I spent Summer 2019 in Húsavík, a small town in north Iceland, as part of Whale Wise, a research team that aims to promote ocean harmony through effective marine conservation. (Check out our website and social media pages: https://whalewise.org/, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter). Whale Wise is centred around Tom Grove’s PhD project – a student at the University of Edinburgh. The team was made up of individuals from all across the world (the US, Canada, New Zealand, Germany) – people who had an unparalleled love and passion for whales unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The research team’s main focus is to investigate the impact of whale watching on the humpback and blue whales of Skjálfandi Bay.
A quick video summary of my time in Húsavík can be found here:
As a research assistant in the group, my job mainly entailed daily trips out on whale watching boats to conduct behavioural observations of the whales. We would collect data such as the location (angle bearing and distance) of the whale relative to the boat and take identification photographs of the whales. Fun fact: the flukes (the tail) of each whale has a distinctive and unique pattern, much like the fingerprint of humans, that allows us to identify specific individuals.
Another key part of the project was to utilize drones to collect samples of the whale’s exhaled breath – which will then be analysed in the laboratory back in Edinburgh for their hormonal composition, which would tell us about whale stress levels.
We also used drones to take aerial photographs of individual whales, which allows us to make measurements of the whales, and tells us about individual body condition and health.
This was my first experience as part of a research team and doing two full months of field work, and it was an invaluable experience. For one, I did not expect how much going out on the whale watching boats would take out of me. The seasickness that I felt also did not help, but I have to say that after two months here I’ve definitely gotten acclimatized to being on the boat a little more. Another thing that I learnt was the need to be adaptable in doing research: whether we could go out on trips was dependent on the weather, the number of tourists on the boat, and whether there were whales in the bay. There was a solid five day period where we were stuck indoors because of a massive storm that led to all boats being cancelled, and we are currently in a lull period where we haven’t seen whales in the bay for a week.
On a more unfortunate note, there was a serious pilot whale mass stranding not too far from the bay we were based at. I joined a team of researchers to go down to take measurements and biopsy samples of the stranded whales, and that was definitely an emotionally intense experience. It was hard to see the 60 whales lying dead on the beach, to look into their eyes, and to see a baby whale that was less than a week old (we estimated that based on the fact that we could still see its foetal folds and the lack of cartilage in its tail).
Beyond these unfortunate but important lessons learnt however, I also met an incredible group of passionate people here in the whale loving community of Húsavík – the Whale Wise team, whale watching guides, boat captains, other scientists, even naturalists and photographers onboard the National Geographic Explorer. I joined Whale Wise because I was interested in the use of technology in conservation and the environmental field, but the past two months have given me so much more. I fell in love with the whales, solidified my fascination with the ocean, and became inspired by the incredible people I’ve met here to do so much more.
I would like to thank the University of Edinburgh’s Go Abroad Fund for the opportunity to come to Iceland, and for allowing me to have this incredible summer experience that I will never forget.