Mahoney), we can make several improvements to our method next year.
Drones were also used to collect blow samples from humpback whales and Tom presented this work as a short talk at the conference. In 2019, we collected 14 samples, bringing our total to 30. Five have been used for nano-plastic research in Norway and the remainder were used to develop a method for assessing stress in whales. We want to measure the concentration of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, to assess the potential impacts of vessel traffic. To do this, we need to deal with tiny samples and variable dilution by seawater. Working once more with numerous partners, our 2019 samples were primarily collected under the midnight sun in Skjálfandi. We were privileged to witness dozens of feeding humpbacks and even collected samples by hand from a curious whale, circling the boat and blowing in our faces!
Main finding: we can measure cortisol in just over half of blow samples. We can account for dilution by measuring other hormones. With a few simple improvements, we have nearly developed a stress assessment for large whales via blow sample collection. Several other groups across the world are blow sampling and, by sharing our method with them, we received some really helpful feedback.
However, Whale Wise isn’t just about the research. At the conference, Alyssa introduced ‘For the Love of Whales’, a short video about our year. It introduced team members, highlighted our struggles and celebrated our growth. From public events to social media and the video itself, we are keen to share our stories with others – in fact, it is our duty. Above all, we hope it laid our passion bare for everyone to see. We study whales because we want to help them. Working as a team, we are heading towards this goal and having fun as we do so. Through collaboration, inclusivity and simply caring, we believe – in us and anyone else who wants to protect the natural world. Don’t tether your dreams – let them free to float in the waves.
Thanks to everyone who helped, contributed and cared in 2019. We could not do it without you. See you in 2020!

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