Where the whales can live

Written by Jessica Ward

Just under a year on from my first field season spent in Húsavík, I have returned.  This time not with the whole Whale Wise team, but all by myself… with this great big world before me. Where the mountains sing through the screams of seagulls: Húsavík.  All lyrics aside, I am here until the end of July as an intern with the Húsavík Research Center, studying the whales that live here in Skjálfandi Bay.  I’ll write this blog as a sort of update if you will, to kick off the early start of our 2022 field season!

I’m currently living amongst ten other interns, all whale-crazy, driven and passionate people.  Our days consist of boarding the whale watching boats, where we collect behavioural data from the whales that we see (breathing rate and specific behaviours like lunge feeding, trumpeting, bubble netting, deep dive with fluke, shallow dive with no fluke) and also take photos (preferably of the dorsal fins and/ or flukes) to later use for photo-identification.  We compare the photos of the whales we spot that day with past photos to either match a whale or find a ‘new’ whale. Concurrently, we are able to build and maintain our whale catalogues where we can keep track of all whales ever seen in Skjálfandi Bay and also those whales spotted in only 2022, for example. Our humpback catalogue is definitely the largest, with approximately 1000 individuals, but we also have catalogues for minke, fin, blue and northern bottlenose whales, as well as white-beaked dolphins.  Humpbacks are by far the easiest to identify, just by looking at their flukes (tails).  Each fluke has a unique and beautiful pattern, like the human fingerprint. Humpbacks also regularly show their flukes when they dive to feed, so we can easily photograph them. Not to mention they are a curious species, often feeding close to the boats – making the experience we share with them all the more rewarding! For the other species, we either use the fluke or dorsal fin to identify individuals. Minke whales, however, very rarely show their fluke, so we predominantly identify the minkes based on their dorsal fins.  We look at the shape and also for the presence of scars (maybe from orcas or fishing nets). These catalogues are a really useful resource to have as we can collaborate with other research centres and fishermen to learn more about whale migrations. Not to mention, it allows us to build a really special connection with the whales – almost as if we are getting to know them personally. Take Copyright and Evero, for example. These two whales are tied for the most consecutive years seen in the bay at 7 each! It makes this type of work even more magical, when you are able to say to a humpback whale on a Tuesday morning: “oh yes, I remember you, I saw you last year!”. As researchers and whale enthusiasts, we want to be able to keep saying this; we want to keep on seeing the same whales each year (and new calves too, of course). Yes, it’s a truly incredible experience when we get to see them from the boats, but ultimately we believe that they have an integral right to exist here… just as we do.

The interns and Christian, a trusted whale watching guide for North Sailing! Team trip to Flatey Island, in the northwest of Skjálfandi Bay!

As well as photo-identification, and as mentioned before, we also record the behaviour that we see from the boat, and also from land.  Land-based observation is a good way to study whale behaviour when there are no boats around.  The presence of whale watching boats and their potential impacts on the whales is a topic that has come into light particularly since the pandemic.  A huge factor being the sound of these boats from underwater.  Of course, our field season last year was based around collecting humpback blow samples to quantify their stress levels in relation to the vessels, by analysing the concentration of cortisol in each sample.  Tom is currently finishing off analysis and write up. Hopefully the results of this research will activate some more serious conversation around the boats and whales together in the bay, and also implement some policy change. It is so important that we continue to watch the whales here in Skjálfandi Bay. The whale watching industry brings many people to Húsavík, and allows them to discover these beautiful marine mammals in all their glory, in the wild nature (which is of course hugely preferred over viewing these animals in captive environments, which we cannot stand for). North Sailing is a leading whale watching business here in Húsavík: they let us do our research from the boats (which we really appreciate, thank you) and the guides are brilliant at teaching the tourists about the whales and leaving a lasting vision in their minds hopefully for years and years to come. This is particularly important for the young visitors; the new generation of whale biologists perhaps. If they are able to see the whales when they are young, they might choose to study and protect them when they grow up. What is more, it must be said that the tourists bring in a huge amount of income through whale watching. Angie, a trusted guide from North Sailing often reminds tourists: “for as long as we’re watching the whales, we are protecting them by increasing tensions with the whaling industries”. Unfortunately, whaling does still happen in Iceland, often fin whales are hunted to be exported to Japan. However, hopefully a ban will be introduced by 2024 due to decreased demand for their consumption and increased demand for whale watching. So of course, whilst whale watching is an irreplaceable gift here in Húsavík, we must make sure we do it responsibly. The noise that the boats create is the next thing to be considered. So stay tuned.

