Sunday, April 17, 2016

Guadeloupe Sperm Whales Expedition - 2016

This is the third FIU-SPAWRAC expedition to study sperm whales and other deep-diving whales and dolphins off Guadelupe Island in the eastern Caribbean Sea.  I was able to join the expedition – led by lab researcher Dr. Jeremy Kiska - for 4 days, but the team got started a few days before my arrival and will stay on until the 18th of April.  Below is the account from the days I was there.  For more information on the project, check out our 2014 blog posts, and stay tuned for exciting developments.  We are working on several scientific papers and also have been working with Patrick Greene (SymbioStudios) to produce video projects for teachers to use in K-12 classrooms! We’ll also be sending out tweet updates (@symbiostudios, @mikeheithaus) and we will update the blog once the expedition gets wrapped up!

-Mike

Day 1 – April 10, 2016

Patrick an I arrived yesterday evening and joined the crew onboad our mothership Saravi III.  So far the trip has been a success!  The team spent the first three days using towed sonar to map the distribution of potential sperm whale prey from nearshore waters to 1500m deep and around a seamount that has been a sperm whale hotspot in the past.  They also managed to encounter a number of sperm whales – including a group being harassed by false killer whales – and Mehdi Bahktiari  (the designer of the whale cameras we are using) deployed the first camera of the year.  Unfortunately, the suction cup worked too well, and the camera has not popped off yet and is missing in action.  The cameras have built-in release mechanisms so it will come off – hopefully before the whale swims far beyond the range of our transmitters we use to pick them up (about 20 miles).

We got underway at 530 and had time to get our gear together while we steamed to the learest gas station (about 2 hours away). Once we had filled up,  we headed straight offshore to 1000m of water to listen for sperm whales.  After the challenges of finding whales during my last trip (2014), I have to say it was very exciting to hear that there were sperm whales in the area the second the hydrophone hit the water.  Because the hydrophone is directional, we knew which way to head and it wasn’t long before we were in the small boat getting ready to deploy a camera!

Putting a camera on a sperm whale isn’t particularly easy.  First, you have to find and stay with the whales, which can be challenging when they regularly dive for more than 25 minutes.  A whale can travel a long way in that amount of time and often the boat is too far away to approach the whales before they dive again.  That is what happened on our first try to get close.  It looked like the same thing would happen on the next surfacing of the whales, but we headed towards them slowly just to try to get an idea of the direction they were heading.  We got lucky.  The whales stayed at the surface for a long time and lab scientist Kirk Gastrich’s slow approach got us close as the whales were taking their last breaths before diving.  We thought we had just missed the group when one last whale popped up for two last breaths close to the boat.  We had one change, and we were able to deploy the camera.

Unfortunately, the deployment didn’t last super long.  After about 15 minutes, the camera was up.  After viewing the video we found out why – a young whale kept bumping into the whale with the camera, several times knocking the camera.  Amazingly, the suction cup held up to three pretty major hits, but on the forth it came off.  Although we didn’t get the data we wanted it was good to see the camera can take so much abuse, and there was a great sequence of the adult whale producing a coda (a train of clicks to a specific rhythm) and the smaller whale answering.  We also saw that our new headlight system will be perfect for getting images from the darkness of the deepsea without disturbing the whales!

Deploying an Exeye camera on a sperm whale

View down the body of a whale wearing the camera




Day 2 – April 11, 2016

Today was one of those simply amazing days!  We got going early in spite of rain showers and headed straight offshore.  We were rewarded with an encounter with Fraser’s dolphins shortly after leaving the harbor at Malendure.  It didn’t last long, which is typical of Fraser’s.  A group split off and came to ride the bow briefly then shot off to continue on their way.   Like yesterday, we heard sperm whales as soon as the hydrophone hit the water and we were off in search of them.  It wasn’t long before we saw the characteristic blows off in the distance!  Unfortunately, the conditions weren’t great at the time and even though we had the tagging boat, Jeremy in the filming boat, and Saravi III we had a hard time staying with a group.  Luckily there were whales all over – individuals and small groups could be seen in the distance, all seeming to head north.  After a couple hours we finally had our chance and got close to a group.  Unfortunately, we weren’t quite close enough and I wasn’t able to get the camera to stick to the whale!  It can actually be hard to get the suction cup to stick because there are only a few parts of the body that aren’t too wrinkly (which keeps the cup from sticking) and sperm whales shed their skin a lot.  If the cup hits a spot where the whale is shedding, the cup can’t stick.

