Whaletrip: Azores

FORCES OF NATURE

Blue whale research off the Azores: one week with Richard Sears. In a rubber dinghy.

FORCES OF NATURE

Blue whale research off the Azores: one week with Richard Sears.

Credit

A blue whale pretty close to our boat. Richard Sears still tries to shorten the distance a bit.

Whaletrip: THE AZORES

Turquoise water around the boat, the whale is right below us - a 75 feet blue whale underneath our 25 feet inflatable.

You better not think what would happen if the whale comes up in this very moment. It’s diving right beneath us. It takes a while. Then it’s surfacing with a blow like thunder. Rolling to the side. Splashing with the fluke. The biggest fluke I’ve seen so far? Definitely the closest. It’s right next to us. You better not think what would happen if a boat like ours got hit by a fluke like this.

It’s spring, I’m on the Azores, 10 miles off Pico. All week I’ve been cruising around with Richard Sears in a small inflatable between those giant blue whales. Every day, for hours. During spring, the Azores are the perfect place for this, and Richard Sears is the ideal guide.

Sears has been a blue whale researcher for forty years. It was basically him who invented this work. He had met his very first blue whale in the mid-seventies, around two years before I was even born. And he had noticed that each blue whale can be clearly identified by its unique color pattern. Since then, Richard Sears has been identifying blue whales.

In their maximum version, blue whales can reach over 100 feet and 200 tons, which makes them the largest animals ever, dinosaurs included. However, we don’t know much more than that. When it comes to blue whales, most of it is speculation and conjecture. “We just don’t know,” is a typical Sears quote – and he doesn’t sound frustrated, but totally fascinated.

In 1979 Sears founded Mingan Island Cetacean Studies in Quebec, where he also started the world’s first long-term observation of blue whales. Others followed his path with similar studies in California, Australia and the Indian Ocean. Over time, technology improved – underwater microphones, satellite tags, DNA analysis – but the giant whales remained a giant mystery.

Our knowledge about the largest living creature on our planet is quite poor. We know almost nothing. True story!

How many are there? And where? How do they communicate? And why? Where do they get their young? And how? In blue whale research, quite basic things are still not fully understood. Also what blue whales actually do in winter. Where they’re at. We really don’t know! The biggest animal of all time: basically vanished off the face of the sea. True story.

Certainly, there are educated guesses for most of these questions. But measured by the fact that we have already sent tiny little robots to Mars and that we are taking self-propelled cars for granted and that we are enthusiastically working on artificial intelligence, our secured knowledge about the world’s largest inhabitant is somewhat meager after all.

So, even after forty years of blue whale research, Richard Sears still has a lot to do. And that’s why he is here, on the Azores, a good 10 miles off Pico. And I’m very happy to join him. One week in the life of a whale researcher!

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Depending on the position of the sun, blue whales can appear quite light or dark. What always remains the same: their pattern.

Azores: BLUE WHALES

We've been out on the water for about five hours now. Blue whales all day, everywhere. There's quite a lot going on here.

Often it’s two of them, sometimes I’ve even seen three at the same time. They seem to be all over the place, but I have no idea how many are really swimming around here. I’m just happy. In all those years before, I’ve only seen a blue whale once. And now it’s so many!

There are only a few thousand blues left in the world. In the dark age of whaling, man made great efforts to fully eliminate them. Only because of their blubber. They made oil out of it. And soap. And all kinds of other things. Probably 99 percent of all blue whales were killed at that time. And the stocks are only slowly recovering.

Sears explains we’ve already seen six different animals today. I can easily distinguish a blue from a fin, sperm or humpback whale – but Sears can tell the difference between individual blue whales at first glance. And he knows right away if he’s seen them before. Back home in Quebec he can even call some of them by their names.

The trick is to categorize the patterns. In short, it’s a question of whether they are even or uneven and whether they run more sidewise or lengthwise. These patterns are Sears’ reference, that’s what he’s looking for. As well as irregularities and special shapes. Flukes and fins can be damaged by accidents or fights. The patterns will always remain the same.

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When the blue whales are close to the boat, Richard Sears tries to film them underwater. But the relationship with his GoPro is quite complicated.

Sears’ categories are called “balanced”, “merge” and “tiered”, but there are also combinations such as “tiered-merge”, “merge-balanced” and “multi-merge”. The system is not necessarily self-explanatory, but Sears has everything in his mind. With the whales we have seen so far, I do notice differences. However, I can’t memorize them.

So, while in my humble estimation we have some blue whales every now and then, Sears thinks we have one specific female (the leading animal) accompanied by a specific male (the flanker) which in turn is constantly being challenged by different other males. Sears has also seen two uninvolved animals that are probably just passing through. There’s a lot going on.

