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Humpbacks and Dolph…

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Emma Brown, WCA Intern

16/09/2016: Humpbacks and Dolphins – A Day to Remember!

 

Stories of the Humpback Whale Project research trips have an almost mythical quality. Even researchers with thirty years experience in the field are likely to see something unexpected. A couple of weeks previously, the interns had returned from an all day data collection expedition telling tales of a monstrous blood-red life form they spotted on the surface miles out to sea. When they entered the water to explore further, a pod of peculiar blackfish emerged, calm and ghostlike, to circle them. After twenty minutes of quiet interaction, they slipped away again; leaving the biologists to take samples and ponder the identity of the six foot long red mass. The unique footage can be viewed on the Instituto Baleia Jubarte facebook page, and, on closer inspection, reveals the researchers found a rare benthic jellyfish and a group of pygmy orcas. Having spent a week on land due to bad weather, and with these stories ringing in my head, it was hard to supress my excitement when I heard I had a place on the research team on Thursday.

Video link: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1096406353746344&id=188300801223575&refsrc=https%3A%2F%2Fm.facebook.com%2Fibaleiajubarte%2Fvideos%2F1096406353746344%2F&_rdr

The research boat skipped across sparkling waves and sped away from the beach. With only myself, the captain, two interns and two research staff aboard, the small vessel made quicker progress than the large schooner I had become used to. As the turquoise shallows gave way to the deep inky blue of the open ocean, we looked down from the beautiful half moon which still shone eerily in the midday sunlight, and scanned the horizon for cetaceans. After over an hour of nothing, everything happened at once.

A blow, two, three! A trio of whales surfaced twenty feet from the boat, nostrils flaring to let loose a jet of steaming breath. Everyone was suddenly busy – fumbling hands reached for cameras, pencils scribbled on clipboards, the hydrophone was quickly assembled, and one researcher managed to get the headphones onto my ears and pull on his own snorkel mask at the same time. I looked over his shoulder at the black arches of their backs as they dived, and there distant song of moans and whistles filled my ears. But I could hear a buzzing crackle of clicks too, and as the researchers leapt into the water, a bottlenose dolphin joined the other whales. Five or six more quickly followed. By the time the boat set off again, the dolphins were challenging us for speed. They shot out of the crests of waves on all sides, perfectly mirroring one another if they pleased, and torpedoed through the slipstream created by the bow of the boat. Looking down, I made eye contact with them as they took turns to look up at me. They were close enough to touch and, at this distance, impressively large and muscular, their skin shining silver in the sunlight. But the show had not reached its climax yet.

Directly in front of us, accelerating from the depths at an astonishing speed, a forty tonne humpback whale propelled its entire body into the air. I could see the white barnacles on its petrol-black skin; the rivulets of water running down its pale underbelly and off the knobbly edges of its massive pectoral fins. And as it finished its aerial pirouette, I caught a glimpse of a gleaming, beady eye, before it returned to the ocean with a resounding smack. This whale, following its companion, continued to display for what felt like an hour. Tightening its blowhole, it let out a growling bass note as it prepared to leap again. It performed breach after breach as well as slapping its head, which alone could be the size of our boat, down with enough force to make its own white-topped waves. After this happened for the twentieth time, I had still not seen enough. The two whales continued their arching passage through the sea as the sun began to set, the waning light casting rainbows on the great clouds of their breath.

But as suddenly as it began, the spectacle was over. The humpbacks, lifting their mottled tail fins, dived out of sight, possibly to mate travel or sing together. The captain turned the boat back to shore, riding the waves home as the tangerine sun sunk behind the palm trees. Grinning at each other, we filled on our data sheets, clicked through the camera footage and chattered enthusiastically about what we had just witnessed.

It’s events like this that make marine biology and conservation so exciting. Not only is it jaw dropping to see what these animals are capable of, but we know too that what we see is literally only what’s on the surface. We are still trying to work out what makes humpback whales tick; which individuals occur where and why. Marine ecosystems in general are still data deficient – we know very little about the way these delicately balanced systems work. And finding all this out seems to be a race against time while stranding’s, entanglement, fishing effort and climate change related factors are on the rise. The fact that experts in the field of conservation can still get a surprise during a regular day at work is refreshing in an age in which we like to think we know everything, yet it also emphasises the urgency and importance of what is left to be done.

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