We want to be clear on our intentions: we do not want to prevent human activity in our oceans. For example, we love to watch whales and other people are entitled to that same privilege. Whale-watching also supports coastal economies and encourages marine conservation. We have no right to threaten these benefits. Rather, we aim to promote practices which minimise any observed negative impact, whilst allowing profitable use of our ocean.
Perhaps the most exciting part involves blow sampling, whereby we collect samples of a whale’s exhaled breath (the blow). Like our own breath, whale blow is an incredible source of biological information, containing substances such as DNA, bacteria and whale proteins. We are currently interested in whale hormones, particularly cortisol (a stress-related hormone found in most mammals). Generally, cortisol levels increase during times of high stress. Our idea is to collect blow samples in areas and times of high and low vessel activity in order to measure the physiological stress actually caused. We could simply rely on behavioural indications of stress but these may be misleading. For example, a starving whale which has just migrated from its tropical breeding grounds may not sacrifice feeding in the presence of vessels, but this does not eliminate the potential for stress.
Early attempts at blow sampling relied on a long pole holding a collection device (such as Petri dishes or nylon mesh) extending from a research vessel. Since the vessel must travel in close proximity to the target whale, this may both confound our results and conflict with our goals, of reducing the impact of human activity.
So, how can you collect samples of whale blow without disturbing them?
The potential answer: drones.
As with other areas of whale research, drones have revolutionised blow sampling and represent a relatively cheap, simple and unobtrusive alternative. Now, we can attach Petri dishes to a drone using a simple frame (which in our first season was improvised from some coat hangers) and fly the dishes through whale blow. We first attempted this in June 2018 in Iceland- the first study of its kind in Iceland and the most northerly attempt to date- and collected 16 samples. Our current drones of choice is a DJI Phantom 4 – not too expensive, safe to launch from a vessel and manoeuvrable at sea.
Following the collection of whale blow, we take our samples to the lab, back in the University of Edinburgh, where we can measure the levels of specific hormones. Our method of choice is liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, a selective and sensitive analytical technique. By working with the Mass Spec Core the university’s clinical research facility, we can make use of advances in medical research for the purposes of whale conservation.
We want to be clear that this is part of our research is very exploratory- blow sampling has yet to be used to demonstrate the impact of human activity. As such, we are cautious with our expectations- simply, it may not work. However, with a solid theoretical basis, careful planning and help from other researchers, we are cautiously optimistic.
All previous assessments of whale watching impact have focused on behavioural responses. How do vessels alter the feeding, resting, travelling and social behaviour of different whale species? Such studies have indicated that whales may perceive vessels as a predatory threat and then behave in order to minimise this perceived threat. As a result, whale watching can reduce feeding and resting, whilst increasing travelling. Recent studies have built on this by translating behavioural responses into changes in energy acquisition and expenditure. This allows consideration of the impact of whale watching on entire populations.
In our current project, Whale Wise aims to follow previous research by observing whale behaviour in the presence and absence of whale watching vessels. Presence data are collected from North Sailing whale-watching vessels and absence data are collected from a land base. However, we also hope to take this further by assessing the relative impact of different types of encounter. For example, is the behavioural response of whales dependent on vessel size or the number of vessels? Are whales sensitive to the minimum approach distance of a vessel? Does engine noise play a role in whale watching impact?
This is key to our overall principle. Instead of halting whale watching, we aim to promote practices which minimise any observed negative impact, whilst allowing high quality and profitable encounters. Therefore, we must consider how different practices impact whales in different ways.
From our behavioural observations, we can estimate the impact of whale watching encounters on the energy acquisition and expenditure of individuals. How do these impacts then influence their welfare, health and survival?
To answer this question, we first need some crucial baseline data, specifically concerning their body condition at the time of an encounter. Naturally, we would expect this to determine the severity of any impacts. A fat, healthy whale might be relatively unaffected by whale watching disturbance, with their reserves of blubber allowing them to skip a meal with little consequence. However, the story may be different for a starving whale with little fat to spare. For these whales, we would expect every meal to count.
