Field Diaries

15 July 2016 – First half of Spanish survey coming to an end

By Begoña Santos, Cruise Co-ordinator

The last couple of days have been a challenge but the first half of the Spanish cruise aboard R/V Ángeles Alvariño will be successfully completed today.

On Wednesday we were lucky and managed to work but yesterday was another story. We had to stop when sea conditions reached Beaufort 6 and the wind then increased further so the rest of the penultimate transect line could only be surveyed acoustically by the hydrophone.
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Strong winds continued for the whole day so we transited to the end of the final transect by the coast and are surveying it this morning, with the plan to go back and survey as much of the previous transect as possible before we have to head back to Vigo this evening for the mid-cruise break .

If you are getting confused with our route I am not surprised, imagine our captain and crew!  But they are doing everything in their power to make sure we complete as much as possible of the tracks and we cannot really wish for a better ship or team.

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13 July 2016 – Spanish ship survey combating the elements west of Galicia

By Begoña Santos, Cruise Co-ordinator

It is Tuesday night (12 July) and so far the work has gone according to plan in the block west of Galicia; one transect line completed per day with some time at night spent going back on our tracks surveying with the echosounder. However, as forecast at the end of last week, strong winds arrived this afternoon and we were forced to stop surveying when conditions deteriorated (although we managed to see a mother fin whale and its calf in Beaufort 5 and a school of striped dolphins was kind enough to come close and be photographed).

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Tonight we travel north so that tomorrow we can try to survey the next transect line heading southwards, using the boat as a buffer from the strong northerly winds. And then we plan to head north again tomorrow night so we can survey the next transect also from north to south. Just thinking about so many comings and goings I am getting a bit seasick(!) but we hope this will work so we can complete the last three transect lines of the first half of the survey.

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The midsurvey stop will be Vigo on Saturday morning to load the replacement hydrophone, luckily the one onboard has worked well so far and we have not needed the replacement, but better to be safe than sorry!

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We have seen some amazing things these last few days: a fin whale breaching; a Ziphius spp. doing a somersault; a Cuvier´s beaked whale that came so close to the ship we almost didn’t see it (I didn’t, which has now become a running joke); and another fin whale that decided to investigate us and crossed our path right in front of the bow – a close call.

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I was asked by a journalist just before setting off why we were doing this study and my reply was along the lines of how important abundance estimates are for sound management to ensure successful conservation. But somebody had already put it in much better words than me:

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” (Baba Dioum, 1968).

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11 July 2016 – Aerial Team III hard at work in Scotland

by Steve Geelhoed, Aerial Team III leader

The sun shines over northern Scotland. We, however, are in our hotel in Inverness, off-effort and validating data from the last three days of surveying. The wind is currently too strong to survey but the last few days the weather has been suitable enough to survey. It has been a logistical jigsaw puzzle to efficiently juggle the moving windows of good weather, the opening hours of the airfields and the lack of military activity in shooting ranges we had to fly through but we managed to fly transects in the blocks around Shetland, Orkney and north of the Outer Hebrides. In three days we visited and refuelled at Sumburgh (Shetland), twice at Stornoway (Outer Hebrides) and three times at Kirkwall (Orkney) before going back to Inverness.

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Sightings have been unevenly distributed, with some apparently high density areas and some stretches of cetacean desert. The most numerous species seen were harbour porpoise, white-beaked dolphin and minke whale. Highlights included a huge basking shark and mixed groups of white-beaked dolphins and pilot whales, accompanied by gannets and other seabirds.

Off effort, some new species performed well for our team: a breaching humpback, a surfacing bottlenose whale, a fin whale right under the plane and two killer whales near the coast shortly before landing in Kirkwall. Although not strictly following protocol, we did an extra circle to have a better look at these animals. Great for team spirit.

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Killer whale spotted off Orkney

 

 

 

The last late afternoon survey was a race against the clock because we had to be back on Stornoway to refuel and then land in Inverness before closing time at the airport. No time to slow down to get a better look at Sula Sgeir and North Rona, two of the most remote islands of the UK.

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A shortcut overland was more or less blocked by heavy rain showers and the occasional clap of thunder but we made it to Inverness in time. Once back in town the challenge was to find a restaurant that still served food. Around midnight we finally went off effort with a belly full of Italian food.

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11 July 2016 – Danish cruise underway – update after one week

by Jonas Teilmann, Cruise Leader

The Danish research vessel RV Aurora from Aarhus University is surveying the Skagerrak, Kattegat, Danish Straits and the western Baltic Sea as part of the SCANS-III survey this summer.

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Prior to setting off, new state of the art survey equipment was set up on board in Kalundborg Harbour.

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Some of the survey team are ready and keen to make a difference!

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There are two observation platforms where the observers search from and make sightings: primary (on left) and tracker (on right)

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Sighting!  “One harbour porpoise; cue – body; behaviour – normal swimming; angle – 24 degrees; distance 155 m”

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A blast from the past: SCANS-III ship “Aurora” meets SCANS-I ship “Gunnar Thorsen” in Skagen harbour at the northern tip of Denmark

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Resting at the end of the day

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The Danish cruise continues for 3 weeks until 24 July. The weather hasn’t been great for the first week but everything is working well and the atmosphere on board is good. Everyone is hoping that the weather improves soon.

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10 July 2016 – Spanish ship survey progressing well in the first week

By Begoña Santos, Cruise Co-ordinator

The Ángeles Alvariño set off from Vigo on Monday 4 July and began observing the next day in the survey block NW of Galicia.