However, Sears can’t be sure about that. The only way to definitely tell a male from a female would be genetic data. Unfortunately Sears is not allowed to do biopsy darting on the Azores, which is a big frustration to him. All Sears has is his huge experience in behavioral observations and many years of collected data back home in Quebec – including the DNA.

Sears can tell the difference between individual blue whales at first glance. And he knows right away if he's seen them before. Some he can even call by their names.

Whenever Sears had observed one animal followed by another in the Saint Lawrence (and was able to collect the DNA), it was practically always the female in front, followed by the male. So, Sears would bet it’s the same on the Azores. But he won’t get the proof. It’s driving him crazy.

Then there is mixture of spray, waves, flippers and flukes. Sears cheers: “That’s a rumba! This is gonna be interesting!” A rumba is a duel between two (probably!) males. They are giving themselves a race, pushing each other away, hitting each other with the fluke. The (presumed!) female simply keeps on swimming further ahead, waiting to see who would win.

I’m thinking of Jurassic Park. Those giant dinosaurs when they clash in a fight. Forces of nature, the earth trembling. That’s what’s happening here right now. Only underwater. You just have to imagine most of it. And in between, be sure not to get between the fronts with the boat.

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The nostrils of a blue whale. The wingspan of the shearwater birds in front is about 1.15 meters.

Azores: IN THE BOAT

A blow, 300 meters south. One in the north, 600 meters. There's also something somewhere in the west. I've lost track of things.

Apparently our skipper Pedro also seems to be a bit confused: he wants to go north. In his opinion, the blow in the north is the whale we’re observing right now. But Sears disagrees:

“Pedro, wait! That’s not our whale!”
“What? Sure! It is! That’s exactly the direction when it dived!”
“Yes, but that’s another whale. I think they’ve crossed!”
“Are you sure, Richard?”
“Yes. That’s the one we saw earlier. We already have that one. Let’s wait here.”

Pedro makes a competent and convincing impression on me and I am sure this is not his first time out here in a boat. But Sears is the only one who seems to have the complete picture. How many blue whales are around? What are they doing? In which combination? And why?

We wait. Sears looks east. A blow just a few minutes later. “Over there!! That’s our guy!” Pedro starts the engine, Sears grabs the camera and taps his right hip, indicating Pedro to approach the whale from its right side to get the missing shots.

Humpback whales can be identified by their flukes, orcas by their dorsal fins, blue whales by their patterns. For humpback whales and orcas, one photo is good enough. For blue whales you will need four. That’s how big they are. Left side front, right side front, left side dorsal, right side dorsal. One out of seven blues also shows the fluke when diving. Then you’ll need the fluke, too.

Humpback whales can be identified by their flukes, orcas by their dorsal fins, blue whales by their patterns. For humpback whales and orcas, one photo is good enough. For blue whales you will need four. That's how big they are.

You have to be quick, the whale surfaces for only a few breaths. And when it’s gone you have to wait again and hope the next blow is somewhere nearby. Blue whales can cover large distances in just a few minutes. If you’re 75 feet, a mile seems to be not that much.

As soon as we see a blow on the horizon, Pedro speeds up. He wants to be within photo reach as quickly as possible. Sears tells him to approach the whale nice and easy. “A relaxed whale will stay much longer at the surface.” Pedro is giving it a try. Sears is right.

However, it still takes a while to get usable pictures of all sides of a blue whale. Even Sears does not always succeed in the first attempt.

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The main focus on the Azores is photo identification. Sears would love to take DNA samples, too, just like back home in Quebec. But that’s not allowed here. It’s driving Sears crazy.

After some sightings Sears wants to know what we have seen. Not because he hasn’t seen it, but because he wants us to learn something here. It’ll be like this:

“So, what did you just see? Quick!!”
“Um… well, the whale showed up twice and…”
“But what did you notice? What do you remember?”
“The dorsal fin!!”
“What about the dorsal fin?”
“It was curved! Strongly curved! Crescent shaped!”
“Good! Right! What else?”
“Whew, it all happened so fast…”
“What color was it?”
“Hmm, more like that…”
“Rather light or dark?”
“Um… rather dark, right?”
“No! Bright, it was bright!
“Oh!”
“You have to watch these things! They’re important. If you’re able to recognize the animal right when it appears, you have more time to focus on its behavior.”

I decide to remember everything better. To pay attention to more details. To completely memorize the whole situation. But it’s not that simple. The whale appears for only a few seconds. And every time I see it, I’m still impressed how big it is. Quite often I find myself just standing there and staring at it.

