This conservation work expedition will take you to the Azores archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to study whales, dolphins and loggerhead turtles. You will photograph sperm, blue, fin, sei and minke whales, bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins and record them for local and international monitoring databases. You will collect sperm whale skin samples for DNA analysis without harming the animals by snorkelling to whale dive points or collecting shed skin in nets. You will listen to and make recordings of whale and dolphin vocalisations and capture loggerhead turtles in the open ocean using nets and then measure, tag and release them as part of an international tagging programme. All this in an effort to elucidate the animals’ life histories and migration patterns across the oceans and assist with the formulation of effective conservation strategies.
Aims & objectives
(1) To photo-identify baleen whales (such as blue, fin, sei, humpback and minke whales) for comparative trans-Atlantic studies.
(2) To photo-identify sperm whales, bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins for inclusion in local and international monitoring databases.
(3) To tag loggerhead turtles and record environmental data whenever other activities allow.
(4) To record sperm whale coda vocalisations for a comparative study of different regional “dialects”.
The Azores archipelago is one of the prime whale and dolphin hotspots in the world and around 30% of the world’s known cetacean species have been recorded there. For management purposes the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has included the Azores archipelago in the East Greenland and Iceland stocks, but there is little evidence to support this.
The expedition initiated the first long term concerted study on baleen whales in the Azores. These animals in particular have not been studied around the Azores and accurate knowledge of the origins of the baleen whales passing the archipelago during April and May will help to determine which stocks they come from and assess more accurately their true numbers (which are often inflated in efforts to set hunting quotas).
The expedition will also continue existing sperm whale, bottlenose and Rissos’s dolphin studies. The sperm whale study is part of a larger migration and social study, and the dolphin study is in the early stages of assessing animal numbers and migratory behaviour around the archipelago. Loggerhead turtles will also be studied and tagged as part of an international research project studying their life history and migration around the Atlantic.
Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis)
Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)
Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus)
Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)
Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus)
Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)
Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta)
Other landmark species present:
Common dolphin (Delphinus delphis)
Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba)
Pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus)
Orca (Orcinus orca)
Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris)
Sowerby’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon bidens)
On the day you arrive and for half of the second day, you will be on land, taking part in training. The expedition leader and the local scientists will prepare you for your fieldwork tasks and explain the research methods and goals. Talks are organised to make you familiar with safety, the equipment, the research, your part in it, and the area in which it will happen. Presentations will also focus on explaining the expedition aims and the system used to achieve these efficiently when on the water. Once you are trained up, your tasks will be mainly boat-based and consist of separate activities (such as animal spotting, photo identification, hydrophone tracking, turtle tagging & boat duties), which will be rotated amongst the whole team so that everyone will have the chance to take part in most or all activities.
This is probably the most important and tiring task on board, and the one on which almost all other activities hinge. You will be in rotating group watches on deck, scanning the horizon for signs of the animals (such as splashes, blows and protrusions from the water) and the animals themselves. This requires concentration and stamina and although it is not physically demanding, it can be tiring. The more people there are on watch at a given time, the higher the chance of locating an animal. Once an animal is located, other research and data collection activities are triggered.
Dorsal fins of baleen whales and tails (flukes) of sperm whales and humpbacks are photographed and recorded on a central database, which allows identification and tracking of individuals around the archipelago and across the oceans. Using this method over 1,600 individual whales have already been studied around the Azores by the expedition scientists. Bottlenose and Risso’s dolphin dorsal fins are also photographed and recorded in a catalogue. Under supervision you will take photographs using a digital camera and enter them into a database.
A hydrophone consists of two small microphones mounted inside an oil-filled tube, which allows researchers to hear the vocalisations of whales and dolphins several kilometres away. Using the hydrophone, you will listen to vocalisations and track the animals.
(Programa de Observação para as Pescas do Açores = Observation Programme for the Fisheries of the Azores)
For this programme you will be recording dolphin, whale, turtle and bird encounters, plotting the boat’s progress across the ocean, recording weather, wind and water temperature. You will note and collect data during transects (a sort of random snapshot of data), to assess population density of the species encountered. The specially designed transects allow the core cetacean research to carry on unhindered by normal transect routines. The data recorded go into a local data collection programme called POPA, operated by the University of the Azores, which aims to elucidate how local fisheries and the marine environment interact. A better understanding of this interaction can help with conservation of cetaceans, turtles and birds in the area and beyond. It will also contribute to the continuation of the status of the Azores fishery, one of only two European fisheries that have been declared sustainable.
Loggerhead turtles are not spotted very often as only a small part of their shell protrudes from the water. If we are lucky enough to spot a turtle, we will attempt to catch it quickly using a net, before it can dive out of reach. Once on deck (for about six to seven minutes), we record capture location, measure the animal and fix tags to the front flippers. All this is part of an international research programme studying loggerhead life history and their migration routes around the Atlantic. The animals are suffering large numbers of deaths mainly due to long line and drift net bycatch, as well as chemicals and plastic in the water and hunts by fishing communities (not in the Azores) for the tourist trade. The research data collected will help scientists to study the animal’s lives and design ways in which the threats to their survival can be reduced.
You will be helping with mooring the boat, filling in the ship’s log and cleaning the boat at the end of each day. You will also help to keep a computerised environmental log to record the boat’s position and other environmental data such as the weather conditions, as well as a general log of all cetaceans seen during the day.
