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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

You are cordially invited.....

....to the annual, never-ending fog festival!!! Guaranteed fun for the whole family!

Funky Fin Whale: The calm before the storm - "Come in number 755 it...

Funky Fin Whale: The calm before the storm - "Come in number 755 it...: Sunday promised much and didn't let us down. Equipment and personnel took a battering on our way west to Point Ouest and Banc Parent, and ...

The dance of Stalagmite and Tmain (28/08/11)

L-R: Rafal setting off in search of whales; Humpback diving; Humpback fluke; Flipper slapping - you can see Stalagmite's other flipper underwater.

L-R: Top left side of Stalagmite's fluke; Spyhop; Hug me;
Bottom: Perfect ending to a fabulous day.
And so it happened....the ride out to the whales was long and very bumpy but no sooner we found two we found 11. We had a successful tag and were treated to the wonderful dance of Stalagmite and her friend Tmain. They were both very curious and circled our boat (which is apparently unusual for such BIG animals) and displayed a number of behaviours including spyhopping (poking head out of water as if to have a look), flipper slapping (turning onto the side and slapping a flipper repeatedly), tail slapping (launching the whole peduncle out of the water and slapping the water), breaching (launching the whole body out of the water), double breaching (both breaching simultaneously) and rolling (lying on their back and sticking both flippers upwards as if in praise).

What a day...and tomorrow is our day off as we await the arrival of Hurricane Irene.

(P.S: Click on the collage to zoom in)

Monday, August 29, 2011

...and 9am on that same day...

Top L-R: WOW - the sun did do its job; The wind picked up a bit, the MICS flag flies proudly;
View off the dock.
Bottom L-R: Paraglider making the most of the beautiful weather; Longue-pointe-de-Mingan the town as long as a tag pole; The only thing we brought home - a free floating buoy with a radar reflector.

...being on the water is better than sitting indoors on a beautiful day so off we went. Our hit list for the day (27th August);
20 grey seals, 2 minkes, 5 porpoises, 30 birds. Not alot to see....we are still very hopeful about tomorrow.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The reality of field work

L-R: Christian's morning note stating the obvious to those with positivity hats on;
The sun trying to burn through the fog; View from the rooftop of the MICS building; the distant smudge in photo 3 closer up - these photos might give the impression that we live on top of a tall cliff, but we don't. The beach is just beyond.
Cruising on the water, working alongside the whales and absorbing all the sights and smells the ocean has to offer leaves you with an unbeatable sensation and rush. The hours spent out there, despite being hard, long and tiring are not to be exchanged for more desk time - no siree, thankyouverymuch. Fieldwork is very much 'da bomb' - as the gangsta's say. It definitely makes life more beautiful.

But then there are the 'other days'...the 'weather days'....when you wake up expectantly with happiness in your heart only to be confronted by a WALL of FOG. Today, is one of those days. 

FOG: n. 1. a thick cloud of water droplets or smoke suspended in the atmosphere at or near the earth's surface restricting or obscuring visibility (Oxford English Dictionary) 


Since we were up, Rene and I donned our positivity hats and ventured to the blue house at 6 am to get the final verdict from Christian (CAR) (even though we couldn't see beyond the neighbour's friendly sign stating that trespassers will be prosecuted. Point to note: the fog is so thick neither party would know if they were trespassing or being trespassed, so I guess there are advantages to this fog). As you can see, instead of being confronted by a tall German in desperate need of coffee, we were greeted by a note (photo 1). 

So here we are, back at base camp, awaiting the '9 am decision'......the sun MIGHT be doing its trick out there...but perhaps its not working hard enough to get us on the water today - there is always the possibility of a calm before the storm tomorrow ... a good day before hurricane Irene ventures up the coastline and sheds more happiness on us. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

BBC's new whale documentary Ocean Giants - Watch it here!

The long awaited first episode of 'Ocean Giants' aired imid August in the UK on BBC one. Titled 'Giant Lives' this episode featured the secret lives of humpback whales, right whales, grey whales, killer whales, bowhead whales and some of my research with the beautiful blue whales of Sri Lanka. A MUST watch with amazing footage.....