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Learned on the Azores: To get a picture of the whole blue whale fluke, you have to zoom out. Blue whale flukes are quite big.

Azores: MR. SEARS

After each sighting, Sears takes some notes. He has a little book and records everything he has just observed. Pages at a time.

I’ve photographed Sears a few times doing it. Sitting there writing his notes right in the middle of the ocean. But at some point I started taking pictures of his notes instead of him. I didn’t want to disturb him, but I really wondered what he was writing there all the time.

And I think it was only through these notes that I began to understand what a job Sears is doing there. How insanely basic and fragmented all this is, how demanding. And how patiently, dedicated and naturally he does it. For forty years. And yes, also what a life’s work this is.

For forty years Sears has been working on a gigantic puzzle consisting millions of tiny little 10-second moments in which he at least ever gets to see the animals he is researching. 99 percent of everything he wants to know is completely out of his sight. Either deep below the surface or far out on the ocean or both together. And he just won’t get there.

Just to remind you how little we see of a blue whale:

That’s all it is. And even this little can only be seen for just a moment. Sears tells the story of a conference where a researcher investigating some animals in the African savannah once complained a bit about his suffering: the animals would disappear behind a bush so he wouldn’t see what’s going on there. Sears has to laugh. He can only dream of such conditions.

Sears patiently collects every little detail trying to make a consistent picture out of it. How insanely short these pieces are and how exhausting this whole puzzle must be, that only became clearer to me when I looked into his notes. And the endurance, dedication, curiosity and fascination with which Sears works on his puzzle actually leaves me a little speechless.

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This is EB 578, he or she (sex unknown) was last seen around the Azores in March 2011. And now again!

Azores: WHALE POOP

At some point we come across a whale that, well, shits before every dive. "Whale poop! There's whale poop!! Go get the whale poop!"

Sears emphasizes that he is not enthusiastic about the whale poop itself, but about the fact that the whale shits here at all. “This means it’s feeding in this area. A good sign!” We take a closer look at the whale poop. Whale poop is red. And Sears wants to know why:

“Guys, does anyone know why whale poop is red?”
“Because of the krill… Because blue whales eat krill!”
“Yeah, but then why is this shit red?”
“Um, well… Because the krill is red?”
“Yes. But still, why is that shit red?”

I’ve once read somewhere that krill contains a lot of keratin, which is probably responsible for the red color. But I really don’t dare to make that shaky assumption in front of Mr. Richard Sears now. What if keratin is wrong? And what if keratin is right and Sears has a follow-up question? Too much pressure for me!

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Even if a blue whale repeatedly shows its fluke right next to the boat: Richard Sears keeps his focus.

“So why is this whale shit red?”
“Hmm… don’t know, sorry!”
“Okay, it’s the keratin. Krill consists of keratin and…”

Then Sears explains the whole whale shit thing: That keratin is the same material as our hair and fingernails, and that it has a red color, that the whale poop is therefore red and that because of the many nutrients it contains, whale poop is also an extremely good fertilizer for the oceans and therefore quite important for the entire ecosystem. Ladies and gentlemen, whale poop!

Sears really takes a lot of time to explain, not only to me and the other guests, but also to the guides and the skipper. He patiently answers every question, although he actually has to work here. The atmosphere on board is great, Sears is funny, laughs a lot and loves to goof around. Especially on days as rich in whales as these.

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Only one in seven blue whales shows the fluke when diving. And only on one of seven days we were in exactly the right position at exactly the right time to photograph it from the side. Very happy!

Azores: MATCHING

After each tour Sears compares the new patterns of the day with the existing ones in the catalogue. Always looking for a match.

Sears’ catalogue has two sections, the western North Atlantic with barely 500 and the eastern North Atlantic with around 750 identified individuals. These two groups seem to be largely distinct – but Sears is not sure about that: there have been matches, also the genetics appear quite similar. Sears would love to have more time for further research on this.

The animals we encounter during the day belong to the eastern North Atlantic group. Every spring they’re heading north to the food-rich waters around eastern Greenland, Iceland, Norway or Spitsbergen. Off the Azores they make a short stop for a snack. Blue whales mainly feed in the north, the warm waters in the south do not provide enough krill.

Sears’ catalogue was started forty years ago, and that’s pretty much what most of the photos look like. It’s not about quality, aesthetics or composition, it’s all about the recognizability of the pattern. Sears doesn’t care at all if you have a perfectly shaped volcano with some dramatic clouds in the background of your blue whale.

Sears doesn't care at all if you have a perfectly shaped volcano with some dramatic clouds in the background of your blue whale. This is about patterns, not clouds.

