Monday, 16 June 2014

Iceland - Land of Ice and Fire... and Whales!

Venturing north from the Bay of Biscay our little Morgan heads to the land of ice and fire, and the waters of whales, Iceland. With WCA partner Suzanne Rogers our little Morgan set about exploring this island in the north of the Atlantic. Her tour included a visit to the Blue Lagoon, hot springs and geysirs whose spouts of water remind Morgan of those giant Blue Whales in the Azores. 

An Icelandic geysir

A few overnight stops in wild, rugged, beautiful, mountainous places Morgan and her friends arrive in Husavik, the whale watching capital of Iceland. With many whale watching companies operating here, Morgan was careful to chose a responsible, ethical company and went with North Sailing. There are no laws regulating whale watching here, and guidelines are voluntary. In an increasingly competitive industry not all whale watching companies operate responsibly with some actively chasing whales and getting too close. Sadly our little Morgan even saw some of this behaviour while out on her trip, while her boat kept a distance another boat raced in too close. Still Morgan, onboard a Schooner, was keen to get out there and try to see some whales responsibly. The signs were good, the crew had heard reports the those mighty Blue Whales were in the area and heading out to that bay Morgan and her friends were not disappointed with a group of five or six whales letting them hang out with them! With a lingering trace of snow and ice on mountains behind it was a magic moment for Morgan to meet these giants again. Heading back to shore and they saw a Minke Whale fully breach five times!

Iceland's magical scenery

Subsequent trips out from Husavik encountered more Minke Whales, a Humpback Whale and even many Harbour Porpoise – usually so difficult to see because they are small, fast and don’t show much of their body above water but the sea conditions allowed great viewing of these the smallest species of cetacean (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the North Atlantic.

For our little Morgan seeing Minke Whales brings mixed feelings as they are still hunted in Iceland. Indeed in Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital city) the whaling ships share a harbour with the whale watching boats and just a few days previously a German tourist had made international news by chaining himself to a whaling ship in protest against Iceland’s whaling activity. It is difficult not to be concerned that the whales Morgan and her friends saw might not survive the whaling season and to wonder whether getting used to whale watching boats puts them in more danger from the whaling ships. Overall it is considered best to support the whale watching industry to prove that whales are worth more alive than dead. Astoundingly it is the tourists that are driving the demand for whale meat – most of the whale meat consumed in Iceland is by tourists, sometimes the very same people who go whale watching! A campaign by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) called Meet Us Don’t Eat Us aims to raise awareness about the issues regarding eating whales and also to encourage tourists to support whale friendly restaurants. The campaign is very visible not just in Reykjavik but also in Husavik.

Once in Reykjavik our little Morgan couldn’t resist the chance to go whale watching again, and heading out with Elding – a tour company with a firm focus on education and concern for the animals. They also have a whale centre ingeniously created in a converted ship through which tourists must pass to reach the whale watching vessel. It contains cetacean skeletons and information about the animals and their plight. On the trip Morgan once again saw Minke Whales and enjoyed the very informative commentary, which also highlighted environmental issues and the health of the oceans as well as that of individual animals.

Elding's Science Officers

For Morgan one of the best parts of whale watching (apart from seeing whales!) is the other passengers – exchanging tales of previous whale watching trips with fellow whale enthusiasts and being there when some people see a whale in the wild for the very first time. On one trip our little Morgan met the Wildlife Society of Manchester University, a truly passionate group of students and alumni – with such future cetacean advocates the future certainly looks bright.

After ten days amazing days it was time for our little Morgan to plan her next adventure but a little part of her is still happily gazing out to sea looking for whales off the beautiful coast of Iceland.

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Monday, 9 June 2014

Morgan the MMO

Sound. It travels faster and further through water than air and in an environment where light does not penetrate very deep, its is one of the most important senses for marine animals including whales, dolphins and porpoises. Cetaceans as they are also known use sound for communicating, finding food and navigating their way around the ocean. The great baleen whales such as those our little Morgan encountered in the Azores, use low frequency sound to communicate over thousands of kilometres, toothed whales and dolphins like Orca use sound to echolocate in order to find their food and their way. Clicks and whistles are also used to communicate, and for some species distinguish between individuals in other words they have names! Scientists have even shown that different populations of Orca for example have specific vocalisations and even that different groups within the same population have different dialects.

The amazing properties of sound in water have made it very useful to humans as well. Using sound we can identify objects at huge distances, we can work out what type of rock exists below the seabed, and we can find valuable deposits of oil and gas used to fuel our modern day lives.

The issue is that as humans we are increasing the amount of sound in the ocean, and this is having some terrible impacts on whales and dolphins. Strandings, where whales and dolphins beach themselves and injuries have been linked with active sonar. Hearing sensitivity can be affected, either temporarily or permanently. Calls can be masked so that individuals cannot hear them or they have to change the way they make their own calls in order to be heard – a bit like us raising our voices in a very noisy room. Sound can affect behaviour too, causing disturbance or avoidance of areas. The level of impact depends on the intensity and frequency of the sound, and also on the individual.

