Friday, January 24, 2020

Fin whale, Sperm whales and summer visitors Pilot whales

Today was a sunny and beautiful day on the sea. Our morning trip started with a lot of instructions to follow from our lookouts. We started travelling to south of the island and suddenly we saw a blow. 

It was a Sperm whale that dove quickly when we arrived to the area. When sperm whales show the fluke, it means that they are going for a deep dive and can stay a minimum of 45 minutes underwater, so we decided to continue our trip. 

And what a surprise! Further we started to see another different blow, much higher and straight. Without doubt it was a baleen whale blow! But it decided to dive and we couldn't see it closer. In the same area we saw a very very strange thing : pilot whales. 

Normally a species that we see just during the summer. It was a big group with a lot of calves. We were surrounded by them. 

Then, again the same blow from before and this time we were closer and we recognized the fin and the white right side of the mouth. It was a fin whale, the second biggest whale in the world! 

After enjoying the time with this whale we left the area to see another group of sperm whales that one of our lookouts was observing. Once in the area we waited a little bit until we saw a tiny blow from a small Sperm whale calf with a white patch in the dorsal fin. 

At our left a female Sperm whale with another baby appeared and we managed to see it breast feeding and diving, showing two beautiful flukes. Using the photos we could identify this family. They belong to the pink family, the first was Angel and the second Elsemiek, both with babies!

To finish we returned to our first baby Sperm whale and its mom and again we saw another fluke. 

When we were coming back to Ponta Delgada we stopped to see a really curious group of pilot whales, really close to our catamaran and with a huge male among them. 
What a great and surprising day! Perfect! We cannot wait for tomorrow's trip!

Great skua

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Hundreds of dolphins and a sperm whale today in Ponta Delgada

Today we really work as a perfect team!

We left the marina crossing a wall of rain to encounter a beautiful winter day with rainbows all over every now and then.

Our lookouts gave us information soon in the morning to head quite far from the coast to try to see some big animals. But as soon as we started the trip, we started to see common dolphins.

First just a small group, curious towards our boat; but after a few miles... Hundreds of common dolphins! They were very spread out, but some were always bow-riding our boats. We could even see another "black edition" dolphin. As you know, common dolphins have yellow on the side, but some of the individuals (quite rare!) they don't!

We kept on heading to the sperm whale area, but it was totally covered by the rain. The lookouts couldn't find the whales anymore... But... we use our secret tool from our rubber boat: the hydrophone! And guess what... we listen some nice clicks underwater, which gave our watchmen some new info to re-start the search. We listen to them in several occasions, and when we didn’t... time to come to the surface! Our catamaran found the blow and we all had the opportunity to see the sperm whale a few times. And even to take some photos of it and its amazing "curly" tail. Probably a new one for our catalogue!

Saturday, January 18, 2020

A humpback whale and hundreds of dolphins in São Miguel today

We had one more opportunity to return to the ocean!! 
This time we went to the west side of the island, close to the airport. Our lookout had a little difficulty seeing the animals due to the fog. We then found one common dolphin near a fishing vessels with a group of about 30 very young bottlenose dolphins. 

Today these animals were not very interested because they were eating. From time to time they came close to the vessel, but they spent most of the sighting eating and doing deep dives.

As they didn't want to play with us, we decided to leave the area and move then to an area where we had many common dolphins, hundreds of very curious common dolphins! Suddenly we saw a blow in the distance ... and off we went in an attempt to see a whale! Everyone were very focused, even the customers, looking around to help to find this humpback whale that it seemed to be playing hide and seek with us. Suddenly the whale jumped next to our boat, making a big splash. Unfortunately we were unable to photograph this behavior because the whale decided just to jump one time. 

We continued in the same area trying to see this animal again, but we always saw the blows in the distance ... but at least the common dolphins accompanied our entire trip, full of energy to play and jump. Another magical morning!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Another humpback whale feeding, a sperm whale family and more...!

Today we had a typical azorean day! We started the day with a lot of rain and fog... and didn't we end our morning trip with sunshine? In the Azores we should always bring a change of clothes in our backpack, because everything can change ;)

Today was a long trip, but it was well worth it. We started our day with bottlenose dolphins, very focused on having their breakfast... so we didn't stay for to long so as not to interfere with their feeding. 

