Drones, drones and hydrophones

By Alyssa Stoller

It is hard to express how excited myself and the rest of the team feel to be in Iceland. We were lucky enough to have Amelie and Beni get to Iceland in 2020, but for the rest of us, the last time we were here was 2019.

The pandemic taught me many things, but one of them was realizing how dependent I have become on whales being part of my life. A year without whales was difficult and I often found it hard to remain inspired, feeling so disconnected from what I love most. For anyone who has spent time with whales, you know the jolt of calming electricity they send through you and you understand that spending time with them is a total addiction. 

We are also very thankful to have remained safe so far through the pandemic and to have spent the past year and half with loved ones. It is an absolute privilege to now be in Iceland and we will make it count to the best of our ability. 

Since arriving in Iceland, it has been a mad rush to prepare for the rest of the field season, and most of it has felt like a total blur. 

Our immediate task after finishing our quarantine was to deploy our hydrophones in multiple sites across Iceland. This year we are using a SoundTrap by Ocean Instruments and new acoustic technology by Open Acoustic Devices called HydroMoths (basically mini, inexpensive hydrophones). So far we have deployed the SoundTrap and one HydroMoth in Skjálfandi, another HydroMoth off Hólmavík with the help of Malarhorn (a tourist boat in the area) and a HydroMoth off Hjalteyri with the help of  Strýtan Dive Center (HUGE thanks to both). These hydrophones will help us better understand the different soundscapes around Iceland, how vessel noise has changed throughout the pandemic and (if we get really crazy) how whale vocalizations are correlated with cortisol levels. 

These hydrophones will be picked up again in six weeks and, for now, we just have to hope that they work and didn’t decide to turn off in the meantime – which I personally find terrifying. 

The other main research focus this year will be collecting aerial images and blow samples via drone of humpback whales in four different sites around Iceland. As equipment always likes to misbehave, we have spent a good portion of time making sure our drones are working and supplementary gear is ready to go. This means the LiDAR is attached and recording (used for aerial imagery) and the blow sample frames are assembled on the drone. We are lucky enough to have three drones this year: two for blow sampling (Blowseph and Jamie) and one for aerial images (Ariel). 

In our spare time, when it is not windy, we are also practising our droning. In 2019, Abigail was our drone pilot and unfortunately was not able to come this season. So, all of us, and each with varying experience, have been practicing our droning technique so that we can be ready to get images and blow samples. Three team members will be selected as pilots for data collection.

Flo and Jess practising droning near Húsavík lake

With good weather next week, we are hoping to get on the water in Skjálfandi loads and take Savannah (our bright yellow van) on an adventure to Langanes so we can drone in both locations. 

Much more to come, but for now signing off!

The full team after a successful whale-watching trip of behavioural observation

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