Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The loss of whales to ship strikes



Earlier this month we received the sad news that a dead sperm whale was found in the Canary Islands, a tragedy that was caused by the whale being hit by a ship. 
The young male sperm whale was photographed by Vidal Martín, researcher of SECAC who is one of our North Atlantic sperm whale photo-ID collaborators. 

As soon as our biologist Miranda saw the photographs of the deceased whale she recognised him from our photo-ID research. We had not yet named this whale, as he was a fairly new addition to our catalogue, he was simply known as number 356 to us. We encountered him during our tours off São Miguel Island in June 2016, and again in June 2018. 



As we reflect on the loss of this sperm whale our attention is drawn to the threat of ship strikes to whales and other marine life. 

Maritime traffic is on the increase globally and ships are larger and faster than ever, meaning they sometimes don’t see partially submerged animals and both the boat and the animal often don’t have enough time to react. Whales are very intelligent animals and have a very good sense of hearing, but unfortunately, they often cannot hear large ships until it is too late because the engine noise at the back of the boat is blocked by the bow (this is called the “bow-null effect). 

Not many ship strikes with whales have been registered in the Azores, but that does not mean that they do not happen, especially considering the Azores islands are characterized mostly by rocky coastlines rather than shallow slopes with beaches where whales are more likely to be found washed ashore. 

It is impossible to know the true size of the death toll, as well as how many non-fatal strikes with whales occur, but it is a potential issue that should for considered for whales in the Azores. The Azores archipelago supports a high density of cetaceans (whales and dolphins), with a total of 28 of the world’s 89 species being registered around the islands (Silva et al., 2014). 

So what can we do to assure their safety around boats? 
In some areas, local governments are attempting to reduce ship strikes with whales by implementing mandatory ship reporting systems, altering shipping lanes to avoid whale hotspots, deploying acoustic buoys to detect whales from their sounds and detecting whale spouts thermally at night. These technologies and techniques can all help to address the issue, but what seems to be the most effective practice is for boats to simply slow down in important whale areas. 

Along the east coast of the U.S. ship strikes with critically endangered right whales declined an estimated 80-90% after a 10 knot speed limit was introduced in two key habitats of the whales (Conn and Silber, 2013). The potential impact of all types of boats should be considered, so of course, that includes our own whale watching boats. 

Our passengers often ask us about this during tours, and it is great to see that people are concerned about the welfare of the animals. Azorean legislation states that we cannot go faster than 4 knots or exceed the swimming speed of the animals when we are within 500 m of them. Our boat crew and vigias (land-based lookouts) are always keeping a keen eye out for animals at the surface; and we like to follow the motto – “If you see a blow, go slow”.

Written by Miranda van Der Linde


References used:
Conn, P.B. and Silber, G.K. 2013. Vessel speed restrictions reduce risk of collision-related mortality for North Atlantic right whales. Ecosphere 4(4): 1-16.
Silva, M.A., Prieto, R., Cascão, I., Seabra, M.I., Machete, M., Baumgartner, M.F. and Santos, R.S. 2014. Spatial and temporal distribution of cetaceans in the mid-Atlantic waters around the Azores. Marine Biology Research. 10(2): 123–137. ISSN: 17451000. DOI: 10.1080/17451000.2013.793814.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Weather in the Azores: shining sun but strong wind!


Winter in the Azores can be hard, and this year we could really feel it! 


Marina of Ponta Delgada


In the last few days (or even weeks!) we have had heavy rain, colder temperatures and very strong winds... and the forecast is not promising for the next few days. 

The sun is shining today in the sky, but the wind didn't give us a break.


Our lookout looking for animals


One of our lookout places



View from the binoculars


To make it easier to understand, let's explain the two main kind of waves you can find out in the ocean: swell and wind waves.

The swell is created far from here due to the weather systems. These usually long and high waves are created due to the wind blowing for some time over a fetch (big extension) of water, and therefore they don't disappear easily. It can last for several days even when the wind decreases!

The wind waves are produced by the immediate wind creating the well-known "white caps". Those are the easiest to see from land, and if the sea is too white…let's wait for better conditions to come!


Today, as you can see on our photos, we have both, swell and wind waves out there. 
That's the Winter in the heart of the Atlantic!


Looking for animals in the Atlantic Ocean



Waves from the binoculars




Looking at the ship far away from the binoculars

But even like that, the weather is still good to enjoy the beautiful landscapes on land!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Futurismo celebrates the World Whale Day!

What a fun day we spent in Futurismo not only learning, but also enjoying the activities and games for children and adults. We also discovered a lot of talent in our whale-drawing "contest" for kids. The event aims to not only provide a very good time for the families, but also spread the awareness :) Big hug to everyone involved, and see you next time!