For the exploration of oil and gas, around the worldwide a number of countries have introduced legislation and guidance in order to try and reduce the impact of this sound on whales and dolphins. While arguments may continue about whether oil and gas exploration should continue, especially in certain sensitive areas, ultimately as long as people are going to search for such deposits something needs to be done to protect whales and dolphins as much as possible. Methods include delaying the start of a sound if whales or dolphins are close by, increasing the level of noise gradually over a period of time in order to warn animals in close vicinity, shutting down noise sources when animals come within a certain distance. All of which involve having experienced marine mammal observers, to spot whales and dolphins and to advise people about guidelines. And inevitably training is needed.

Morgan at the Pro-MMO lectures

This week our little Morgan joined participants on a Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) course run by Gardline Environmental Ltd., learning the guidelines set out for UK waters by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

With a day of lecturers in a class room, our little Morgan learnt all about the properties of sound, the reasons human made sounds for oil and gas exploration can be so bad for whales and dolphins, and what these guidelines advise in order to reduce the impacts. Next it was off on a ferry in order to put into practice what they had learnt and to get some experience spotting and identifying whales and dolphins. What better place than the Bay of Biscay. With regular ferry’s crossing a range of habitat from shallow shelf waters, steep slopes, stretches of deep water and underwater canyons. The area covers habitat perfect for a range of dolphins and whales, and is one of the best places in Europe to see some of the most elusive whales, the beaked whales.

Out on deck scanning for marine mammals

With the weather a mixed bag and sea conditions ranging from choppy to completely flat calm, our little Morgan and the other candidates spent time on the ferry’s deck taking part in role plays and putting into practice the mitigation methods learnt in the class room. With wave after wave of common dolphin they even got to practice delaying operations! As the ferry crossed over the underwater canyons in the southern part of the Bay, a treat for Morgan and the other participants were two of those elusive beaked whales, this time Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, surfacing right next to the ferry!

Arriving in sunny Santander there was time to reflect on a wonderful days whale watching and to discuss all that they had practiced, before getting back onto the ferry for the return leg…. And of course the MMO exam!

In sunny Santander with the Pro-MMO candidates

With expert guidance and tuition all 10 candidates, and our little Morgan passed to become JNCC trained MMOs, ready to head off on survey vessels around the UK and beyond, in order to protect whales and dolphins from this particular form of underwater sound.

Find out more about the JNCC guidelines for seismic surveys, piling (installing rigs and wind turbines) and explosives, and find out more about Marine Mammal Observers here.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Ocean Giants in the Azores

The Azores, a group of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by deep water and smack bang in the pathway of migration routes of some of the largest creatures on our planet. The people of the Azores have a strong affinity with the sea, and whales in particular, having hunted particularly sperm whales right up until the early 1980s. But this was not mass scale, explosive harpoon hunting, this was a few men, in small boats, using oar and sail to chase these leviathans and hand-thrown harpoons to capture them. Since then boats have gone out in search of whales, not to capture them but to watch them, and the Azores is now known as one of the best places on Earth to watch whales and dolphins.

A mighty fin whale surfaces near our little Morgan. Image: Joao Quaresma

Over 24 species have been recorded, with many being resident year round including dolphins like common and bottlenose dolphins, but even groups of young and female sperm whales. Between April and June however sees the seasonal migration through these waters of true ocean giants, humpback, fin, sei and the mighty blue whale. Each of which has suffered dramatic declines due to whaling.

Reports from whale watch operators in the Azores, including many partners of the WCA, is that this is year is one of the most abundant in terms of baleen whales (whales like blue, sei, fin and humpback that have no teeth but bristly plates called baleen that hang from the top jaw and filter food from the water). Out little Morgan was keen to find out more and see these incredible animals up close and personal.

So joining Helen Bailey, Ruth and Mike Jones our little Morgan set out on an adventure with Amanda Stafford’s Whale and Dolphin Connection, and went whale watching from the island of Pico with Espaco Talassa, one of the original whale watching companies that not only takes passengers out to see these creatures but collects data on sightings and individuals through photo identification techniques.

Morgan, Helen and Rachel

Amanda, Rachel and our little Morgan

Zooming across the ocean on fast RIB against a background of splendid mountains, day after day Morgan’s group came across whale after whale and dolphin after dolphin. The water swirled a greenish blue colour, thick with microscopic plants called phytoplankton and feeding on these are tiny animals called zooplankton. Together these form the basis of the entire ocean food chain, feeding fish, squids, dolphins and whales.

Everyday there were blue whales, surfacing with powerful blows, lifting their giant tail flukes high into the air. There were mixed groups of fin and blue whales, and dolphins surfing the waves the whales created. Curious fin whales hanging around the boat, meandering around it and gliding under and alongside, so close that Morgan and everyone got caught by their smelly, wet breath. Then there were whales that powered through the water, almost clearing the surface, doing a kind of mini-breach and surfing over the top of each other. Next there were humpback whales, hanging out with sperm whales and their calves, hanging out with fin whales, curiously approaching the slowly moving boat, diving underneath boat and waves, lifting their flukes with a curtain of water dripping along the trailing edge. Amongst all this giant whale action there were dolphins, from common to bottlenose, striped to Risso’s.

A true ocean giant - the blue whale

What an incredible experience for our little Morgan and everyone onboard, watching and learning about these incredible animals, up close and personal, and importantly in the wild.   

Thanks to Whale and Dolphin Connection for taking little Morgan on a fantastic adventure in the Azores.