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Whale world record and the power of citizen science

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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A sperm whale has been observed in the Azores archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic ocean over a 34 year time span, setting an observation record in the Atlantic and very possibly the world. The observations over this record-breaking time span were made by a combination of scientists and citizen scientists, showing once again the power of this increasingly prominent branch of science.

34 year record

The female sperm whale “19” was first seen in 1987 in the Azores during the research cruises of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Scientists know she is a female, because she was spotted with several calves over the years. Thirty-four years later she was spotted again by cetacean scientist Lisa Steiner of Whale Watch Azores.

In between she was recorded in 1991, 1994, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2015, 2016 and 2021 by a combination of science and citizen science projects. She has not been seen outside of the Azores, but it is possible that her group has travelled to other parts of Macaronesia, like several other groups have.

CSI of the seas

Steiner, who is based on the Azores and has followed whales around the North Atlantic for 33 years, says: “Whale tails (flukes) are like fingerprints. By photographing flukes and then matching them up like a CSI of the seas, we can trace the movements of the animals. Being able to follow an animal for 34 years is amazing and once again shows the power of long-term datasets.” The significance of such findings goes well beyond mere scientific curiosity, however. As Steiner explains, “hearing the histories of individual whales catches the public’s imagination, because personal stories are much more interesting to the general public than generalisations, leading to increased interest and support. That support is priceless when protections for animals are being considered”.

Lisa Steiner (right) with citizen scientists spotting whales in front of Pico Island, Azores

Death and conservation

One example is whale “3418”, also a sperm whale, who was killed by a high-speed ferry in the Canaries. He had been seen for 15 years in the Azores, beginning when he was still a calf, before making the trip to the Canary Islands. His tragic and premature death is being used to promote speed limits of the high-speed inter-island ferries around the Canaries.

Citizen science gathers valuable data

Citizen science is defined as public participation in scientific research. Outcomes are often advancements in scientific research, as well as an increase in the public’s understanding of science. In nature conservation in particular, international citizen science has become increasingly important as a duel stream of data and funding. An example of this, citizen scientists of Biosphere Expeditions (an international non-profit NGO at the forefront of wildlife conservation powered by citizen science) have worked with Steiner on an annual Azores expedition since 2004 and contributed to this record-breaking fluke dataset.

Sperm whale fluke (c) Lisa Steiner

Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, says the NGO “is proud to have contributed a piece of the puzzle to this Atlantic or possibly world record. This shows again how citizen science is part of the solution. This recent achievement is just the latest in a long line of citizen science contributions since our foundation in 1999, such as the creation of protected areas on four continents, amongst many others. Thank you to all our citizen and professional scientist, as well as all the other helpers over the years.”

For more information about Biosphere Expeditions visit their website by clicking here.

Header image: Sperm whale and calf (c) Gabriel Barathieu

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DIVING talks 2022: 4 great reasons why you should attend!

European DTA Team

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International Dive Show DIVING talks 2022 takes place from 6-9 October in Troia, Portugal. Here’s four great reasons why you should attend…

1. The ‘Talks’ and the Speakers

What do you get when you have in the same room Dr Alessandro Marroni, Dr Óscar Camacho and Dr Simon Mitchell? Undoubtedly an incredible amount of knowledge in diving physiology and hyperbaric medicine. If you are a diver, you know the value of such a debate.

What do you expect to see in a Bill Stone presentation?

Wouldn’t you like to discuss with Thomas Stachura, Leigh Bishop or Armando Ribeiro their findings underwater in the expeditions that led to the discovery and identification of new shipwrecks?

2. The Exhibition: brands and trials

It’s about talking with ‘who knows’ and testing that piece of equipment even underwater if you want!

Friday, October 7, is BRANDS DAY. Try dive the Mares SCR Horizon, test your preferred scooter, and more. Bring shorts or a swimming suit. This is happening in the swimming pool. Join us on October 7. Diving Talks is also Brands Day!

3. DIVING talks is a family/ partner friend event

You don’t need to leave your family or partner behind. 

If you want to attend, transform this trip into a partner or family trip to Portugal. There are many things they can do while you enjoy the Talks.

It is not that you need to have something planned. The peninsula is such a fantastic site to enjoy; there’s the beach if you want to relax by the sea, there are trails you can check out, or you can relax by the pool.

4. YOU CAN ACTUALLY DIVE!

If you have free time and want to explore Portugal underwater, DIVING talks can be the pretext for a ‘stay and dive’ side-program.

Diving talks partnered with Portugal Dive, a boutique dive concierge that organizes dive trips to Portugal; the mainland and in the Azores and Madeira archipelagos.

Diving recreational or technical, you can expect the European Atlantic’s most transparent waters full of life, schools of fish, the big pelagic, and even monk seals: all that and wrecks, inland caves, you name it.

Opt to arrive one-week earlier or leave one-week later, and chose the stay and dive program for your type of diving and preferences.

For more information, contact Arlindo Serrão via e-mail: arlindo.serrao@portugaldive.com or check out the following links:

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Jeff chats to… Ana Filipa Sobral, Founder of The Manta Catalog Project in the Azores (Watch Video)

Jeff Goodman

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In this exclusive Zoom interview, Jeff Goodman, Scubaverse Editor-at-Large, chats to Ana Filipa Sobral, Founder and Project Leader of The Manta Catalog Project in the Azores.

Ana Filipa Sobral is a marine biologist and conservationist based in the Azores Islands. She moved to the Azores in 2011 and once there, realised that this was one of the few places in the world where Sicklefin Devil Rays (Mobula tarapacana) gather in large groups, making it a strategic place to study them. She started the The Manta Catalog Project and through this project, collects photo ID and occurrence data on Mobulid Rays, with the precious help of divers and dive operators as citizen scientists.

Ana is also finishing her PhD which focuses on population genetics and connectivity of migratory elasmobranchs in oceanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean. The main goal fueling my research has been to help fill the knowledge gaps on elasmobranch biology and ecology to ultimately assist in the design of effective conservation and management plans aimed at protecting their populations in this remote region of the North Atlantic Ocean.

You can find out more about Ana’s important work at: https://mantacatalogazores.wixsite.com/mobulaid/project.


Rather listen to a podcast? Listen to the audio HERE on the Scubaverse podcast channel at Anchor FM.

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