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Renaissance Whale Diaries Feb 2012 April 2012

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Special thanks to Renaissance Services SAOG

 

Written by Andy Willson, ESO Marine Team

 
 
This season’s diary documents work of the Renaissance Whale and Dolphin Project in Dhofar and efforts of the ESO research team to build up the picture of how whales and dolphins are utilising the habitat in the area and how we can better understand their behaviour, population status and seasonal movements. Work by the team is conducted through boat and land based observations with the focal subject of this work being The Arabian Sea Humpback Whale, a small, endangered and isolated population of whales eking out a life in this remote corner of the Northern Indian Ocean.
 
 
The Return to Whale Country…
 
 
Time at last to reflect on a busy couple of months. We are finally back to the simple pleasures of a sand-less bed and fresh water shower … achy bones have regenerated and the last salty crusts of beach life washed off from 6 weeks of survey along Oman’s coast tracking the Arabian Sea Humpback Whale with the Renaissance Whale and Dolphin Project team.
 
 
Going back a year to March 2011, our team trundled down to Dhofar with boats, tents and survey gear, to focus our survey efforts on areas previously identified as hotspots for these rare and endangered animals…. What we saw was beyond expectations and blew us away. Humpbacks engaged in feeding and breeding related behaviour all within a small area… individuals from our catalogue of Omani Whales sighted 10 years previously turned up… and numerous other species of marine mammals entered the same arena utilising the same habitat. 
 
                 
 
Humpback whales observed feeding in Dhofar, March 2011
 
 
We walked away from the experience filled with more questions than ever. How did the humpbacks know to go there to feed? Did they feed there every year? What were they feeding on? Was it the same whales coming each time? If we were seeing breeding related behaviour, where were all the calves? Were they engaged in the same behaviour elsewhere? 
 
 
So our mission for this year, thanks to the continued support from Renaissance SAOG, was to return to the same site with increased capabilities…the ability to investigate and to document these whales with more determination than ever.
 
 
Having grabbed the attention of the international scientific community from the team’s annual reports to the International Whaling Commission, the whales were ready for the next step onto the world stage. A chance to star alongside one of the greatest names in natural history broadcasting………..
 
 
 
Take 1… and ‘ACTION’!
 
Salalah 19th February. It was set to be an eventful couple of months, and the challenge was on…after a week of preparations we had finally arrived in Salalah and hooked up with a film crew from the BBC Natural History Unit (NHU)… there was one day to get 2 boats, 10 people, a kitchen, workshop, office, survey equipment, camping gear, 3000 litres of fuel and 300kgs of movie production equipment through a dust storm and set up at our research site on the Dhofar coastline).
 
 
 
Early morning view of ‘Camp Whale’
 
 
 
Our home and film set for the coming weeks
 
 
The NHU are known for work in remote locations, captivating audiences around the world with their spectacular wildlife documentaries fronted by long-time narrator and wildlife broadcasting enthusiast David Attenborough. Recent epics have included the series ‘Blue Planet’, ‘Planet Earth’, ‘Life’ and their last offering ‘Frozen Planet’. Now pushing ahead their new project, the crew had stepped out of the  Arctic freezer and into the desert oven, on a mission to collect footage for their latest production ‘Wild Arabia’….
 
 
So now they were on site with us…hoping by following us in our exploits they would find the whales. The pressure was now on for our team of intrepid scientists to make it happen… our best chance to let the whales inform the world of their presence and precarious life as a species hanging on to the edge of existence….
 
 
 
Field shot director David Marks settling into running the show from ‘Blue Peter’, their boat for the shoot
 
 
20th February. Into the blue …and the dust
 
 
Either our timing was out or the weather was playing games with us. Having been drowned out by super storms and showers on the previous October survey, we were now getting the hair dryer effect as fresh winds picked up the desert heat from the north and battered our tents distributing its dust and sand to all unwanted corners of our  camp…including cups of tea, Weetabix, my computer keyboard and the BBC’s precious camera gear!
 
 
So there was nothing to it but to leave chaos behind, get wet, and complete the first task of the mission, recovering the underwater acoustic recording equipment deployed some 3 months before. The units were deployed with the aim of capturing the vocalisations and echolocation acoustics of marine mammals in the area for the team to build up an idea of the frequency at which they pass by and what behaviour they are engaged in. Of particular interest in this study is the song of the humpback whale…and this most recent deployment on the seabed was intended to document the activities during a period of the year when singing is at a peak and it is expected that breeding is taking place. Once downloaded and refilled with batteries, the replacement of units back in the field just days later would allow us to increase our powers of observation whilst on survey with an extra set of ears listening out for us 24/7. 
 