We received news from our lookouts to continue a little more... because they had seen something different, but still not sure what it was. There we went full of hope and betting on what it would be :D We started with a huge group of over 100 common dolphins, all eating with seagulls ... and in the middle ... A HUMPBACK WHALE! It was sharing breakfast with the friendly and acrobatic common dolphins. It was not an easy sighting, because even if the lookouts sees the animals, there is no guarantee that the animals will want our attention and that's what happened. 

We saw the humpback whale eating once, did a middle water dive and we could only see its long white pectoral fins passing by our boat :) Of this animal we only had the opportunity to see another blow. While we waited for the visibility of our lookout to get better ... we received a warning "SPERM WHALES IN THE AREA!" There we went full of hope and desire to see a huge sperm whale family ... 10 in total of our sightings and with the possibility of seeing two tails!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Being a Vigia through the eyes of Marine Biologists

Ever wondered how we search for whales and dolphins here in São Miguel?

Figure 1. Vigias view of the North Coast, in search of sperm whales. Photo: Miranda van der Linde

As you can see in figure 1 above, we have a person with binoculars looking at the sea. Milton, Roberto or Coelho are the people on the look-out searching for whales and dolphins for the whale watching tours. In Portuguese, we call them the “Vigias”, and this job has existed in the Azores since the whaling times. Today, besides finding the whales and dolphins and leading the whale watching and swimming with dolphins boats to them, the “Vigias” collect valuable scientific data about cetacean occurrence around the island. To learn more about how the “Vigia” works, you can refer back to our blog that was written by one of our previous biologists in 2007. 

As you can see, even on the backstage of the activity, our “Vigias” are the “key element” of our daily whale watching tours here in the Azores, and therefore, we want to offer them a well-deserved tribute.

Here in Futurismo the Biologists normally go to sea with our clients to search for whales and dolphins from the boats. But recently we have had the chance of joining the look-out on their daily work. We have experienced it first hand, and we can say that their job is quite difficult and demanding! Just to give you an idea of what it is like, this article is about being a Vigia from the biologists’ point of view.

Early mornings…

The start of the day was tough; we left the house at 6:45 AM to be at the Vigia’s location by 7. This is because the Vigias need enough time to search for any whales and dolphins before the whale watching tours leave the harbour. Once we arrived at the Vigia point, we went inside the small white house on the top of the cliff and started looking for whales and dolphins through these binoculars. 

We (the biologists) searched for about 1 hour and found... nothing! Meanwhile, at the same time from the same location, the Vigia found two pods of common dolphins (yes, they can even identify the species from the binoculars!!). Then, we tried to look through the binoculars where the Vigia spotted the dolphins, and still nothing…we were looking and looking, but nothing… Then Milton had a look again and said, on the top right side in the view of the binoculars. So again, one of us looked and looked and then finally, a splash! A tiny splash! That must have been the dolphin. And then indeed, from the binoculars, the dolphin jumping in the sea looked tiny as well. It is an incredible experience to see how well the eyes of the Vigias have been trained to spot these dolphins and whales. 

As the Vigias are located around 100m high on the cliff and can see up to 20 nautical miles out, you can imagine that the further away the whales or dolphins are, the smaller they look, and the harder they are to encounter.

Bright sunny days… 

On the other side of the island, there was another Vigia and biologist team. Here the Vigia did not have shelter to be protected. It was cold, very windy, and the sun straight in front of us. We could not even feel our fingers anymore, neither could the Vigia. One hour of searching, but no sign of any animals…When we looked into the sun, it was quite a blind spot, as you can see in figure 2, it hurts the eyes and makes it even more difficult to spot animals.

Figure 2. Glare in the sea which is very bright from this angle. Photo: Fadia Al Abbar

Beautiful views!

Then we continue to another spot to try our luck. At this point, we were all the way on the other side of the island. Here our view was very wide. We were very high, and very exposed, so the scanning of the entire area was even more difficult. In figure 3 you can see the red lines which have been added to the picture to represent the approximate width (so the area between one line and the next) of what the binoculars cover. You can imagine how long it takes to search for whales and dolphins covering the entire field! But wow, what a view! Here it was nice and warm too, and there was a Vigia shelter if the sun was too hot, so it was more comfortable too. It was so relaxing to scan the sea over here. 