This summer, Whale Wise are teaming up with the Húsavík Whale Museum to lead Project Porpoise (see engagement page). I am currently taking the lead on this project and to help fund it, I am teaching ocean and whale themed yoga twice weekly at the Whale Museum (also Zoom classes). Last year, a porpoise was accidentally caught in fishing gear (by-catch) in Skjálfandi Bay and the carcass was given to the museum. By-catch is recognised as a major cause of human-induced mortality of harbour porpoise. Annually, nearly 300,000 small cetaceans are drowned in fishing nets. Garðar from the Whale Museum, and who is also a member of the Whale Wise board, cleaned and assembled the porpoise skeleton, so this summer it will be ready to create an educational exhibit at the museum. Our aim is to inform children about cetacean biology and by-catch in fishing gear.  We will also make the skeleton transportable so that we can also present at schools in Iceland (after the summer). The children are able to interact with the porpoise skeleton and whilst doing this, hopefully we will leave an imprint in their young minds and inspire them about the importance of protecting our oceans and the animals that live in them. We hope that for many years to come, we can continue to take our Project Porpoise to local schools here, to encourage a continued effort for marine education, and also to make sure that this individual porpoise did not die in vain. We hope that the future holds modifications to fishing net designs, to protect porpoises and other cetaceans. This leads on to the final project I will talk about in this blog: Scars from Above.

In August I will be joined by Alyssa, Flo, Petr and Johanna from the Whale Wise team. I will bid my farewells to Húsavík and start a new adventure in the West of Iceland, in a small town called Drangsnes. Here we will embark on a three-month project: Scars from Above! In collaboration with the University of Iceland, this project will use drones to assess humpback whale entanglement and its health consequences. Similar to Project Porpoise, this project focusses on the risks that fishing gear pose to cetaceans, but this time for humpback whales. Entanglement in fishing gear is the greatest threat to humpback whale populations worldwide, but its full impacts on health and body condition across a population are not yet known. This is particularly important in Iceland, where the majority of whales are juveniles and may be particularly susceptible to entanglement. Unlike porpoises, humpbacks are much larger and stronger, and therefore less likely to die immediately from entanglement. Instead, they may swim for miles with fishing nets stuck entangled in their flukes – which of course will have profound impacts on their health and general livelihoods. These impacts are known as sub-lethal impacts, as they do not kill the whales, but drastically decrease their quality of life. For example, these sub-lethal impacts might include impaired breeding, feeding and social skills. Whale Wise will present the results of this project to the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission in order to encourage efforts to mitigate entanglement, perhaps by modifying the way in which the fishing gear is designed and created. Similar to Project Porpoise, this project will also largely focus on engagement by working with local schools in Northwest Iceland to teach local children about marine conservation, and also collaborating with a local whale-watching company, Láki Tours.

So, there we have it, a little (or rather quite long) update of what myself and Whale Wise are up to over the summer and beyond. The summer months are fast approaching and I am ready to welcome the 24 hour days of sunlight and evening tours on the boat, relishing in the company of the whales. I feel so extremely grateful to be able to call Iceland home for the next six months. Last week I saw a blue whale for the first time in my life; such beautiful and magnificent marine mammals that rule the oceans, up to 100 feet long. I also saw my first breaching Humpback the week before, from a memorable tour from Hjalteyri. We have had sunny days, snowy days, days spent in the office and full days on the water. I have watched Ukraine win the Eurovision final from Ja Ja Ding Dong Bar in Húsavík, whilst drinking a cocktail named ‘Fire Saga’. I attended the annual Whale Congress at the Whale Museum, where I listened to talks on current research in the world of marine mammals and also science in Iceland: truly inspirational. Just last week, I helped Ocean Missions with their beach clean-up. Hearing those talks and seeing conservation in action reminded me why I am here. Tom has always said that he finds the idea of spending his life not trying to make the world a more inclusive one for whales is “unthinkable”. I can safely say that I feel the same way, and I know that all of the dedicated whale researchers I have met here so far do too. I am extremely hopeful that the work that is done here at the Húsavík Research Center, the work that we do with Whale Wise, and of course the work of so many others, is a step closer to encouraging a world where the whales can live.

A room with a view.

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