For this instalment, Anja Reckendorf, a research assistant at WDC North America, gives her personal reflection on an amazing week.
An outstanding week just came to an end and I am not sure if I can successfully describe all the amazing experiences that we had, but I will give it a try.
In a nutshell, the first ever WhaleFest in Iceland, was a combination of whale watching trips with programme lectures from many top whale experts as well as time to explore the beautiful Icelandic countryside.
For the past three years, herring have chosen the fjord outside the small fishing village of Grundarfjörður as their safe winter port and with them came the orcas to feed on them. This phenomenon provides a golden opportunity to see the large number of orcas swimming extremely close to shore in the fjord. WhaleFest included three whale watches with Laki Tours in Grundarfjörður and for me, a fairly experienced whale watcher, it was amazing to see these magnificent animals in such large numbers and close proximity to the boat and shore. They didn’t seem to be bothered by us watching them at all and a calf even chose to check us out and swim by the boat only two metres away! We were thrilled! I don’t know how to put my euphoria into words. We got so spoiled on these trips, it was unbelievable!
The evenings were filled with great talks from world renowned specialists in their fields. We were very lucky to hear awe-inspiring lectures from Erich Hoyt (orca expert and marine conservation champion, WDC), Rob Lott (WDC), Vassili Papastavrou (IFAW), Sigursteinn Másson (IFAW Iceland) and Dr Filipa Samarra (Marine Research Institute, Iceland). Being able to meet with these well-known cetacean researchers and conservationists, to hear about their amazing work and go out on the boat with them to see orcas - tons of orcas - was an absolute once in a lifetime experience!
We also had the opportunity to learn from local “heroes” and specialists such as Ragnar Sigurdsson (world-renowned Icelandic photographer), Gisli Olafsson (founder of Laki Tours), Ásbjörn Bjorgvinsson, (Chairman & founder of Húsavík Whale Museum) and Maria Bjork Gunnarsdottir (Elding Whale Watching, Reykjavík).
Being educated about orca research, acoustic and behavioural studies, whale watching tourism in contrast to whaling, threats that cetaceans face around the world and possible solutions to various problems, was a very valuable bonus for all participating guests. We all learned a lot and were very honoured to meet these wonderful people!
It was a fantastic week with lots of fun, interesting facts, beautiful nature and a bunch of great people that came together to share their love of whales.
Thanks again to all the amazing lecturers, especially to Erich Hoyt for being part of this extraordinary experience; to Laki Tours for being so conscious around the orcas and for providing very responsible yet astonishing whale watches to us and finally to Alexa and Cathy from Discover the World for making this amazing event happen! It was a blast!
Erich Hoyt and Rob Lott
For this instalment, Anja Reckendorf, a research assistant at WDC North America, gives her personal reflection on an amazing week.
We are often asked by people how we got to work in cetacean conservation and what advice we could offer to anyone starting out in the field today. For this blog, I have asked two researchers, Julie Bessau from France and Sara Tavares from Portugal, how they first became involved with cetaceans and how they ended up in Grundarfjordur in Iceland studying the wild orcas.
My name is Julie and I have been fascinated by the ocean for as long as I can remember. I obtained a Master’s degree in Marine Biology in Brest, France, in 2010.
Over the years I have been involved in several different marine biology projects from studying coral growth under different types of aquarium light to hydrothermal vent ecosystems.
However I have always been attracted to working with marine mammals and after I completed my Masters I worked as a volunteer for six months in Normandy studying the large population of bottlenose dolphins found there. This work was used to estimate the distribution and demography of this population present in the English Channel.
I then moved to Scotland and worked for two months as an intern at the University of St Andrews studying the sounds of the orca, Morgan who was found in shallow seas off the coast of the Netherlands in 2010.
I am currently in Iceland for two months (February- March) working as a volunteer and investigating the population of herring-eating orcas. My task is to take pictures of encounters with orcas during the boat trips and to make underwater recordings. The pictures we take are used to identify each individual and will contribute to a photo-ID catalogue for the orcas seen in Grundarfjordur during the winter.
As to the future, I would like to continue working with marine mammal acoustic research with possibly a PhD or a research assistant job.
