Rolling with the tide

Photo by Þórður Birgisson. Orcas near a fishing boat, east of Iceland

The world has changed a lot since we wrote our last blog on the 4th of April. Back then, with the pandemic kicking in, we were still hopeful for a long summer field season. Perhaps the lack of boats on the water could even make an ideal control scenario – how do whales around Iceland behave in the relative absence of human activity? Fast forward 3.5 months and a lot has changed. Covid-19 is here to stay for a long time, and the University of Edinburgh is being cautious about any fieldwork – rightly so. Even though Iceland is open and the UK is starting to ease restrictions, it’s still a risk for the university to allow its members to travel internationally. Especially since Covid is still very prevalent in the UK. As a result, there will be no full Whale Wise season this year.

However, the research hasn’t entirely stopped – quite the opposite in fact! Here’s a snapshot of what we’ve been up to and what’s to come this summer.

Learning from locals

As part of Alyssa’s master’s, we planned to travel around Iceland in our strange yellow van and talk to as many locals as possible, with a focus on fishermen. We wanted to find out: do you see many whales? What whales do you see and where/when? Would you be interested in a citizen science project and is there any way it could benefit you? Since that’s not happening (this year anyway), we went for an exhilarating plan B – online surveys!

We were concerned at first – online surveys are not particularly fun to take. However, with the help of a few Icelandic friends, more than 100 people have answered – including 81 fishermen! Thanks largely to
Ívar Örn Hauksson, who has posted the surveys all over social media and shared his knowledge along the way. It means a lot that people are willing to take the time to discuss their views on whales, and we’ll post the results once Alyssa has finished. We’ve made some good friends along the way and can’t wait to meet them next year.

We’ve also started up a Facebook group for Icelandic whale sightings. The group now has over 200 members, and people are sharing sightings (nearly 300 so far!) from all over the country, including some crazy, unexpected encounters – blue whales in Miðfjörður, sand-netting humpback whales and sperm whales taking fish off fishing lines, to name a few. The cover photo for this blog was taken by an Icelandic fisherman (Þórður Birgisson) of an orca east of Iceland. This pod was taking Greenland halibut off their fishing lines!

We encourage you to take a look for yourself on the group – it’s open to join!

Skjálfandi sounds

Another plan for this season was to use a long-term hydrophone so we could listen to whales, boats and anything else in the bay (see video here). Organised by Amelie, in collaboration with Dr Michelle Fournet , we wanted to start with the question: how does the bay sound? How do boats, whales and anything else contribute to its ambient noise? This became doubly important to us once Covid hit – what if we could deploy the hydrophone when there are fewer boats and no whale-watching? It would be the perfect control situation.

Of course, making this a reality wasn’t going to be easy. We couldn’t be there, we had to get all the equipment together (hydrophone, anchor, batteries, release system, buoys etc) and had to make sure it would run smoothly. Fortunately, we work with an amazing team at Húsavík Research Centre, and the hydrophone was deployed by Charla and Captain Alli on June 16th! At this point, there was about one whale-watching tour a day. This is down massively compared to a normal summer (30-50 trips daily) and will provide long stretches of time with very little human noise in the bay. There have also been a few earthquakes felt in the area, which hopefully we picked up! The hydrophone will be retrieved in early September and, with luck, we will have some interesting data.

A season after all!

While most of us won’t make it to Iceland at all this year, we still have a chance to conduct some summer fieldwork! Amelie and Beni, two of our team from Germany, are spending two months in Iceland, including a month in Húsavík. Staying with the research centre, we have a few bits and bobs we’d love to achieve this summer:

  • Collect control behavioural data from land. Hopefully, Captain Alli can take Amelie and Beni to the remote western side of the bay, which is nearer to all the whale activity.
  • Collect aerial images of whales (mostly humpbacks but other species would be amazing as well), to measure body condition.
  • Collect some more error data for our behavioural work. This involves taking measurements of a ‘test whale’, our small inflatable, from a whale-watching boat. By comparing its measured position with its actual (GPS) position, we can assess the accuracy and precision of our methods.
  • Re-measure the heights of each vessel platform (where we stand when we make behavioural observations). Measuring whale position is all about angles between us and the whale – an accurate platform height is key to this.
  • When there’s time, conduct behavioural observations from whale-watching boats (our main fieldwork for the last two seasons).
  • Retrieve the hydrophone.

So, it’s been a very strange year so far but we’re fortunate to say it’s still been a good one for us. We’ve been lucky – staying in comfortable, safe homes with healthy families. We’ve even been able to get some research done.

Our thoughts go out to those who are having a tough time right now. Wishing you all good physical and mental health.

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