We weren’t thwarted by the miss and stuck with our efforts.  As we went through the day trying to get close to the whales we encountered many other species (7 in total).  Jeremy saw dwarf sperm whales – which are small and shy – and we heard humpback whales while trying to figure out which direction the sperm whales were going.   A group of spotted dolphins came to ride the bow while we were trying to get close to a sperm whale (not helping at all), and we saw a Gervais beaked whale (a deep-diving toothed whale that is not often seen) as well. 

Spotted dolphin
 

Eventually we got our chance.  The winds had died down and a juvenile whale was lingering at the surface (and showing some interest in the boat).  It was just the opportunity we needed and the camera was deployed…for three minutes.  A look at the video showed that the lip of the cup was on a spot where the whale was sloughing skin.  With about 10 whales spread around the boat we made a quick trip to Saravi III to get ready to deploy again.  On the way a group of rough-toothed dolphins showed up, but we didn’t have time to spend with them and headed back to the whales.

Over the course of the next hour we spent time trying to deploy.  The whales were socializing with each other (especially some juveniles) and were very relaxed so we could take our time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to deploy without disturbing the whales.  My previous three deployments had been on the side of whales’ dorsal fins, so this time I tried for the smooth area on the back between the blowhole and dorsal fin.  A fortuitously timed swell and Kirk’s expert driving gave me the perfect opportunity.  The camera was deployed, and we started tracking the group.  It was amazing to watch the animals for so long without them worried about our presence! 
Sperm whale group

Sperm whale with camera
Whale-cam view of two other sperm whales


It turns out this camera was stuck really well.  In fact, as the sun set it was still on the whale after more than four hours.  With the swell building and multiple boats that need to be towed by Saravi III we had to leave the area far offshore where the whales were to spend time in shallower waters near the coast.  We can’t go into the harbor at dark so we will be on one hour watches tonight as we patrol the shallows listening for the camera to pop off…I get the 2am shift!


Day 3 – April 12, 2016

We started the day very early since we were already offshore when the sun rose.  I have to say that I really enjoyed my 2am watch with the amazing stars and calm seas. Conditions this morning were not ideal, but we headed north to try to listen for the missing camera.  We quickly found sperm whales, and launched both small boats to work with them in hopes of getting biopsy samples. While the small boats tried to find the whales again in the swell and chop, the Saravi III broke off and headed 12 miles north to listen for the VHF signal. Unfortunately, the wind was already picking up and we were unable to get close enough to the whales for a sample.  The rest of the day was spent searching for (and not finding any) sperm whales, dodging nasty rain squalls, and bailing a leaking filming boat. We did have a nice brief encounter with spotted dolphins at least!  Tomorrow we will continue our quest to find the camera – Mehdi thinks he heard it faintly to the north. 

Day 4 – April 13, 2016

It was a nice day to be on the water, with flat calm seas greeting us early in the morning.  But the sperm whales were not cooperating.  The hydrophone produced no sign of sperm whales when Saravi III got out to sea.  It wasn’t a good sign since sound travels so far.  We did run into a large group of pilot whales though.  The group of maybe 100 animals was spread out over a wide area and were resting and traveling very slowly.  We spent a while with them, but the Saravi III and our inflatable tagging boat broke off quickly to go look for sperm whales in an attempt to get one more camera deployed before Patrick and I had to leave and to get Jeremy started with biopsy sampling this year.  Jeremy and I were on the tagging boat and had an amazing encounter with Fraser’s dolphins. We found maybe 400-500 animals in four tight groups leaping to the south, then changing direction before moving south again.  Jeremy had never seen anything like it.  We didn’t linger though – there were sperm whales to find. 