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The good weather here (including some periods of sea conditions of Beaufort 1!) has allowed us to complete a transect line per day moving steadily westwards with everything working well. On Saturday 9 July, the last two transects were surveyed and the block completed as the wind increased (to Beaufort 5) and the swell to 2-4 m in height.

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Observers searching through 7×50 binoculars (above left) and “big-eyes” (above right) and the whole observation platform set-up (below).

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We have had quite a few sightings of what we believe are fin whale blows, quite impressive to see in the middle of this vast expanse of sea. We are so far off the coast we have not seen more than a couple of ships this week and in both cases very far beyond the horizon. It would feel quite lonely if it wasn’t for the blows and the occasional dolphin school (we have seen striped, common and bottlenose dolphins). We have also seen some pilot and beaked whales and a couple of sperm whales.

At night, we are using the echo-sounder on sections of transects covered during the previous day to try to get a picture of potential food of fin whales (using the energy reflected by the organisms under water). In addition to the marine mammal observers we have a seabird observer on-board and we are also taking water samples to analyse environmental DNA.

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Observers checking data at the end of the day

 

 

Last night we reached our furthest point from the coast (200 nm) and now, weather permitting, we will start observing in the survey block to the west of Galicia working steadily towards the east and back to the coast. There are strong winds forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday but there is not much we can do so far from the coast (we cannot make more route changes from here!) so we will advance as much as possible in the next couple of days and then sit tight until the front passes.

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7 July 2016 – Aerial team III in Scotland – first flight

by Steve Geelhoed, Aerial Team III leader

Aerial team III gathered in Inverness, Scotland in the last week of June. Leo, the pilot, flew in from Liverpool, Linn from Berlin via Amsterdam where she met Steve. Marie came from Svalbard via Oslo and London. Typical Scottish weather welcomed us thus providing enough time to get ready for the survey flights. We used the time for reading the protocol, doing dry runs with the improved software (always fun getting two observers to try to overload the navigator with data), memorizing species codes, discussing potential ID-pitfalls and sketching the perfect scenario till the end of July. Frequent checks of weather forecasts meant regular adjustments of this scenario though.

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And then the weather improved. A short spell of decreasing wind was enough for an afternoon flight in and out of the Moray Firth on Wednesday (29 June). Good to see the tension in the team building up. Despite hundreds of hours of survey experience everyone was eager to get airborne. Once on effort we were soon routinely recording signs of anthropogenic presence: fishing gear and debris kept us busy. Marine mammals kept us waiting till the second transect. Harbour porpoises were the first cetaceans we recorded. In the second half of the survey we saw bottlenose dolphins and a minke whale as well, heightening the team spirit. All in all – a good first flight.

Back at the hotel data validation was tedious work, but showed a few (typing) errors in the data we recorded. Now we’re back to checking weather forecasts. Eager to fly again. Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after …

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4 July 2016 – Aerial survey kicks off

(by Meike Scheidat, Aerial Survey Co-ordinator)

The aerial survey component of the SCANS-III survey officially started on 27 June! A lot of people have worked towards this moment and the last weeks and months were filled with intense preparations. Getting equipment ready, finalizing transect lines & protocols, designating flight plans per team and getting all teams to their starting points.

The data will be collected simultaneously by seven aircraft and their aerial survey teams. Each team consists of three observers and the pilot. One team (team VI) will fly with two observer teams on board to conduct an experiment testing different data collection protocols.

Team VI double observer teamsTeam VI with the double observer team setup. The plane has two sets of bubble windows allowing two observers to work in the back and two in the front. The two data recorders are located in the middle. (Photo: Cecile Dars)

 

 

Over the next 30 days these planes will be covering the whole North Sea and adjacent shelf waters to the north, west and south.

The 24 observers are highly experienced in aerial surveys, coming from at least six nationalities – some of them have several passports!  Each team has a priority plan to cover specific sets of surveys that have been designed for each survey block. There are a total of 26 blocks and the aim is to cover each area twice if the weather allows but at least once.

The first flights (28-30 June):

On Monday all teams assembled at their respective bases, which are spread out across Atlantic Europe from northern Norway to Portugal. This first day was spent on training and doing some “dry runs” with the equipment.

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Pilot Peter (Team IV) preparing the flight plan. Flexibility is key when lastminute changes need to be done to accommodate weather or area closures. (Photo: Hans Verdaat)

 

 

Team V preparation

A last read of the protocol by Team V before going on board. Six teams use this type of plane – a Partenavia P68 – equipped with bubble windows. (Photo: Olivier van Canneyt)

 

 

Surveys are run with two observers at either side of the plane searching through bubble windows. These allow an unobstructed view of the water surface – and any cetacean that might be swimming there. The third observer (called “navigator”) logs all environmental and sighting data into a small field computer.

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Team II in the air

 

 

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View from the bubble window (Team II)

 

 

Weather conditions on Tuesday 28 June were good enough for a number of teams to start surveying. Other teams followed suit over the next few days – using even small good weather windows to begin covering their transect lines. Over the first three days six of the seven teams were able to be airborne. Unfortunately team VII remained grounded due to high winds blowing along the coast of Portugal.

In these first three days the teams made around 250 cetacean sightings: harbour porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, striped dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, pilot whales, minke whales and one sperm whale. A basking shark was also seen in the North Sea.

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The view from the front position of the data logger (“navigator”) of Team IV. Spot the minke whale! (Photo: Nicole Janinhoff)

 

Over the next week, the weather forecast is variable with some storms moving through but also some calmer weather. Hopefully some teams will be able to continue their work in the air. Others are now busy with data quality control – a sometimes tedious but essential job to make sure all the collected data are correct. In any case, all teams are on stand-by and as soon as the winds go down they will be in the air again!