I’m Sara, I’m 24 years and I’m Portuguese. Since my childhood I’ve been drawn to nature and wildlife but with a special enchantment for the sea. Although my fondness for mathematics, the sea and the animals were what really filled my heart and I went to Porto University, in Portugal, to do my bachelor in Aquatic Sciences.
I became interested in ethology (animal behaviour) but due to some changes in the format of the course I was not able to continue with this subject. So, I decided that the best thing for me would be to continue my studies in the same University and do a Master's degree in Marine Sciences/Marine Resources, with a specialisation in Marine Biology and Ecology. My Master’s dissertation was in animal behaviour, with the title “Behavioural study of Labrador Retriever in aquatic environment”. Through this I became even more attracted to animal behaviour and keen to pursue a career in this area of study. A month after finishing my Masters, I decided to continue studying towards a PhD. I found a post-graduate research opportunity at the University of St Andrews in Scotland looking at the social, acoustic, foraging behaviour and ecophysiology of orcas in the North Atlantic. I wrote a research proposal to the University to study the social associations and group level sound production of orcas in Iceland which was accepted and some months later I was able to obtain a PhD grant from FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia). I feel that I have so much to learn but I don’t regret the hard work I had to embrace to get where I am, nor the one that I know is yet to come. I’m just starting the fieldwork in Iceland this season and I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to be here, to work in the natural environment and to be close to these magnificent whales. The funniest thing is that, although I can’t remember, my parents say that when I was little I used to say that when I grew up I wanted to go in a boat, onto the sea, play the guitar and listen to the whales “singing”. And the sound of the orcas is the most beautiful sound in the world to me...
Dr Filipa Sammara from the Marine Research Institute in Reykjavik and her team from the University of St Andrews in Scotland are currently in Grundarfjordur studying the orcas that spend the winter hunting for herring in the local fjords.
Dr Filipa Sammara
Here, Filipa explains the research goals.
The aim of the project is to study how the feeding behaviour of Icelandic orcas changes within the same population. Icelandic orcas feed mainly on herring and appear to follow the herring in its migration during the year. At different times of the year the behaviour of the herring changes, depending on whether it is spawning, in the summer, or overwintering, in the winter. Over the last few years herring has been coming to the waters of Grundafjordur to overwinter and orcas were observed feeding on herring in this area in 2011. By taking photo-identification pictures and making acoustic recordings we can identify the whales that are seen in this area and investigate the sounds they produce during feeding. This data will then be compared to previous information collected in the summer in Vestmannaeyjar to investigate if the same whales are travelling between the two areas to feed on herring and how their feeding behaviour varies at different times of the year. This will greatly increase our knowledge of the Icelandic orca population and how they adapt to changes in their prey behaviour.
Male orca, Westmann Islands seen in the summer off the south coast of Iceland
The same male seen in Grundarfjordur on the west coast in the winter.
It is estimated there are 6,618 orcas in Icelandic and offshore waters and a photo-ID catalogue dating back to the 1980’s has identified about 400 individuals. Recent studies along the south coast during the summer months have documented 123 orcas. Here in Grundarfjordur, after just one season, researchers have identified 24 individuals. 14 of these were ‘matched’ as the same orcas seen off the south in summer, two matched whales seen off the Snaefellsnes peninsula In the summer of 2008 and one matched with the orcas that were seen in the fjords in the east of Iceland in the 1980’s.
This update is written by Dr. Mike Tetley, who works with WDC as a consultant on Marine Protected Areas.
It is with great pleasure and wonder when I think back on the times I was able to visit Northern Iceland, specifically when working at the Húsavík Whale Museum as part of my Ph.D. studies and the ecology of North Atlantic minke whales.
Skjálfandi Bay, named by many to be one of the whale watching capitals of the world, is a haven for marine wildlife, in particular whales and dolphins. Many humpback whales, minke whales and most recently mighty blues make their long migration to this little corner of Iceland during the summer months from southern climes, to feed on the rich stocks of sandeels and krill.
The museum aims to educate, in partnership with the towns’ whale watching companies, all visitors be they Icelandic or tourist about the amazing lives of whales and dolphins. This is done by a team of staff and international volunteers, who work hard to develop information displays, guide and answer visitor questions, and maintain the impressive and comprehensive collection of whale skeletons. During my time volunteering with this dedicated bunch it was my role to help develop the centres photo-identification catalogue of the bays minke, humpback and white-beaked dolphins. I also ventured out with the wonderful and welcoming crew of the whale watching company North Sailing to collect important data on the distribution and habitat use of these animals using the areas rich prey resources.