A large group of Fraser's dolphins on the move


The filming boat stayed with the pilot whales for quite a while before they saw a large pilot whale in deeper water come to the surface and violently tail-slap the surface.  Almost immediately, the sleepy pilot whales they had been with woke up and started swimming quickly in the direction of the tail-slaps and deeper water. 

Unfortunately, despite good conditions and a very determined effort we didn’t find any other animals the rest of the day.  Whale watching boats reported a similar experience – no sperm whales to be found on the west coast of Guadeloupe today.  It is interesting that we saw a big group of pilot whales today and no sperm whales.  We had a similar experience in 2014.  When we saw pilot whales, there were no sperm whales and vice versa.  Pilot whales are known to harass sperm whales until they regurgitate – then the pilot whales eat what comes up – so maybe the sperm whales have moved somewhere else temporarily. 

When the day was over it was bittersweet to be packing up.  It was an amazing trip, and I am sure there will be more great work in the next few days before the project wraps up.  After that it is time to analyze the data we have collected, finish the films and classroom videos, and plan the next steps in the research!


Monday, October 19, 2015

Social behavior of green turtles in Western Australia


 Dr. Jordan Thomson

Since 2011 we’ve been using animal-borne video cameras to study the behavior of sea turtles in Shark Bay, Western Australia. Since sea turtles can be hard to observe in the wild for meaningful lengths of time without disrupting their natural behavior, very little is known about how they interact with one another (aside from courtship and mating, when they’re relatively stationary and, well, otherwise occupied). Animal-borne video cameras overcome this challenge by remotely recording the first-hand perspective of a turtle for several hours as it moves freely throughout its habitat and interacts with other turtles. The resulting footage is a treasure trove of insight into their secretive social lives!  To see some of the footage visit the lab YouTube channel.

In 300 hours of video footage recorded from the backs of 93 green turtles, we recorded about one turtle encounter per hour of video – a fairly high encounter rate considering the generally solitary nature of most adult sea turtles. We recorded a huge variety of interactions that ranged from brief one-on-one encounters lasting just a few seconds to behaviorally diverse encounters lasting up to 20 minutes and involving up to seven other turtles.

The main finding of our study was that the nature of turtle encounters depended on what type of habitat it occurred in. Shark Bay is a large (13,000 km2) bay with expansive seagrass meadows, which turtles use for feeding. Hard-bottomed, vertically structured habitats like rock ledges and coral heads are relatively rare and occur mostly in the deeper areas of the bay. Despite their limited availability, structured habitats are really valuable to sea turtles because they use them for a variety of critical non-feeding activities like resting or seeking refuge from predators (Video 1), rubbing their bodies on hard surfaces to “self-clean” by removing epiphytes like algae and parasites (Video 2) or posing to allow fish, like the black and gold fish in the background in this video (Video 3), to clean them in a “mutualistic” interaction where both species benefit (fish get food, turtle gets cleaned to reduce drag while swimming).

Since hard-bottomed habitats are so rare in Shark Bay, and feeding sites (i.e., seagrass beds) are so plentiful, we hypothesized that we might see competition for access to resting/refuge/cleaning sites while we shouldn’t see competition for access to feeding sites. And this is in fact what the video showed. Turtle encounters over seagrass beds tended to be brief, innocuous and typically involved just one other turtle (Video 4). In contrast, turtle encounters in hard-bottomed habitats were much more frequent (Video 5), despite the fact that turtles spent only 5% of their time in these areas, often involved several individuals, and regularly involved physical contests between turtles for access to these spaces (Video 6). This competition could be important to individuals and populations, since less competitive turtles would be displaced from the best resting/refuge/cleaning sites and could experience higher levels of predation or have to spend more energy while swimming (due to drag) as a result.

For more information on this study, check out the article in Marine Ecology Progress Series (http://www.int-res.com/abstracts/meps/v532/p243-256/) or email me for further information (jathoms@fiu.edu).


p.s. if you’ve ever wondered what a Western Australian sunset looks like from the perspective of a sea turtle (haven’t we all?), wonder no more (See the video).