Figure 3. View of the Vigia. The red lines show the approximate field that the binoculars can follow. Photo and edits: Fadia Al Abbar
We started searching, this time for whales. The Vigia searched and searched, and after approximately half an hour of searching, he found a BLOW! Yes!

Of course, not the biologists, but the Vigia had found a whale, and was able to identify it! It was a Fin whale! So the biologists had a look through the binoculars and nothing….nothing….! Being a vigia requires quite a lot of patience, effort, and experience. Sometimes the whales dive as well and then it is hard to spot the blow of the whale again, particularly if it is travelling fast and out of sight of the binoculars. Try to find the blow of the whale again, it is not easy!  The vigia took over again and had another look. A couple of minutes later, and BLOW! Let’s try again….we had another look and indeed, a small tiny blow! Figure 4 recreated a blow of what it looked like to us through the binoculars. It looked small, and this was easier to see than the dolphins, as in reality, the blow of a fin whale can reach up to 6 meters, and common dolphins are only 2.3 meters maximum, so you can imagine the difference…

Figure 4. A representation of what a blow of a whale viewing from the binoculars looks like. The arrow points at the blow. This is not a true photo of a blow. Photo and edits: Fadia Al Abbar

As you can see, all the areas of the island have different conditions, different sea state, different temperatures, sometimes sheltered and comfortable, sometimes open exposed and cold, sometimes very hot. The conditions vary, even on the same day and on the same island! And sometimes the vigias do not see anything. But when they do…it is spectacular!

Article by marine biologist, Fadia Al Abbar

Monday, January 13, 2020

Sightings Statistics of the year 2019 in São Miguel island

Another year came to an end and here’s the outcome of our sightings!

As usual, our resident species were the most sighted species and the winner was… the common dolphin! They were present in over 80% of our trips, making the importance of the island for them noticeable on a yearly basis.

Following this, we have the bottlenose dolphins whom, despite being present at 60% of our trips, we missed a lot in the summertime. Compared to other years, we did not have as many sightings, but every time we saw them it was simply amazing with high and spectacular jumps!

Third on the list is the sperm whale, and these animals gave us quite a show in each season of this year. Big families, breaches, a bunch of different males including several visits of Mr. Liable (who was again our most re-sighted individual), births, and pretty much every kind of behaviour we can imagine! This last year was truly fantastic for this species and we even ended the year with over ten sperm whales altogether.

The Atlantic spotted dolphins were one of the biggest surprises, since they arrived in our
waters in late June, as usual, but they haven’t left since! The latter is unusual since they normally leave the area when the winter arrives. So, we got to see calves, juveniles, and adults until the very end of the year!

In general, we had a weaker year when it came down to baleen whales. We see most of them during the springtime, however this year was an exception and we did not have as many sightings as previous years. The species we saw the least were fin whales. Where were they? We don’t know. Some years like 2017 we see fin whales almost every day in the springtime! Comparing frequencies of sightings, the difference is striking: sightings over 30% of the trips in 2017 versus 5% this year!

On the other hand, sei whales this year were seen more frequently than last year. They showed up later but also stayed later in the season. We saw them in autumn, even in December, and we also saw them associated with several species of dolphins feeding.

2019 was also a great year for humpbacks here with several individuals seen in different times of the year. This year the humpbacks were even more present than the blue and fin whale, which is unusual.

Beaked whales are hard to identify but we got to see them on many trips, although we didn’t manage to identify them all of the times. We managed to identify at least once True’s beaked whales (which are sighted very occasionally), some North Atlantic bottlenose whales and Blainville and Sowerby’s beaked whales on several occasions. Unfortunately, some Sowerby individuals were found stranded on the coast of São Miguel, and were found dead on some of our summer trips.

Pilot whales also made quite an appearance this year with their calm swimming and in relatively big groups.

Killer whales were only sighted in March; a family of 6, including a large male, who were

amazing and showed us several different kinds of behavior such as lobtails.

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