The beginning of an adventure – The field season 2022

Written by Johanna Behrisch

Half a year ago, I got to know the Whale Wise team and the projects they are working on. I was fascinated by their passion and teamwork. I was very inspired and volunteered as a helping hand in their team. After a month they asked me if I want to help during their 2022 Iceland field season 2022. Now sitting in a little cabin by the sea in Iceland, watching whales, I want to share with you, how I met Whale Wise and the beginning of this field season.  

I have always been drawn to the sea, by the freedom and wildness I felt there. The ocean is such a vast and rough place. Marine organisms, in all the different forms and shapes they appear, and all the different ways they adapted to the life in the sea, fascinate me. As on land, everything is connected, from the sea surface, down to the seafloor and each seems to depend on the presence of the other. I always wanted to understand the way of life in the sea, how land and sea influence each other, how much humans depend on and interact with marine life and how global change affect marine ecosystems. After a bachelor’s in biology, I specialized in marine biology when I started to study biological Oceanography in Kiel, Germany. During my first semester I got to know Amelie, who I am studying with and first told me about Whale Wise. We would meet up and have long conversations about whales, Iceland and the projects Whale Wise conducted in the past years. I was very happy when she asked me whether I would like to join some of their new projects and help them with previous ones. The Whale Wise team welcomed me with an open heart. 

I was excited to become a helping hand in their projects. Especially one, the “Scars from above” project caught my eye. In this project, body condition of humpback whales will be compared to the area of scars on their dorsal peduncles and fluke side resulting from entanglement in fishing gear. Dorsal pictures of the whale will be taken with a drone flying over the whale. The usage of drone pictures to assess the area of scars on humpback whale backs is a fairly new approach, as it has usually been done with camera pictures taken from boats. So, we additionally want to see if drone pictures allow a better analysis of the size of scars on whales. The technical, as well as the methodological aspects of this project really fascinated me, so I was eager to help and be part of the project. As the field season 2022 came closer and plans were made, I was asked if I wanted to join the field season in Iceland to help with the Scars from above project in the field. Of course, I was stoked. 

When I walked out of the arrival area in the airport in Reykjavík, three kindly smiling, waving people (Jess, Flo & Alyssa) were waiting there for me and welcomed me warmly to the island. I was quite excited meeting them after working together with Whale Wise for almost half a year, only being able to catch up over online meetings, since we are all coming from different places. When I arrived, we all jumped into a fully packed rental car, ready to drive out of the big city to the more isolated town called Drangsnes in the North of Iceland. After a four-hour drive and several leg stretches (which we desperately needed since our equipment and luggage took up most of the space in the car), we arrived at our remote but very cosy cabin at the edge of a headland in the Westfjords of Iceland. 

As soon as we stepped into the cabin, our jaws dropped by the view out of the cabin windows right onto the sea and the fjord (Steingrímsfjörður). We realized that this is the perfect spot for keeping an eye on the whales to be able to quickly set up our equipment for aerial image collection. 

After we had spent some days setting up and getting familiar with our equipment (especially our new drone Oscar), we were ready to start collecting aerial images with the drones. Setting up our equipment was quite difficult, as we had to figure out how to attach devices (LiDAR) to measure our flight altitude on the drone and calibrate drone settings. This could take us several hours, but I really enjoyed the whole process as I learned a lot about droning, which I had never done before.

There were plenty of whales in the fjord the first days, so we had enough opportunities to train flying with the drones. I have never worked with whales before, and it is super interesting to learn what you must pay attention to when you collect data safely for people, whales, and equipment. Every morning one of us gets up for whale watch at sunrise, if the weather allows droning. To sit at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and binoculars, looking out for whales is a nice change from daily life back home. If a whale blow would rise at the horizon, the whole team is woken up. Everybody changes into warm clothing and grabs some of the equipment. We walk out of our little cabin into our front yard, which is a porch right on a cliff with a perfect view of the fjord. Binoculars scour the water surface in the fjord looking for whales. Suddenly one of us shouts “Up, there is a whale!”. We all get excited and ready to launch the drone and collect data. We organized our data collection into three roles. One of us puts on safety gear to launch and catch the drone, another is taking a camera and a video recorder to record the whale behavior and the third person is getting ready to fly the drone. We switch the roles from time to time. So far Flo is our experienced drone pilot, so she flies the drone most of the time. First, I had a lot of hesitation launching and catching the drone by hand, but I got very confident, and it makes a lot of fun. 

After the drone is launched safely it heads towards the position where we saw the whale the last time. The person with the voice recorder and the camera is constantly keeping track of the whale’s behavior and guides the drone to the whales. It is a bit of a challenge to direct the drone with binoculars, sometimes at 3 to 4 km distance, to the whale we had spotted in the fjord. I really enjoy this challenge as you get excited whenever the whales are coming up and you make up funny names for landmarks on the other side of the fjord to be able to roughly describe the whale´s position.

Eventually our drone pilot is shouting with excitement, that she also found the whale and presses the record button. The drone must be flown over the whale at a close enough height and at a vertical angle to get the perfect aerial image. This can be quite challenging, as I experienced on one of my practice flights. I have never flown a drone before, and I heard how tricky it is flying it above the sea. I was very surprised when Flo once handed me the remote control and offered to teach me how to fly. Of course, I was excited. Getting the perspective of a flying bird gliding over the sea isn´t an opportunity you will get often. At the same time, I felt very nervous, because you are flying a valuable and expensive piece of equipment, important for the following 3 months of data collection, over the ocean. But Flo is supportive and gives good advice, so I felt confident trying it out. I am very glad I got to try it and I am very excited to improve during flight practice.

The first week, we had about 6 to 8 whales in the fjord, which was amazing. I had never seen so many whales in one spot. They sometimes meet and swim side by side. We could also watch them interact. On our fourth sampling day we were lucky, and 3 whales showed up in our drone camera. This is perfect, as we got aerial images for scar and body condition analyses of all three whales in one flight, which is crazy!

In addition, we also must be able to identify and distinguish the whales we take aerial images of. This can be a tricky task, especially when there are so many whales around. Next to the aerial image, we also try to take an image of the fluke of the whale. The fluke has a distinct pattern, like a fingerprint, which allows us to identify the whales in the fjord. In addition, we get help from our friend Judith, who is living in Drangsnes and works as a whale-watching tour guide. She goes out nearly every day, has a good overview of the whales in the fjord and helps us to identify them. This week I also learned how to do photo-identification, where you identify the whales and see if the Whale Wise team had met this whale in previous years. It is an exciting job to match the flukes to photos the team took in the past years or to add new whales to our whale catalogue. 

One of the best parts of the data collection is coming back into our little cabin after a flying session, where we would look at the footage the drone recorded. I had never flown above a whale or looked at the entirety of a whale from above. Every time we look at our footage, I am blown away. The recordings allow you to see the full body length of the whale. Birds flying around it make you aware of how huge these animals are, when they swim under you as if in slow motion. It is such a rare and special view you get of a whale. It also makes you aware of how important it is to understand what might impact their behavior and well-being – especially in a feeding ground such as Iceland. I always look forward in excitement to the footage every new day of data collection brings, as everyday seems very different so far. I am glad I got the opportunity to join Whale wise and help them with their projects during the field season this year. I’m excited to see what is going to come during the next weeks in the new field season, what kind of challenges we overcome as a team and what cool shots and observations we will get of the whales.

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