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sea turtles of Abaco, Bahamas

PhD Student Elizabeth Whitman has been working on green turtles of Abaco Bahamas since last summer.   As part of her research she put up large cages (exclosures) that keep turtles from grazing on the seagrass.  By placing exclosures in different areas she hopes to figure out how important turtles are in structuring seagrass beds and whether their importance varies in space and time.  Below is a summary of her brief field trip in November, 2014 to check on her experiment.  Check back later this spring to read about her upcoming work to deploy cameras on turtles on several islands in the Caribbean!

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This past November I revisited my study sites on Abaco to collect data and check on the condition of the exclosure cages.
Linda Gardner performing seagrass shoot counts in one of the full exclosure cages.
At each of the exclosure study sites (Bight of Old Robinson creeks, Snake Creek, and Hill’s Creek) we first visited each plot and marked 10 seagrass shoots that we would collect one week later to measure growth. I was pleasantly surprised at the good condition of the exclosures (they have been out for months now), so over the course of our trip we only needed to perform minor repairs and cleaning. We also surveyed the seagrass and algae, measured seagrass canopy height, and counted shoot density within each plot . 
The location of seagrass shoots marked for growth measurements are marked by the white flag; seagrass and algae surveys were conducted within 50 x 50 cm quadrats at four locations within each plot

Visually, the seagrass appears to be benefiting from the protection from grazing at Hill’s Creek, but I am still working on the analyses and it might take more time to see a big effect if there is one. With the help of local volunteers who will be visiting the cages during my absence, this experiment will run through the summer of 2015 when I will be back for my next round of data collection. By keeping the exclosures in place for one full year, the I will get a more accurate picture of green turtle grazing behavior and the effects of green turtle grazing on the seagrass in the creeks of Abaco.
Back at the lab at Florida International University I am busy, along with a few undergraduate volunteers, prepping the seagrass we collected for nutrient analysis. I am also actively working to secure support for my summer research trip and to expand upon the sea turtle field course and tagging program with Friends of the Environment.

An exclsure cage viewed from above the water.




A small nurse shark resting in the seagrass.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Guadeloupe Sperm Whale Mission: Day 7


Saturday, November 15th

Well, I am now back home and Kirk has taken over.  We came close today.  We were out the door before 6 and on glassy calm waters.  Unfortunately, they didn’t stay that way!  We had traveled along almost the entire west coast of the island and were about to turn back when a whale watching boat called to tell us they had sperm whales.  We blasted through the growing seas but by the time we got near the GPS position the whales had been at they were already miles away and heading in a direction that would make it impossible to put the camera out and have any chance of getting it back when it came off.  It was tough to let the opportunity go, but the team has plenty of time left in the mission so playing it safe was the right call.

The day was far from a loss, though.  We encountered two groups of pilot whales – each with 30-40 individuals, snoozing at the surface.  We got plenty of pictures to see if they are the same whales we encountered earlier in the week.  Eventually we had to head back to shore so I wouldn’t miss my flight (which it turns out wouldn’t have happened since the computers were down at the airport and everybody had to be checked in by phone…no surprise that came with a delay).  On the way, we ran into a group of common bottlenose dolphins.  They were the offshore variety (not a separate species though) so they were big!  We got our pictures, the dolphins rode the bow, and we headed back to shore.

Common bottlenose dolphins riding the bow of the research boat.
Although we didn’t get as many cameras out on sperm whales during my time, it was a successful mission!  It was great to get to know all of our collaborators at SPAW-RAC and to see the potential for studies of so many species and the real capabilities of Mehdi’s cameras.  The jury is still out on his lucky shirt after today, though.

I’m told the best season for the whales is in the spring…when our next mission will go!

I will keep updating the blog – though not daily – as the team sends in reports, photos, and videos!


Friday, November 14, 2014

Guadeloupe Sperm Whale Mission: A day of rough toothed dolphins


Friday, November 14th

Well, if you spend enough days on (or under) the ocean, you are pretty much guaranteed to see something really bizarre.  Today was one of those days.  On the list of things I thought I would see today, I never would have put a brown bat flying four miles offshore, skimming over the waves and sometimes coming wing to fin with flying fish way down on the list!  But, that is what we saw at about 830 this morning, in full daylight.  The confused bat swung by the boat and then kept heading out to sea.