 
 
Preparing the acoustic units before deployment
 
 
Divers take an early morning dive to replace the acoustic units on the seabed
 
 
21st to 27th February. The Cast Lines up
 
 
The ‘Moth Man’ was back. Tim Collins who has been working as a key scientific advisor to the group since its inception 12 years before had flown in especially for the survey. Employed with one of ESO’s partners in whale research, the ‘Wildlife Conservation Society’, Tim left Oman in 2003 to take up a full time position working with a much larger humpback population that winters off the shores of West Africa. We were all pleased to have him back in the field and on board with us…all being eager to learn more from the experience he had built up in Africa. At home Tim could typically work with 20 whales a day…. With our sparse population we would be lucky to work with 20 whales in a year….
 
 
 
Tim Collins (left) and Howard Grey (right) keep their eyes peeled for signs of life beneath the waves
 
 
The first of the swimming cast to meet the film crew were the local pod of Indo-pacific Humpback Dolphins that were sighted almost daily as they cruised along the rocky shoreline past the camp, ducking, diving and foraging as they went. Although they were up early…they usually didn’t seem to warm much to all the attention of cameras and would stealthily slip away beneath the waves or melt into the backdrop of craggy rocks and grey/blue turbid waters that they seem to thrive in along this coastline.
 
 
 
ESO scientific team takes a moment to take photo-identification pictures of Indo-pacific humpback dolphins
 
 
During these first few days of the survey unexpected visitors kept sounding out their presence through the on board hydrophone. The underwater microphone was allowing us to listen in to the chatter of whales exploring the deep ocean below us...something not expected so close to shore. ‘Click’ ‘click’ ‘click’ crackled through the headphones, rhythmic and punctuated. 
 
 
The expectation of encounters with whales was building and on this particular morning it was the loudest yet. But as the wind built and whipped up the sea into a rolling mess the hopes of sighting something from the boat during the morning diminished. We decided to stall and dip the hydrophone in the water one last time before giving in to the weather and head for the safety of the anchorage. The distinct sound of Sperm Whales continued to click through the headphones… the whales were close but where? ‘BREACH’ was suddenly shouted out by 3 people on board simultaneously…. Who and what was breaching? The hydrophone dangling over the side of the boat on a cable 15m below, and was pulled back to the surface in no time. ‘ESO-1’, the projects new survey vessel, leapt into life and picked its way carefully through the surf towards what remained of the foamy sea left as the remnants of the splash some 3km away.
 
 
Again fingers pointed for the horizon and ‘breach’ was called out by the crew across the howl of wind as we bounced closer to the action. Within a kilometre things were clearer. It was a large pod of Sperm Whales with a couple of individuals breaching…a rarely captured sight…and a surprise to all… I think in the back of our minds we all had the initial thought we had found our humpbacks, which are more commonly observed in this area leaping around….but to see Sperm Whales doing this was a moment to capture.
 
 
And there were many. Multiple groups of the whales together all pointed southwards,  and slowly ploughing along in the direction of the oncoming weather…each animal becoming just visible as the crests of waves broke and rolled across their backs. It wasn’t a day for filming…and even grabbing a few still pictures was proving to be a challenge…
 
 
 
 
 
Sperm Whales captured diving and running into rough seas as the crew of ESO-1
struggles to keep pace with the action
 
 
As the days progressed on through the first week the scientific team were getting continuously frustrated by the wind and dusty conditions… we weren’t getting nearly enough time on the water to give us a decent chance to find whales, and when we were the visibility was poor. Extra members of the team were dispatched to sit on cliff tops and improve chances of sightings…. Having this bird’s eye view of looking down from the cliffs was an improved strategy and we started to pick out some more action…
 
 
 
Miguel Willis part of the film crew sets up an observation station on a cliff overlooking the study site
 
 
Common dolphins were spotted from these cliff tops almost daily at distances of up to 5km away… …performing leaps as they went…The cliff top stations could now act as primary observation posts and call the vessels which could be guided to each sighting.
 
 
 
 
 
Common dolphins, displaying their signature move…the high-jump
 
 
False Killer Whales also cruised into the area. Next to Killer Whales, these apex predators of the marine mammal world are a force to be reckoned with…and would be a threat to juveniles whales and small dolphins alike…their presence for us though was arguably a positive thing…were they in the area looking for the same thing we were?
 
 
Sperm Whales were sighted again several times in the same location…and although we recorded some distant humpback whale song, sightings of them were elusive.
 