We’re starting to compare patterns. You just browse the gallery like that. I suggest asking Google or Facebook if they could lend their software for face recognition. “We’ve already tried it. Doesn’t work. No software has managed the matching faster or better than I have so far.”

There’s no boast in this, rather disappointment. Sears would be pleased if the matching would no longer have to be done by hand. It would save him so much time. Time he’d rather spend outdoors: “All I want to do is sitting in a boat.”

Many researchers complain about too little time in the field and too much time at the desk. Most of them spend six to eight weeks outdoors. That’s not an option for Sears. He spends four to five months out in the boat. Every year. He won’t settle for less.

The whole matching process probably takes Sears another four to five months. Here is a very simplified representation:

The picture above is the blue whale we want to match. The gallery below is a mini version of the catalogue. Do you find the right match? And how long does it take? **Solutions further below.

If you now imagine that 1) Sears doesn’t have only 12 pictures in his catalogue but 1250, a hundred times this gallery, that 2) Sears likes to have four photos of each whale and not only one and that 3) Sears doesn’t only match one whale, but always several at once – then you get a good idea of how long one single evening of matching can get.

We click our way through the eastern North Atlantic. It’s really exciting at the beginning. After one hour we don’t have a single match. After two hours I am confused, after three hours I feel dizzy. Patterns everywhere, all so similar, everything blurs into a gray-blue mash.

But then: excitement! A striking dorsal fin that looks familiar to me. I’ve seen it before! Yesterday? I’m checking my photos. Found it! That’s the whale! Definitely the same dorsal! I present the picture to Sears. He ignores the dorsal and focusses only on the patterns.

“Hm, I can see that”, he points to some dark and bright spots, “and this here looks also similar.” After a while, he nods. “Yes! I think we have a match. Well done!”

Big data on a very small scale, but you have to start somewhere. Sears will never finish this work. He does it anyway.

My first match! I’d like to name the whale now, but it already has a name: EB 578. A name like music to my ears. EB 578 has a pattern of the category “tiered-merge” and was last seen in March 2011. Right here off the Azores!

I had never realized what photo identification can do. Sears explains that long-term observations can provide information about how many whales currently are in a particular area – and that these photos also help to figure out how large a certain population actually is.

These methods are called “line-transect” and “mark-recapture”, simple statistics, big data in miniature, but you have to start somewhere. If you want to make statements about a population – and how you can protect it – you first need to know how large it is and where it begins and ends. Sears will never finish this work. He does it anyway.

 

** The correct match above is picture #10. And has anyone noticed that pictures #02 and #07 as well as #04 and #09 each show the same whale?

Credit

A blue whale fluke with a foggy volcano in the background. Hardly usable for science. Still pretty!

Azores: BACK HOME

It's the end of the week, Sears is leaving today. With forty to fifty blues in only two weeks, this year was one of the best so far.

I ask Sears how he actually got into the blue whales back then. A lot of people working with whales would answer such a question with an emotional story of their first encounter, after which they did not want to do anything else.

Richard Sears, however, says that the blue whales were just there and that no one else seemed to be around to do it. So he just did it. And as he did well, he stuck with it.

I'm not sure whether Sears has more a passion for blue whales - or one for blue whale research. Doesn’t matter. This man has enough energy and passion for two researcher’s lives.

During this week, I’ve been wondering every now and then whether Sears has more a passion for blue whales – or one for blue whale research. Maybe it’s both, I’m still not sure about that. But it doesn’t matter anyway. This man has enough energy and passion for two researcher’s lives.

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The scene from the beginning of this text: A blue whale dives under under our boat, then splashes around with tits fluke. I must confess, I was a bit nervous for a moment.

Sears is standing in front of the hotel, looking at the sea. It’s a fantastic day, the sun is shining, the sea is calm and flat. Perfect conditions. And he’s got to go.

“Are you staying here?”
“Yes, a few more days.”
“You going out again?”
“Yes, we’ll be off in an hour.”
“Great! I think there’s gonna be a whole new bunch of whales coming through in the next few days. Over the next month, the first mothers with their calves will arrive. I wish I could stay just a bit longer. And find some more whales out there. There’s still so much to do.”

***

You also want to share an inflatable with Richard Sears and see the giant blue whales at close range? Here’s your chance: Sears runs a research tourism program that lets you join the MICS team for a week. It’s expensive and exhausting, but incredibly interesting and educational, and you will also see straight away what the money is being used for. Research weeks are held in both the Azores and the Saint Lawrence. It is always focused on blue whales – but if you ask nicely, Sears also makes a short stop for turtles, dolphins and other whales.

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