Breakfast will be between 07:15 and 08:30 with the boat leaving the harbour at around 09:00 and returning between 15:00 and 16:00, depending on weather, sightings and other conditions. On board you will be divided into different activities as described above with team members rotating through activities. On a typical day we should spend between 20 minutes and five hours with animals, but there may be days with no animal sightings at all (during a typical slot you can realistically expect to see between four to eight different cetacean species and many more individuals).
You will also have some rest time, for example when you are not on animal spotting watch and there are no animals to be photographed or recorded. Your rest time, however, could be interrupted by frantic activities with all hands to the deck, at a moment’s notice! For example when we come across a school of dolphins, which needs to be photographed and recorded, or a turtle, which needs to be caught, measured and tagged.
Once we return to the harbour in the afternoon, you will help with mooring and cleaning the boat, cleaning dishes, entering data collected during the day onto computers back at base, and you will have some time to yourself. Some evenings are free, so bring some books and games, or you can go out for a drink.
On choppy weather days, the boat will stay in the harbour and you will have the option of helping with data entry or resting. There will also be some suggestions for activities around the island (for example hiring a car or a scooter for a drive, going on a tour, or hiking around the volcano), which you can then organise yourself. Out of eight full days spent in Horta on each slot, we have two dedicated shore days for rest and computer work. More such days may occur on each slot, because the weather is unpredictable.
The Azores archipelago is Europe’s westernmost point and part of Portugal. It consists of nine distinct islands, lying on the same latitude as New York and Lisbon, and is around 1600 kilometres off the coast of Portugal. Lying on the mid-Atlantic ridge, the islands display spectacular volcanic scenery, impressive black lava sea cliffs, and, towering above them all, the highest mountain in Portugal on the island of Pico. The volcanic activity continues with bubbling mud pools and hot mineral pools on São Miguel and Teceira islands and you can walk on land that rose from the sea just 50 years ago. The countryside also has a gentler side with large areas of green fields, distinctive hydrangea hedgerows and forests.
The Azores were discovered in 1427 by Portuguese explorers and colonised shortly after by people of mainly Portuguese and Flemish descent. During the 20th century the islands were an important stopover point for undersea communications cables, trans-Atlantic flights and yachtsmen. Today their main income is from agriculture and fishing. Mainstream tourism has all but passed by the islands.
Our main partner on this project is Whale Watch Azores, a whale watching and research group founded by our scientist and operating from Faial Island. Other partners include EUROPHLUKES (a European cetacean photo-ID system and research database), the University of the Azores, POPA (the Observer Programme for the Fisheries of the Azores), the University of Florida (Turtles) as well as the local community of whale spotters (vigias). Corporate support comes from Swarovski Optik.
“Research teams from Biosphere Expeditions will enable cetacean research in the Azores to increase in scope and quality, thus increasing our knowledge of the whales and dolphins that are resident or passing through. This information will enable us to get a clearer picture of the migration patterns and behaviour of the animals and thus assess the threats they face from the modern world. We can confidently say that without Biosphere Expeditions, this research could not take place.”
Dr. Lisa Steiner & Chris Beer, local scientists, Azores.
"My uncle used to work as a look-out for the whaling industry, spotting whales for the whalers and he taught me how to spot them. With whaling now banned around the Azores, I can do this job of spotting whales for Biosphere Expeditions and its research teams. It's a great way to use my skills, keeping them alive for future generations and helping the whales."
Miguel Vargas, Cedros, Faial Island, Azores.
"I was very sad to leave. My expectations regarding animals and the research work were 100% fulfilled, but the thing that made it extra special for me was the genuinely friendly and relaxed atmosphere between everyone on the expedition. The group gelled really well right from the start despite our very diverse ages, backgrounds and languages!"
Jörg Maubach, 48.
"Very worthwhile work. This is an expedition for people who genuinely care about the creatures that they are studying. Thank you for helping me find Eric (a whale!) It was very special."
Alison Dooley, 44.
"It was one of my most exciting travels I've had for years. And perfectly planned! Thank you very much!"
Sigrid Egert Merkle, 38.
|Feedback from team members about their experiences and
reasons for coming (on/from various expeditions).
“A fantastic two weeks with good company. Thanks to everyone for making it both relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve learnt lots and seen some fantastic whales and dolphins”
Ayesha Chibb, 28.
“Oh my gosh! I think for the first time I’m speechless… This expedition has been so many things I can’t even begin to describe, but I’m going away with so much passion and enthusiasm to do more to help nature and this planet and its amazing life! I saw so many wonderful creatures of the deep but seeing the blue whale (and about 10 times with some flukes) was the highlight. My respect for this animal and the work that Biosphere Expeditions does for research & conservation is beyond words”
Deborah True, 36.
“Thank you so much for the wonderful hospitality and brilliant experience. It was a real learning curve but I think we cracked it in the end!”
Peter Hochstätter, 63.
“A fantastic 2 weeks with good company. Thanks to everyone for making it both relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve learnt lots and seen some fantastic whales and dolphins.”
“….absolutely brilliant – this has to be the best ever Biosphere experience! Very impressed by – well everything ……”
"Thanks for the wonderful time. It was even better than I hoped it was going to be. I’ll be back…”
“This expedition has been a great experience for me. I never thought I’d see and learn so much in just under 2 weeks.”
“Many thanks for a truly wonderful experience. It far exceeded my expectations and it was brilliant to be involved.”
“Thanks everyone for making the last two weeks 2 weeks that I will never forget. It has been an amazing experience and everybody I have met have been the best…”
“A total of more than one thousand animals in sight days – much more than we expected and hoped for.”