Monday, February 18, 2019

Bottlenose dolphins' day and a new captain

Today we have travelled Eastwards to find a fantastic group of bottlenose dolphins. It was quite a big group (probably around 50, but they were so friendly and close to our boat, that the number was not important anymore! 



They were constantly travelling, always in the same direction, bowriding, jumping and within a short distance from the boat. We could observe some scars on their body, like tooth marks probably made by other dolphins. Sometimes the scars or marks they have, especially on their dorsal fins, are very helpful to identify the individuals. Most of the animals we saw today were big adults. They can reach almost 4 meters in length! 



While we were enjoying these bottlenose dolphins, we kept travelling East. On the way back, our "new captain" and his brothers were able to test his skills under the close supervision of our masters. Beautiful family that enjoy a great experience on the sea today! Sun rays passed through the clouds, and South wind increased during our way back, announcing the beginning of a week of winter weather and roughy seas. We hope it passes fast for the good weather and seas to come again!




Today our guests were particularly interested about the baleen whales. The most repeated question on board was "when is the best time to see them here?". As you know, we have seen fin whales a couple of days ago, and a humpback whale in January. But for sure, the best season to see baleen whales in the Azores is Spring. Want to know more? Have a look at the article we published on the World Whale Day 😊 Hope you like it!




Sunday, February 17, 2019

Spyhopping sperm whales in São Miguel Island

What a perfect Sunday morning, sunny, dolphins, birds and lots of sperm whales! 









As soon as we started the trip, just two minutes from the marina we found a big group of common dolphins feeding along with many seagulls, quite a show and the day was just starting! 

We keep on moving to the South and we arrived to the area where our lookouts have spotted sperm whales, we started to see blows in the distance and what a surprise before we realized we were surrounded by lots of sperm whales, at least 20 animals! We got to see them very well, they were so calm, relaxing in the surface, rolling, spyhopping on us, and it was a great opportunity to use our hydrophone and play the sounds on the vessel speakers, so everyone on board could hear the clicks they were making, used for echolocation. 

And when we thought we have seen it all, and animal amazed us jumping three times and we were able to see its all body out of the water! 

What an incredible day, this is what you get in the Azorean paradise!

Saturday, February 16, 2019

World Whale Day: Taking a look at the baleen whales of the Azores

Today we want to celebrate the World Whale Day with you. Since 1980, every third Saturday of February the Whale Day is commemorated worldwide. What a perfect moment to share our knowledge and raise awareness about these incredible giants! On this post, we will let you know more about the baleen whales sighted in the Azores and how little we know about them! 



In the Azores there have been reported 28 different species of whales and dolphins so far (Silva et al., 2014). However, some of them were just sighted occasionally, while others are frequently observed around our waters. Seven out of these 28 species belong to the Misticety group, i.e. baleen whales: blue whale, fin whale, sei whale, humpback whale, Bryde’s whale, minke whale and North Atlantic right whale. As a brief reminder, baleen whales have baleen plates instead of teeth and two blowholes on the top of the head. 

Every year in spring we are luckily to sight on some of our tours the two biggest animals that have ever existed on the face of the earth: the blue whale and the fin whale. According to our data, these two species are mostly sighted between March and June every year. To have an idea, from all our sightings of blue whales, only two have been recorded out of this period (González et al., 2013; González et al., 2014; González et al., 2018). 


Fin whales however, even sighted also mostly in spring, have been observed as well the rest of the year, especially since 2014 (Ojeda et al., 2018). Sei whales are sighted as well every season (Ojeda et al., 2018), but they use to arrive a bit later than blue and fin whales. When we sight these giants, we always wonder where are they coming from and where are they going to. And we must say that there is not an easy answer! Only a couple of studies have tracked by satellite these species in our region. They tagged some whales in spring in the Azores, and followed their routes towards northern waters (Silva et al., 2013). They discovered that blue and fin whales were travelling directly northwards after feeding for some days in the Azores, and they didn’t stop on their journey (Fig.1). However, sei whales were travelling northwest, so following a different route in spite of being sighted on the same area at the same time (Fig.2) (Prieto et al., 2014). Our photo-identification results show that some of the whales come back and again to the islands, so they really enjoy the Azores!



Humpback whales are sighted mainly in spring too (van der Linde et al., 2013; González et al., 2014), but particularly the last few years, sightings in winter were not uncommon. With photo-id, we confirmed the northward migration with a whale sighted in Cape Verde and in São Miguel with only 27 days in between! However, a study that tagged some humpbacks in the Northern North Atlantic (whaletracking2018.uit.no), show how they are travelling SE (heading the Caribbean) during winter and spring time as well (Fig.3). 