I have since come up with a new theory - the blue whales in the Northern Indian Ocean do not migrate because they don't have visas :) 

Happy watching and drop me a line with any questions you might have!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Slinky fin whale

Voila - I had my first ever (real) fin whale sighting yesterday after hours on the water. These guys don't tend to show their tail flukes before a dive so its very much - now you see it now you don't! We only managed to watch it for about 10 minutes and then we heard it come up after the third dive but never saw it again - Slinky to say the least. 

Talking about fin whales, I would like to introduce you to Rene's blog http://funkyfinwhale.blogspot.com. Here you can learn what exactly he is trying to do with all this technology. Having encouraged him to start his own blog I am now regretting it - he's stealing all my stories :P Happy reading!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Exciting results from Operation Calanus!

L-R: Echosounder trace showing ascending and descending whales; Zoomed in view showing food and whales diving out of the food patch!

Rene has very kindly allowed me to post some preliminary results for all of you to enjoy. Simply put - this echosounder data matches the tag data and shows that Calanus was feeding at the bottom - 120 m down. That's where the food is (second figure) so it all makes sense! The temperature here was about 2 degrees Celcius - 14 degrees cooler than at the surface - BIG difference over a small range. The cold water comes courtesy of the Labrador current. I will write another post about the oceanography of the area on a later date so stay tuned.

What's really cool is that the MICS team has noticed that Meduse (the friendly whale you can see at the top right hand corner of the first figure) has raw wounds around his mouth and they suspected that it was because he was feeding on the bottom - these results confirm that - WOO HOOO! Its pretty amazing how we can apply these results to answer some real life questions too.

p.s: if you click on the image it will open larger in a separate tab

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Operation Calanus - TAG ON!

L-R: Canadian Research Permit for 2011; Rene attaching the timer release belt on tag; Rene with his
20 m carbon fibre pole with tag attached - waiting; Preparing to tag on!
What a day (190811) - we were up at 5am to sort our gear out and load it on the truck. The drive to the dock in Mingan is about 10-15 minutes but then we have to unload and load the equipment on the boat. There's a lot of gear and it all needs to be secured with bungee cords and tape. That process alone takes an hour but once its done - it means we can get straight to work.

We saw many porpoises (another species to add to my life list!) and grey seals and soon came upon a couple of humpbacks. Christian Ramp (MICS) knows the whales by name and even knows their personalities so once we spot a whale its his job to identify it and tell us if that individual will be conducive to being approached by the boat. One of the first ones we met was Dogear, so named because the corner of her fluke is floppy, and Christian told us that she wasn't a social sort. This proved to be quite true as she kept us at arm's distance so we decided to move on....

We found Pythagore (it looks like he has calculations scribbled on his fluke) and he led us to an area where about 8 humpbacks were feeding - opportunity! So we got set and did a few approaches on the whale that until recently was known as 707. In fact, at the naming party last night Rene and I christened him Calanus (he has a copepod drawn on his fluke) so it seemed only right that we tagged him. 

Rene rather expertly reached out with his mighty carbon fibre pole and attached the tag on Calanus - WHOOPEE! After this, it was my task to follow his movements and monitor when he came up to the surface using the VHF system I mentioned in the previous blog. The conditions were good so we were able to hear the whale blowing at the surface and follow it for 1 hour 40 mins before the tag came off. All the while we also had the echosounder running to find out where in the water column the prey patches were and essentially what depths the whales were diving to......the results are exciting as they show us that the whales were diving to the food patches which were at the bottom - 120 m down!!

After all the action - we drove back energised by the success of the day. We got back to dock, unloaded and topped up the fuel. We then headed back to the research centre where we unloaded and washed down the gear, downloaded the data, and prepare the tags for another day at sea. What a day indeed - we look forward to many more!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tagging a fin whale

I have arrived in the tiny town of Long-pointe-de-Mingan and am enjoying the hospitality of the folks at the Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS). Due to bad weather we were unable to head out on the water on the first day so - we found the next best thing and practiced! Of course we don't use our hands to do the tagging but this gives you an idea of what the tag looks like (note it attaches to the whale via a suction cup). The last picture shows Rene using the VHF system to track the tagged whale. The beeping gets stronger and louder when the whale comes up to the surface and we can follow it from a distance until the tag automatically pops off at a stipulated time - ready for collection!

