2020: a celebration of whales

In the soft glow of a never-ending summer evening, a 30-ton humpback whale breaches the surface as it feeds on a shoal of krill. Our team of three can’t help but gasp. Lazing at the surface for a few moments, it’s the perfect opportunity to take an aerial image of the whale. We have already captured a sample of its breath and now we can measure its body condition. As a scientist and someone who loves nature, the moment is pure bliss, total exhilaration ~ July 8th, 2019

Tough days of land-locked research during the winter can often get you down. You’ve just had a funding proposal rejected, your paper is returned with critical comments, imposter syndrome kicks in and you’re simply struggling to think. In these dark moments, holding on to those special memories is what keeps you going. You realise why you do this: you lead a privileged life in the company of giants, and you want to help save them. You work with a fantastic team and take pride in your research. You feel hope and inspiration.

With that in mind, bring on the 2020 field season. Building upon our previous successes, we’re planning an ambitious summer full of whale research, citizen science and public engagement.

The summer of blow sampling

In 2018 and ’19, we worked towards a method for blow sample collection with our drone, a DJI Phantom 4. In the lab, we can now measure hormones in about ½ of samples (the results of which we hope to publish soon) and, with some minor tweaks, that proportion should increase significantly.

As a result, we’re nearly ready to start using this method to reliably measure hormone concentrations in wild whales around the coast of Iceland. In particular, we want to examine the response of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) to vessel traffic, especially whale-watching encounters. Therefore, our plan this year is to sample whales from different areas of Iceland, some with very little traffic and some with far heavier traffic (see map below). Our hypothesis is simple: if whales are stressed by vessels, their cortisol concentration will be higher in areas with higher vessel traffic.

We thought for a while about how to make this research a reality – with limited transport services in Iceland, it’s tricky to travel between towns and, in particular, to those isolated regions with little vessel traffic. Our solution: we bought a van! Since we’re based in Edinburgh during winter, we will drive the van all the way to Iceland, taking the ferry from Denmark. The whole journey will take nearly five days. We thought a lot about this option: vans don’t have amazing fuel efficiency and the carbon footprint will be large. In order to conduct our research, which we believe is important for assessing stress in whale populations, this seemed necessary. We will try to make the most of this vehicle by transporting as many people as possible during each journey, giving lifts whenever we can.

Team home and away

This season, we’re so lucky to welcome back most of the team from last year: Tom, Alyssa, Abigail, Amelie, Flordespina and Gabriele. We’re also excited to have two new members: Synnøve Røsand, a Norwegian teacher working towards a career in whale research; and Benjamin Hildebrand, a German engineering student.

As a result, our team will be large enough to split up into two:

  • Team home will stay in Húsavík, collecting blow samples and aerial images from Skjálfandi Bay, a whale watching hotspot. If the weather isn’t perfect, they will continue to observe behaviour (from whale watching boats and the cliffs) as in previous years.
  • Team away will travel around Iceland, living in the van and looking for whales in more remote regions. These include Steingrímsfjörður, a quiet fjord in the Westfjords, and Langanes, a remote Peninsula in the northeast.

By rotating each week, every team member can experience the full range of our 2020 research.

Principal 2020 study sites. High vessel traffic: 2 & 3. Low vessel traffic: 1 & 4.
Listening for whales

This season, we won’t just be using our eyes – we’ll also listen for whales and boats out in the bay. Led by Amelie and with collaborators in the US, Finland and Germany, we will deploy two hydrophones to characterise the acoustic environment of the area.

The ultimate aim is to determine whether vessel traffic alters whale behaviour, interpreted by their vocalisation patterns. Both blue and humpback whales vocalise in their feeding areas, although the precise meanings of different call types are not known. Our specific questions include:

  • [basic] What is the background noise in the bay, without vessels or whales?
  • [more ambitious] How do the different boat types, different speeds and different composition of boats in the bay contribute to the overall ambient noise?
  • [extremely ambitious] How does ambient noise correlate with the cortisol concentrations measured in the exhaled breath of humpback whales?
Involving everyone

2019 was a year of realisation for the team: from fishermen to bird researchers and tourists to locals, people are seeing whales all around Iceland – not just in the whale watching hotspots. There is clearly a huge amount of public information on whale sightings and behaviour that is not being used by the scientific community. Therefore, we decided to set up a citizen science project, where we ask members of the public to share their whale sightings to a public database. This is also a golden opportunity for us to engage the public with whale research and simply hear their views on whales.

[Click to check out the Facebook group, sightings map and data base]

This project is led by Alyssa, who is incorporating citizen science into her master’s project as part of a collaboration with Húsavík Whale Museum. We’re particularly interested in hearing from fishermen: they fish in waters not visited by anyone else and they also don’t have a great reputation in terms of their views on whales. With the van (another advantage of having our own vehicle), we want to travel the country and hear what they have to say in their own words.

Thank you to the fishermen and other locals who have given advice and information so far!

Húsavík Whale Festival

For Whale Wise, this year will be all about celebrating whales. So, what perfect timing that we’re helping to organise a whale festival in Húsavík!

One of our challenges during the last couple of years has been engaging locals with our research – we don’t speak Icelandic and we’re strangely obsessed about whales so it’s not entirely surprising. By working with groups in Húsavík to organise this festival – including Húsavík Whale Museum, North Sailing, Ocean Missions and Húsavík Research Centre – events can be run in Icelandic and for Icelandic people. We’re happy to help in any way possible but at least part of this festival should be run by Icelanders, for Icelanders.

At the moment, planned events include a photo competition, whale scavenger hunt, beach clean, art and crafts and pub quiz. Taking place at the same time as the museum’s Whale Congress – a forum for sharing whale research – it should be three days of mad whale loving.

As well as whalefest, we’re planning to continue our other public engagement ventures. We will run other public events (similar to our ‘For the Love of Whales’ night), cruise ships talks, maintain our social media and, of course, write blog posts! We will also keep filming our work and the whales as much as we can.

Giving it our all

2020 may be our last full field season for a couple of years; Tom will take some time our to write his thesis and we’ll wait and see what the future brings for the rest of the team. As a result, we’re determined to give it 100% this summer. We want to make an impact, share our stories and hopefully inspire positive change and a love of whales.

If you’re interested in contributing to this season, our crowdfunding page is still open – we would be so grateful for any donations. However, it’s not all about money – every message of support and every kind word has given us the belief to continue. Thank you. Please feel free to ask any questions or share your own whale stories.

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