Therefore, we are also using drones to capture aerial images of whales. From these photographs, we can measure the length and width of individuals (known as photogrammetry), and thus assess their body condition. Generally, whales which are relatively wider have more blubber, are in better body condition and should be more resistant to whale watching disturbance.
Observing whale behaviour above the surface is a simple, cheap and often-effective way of assessing the response to disturbance. However, to truly understand the influence of vessels and other humans activities on the lives of whales, you have to dive beneath the surface.
Cetaceans rely heavily on sound for communication, feeding and even navigation. Many species literally ‘see’ their environment in sound. As a result, loud human activities can disrupt a key sensory system, impeding their hearing, voice and ‘sight’. Vessels are no exception, with noise from the engine and cavitation (exploding bubbles caused by propeller rotation) contributing to an altered underwater soundscape.
As a result, characterising this soundscape is key to understanding the influence of vessels on whale populations. We deployed our first hydrophone (underwater microphones) in 2020 in Skjálfandi Bay, our whale-watching area, to do just chat. We also hope to listen to whale vocalisations and, if possible, relate changes in vocalisation (rate, frequency and sound level) to variation in vessel traffic. The team doesn’t have much experience in acoustic research, so we’re extremely fortunate to work with Dr Michelle Fournet, a bioacoustics researcher from Cornell University, to design our study, deploy equipment and analyse data.
COVID-19 UPDATE: In these trying times, Covid-19 has provided a unique opportunity to listen to a quieter Skjálfandi Bay – by halting whale-watching activities and reducing vessel traffic generally. We are working with our local collaborators at University of Iceland to deploy hydrophones at this time to characterise this altered landscape and its consequences for whales. The Whale Wise team does not need to travel to Iceland for this deployment, ensuring the research can be conducted respectfully and safely during the pandemic.
From the results of our whale watching impact assessment, we hope to design a conservation plan aimed at balancing the needs of whales and humans. Crucially, we need a plan that works not only now, but far into the future. With dramatic climate change forecast in the coming decades, with associated shifts in ocean habitats, this presents a challenge. Will the whales of north Iceland still be around in the future? To what extent can future whale watchers rely on seeing whales on a daily basis? Will north Iceland still represent an important feeding ground in years to come?
To answer these questions, we will work with iAtlantic, a collaborative, EU-funded project aimed at monitoring the response of marine life to oceanographic changes in the Atlantic Ocean. Using long-term time-series data for humpback and blue whales in Icelandic waters, we will perform habitat modelling, mapping their distribution against various oceanographic variables such as depth, temperature, plankton and fish distribution. Following this, we will apply climate forecasts to predict how these variables will change in the future. Therefore, we can estimate how the distribution and numbers of humpback and blue whales will change around Icelandic waters in coming years.
As scientists, we often undervalue the power of the public to contribute to scientific research. However, the members of the public are both knowledgeable and interested in observing the natural world. As a result, citizen science is now a recognised and growing field in science. This is particularly important for whale research. Monitoring of cetaceans is expensive and often conducted seasonally, citizen science allows for the expansion of this research with limited funding, whilst encouraging members of the public to become involved in the research and conservation process. We believe in sharing all results from citizen science in an open and fair way with its contributors and the wider public.
In Iceland, we are interested in collecting whale sightings from various members of the public, including fishermen, whale-watching guides, other residents and tourists. Fishermen are key players due to their vast ocean knowledge and frequent time spent in offshore waters, in areas that others (including whale researchers) generally cannot reach. Starting this project involves two steps. First, we need to assess the feasibility of citizen science – are people willing to contribute, where do people look and can they identify whale species? We have started this work (led by Alyssa), with promising early results. Second, based on this, we need to create an appropriate platform for reporting and sharing sightings. Fortunately, we are working with computer and whale scientists at the University of Iceland (led by Dr Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir) to develop an online app to make this a reality! We have already set up a Facebook group to share Iceland whale sightings , with engagement from researchers, fishermen, guides and the general public.