The data you get about the whale's dive behaviour includes acceleration, depth, temperature and direction allowing you to visualise exactly what the whale was doing underwater. Its amazing what we can learn using non-invasive techniques like this one.

This beautiful replica of a fin whale is in the MICS museum. DEFINITELY worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. Its small but has so much information and the murals and sculptures are truly fantastic. The team members give visitors a tour and explain all the science behind studying these great creatures. They also run whale watch tours or you can join a researcher on the water - check them out at www.rorqual.com

On a final note - I went for a walk on the beach and saw my first minke whale swimming around not more than 50 m off shore. I am SO excited to be here!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

En route to see my first true blue whales in Canada!

I am sitting at Sydney airport excitedly awaiting my flight to Canada. I am on my way to see my first 'true' blue whales. As some of you may know, blue whales are either true or pygmy. The latter is a bit of a misnomer because it invokes images of pocket-sized blue whales. However, the pygmy blue whales that are found in the southern Indian Ocean (around Western Australia) and the northern Indian Ocean (around Sri Lanka) are a mere 5 m shorter (about 24m long!) than the 'true' blues of for e.g. the Antarctic. 

I am really excited to have the opportunity to learn new techniques from Rene Swift from the University of St. Andrews and the team at the Mingan Island Cetacean Study - headed by Richard Sears. I wonder whether I will actually be able to tell the size difference between the whales - the pygmy blues are said to be slightly more 'tadpole' shaped, but with animals that only expose a fraction of themselves at a time - I am sure this won't be very obvious. Stay tuned for more excitement on this one....

So I'm flying Perth - Sydney - Vancouver - Montreal - Sept-Iles ... many more hours of travel left!! Here's a map of where I am headed....the Gulf of St. Lawrence - the furthest north I have ever been!

Oh and check out this link while you are at it http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/14410355

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Captain Uncle Sumathi: RIP

This brief blogpost is dedicated to Captain Uncle Sumathi - a great supporter of the diving community. His wit and cheek will be greatly missed by all of us who spent hours on the ocean with him. Rest in peace.

BBC Ocean Giants: Featuring Sri Lankan blues!

Watch a trailer for the upcoming BBC documentary series Ocean Giants to be aired on BBC One on the 14th August at 2100 and BBC HD at 1930 on the 15th of August. 
About BBC Ocean Giants
Ground-breaking documentary granting a unique and privileged access into the magical world of whales and dolphins, uncovering the secrets of their intimate lives as never before.
This episode explores the intimate details of the largest animals that have ever lived on our planet- the great whales. From the balmy waters of the Indian Ocean to the freezing seas of the Arctic, two daring underwater cameramen - Doug Allan, Planet Earth's polar specialist, and Didier Noirot, Cousteau's front-line cameraman - come face-to-face with fighting humpback whales and two-hundred-ton feeding blue whales.
Teaming up with top whale scientists, Giant Lives discovers why southern right whales possess a pair of one-ton testicles, why the arctic bowhead can live to over two hundred years old, and why size truly matters in the world of whales.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How apt

“Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” — Confucius

I found this on someone else's Facebook today and thought it was really appropriate. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

1986: The beginning

People often ask me when I first decided to become a marine biologist. I say it was subconscious, natural even (given that water is my primary element) but being an adventurer scientist was my ultimate goal -- and here I am. My first attempt at saving marine mammals is depicted above. I was just 6 years old. I did get a prize for this piece of art even though the whales have sharp jagged teeth and big red lips. Fortunately I now know a little better :) Thanks to my parents for encouraging and supporting me and even saving a snapshot of this earliest attempt, and my brother for help with the go-faster-stripes on the dolphins!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Where can you find blue whales?

Blue whales are pretty cosmopolitan in their distribution but there are certain places where they are known to 'aggregate'. Please note that it was originally thought that blue whales were only found around the east coast of Sri Lanka (Trincomalee) but in fact, they can be found all around our coastline with easily accessible aggregations off the eastern and southern coasts.