Unfortunately, bats were more common today than sperm whales.  After seeing at least 20 individuals spread between multiple groups yesterday, I liked our chances.  And the cameras were optimized and ready to go! Maybe we need to get Mehdi to wear his lucky shirt again tomorrow.

On the good side, we had a couple of amazing encounters with rough-toothed dolphins.  It was a new species for me!  There were between 30-50 individuals in each group we saw and they were a lot of fun to watch.  I had always wanted to see rough-toothed dolphins because they tend to be found in smaller groups than a lot of the offshore dolphins and are reported to be very social.  Today’s encounter did not disappoint.  Almost all of the dolphins spent time in very close proximity to at least one other individual, their pectoral fins often touching.  Pairs, trios, or even groups of six made perfectly synchronous surfacings and some dolphins “pet” each other with their pectoral fins…a

Rough toothed dolphins
dolphin massage!  A lot of the behaviors looked very much like what I saw when I studied Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia.  The encounters didn’t last that long because we were looking for sperm whales, but they were memorable.  They brought the total species count for the week to at least five (it could be six but the possible beaked whale sighting a couple days ago was too fleeting to be sure it wasn’t a white cap as the wind blew up).

Tomorrow is my last day on Guadeloupe and I am hoping that I can get a camera out there before I run to my flight.  If I don’t Jeremy, Mehdi, and the SPAW-RAC team carry on for more than a week and Kirk Gastrich is coming down from FIU to take my place!




Before I sign off – to answer one question from the blog yesterday…How do we put a camera on a sperm whale?

The camera is attached to a suction cup that will hold onto the whale for hours or days.  But, the cup has a dissolving link and a computerized release so it will come off when we want it to.  For our first deployment it will be a few hours to make sure it is all going well.   The camera is mounted on the end of a long pole.

Once we find whales, I hold the pole on the front of the boat, while the driver slowly maneuvers us next to the whale without startling it.  Then, I reach out and gently press the cup onto the whale and the camera falls off the pole.  Sounds easy.  It really isn’t J 


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sperm Whales of Guadeloupe: First Days


The lab is just starting a collaborative project with SPAW-RAC to investigate the behavior and ecology of sea turtles, sharks, and marine mammals in the French Caribbean.  The project, funded by Total Foundation (France), has a goal of advancing science-based conservation of these taxa.  We will be working with many excellent partners and scientists and plan to develop new animal-borne camera technology (or rather Mehdi Bakhtiari of Exeye LLC will) and a high-quality education program (with Symbio Studios’ Patrick Greene)!  We are embarking on our first marine mammal mission – to collect biopsy samples from, and deploy cameras on, sperm whales off Guadeloupe!

We will be updating our websites to give all the background of the project and provide results (and hopefully some really great video) as soon as we can.  For now…here is the story from the field!

I hope you enjoy!

Mike

PS It does get more exciting toward the end…I promise


Saturday November 7th

Stream by our cabin
We arrived on Saturday and drove about an hour through the rain from the airport at Pointe-a-Pitre to our mountainside accommodations along the west coast of the island where we will be searching for sperm whales!  

With all the gear that Patrick, Mehdi, and I had brought we were very lucky that lab postdoc and mission leader Jeremy Kiszka had two cars waiting!  Neither of the cars was terribly happy about the uphill climbs or the rough roads with all the weight!

We quickly got to work settling into our open-air accommodations and we started setting up the camera gear and whale-cams … all to an impressive chorus of frogs...yes loud enough to keep you up at night!  

Mehdi's workshop
It is amazing how far we have come with animal-borne camera technology in the last decade...Mehdi has designed amazing units that are smaller, record longer, can dive deeper, and feature much better video quality than the systems we were using not that long ago! Thanks to the smaller and lighter units we also have a longer and lighter pole, which should help us get many more deployments!  The new, smaller, suction cups will also be a big help – without needing to actively suck the air out of a large cup we should be much more successful and eventually be working with species much smaller than sperm whales!