Since my time at the museum back in 2008 it has gone on to strengthen its and Húsavíks’ reputation as a centre for observing and learning more about the daily lives of these fascinating marine mammals. Furthermore, through collaboration with other whale watching companies and researchers in the country and abroad, they are beginning to piece together the full picture of how and why these mighty giants come hundreds of miles to Iceland, to its’ stunning coastlines and snowy fjords.
So with fond memories of my time in this Land of the Ice and Snow, from the Midnight Sun and where the Hot Springs Blow, I hope that the great work of those researchers, volunteers and dedicated whale watches continue so that this critical habitat for whales and dolphins is understood further for future conservation.
Please continue to follow the blogs over the coming weeks as the WDC team attempt to give you an insight in to the lives of the whales, the people and landscapes of this stunning island.
After dinner yesterday evening I was talking to our group about Keiko, the star of the Free Willy movie, who went on to become the most famous whale on the planet.
But Keiko’s story started long before the movie studios started calling. Because Keiko, you see, was a son of Iceland.
I’m in the privileged position to be out on the water most days watching these magnificent animals living life as nature intended, wild and free. Staring out across the fjord as a new family of orcas comes in from the north, I can’t help but ponder that this could be Keiko’s family. A fanciful thought maybe….
Very little was known about Icelandic orca society when Keiko was captured as a two year old in 1979. We know he was captured off the south coast of Iceland during the summer months and recently researchers have shown that the orcas seen off the south in the summer come here to Grundarfjordur on the west coast in the winter. Female orcas in the wild can live to 80 or 90 years so there is every chance that Keiko’s mum, along with all his siblings, are still somewhere out there today. So not such a fanciful thought after all.
I wonder what memory Keiko’s mum must have of that terrible day when her pod was captured in a fisherman’s net and she had her baby ripped from her side.
The minute Keiko was loaded on to the back of a truck his life was effectively over and for the next seventeen years he went from marine park to marine park travelling from Iceland to Canada and then finally on to Mexico where Warner Bros found their star. Warner Bros, incidentally, approached marine parks in the US and Japan but there was no way they were going to allow one of ‘their’ orcas to feature in any movie that portrayed marine parks as ‘whale jails’.
Free Willy became a huge hit but left fans of the movie deeply troubled when they found out that its real life star was still languishing in a small tank with chemically treated water causing his skin to become infected. For an animal that is used to spending all its time below sea level, the Mexico City park, at an altitude of 2,445 metres, presented Keiko with additional problems!
Never doubt, however, the power of public opinion. An increasingly vocal army of Keiko fans wondered out loud how amazing it would be if life could imitate art! Warner Bros soon realised they had a responsibility to Keiko and set up the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation with the aim of giving Keiko a chance at freedom.
Keiko was soon moved to a purpose-built facility in Oregon where he finally got to swim in natural sea water for the first time since leaving the ocean. He also learned to catch live fish and had the space for deep dives. His skin condition also cleared up - basically, he thrived!
The next stage was a move home to Iceland where he spent the next few years under the care of the Ocean Futures Society. Keiko was now in excellent health and was often taken out on ‘ocean walks’ where he interacted with wild Icelandic orca pods. On one such walk, in 2002, Keiko left the tracking boat behind and headed off with other orcas where he spent his time in and around these wild pods. He then took off across the North Atlantic on a thousand mile odyssey for the next 60 days without any food from humans. Keiko then headed due east to Norway where he followed a trawler into one of the fjords.
Keiko’s final days were spent in the Norwegian fjords where he was finally free to come and go as he pleased.
In December 2003, at the age of 26, he died of pneumonia. He was the second longest-lived captive orca in the world and his legacy was huge. He was testament to the fact that release of wild-born, captive orcas was not only possible but could be successful. The marine park industry were outraged and seriously concerned about the precedent Keiko set.
Keiko’s story raised awareness of the cruelty of removing these powerful, sentient animals out of their natural environment and condemning them to a life as a one-dimensional caricature in a concrete tank. Keiko was a trail blazer, a pioneer. His story was a world’s first and let’s hope, for the sake of the remaining 45 orcas still in captivity in the world today, it won’t be the last.