Understanding Icelandic Whale Movements To Improve ProtectionJune 24 2016
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We don't just use satellite tags to understand whale movements. Like our fingerprints, whales bear unique marks that enable you to individually identify them. Using photo-identification we can begin to understand how much time whales spend in an area, their distribution, monitor their health and even understand their social structure. But just amassing photos can make for a big problem with data management. It's also tough to collaborate with researchers around the world who could be seeing the very same whales we're seeing in Iceland. That's why, together with my pal Shane and the folks at Wildme, we made Flukebook. (www.flukebook.org) Flukebook is designed to be a tool to unite whale researchers together with citizen scientists. By fostering connections between an individual whale and person, flukebook can be a powerful conservation tool. At the same time, Flukebook enables researchers to leverage the latest in machine learning and computer vision to manage their massive catalogs of photo data. We're still fine tuning the site, but so far we have nearly 50,000 sightings across 10 countries!
Why does this matter to me sitting on a boat in Iceland?
Well, it's simple. It's cost prohibitive to tag every animal. By leveraging photos from whale watchers and scientists, we can begin understanding the paths these whales might take on their oceanic journeys.
After some initial roadblocks, our expedition is underway. The weather in Faxafloi Bay changes quickly and when the wind picks up, we have to stay ashore. Just too difficult, not to mention dangerous, to operate a small ridged hull inflatable boat (RHIB) while holding a crossbow with a sharp tip, in rough weather. Think about that for a second, our lives depend on basically a boat shaped balloon with engines, so if that crossbow accidentally fires into the air-filled chamber, we'd be in big trouble. Better to be safe than sorry.
Tagging a whale is a split second action, that takes countless hours of prep time. Without that time dedicated to preparation, we could loose that split second opportunity when it finally presents itself. So a ton of effort goes into preparation even when we're in Iceland.
The below picture is of an Acusounde tag records every movement, pitch, roll, heading and acoustics that a whale experiences. It's the closed you can get to observing every little thing a whale does. It's also bright green, so we affectionately call it Kermit. The below picture is of Chad double checking the Kermit's programming.
The pre-expedition chaos has begun! This weekend, I'll spend my time checking and double checking to-do and packing lists. I live and die by to-do lists, it's the only way to keep my busy cluttered brain on task! Iceland in August is unpredictable. The only thing you can predict is that the weather will change quickly! I've had days start off sleeting and change to a blue sky in minutes. The wind can go from dead calm to a stiff breeze with powerful whitecaps on the bay in no time. Point is, I have to pack for the worst and hope for the best!
This week, I purchased an item from Wildlife Computers, a satellite tag company in Washington (state not District) that is key for attaching a sat tag to a moving whale. Check out the picture below.
This arrow holds the tag in a cup on the end and is loaded into a crossbow. I'll then stand at the bow of a small rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB for short) and when aligned correctly with a minke whale, will fire the tag attaching it on the whales side. These tags are known for being minimally invasive, compared to the big transdermal tags that implant deep in a whales muscle. These just penetrate the exterior blubber and while they don't stay on as long, they cause dramatically less of an injury to the whale. I'll talk more about that later, these poor whales are shot at enough by whalers, the last thing I want to do is cause more harm!
Yesterday, I came home from work to a lovely little brown box on my doorstep. I still get that childlike excitement when something comes in 'snail' mail and today was just such a day. Our tags our here! We use a very small satellite tag, about the size of a matchbox, to track where whales go. These vital tools to our research involve placing on a whale from a little inflatable boat, in the middle of the ocean. Imagine playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey while waves bounce you around and the 'donkey' is swimming quickly. Not an easy task at all!
Next step, tag programming...
Minke whales are hunted in Iceland, yet, whale watching tourism depends on the very same whales. Iceland's fisheries ministry says that whale watching and whaling can co-exist but the whale watching industry that depends on these whales disagrees. Because the whalers hunt whales just offshore of a protected area boundary, there is no photo-id effort undertaken where the whalers hunt. A focused photo-identification and matching effort would take significant time to accomplish and time is not what these whales have.
To demonstrate that these are indeed in the same whales the whale watch industry depends on, we're going to use minimally invasive satellite tags to track Minke whales in the area for up to 30 days. This could demonstrate how animals move about and better inform protected area boundaries protect whales and the many people who depend on live and healthy whales