RESEARCH

Dive into our site and find out about: the whales and dolphins of the Azores

SPERM WHALES   cachalote

Our main research subject is the sperm whale. They are the largest of the toothed whales and can be found in the Azores all year round. Sperm whale flukes (tails) have distinctive markings, like human fingerprints. We take photos of each individual tail and using those markings (photo-identification), we try to determine population levels, migration patterns and social organisation of the groups we see. Lisa’s catalogue is approaching 3000 individual animals. She also keeps a catalogue of sperm whales that have been photographed around the North Atlantic and by matching these photos, has discovered some amazing results! Collaborating with SECAC in the Canaries and the Madeira Whale Museum, Lisa has found that some of the females that we see during the season have been sighted in either the Canaries or Madeira! Several of the big males seen have been observed in Norway, using photos taken by whale watching companies in Tromso & Andenes. Several of the female sperm whales have remained together for over 25 years, showing how stable the family groups of sperm whales are.

BALLEN WHALES sercices 01 over

During the spring, the Azores is a hotspot for baleen whales, making their migration from the feeding grounds further South to feeding grounds in the North. Baleen whales, include the largest animal on the planet: the blue whale. We also see fin, Sei and humpback whales. These whales also have unique individual markings either on the fluke or the dorsal fins & mottling pattern on their back. Collaboration is again key and several blue whales have been sighted in other regions, such as Spitzbergen, Iceland and Canada. The humpback whales we observe appear to be part of the endangered Cape Verde population, rather than the more abundant Caribbean population, which was just removed from the endangered list in 2016. Humpback whales have been matched between the Azores, Norway and Cape Verde Islands, with 2 animals being seen in all 3 places!!

DOLPHINS   golfinhos

Photographs are also taken of dorsal fins of 4 species of dolphin. Bottlenose & Risso’s dolphin as well as false killer & pilot whales (also dolphin!!) are catalogued. Many of the bottlenose and Risso’s dolphin we see are part of resident populations, with individuals recognised by markings on their dorsal fins. It appears that false killer whales may also be resident, just less abundant than the other 2. Short fin pilot whales seem to be more migratory, showing up for the summer and then returning further south for the winter months.

TURTLES   turtle

Loggerhead turtles are often seen during your tour. We have been collaborating with the University of Florida/University of the Azores turtle tagging project for more than 20 years. If we can catch a turtle, we measure it and then attach 2 flipper tags, before releasing the turtle back to the sea. All sea turtles are currently facing many problems, mostly man made. They take the bait on long lines and then drown to death if the lines are not pulled in soon enough. They also become entangled in fishing nets, not only while they are being used, but often they are “lost” and keep fishing for years. Turtles eat mainly jellyfish and unfortunately, plastic bags look just like their food source. If they ingest too much plastic, they will die. So we hope by tagging some of the animals, areas that are critical to turtles can be managed better. And you can do your small part too, don’t use plastic bags!!

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Participating on one of our tours funds the research we do so you do not have to do any work while on board and you are free to sit back and relax. We have a full crew on board taking care of all the chores and research and the atmosphere on board is very relaxed and informal.

OUR ACHIEVEMENTS SO FAR?

  • Doubled the Azores sperm whale photo-ID catalogue to over 3000 individual animals
  • Identified the first ever matches of individual whales seen between the Azores, Canaries & Madeira
  • Discovered the first matches of male sperm whales between the Azores and Norway
  • Discovered 13 females that have made return trips between the Azores and the Canary Islands
  • Collected skin samples and photographic data on Azorean sperm whales and 19 other species
  • Participated in the first sighting of a North Atlantic Right whale for 100 years
  • Presented our findings to the scientific community via the European Cetacean and Marine Mammal Society conferences, and the journals of the University of the Azores and the International Whaling Commission
  • Helped the Azores tourism industry by bringing low impact tours to the islands and given nearly 500 people a great holiday
  • Increased awareness of the cetaceans to the people of the islands, showing them that they are benefiting from the cetaceans, without having to hunt them.» Raised thousands of pounds for local causes and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS)» Taken local school children out for free trips to see the cetaceans » Worked with the local government to introduce regulations to help protect the cetaceans from harassment
  • Worked with the Portuguese tourist office to help promote the Azores and assisted other local whale watching companies to get established 

 

OUR MAIN RESEARCH SUBJECT IS THE SPERM WHALE

Long distance movements of female/immature sperm whales in the North Atlantic

Sperm whales are present in all oceans, but little is known about their movements or migration patterns. Their preferred habitat is deep ocean waters off the continental shelf. Oceanic islands offer an opportunity to observe these animals relatively close to shore.

pdf Full article

A link between male sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus, of the Azores and Norway

Little is known about the movements of male sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus, in the North Atlantic. Recoveries of traditional harpoons and tags during commercial whaling indicated movements from Nova Scotia to Spain and from the Azores to Iceland and Spain.

pdf Full article

Current Knowledge on the Distribution and Relative Abundance of Humpback Whales

During the winter/spring months from 1990 to 2009, 13 cetacean surveys were conducted around the Cape Verde Islands off West Africa. The main target species was the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Study periods varied from 14 to 90 d in duration.

pdf Full article

The Azores Constitute a Migratory Stopover for Humpback Whales in the North Atlantic Ocean

While humpback whales have long been known to occur in the Azores, their numbers have been few, providing little opportunity to investigate their movement patterns or habitat use.

pdf Full article

Cetacean surveys in the Cape Verde Islands

We examined the distribution of cetaceans in the waters of the Cape Verde Islands in 2000 and 2001. Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), a Yankee whaling target species in these waters, were commonly detected acoustically and visually along with smaller cetacean species, predominantly in the northeast, windward quarter of the archipelago.

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Bryde’s whales, Balaenoptera edeni, observed in the Azores

The first sighting was of a mother and calf pair on 3 July. This pair was seen on several other occasions during the summer.In addition five other individuals were observed separately from the mother–calf pair.

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Winter sighting of a known western North Atlantic right whale in the Azores

A right whale from the western North Atlantic population, sighted in the Azores, was subsequently found to have moved back to the northwest Atlantic. The whale was sighted in the Azores on 5 January 2009 travelling in a west-south westerly direction at a constant speed.

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Mark-recapture analysis of sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) photo-id data from the Azores (1987-1995)

Population estimates for female or immature male sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) in a region within the Azores archipelago are given, based on photo-identification studies with mark-recapture analysis. The study area encompassed the Central Group of islands and the island of São Miguel.

pdf Full article