Bryde’s whales are not frequently sighted around São Miguel. In the last 11 years, they have been sighted only in 2009, 2013 and 2017 (van der Linde et al., 2013). They are usually found in warmer waters, so their occurrence in our waters may be linked with some SST anomalies. A study made by Steiner et al., (2008) explained that favourable conditions could be temporal extended up to our latitudes, allowing the presence of this tropical species in the Azores.

And to finish our list of baleen whales registered in the Azores, the North Atlantic right whale. It has been reported in January 2009 off the central group (Silva et al., 2012). Luckily, this whale was photo-identified, and successfully recognized in the Bay of Fundy (Canada) before and after being in the Azores.

And this year, the team of Futurismo is ready to continue learning more about the magnificent whales passing by the Azores. Are you ready to join us and help us to learn more about them?

Fig. 1. Blue whales and fin whales tagged between 2009 and 2012. Image from Silva et al., 2014.

Fig. 2. Sei whale tracked in 2008 and 2009. Image from Prieto et al., 2014.

Fig. 3. Humpback whales tagged during autumn 2018 – winter 2019 (https://whaletracking2018.uit.no/).


Bibliography

González L, Sardà C, van der Linde, M (2013) Blue whales passing around Azores. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the European Cetacean Society, Setúbal, Portugal, 8-10 April 2013.

González García L, Pierce GJ, Autret E, Torres-Palenzuela JM (2018) Multi-scale habitat preference analyses for Azorean blue whales. PLoS ONE 13(9): e0201786. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0201786

Ojeda V, Montoya C, van der Linde M, González L (2018) Complex temporal distribution of fin whales and sei whales in the Azores. 32nd European Cetacean Society. La Spezia, Italy. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.26471.55204. Poster presentation.

Prieto R, Silva MA, Waring GT, Gonçalves JMA (2014) Sei whale movements and behaviour in the North Atlantic inferred from satellite telemetry. Endangered Species Research. 26(2): 103–113. ISSN: 16134796. DOI: 10.3354/esr00630.

Silva MA, Steiner L, Cascão I, Cruz MJ, Prieto R, Cole T, Hamilton PK, Baumgartner MF. (2012) Winter sighting of a known western North Atlantic right whale in the Azores. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, 12, 65-69.

Friday, February 15, 2019

First fin whales of the year!

Finally, after some rainy days, the sun came out and we could go to the ocean! And with the sun came the animals. We started with a very active group of bottlenose dolphins. They were playing with our boats, bowriding,  and jumping. 





After some minutes with them, we had the information from our lookout that we should start moving East if we wanted to see bigger animals. So we started going, and after 40 minutes travelling, we had a surprise: 2 fin whales, the first ones of this season! They were doing dives of around 10 minutes, and blowing just 3 or 4 times, but they delighted us with their huge size. Fin whales are the second largest animal of the world, reaching around 28 meters. Those ones may have been around 20 meters long.



Thursday, February 14, 2019

Pico sighting statistics, 2018

Since 2004, Futurismo has been present in Pico Island. Since then, whale watching and swimming with dolphins tours have been run around the island, although not continuously. During the last two years, our seasonal activity became more consistent, allowing us to record more standardised and useful data about cetacean occurrence around the island.

Our new base is located on the South coast of the island at the council of Lajes do Pico. There, you will encounter our zodiac, called Alfredo Baleeiro to honour one of the whaling lookouts, which carries up to 16 people onboard. You can join us from early Spring to early Autumn, to explore this beautiful Ocean that surrounds us. 

The analysis of the cetacean observations we made last season (April-October 2018) is already done and from it we have been able to denote some parities with the island of São Miguel. Along these 7 months, we saw 17 of the 28 total species described to date for the Azorean archipelago (Fig. 1 & 2). The 17 species can be classified as resident, which have been observed quite regularly, migratory such as baleen whales and also migratory such as pilot whales and spotted dolphins that come only to stay for the warm months.
Fig. 1: Map of Pico Island with all the species sighted
The most sighted species was the Risso’s dolphin. This unusual opportunistic feeder dolphin is already well-known by Pico’s fishermen who call it ‘the miller’ ("moleiro" in Portuguese) as they are born of a brownish gray color that will be partially replaced by white scars throughout their life; or as in the case of males these scars can cover almost completely full parts of their body, making them seem that have been grinding cereals to make flour. As in São Miguel, at Pico island we can also find resident groups of Risso’s that stay throughout most of the year in the area. Probably they can find over here the resources they need for survival. So far, there have been identified as residents three different groups of males and 1 group of females.