 
Sperm whales ‘log’ at the surface in calm weather
 
 
Juvenile sperm whale observed breaching in the distance
 
 
The film crew were getting anxious…. For our team no sighting of humpbacks was a result in itself…it meant that perhaps the oceanographic conditions that brought the humpback whales here the year before were not the same this year…. Perhaps it wasn’t the hotspot we thought it was. For the BBC though no sightings was a bad result and as the days progressed towards the end of this first week anxiety was building. Where were the whales and would they make an appearance and take to their stage?
 
 
 
 
 
Camera men Richard Farish and Mateo Willis ever ready to catch the action…
 
 
The morning of the 27th of February gave us some confidence…there was food around…ambling out of the anchorage at 7 am we ran into a group of bottlenose dolphins. The water was alive as they leapt and thrashed…corralling schooling fish into a tight ball… tails were flicked and stunned prey thrown into the air until there was nothing left but the glinting remains of scales slowly sinking down into the blue. Breakfast was served up and devoured within minutes… much more spectacular and efficient than our own bleary eyed efforts just half an hour before at the campsite. 
 
 
 
 
 
28th February. A Brief Encounter…
 
 
Early on the 28th as an onboard breakfast of cheese and jappaties was being passed around amongst the crew on ESO-1 the radio crackled into life… ‘Blow… three hundred meters…. 2 o’clock off our starboard bow’. The BBC boat had a sighting of a whale to the north, it was heading our way, and now the whale was visible, surfacing and blowing every 10 minutes. The weather was finally calm and here we hoped was our chance. Our mission to find out who it was and what it was doing…to take pictures of its tail fluke and both sides of its dorsal so that we could compare it to the 80 odd animals in our catalogue of humpback whales…then if possible to follow it at distance and work out what it was doing in the area. Tension grew as we projected an imaginary track line of the whale’s movements past us and matched our boat speed and course so that we could carefully close in on it for the next surfacing… ‘Pfffffft’ went the blow. Success. We all immediately turned in the direction of the noise. The whispy blow of spray briefly lit up in the morning sun before melting away into the background. It was 20m away…’Pffft’ it went again and Rob with the camera was ready to capture it…  It turned towards us and took a dive, frustratingly giving away none of its identifiable features.
 
 
Seconds later we saw watery ‘footprints’ moving towards us. A ‘Footprint’ is the term used to describe the smoothed surface agitation on the water left by the whale’s movements as it slowly propels itself along by kicking its tail back and forth….
 
 
Ahead of the prints a shadow began to emerge from the depths…as the shadow loomed larger its features were slowly unveiled…dappled sunlight shone through the glassy sea, flickering across its mass as the whale gracefully approached, rolled on its side and cruised beneath the boat. 
 
 
We were looking into the eye of a whale and it was looking back at us…time stopped…. everyone was momentarily mesmerised….and then it was gone. Never surfaced again. One moment we engaged with our subject…and the next we were left bobbing on the ocean, sitting there puzzled as to how it had evaded us and slipped away so easily…. Our mystery guest had left the scientific team with no chance of working out who it was or where it was going… and the BBC film crew without a scoop.
 
 
Mystery humpback cruises gently just meters below the research vessel
 
 
Another couple of days passed with fruitless searching.
 
 
1st March The Return of Chomp
 
We were getting closer. We had been zig-zagging the boat across the bay for an hour stopping every 5 minutes and dipping in the hydrophone for a couple of minutes to determine the loudness and map the source of a distant whale song. Then it stopped. ‘Hmmmf lost it’ were the mutters on the boat. Searching for whales with our acoustic gear was usually quite productive but when the whale stops singing its like someone flicking off the light switch and being left in the dark.
 
 
Project Manager Robert Baldwin uses the hydrophone equipment
to tune into the acoustic realm of the whales
 
We sat back and consoled ourselves with the offerings of lunch….much the same as breakfast! A never ending supply of boiled eggs, ‘plastic’ cheese, dates and bread all squashed together into a small tiffin box….. we left the hydrophone in the water just in case the whale decided to start bellowing out its eerie tune again… but all we could hear was the distant whine of outboard engines as fishermen worked their way up and down the coastline in small skiffs. The BBC boat trailing behind us stopped and also resigned themselves into the same daily lunch routine… 
 
 
‘Pffffffft’….. ‘Pfffft’ came from the distance. Heads craned and eyes strained against the glare of the sun in the direction that the sound came from. In the distance the distinguished form of a humpback whale slowly broke the surface as the distinctive dorsal fin rose upwards through the apex of a dive and then submerged, trailed by the silhouette of the tail fluke on its way down. Inadvertently we had chosen to lunch on the spot where our singer had been all morning.
 