It is great to have such a fantastic team together! Jeremy and the SPAW-RAC team (who we are collaborating with on this project) are outstanding and Patrick and Mehdi are simply the best at what they do!  I can’t wait to get out on the water


Testing the deployment pole




 Sunday November 8th
 
We were up and on the road by 545 on Sunday and set out with our boat captain, Dany Moussa for a recon mission.  We can’t start tagging until tomorrow but we wanted to see if we could locate the sperm whales and planned to investigate a possible location to start working on sea turtles.  We also had a few things to check out with the cameras, including the critical floatation test (they passed, and quite well too). 


Conditions on the water were not great and we didn't find any sperm whales in the morning, but we did encounter a really nice group of short finned pilot whales.  Pilot whales can dive quite deep, although not as deep as sperm whales.  Some scientists have called them “cheetahs of the sea” because they dive down slowly then make a sprint during the final descent to catch their prey – which is usually squid!  Despite the conditions, we got a set of photos of the dorsal fins (that is how we can tell individuals apart) and even got a quick look underwater. The water here is quite amazing! It is crystal clear ... perfect for the work we are trying to do.



Jeremy photographs the pilot whales
We didn’t find any sperm whales so we headed in shore to snorkel the seagrass beds and coral reefs.  The reef was healthier than many I have seen around the region.  There was a lot of living coral, including soft corals, beautiful sponges, and tons of reef fish.  The nearby seagrass beds were a slightly different story.  Although there was a lot of seagrass, there was a decent amount of a species that is invading the island – and others nearby.  The green sea turtles in the area – and there were a lot of them (we must have seen more than a dozen in a short snorkel) – were happily eating it though.  One interesting thing about the turtles was the size of the remoras stuck to them!  I have never seen such large remoras on turtles…or seen huge remoras swimming around looking for a turtle to latch onto!  Compared to those remoras, our turtle cams are quite small!  That’s a good thing because the turtles seemed completely unconcerned about the remoras.



Green turtle with hitchhiking remora
Monday November 10th

Our first day for possibly deploying a camera came and went today.  We had two boats – our primary tagging boat and one with staff from SPAW-RAC and the national park.  Between the two boats we drove hundreds of kilometers and saw tons of…water!  And that was about it except for one set of surfacings by a group of at least three beaked whales.  We think that they might have been Gervais’ beaked whales, which are incredibly elusive and rarely seen.  Unfortunately, after searching for a while we couldn’t find them again.  Given that beaked whales can easily dive more than 1000m deep and hold their breath for a very long time (we actually don’t really know how long but some species stay down well over an hour), it isn’t surprising.  We also were trying to find sperm whales so that was our focus.

Dany, Mehdi, and Jeremy listen for sperm whale clicks
Working with deep-diving species isn’t easy.  Sperm whales can stay down more than an hour and dive to over 1500m (a mile) deep (yes, Mehdi’s cameras can handle it).  Even though they usually dive for sorter periods and not quite that deep it can make them hard to find.  The good news is that you can use sound to find sperm whales.  By listening to the clicks that the whales make when foraging (they use echolocation in the same way bats do to “see” and find food in the darkness of the ocean depths) or finding their way, you can tell if there are any whales within a few kilometers of the boat.  That’s why we stop every few miles to have a listen.  


At the end of the day, we heard sperm whales making clicks off in the distance.  Using a hydrophone that only hears sounds from a particular direction we were able to get closer to the whales – but we still didn’t see them.  Both boats worked hard to find the whales, but we lost their calls as the waves grew higher and we had to call it a day when it got too late to put a camera on one (for our first trial we don’t want the camera on for days).

 We’ll give it another try tomorrow! 

Tuesday, November 10th
Pan-tropical spotted dolphins.  Young individuals don't have spots.
Any hopes of this being an easy mission were starting to dissipate today.  Luckily, the whole team has three more weeks but Patrick has to leave Thursday and I am out Saturday evening the clock is ticking for us.  No sperm whales today, again.  We put in hundreds of kilometers and moved between waters 800-1500m deep – prime sperm whale habitat.  We did have a really fun encounter with several large groups of pan-tropical spotted dolphins.  There must have been more than 500 individuals between the groups.  One reason they are probably in such big groups is for protection from predators (like sharks).  There isn’t anywhere to hide in the open ocean so it is all about safety in numbers.