Our second most sighted species throughout the season is also a resident one. It is the largest toothed whale, which holds one of the biggest brains in the animal kingdom and emits the highest biological sound (sonar) in our atmosphere, the sperm whale! These two resident species share affinities in their diets as they both feed preferentially on squids, which for now are quite abundant around here, from the twilight to abyssal depths, near the slope of the islands. Also, during summer months, the huge and serene pilot whales –big dolphins that form really stable families- migrate here in large numbers to pass the warm season. Alike our two most abundant residents (sperm whale and Risso’s dolphin), the body of pilot whales are already well adapted to forage squids at high depths surrounded by darkness.

Common dolphins were our third most frequently sighted species. These animals are the most abundant species in the warm and temperate waters of the Atlantic Ocean. They have a small body (biggest males attaining 2,5 m) but form numerous pods in which we could also spot, throughout many of the encounters, associations with striped dolphins.

During Spring months, the great migratory baleen whales arrive here. Most of the individuals travel solitary or in small groups and sometimes accompanied by their young. They come from Atlantic’s warmer and tropical waters where they wintered, calved and reproduced. When the waters start to get warmer, they begin roaming up to the North’s colder waters where they will feed during the not-so-cold summer. In these spring months, from April to June, in 61.7% of the days we went out to the sea we have sight fin whales, 42.55% of them we sighted blue whales and 12.77% sei whales.

After Spring, when water’s temperature got up close to the 20ºC the spotted dolphins arrived. They remain here until the temperatures of the water lower again. Although they stayed only for an average of 5 months (from June to the end of October), they were our fourth most-sighted species throughout all the season.

We must also note the frequent encounters with Sowerby's beaked whales during the warm months surpassed those of previous years. Other member we sighted of this family of cetaceans, the Ziphiidae family, is the Cuvier's beaked whale, which nowadays holds the record for the longest and the deepest dive, of 2 hours and 18 minutes at 2,993m. They are quite shy and sound sensitive animals. Most of times, we had encountered them by chance as they were emerging from the water near our boat, or because of their summerly high jumps which can be seen from great distances, sometimes even several individuals jumping at the same time!

Less frequent species here were also sighted, such as the Humpback whales or the Pygmy sperm whale.

These were some of the cetaceans observations we made in 7 months along the south coast of Pico Island, but throughout the season, it was also possible to observe quite a few common turtles and Portuguese man o’ war, mainly during Springtime. We also spotted several species of sharks and rays, including a whale shark and several manta rays that delighted us with their size and serenity, several species of birds, mostly Cory´s shearwater, large schools of fish and many other species that gave us the opportunity to observe them as appeared close to the surface of the sea.

We hope to continue with these great sightings for the 2019 season!

Fig. 2: All of the species and the frequencies of the sightings along the 7 months of the season

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Always an educational experience! And ready for the next time!

As for this week the weather forecast is not very promising, we decided to try our luck today through the mist. And we tried, but this time, we didn't succeed. Visibility was not good from land due to the fog, and our lookouts did find some dolphins not far from the coast, but from the boat we didn't see them. Sometimes it happens!

Did you know that the methodology we use nowadays to find the animals comes from the whaling times? Two hundred years ago they worked exactly the same way, with people with binoculars looking from land.


Lookout spotting cetaceans with binoculars, just like two centuries ago

But, nature and wildlife are unpredictable! We never know what we can find, as whales and dolphins in the Azores are wild and move all the time. Even though, now in winter, we have good chances to see our resident species (among them, the sperm whale) and sometimes, even some unexpected ones, such as the humpback whale last month.


Lookout using binoculars

So, we must always be ready in order to maximize our chances to enjoy a boat trip in the open ocean. To avoid seasickness, we recommend you always to have breakfast. Yes! Eat something before going out! Your body needs energy, and apples, banana or bread are very good options. Avoid heavy meals, chorizo, orange juice or ananas. Once onboard, we recommend you to stay outside and enjoy the fresh air and the ocean view. We will be always there to help you!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Calm sea and active Common Dolphins

What a beautiful sea. When we left Ponta Delgada, it seemed like a calm summer day, as if it was not cold! It did not take too long to find our first species. 


Indeed, 15 minutes after departure, we found our first Common Dolphins group. They were very curious, in the bow of our boat as if they wanted to play with the children who were there calling them. 






We left the area to try to see something different, but we found common dolphins again and several Great Skuas in the area. 







Since we had already seen the dolphins very well, we turned off the boat and put the hydrophone in the water to see if the dolphins were communicating between them. We heard some whistles but they were not very communicative. 


We tried to hear something else but we were not lucky enough, so we decided to go out for a bit longer, because those who do not take risks cannot win. We took a big step further off the coast but unfortunately we didn't find anything else. We returned home with our cameras full of common dolphins and great skuas pictures.




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