 
Lunch was off. Whale was on. We didn’t race in. These animals are notoriously sensitive to boats whizzing towards them. Being cautious and gentle with them is the best approach. It didn’t look to be in a particular hurry to get out of there anyway… we decided to play it cool. 
 
 
Our new quiet engines purred into life, and we whispered a little closer and stopped. Slowly building up the trust and confidence of the animal, edging and drifting a little closer each time it surfaced and then stopping… and there it was. Just in the right place for that ‘photo ID moment’. The right dorsal fluke rose again…and the high-speed shutter on the camera whirred away as Tim caught a perfect sequence of the tail fluke rising up before it disappeared once again. On board ESO-1 we jostled together to peer into the cameras small LCD screen to see who it was. Tim zoomed in so we could get an enlarged image of the fluke … it was ‘Chomp’. 
 
 
Chomp lifts his tail for the cameras as ESO-1 stands by
 
Chomp was first seen off Muscat by Tim and colleague Fergus in December 2000 after surfacing from a scuba dive. As well as a pet name, ‘Chomp’ this animal is also accredited with an individual identification number..’OM00-009’ in our whale ID catalogue. 
 
 
The encounter had made Tim’s trip….worth travelling all that way to see an animal he had worked with some 12 years before. Over a 2 year period Tim and Chomp had inadvertently run into each other on 4 separate occasions off Oman’s coastline.
 
 
Chomp, had also been seen in exactly the same place in our March 2011 survey. He is a survivor. He has scars and wounds to show for his troubles…net entanglements, a vessel strike and bites from predators. Although these threats are alarming it gives some hope that the whales have some resilience and determination to fight for survival…a trait they will surely need if their population is to rebound back to healthy numbers.
 
 
 
 
Sequence of pictures showing Chomp’s distinguishing features. A tail fluke profile showing the bite where a predator has taken out a piece of his tail. Dorsal shots showing scarring from net entanglements and fresh scaring from a rotating propeller that will have glanced off his back as a vessel struck him
 
 
At last, some action for the camera crew …and some relief on our part. As Chomp headed up into the rising seas the excitement built, and a volunteer team from ESO got an amazing show as Chomp responded with 3 successive breaches one after the other…the seemingly impossible action of 15 tonnes of animal rising out of the water and falling back with an almighty splash! 
 
 
 
Chomp reaches for the sky and spreads his wings…
 
 
3rd March. The Deep Blue Opera
 
 
The previous day had been interesting…in our search for the humpbacks we had stumbled on Bryde’s Whales. A mother and calf…moving quickly on the surface and lunging through a bait ball of tightly packed fish…
 
 
Usually stealthy and difficult to see, the young one gave the game away breaching a number of times as it excited itself around its food. Bryde’s are characteristically weary of boats and elusive animals…Mum didn’t seem impressed with the antics and quickly hurried her offspring off the scene as fast as she could.
 
 
The breach gave a new perspective on this animal…out of the water it became obvious how much their appearance differed from the humpback. A truly streamlined torpedo-shaped beast designed for speed and agility. No wonder they were hard to track.
 
 
 
A young Bryde’s whale tests its surface to air launching capabilities!
 
It was back to the method of acoustic searching work on the last day of the first shoot. Nothing had been seen from the cliffs all morning and we had to get some action. Two weeks had passed and really we hadn’t got the footage we were hoping for. We were due to pack up and return to Muscat the next day….and then the Opera started. Chomp broke into song in the same place we had seen him a couple of days before…. surfacing every 20 minuets for a few brief breaths an then disappearing again.
 
 
We had been listening to song reverberating through the hull of the boat for a couple of hours, and then it stopped… time to put all eyes out and see if Chomp had finshed his performance. Was he going to move on somewhere else?  He was….
 
 
 
 
 
Chomp approaches the film crew and takes a final bow for his song and breaching efforts….
 
 
Exit stage left…Chomp blew for the last time, arched his back and kicked his way off into the bay round the corner
 
 
The curtains had dropped. It was the end of the first half of the performance and the critics in the front row seats were not happy… disappointment at the lack of action over the previous two weeks. 
 
 
On the back of an escalating sand storm it was time for the weathered film crew and sleep deprived scientists to break camp, head home and make preparations to return with a new cast and revived motivation for the second half of the show in mid April….
 

Tune in soon for ‘Part 2’ of the Whale Diaries….. when, at last, the humpback action begins in earnest!
 

 

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