We took as many photos as we could for identifying individuals and enjoyed watching them ride the

bow of the boat, socialize with each other, and then bow ride some more.  The dolphins actually were with us for quite a while as we tried to look for sperm whales. We actually couldn’t use the hydrophone to listen for sperm whales because the dolphins were so loud clicking and whistling. 

We ended the day testing the VHF (radio) signal that the camera transmits when it floats to the surface.  The signal in these new cameras is very strong and without much trouble, we were able to find it after leaving it floating behind us.  The test made us confident we will be able to get the camera back once it releases from the whale at the programmed time and floats to the surface.  Of course, first we would need to see the whales.  And then get very close to them.

Mehdi predicts we will see sperm whales at 1030 on Thursday.


Wednesday, November 11th
Ugh.  Another day of very nice weather and no whales anywhere to be found.  We heard a distant sperm whale or two as soon as we got out on the water but never could find it.  There was a lot of boat traffic – including ships - in the area, which made it very hard to hear.  We drove a lot of miles and listened to a lot of ocean, but no whales.  Towards sunset we helped Patrick get a few nice scenic shots and had to call it a day.  We are going to miss having him on the boat and wish the whales had been around for him!  But, maybe tomorrow will be our lucky day.  Mehdi says he is wearing his lucky shirt and I (accidently) sacrificed one of my favorite pairs of sunglasses to the ocean.  One of those has to work…
This is what we are trying to find....

Thursday, November 12th

Unfortunately, Patrick had to leave today to go to a shoot in California.  We were sorry to see him go but headed out on the water with our two boats early…and maybe a little less packed with gear.  Admittedly, we were getting a little desperate so we headed south of Guadeloupe into an area with rough seas but steep slopes underwater that might be good spots for sperm whales (or any whale or dolphin for that matter)!  We check the hydrophone but no luck.  Mehdi’s 1030 guess and lucky shirt were not looking like they were going to come through.

So close
But then Dany got a phone call.  Another boat was with two sperm whales off the northern portion of the west coast!  We immediately started the 30 minute run to get there, hoping that we wouldn’t be too late and the whales would slip away from us again!  We soon got out of the choppy seas and were skimming across flat calm waters, raising our hopes that today would be the day!

Suction cup tag on whale
As we approached the boat that was waiting for us we could see spouts.  I think the whole crew was relieved and excited at the same time!  The whales dove just before we got to the other boat and after a quick chat, we started looking in earnest.  It was a long ten minutes before we saw it surface again and began to head towards it (this was at 10:12, so you be the judge if Mehdi was right).  Before we got too close, the whale dove again and we started trying to slowly drive to where we thought it would resurface.  As we scanned the horizon, we realized whales surrounded us!  There were individuals and small groups in almost every direction.  At 10:28 the whale resurfaced and we moved in, ready with the camera. Mehdi says the 10:30 guess was for when we would get our first deployment attempt, and we got very close.  The whale dove just a couple feet out of my reach with the pole.  

A nice view to end the day
Mehdi at home in the local hardware store...wearing the lucky shirt!
We spent hours moving from group to group with the help of the SPAW-RAC crew, trying to ease in close enough to a whale to get the camera on.  By 2:00, we’d had a lot of very close calls but never a whale close enough to try putting the camera on.  We were pretty much out of time – any later and we might have the camera come off in the middle of the night.  We tried one last whale, and we got the camera on its dorsal fin!  A successful deployment!  The suction cup worked better than we had hoped – the first major question of the trip.  We have a few tweaks to make to have the systems perfected but we have the camera back and Mehdi is hard at work right now.  We will be ready for another deployment tomorrow…if the whales are still where we can find them!  Even if they aren’t, I am confident that over the next two weeks the team will be able to collect the data we had hoped to for this first field trip!