Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Virtual Whale Watching

March 15th and 16th 2014, and without even leaving the Hilton Hotel I had guided nearly 10 whale watching trips in the Azores. I had helped passengers into rather fetching bright orange, bulky lifejackets and then climb into our boat. I had given them a chat about not throwing rubbish (or themselves!) overboard, about how we follow whale watching guidelines and how we collect data, turning round and pointing to my science guide, clipboard in their hand. We had then headed off, passing yachts and other boats, heading out past mount Pico. I had told them what to look for in order to help us find whales and dolphins, pointing out that it did not matter whether it turned out to be a whale, a wave or an office chair (it happens to the best of us!) I would rather they shout out. And not before too long we had come across a huge flock of Cory’s shearwaters followed swiftly by a small group of Risso’s dolphin. Heading on and we come across our first sperm whale, the largest of the toothed whales and famed for being Moby Dick. We get even more excited as suddenly a mother and her calf surface just ahead, resting at the surface before they dive, the mother lifting her tail high out of the water. 

Lifejackets, boat and whales!

We continue on, sperm whales can hold their breathes for over an hour so she may be some time, and are suddenly surrounded by a huge mixed group of bottlenose and common dolphins. The common dolphins come so close you can see them under water and hear them whistling. As quickly as they arrived the dolphins are gone and our search continues. As we travel I reach over and scoop a plastic bag from over the side, highlighting the issues of plastic in our oceans and the problems it causes when eaten by whales, dolphins and turtles. Then there ahead, another sperm whale, a big male this time. He is huge. We watch as he breathes at the surface, you can feel the spray from his blow on your cheek, before he too lifts his massive tail into the air and dives. Camera’s click madly as out science guide gets a picture for photo ID. 

A sperm whale dives beneath the waves

It’s not over though as we now come across a nursery group of young sperm whales. Time for the hydrophone. With one passenger clasping the end of the rope we lower the underwater microphone over the side and listen carefully. Regular clicks can then be heard, sperm whales echolocating beneath us, searching for their prey. Before too long it is time to leave, the last whale lifts it tail and dives beneath the waves, we haul in the hydrophone and head for home. But never say never, as we speed a long one final dolphin leaps out from infront of us. 

One final leap of a dolphin!

And then there is land, and more boats and the harbour again. We are back. I thank them for coming, for yelling loudly everytime they saw a whale, and for listening. I tell them to go and ask whale watch operators whether they follow guidelines, pick up litter, collect data, and encourage them to go whale watching responsibly. 

This is virtual whale watching WhaleFest style. The boats are real, the lifejackets are real, the whales are real, well on the screen they are. Real water is sprayed at the kids when the whale surfaces, eliciting shouts of surprise and delight. The clicks and whistles are real recordings. You can really feel the wind in your hair as a fan surreptitiously whirls from the side of the screen. And the screen! A huge, curved horseshoe shaped behemoth of a screen that really does make you feel like you are there. 

That was my WhaleFest 2014. Now perhaps I should actually go to the Azores…..

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Sweet Release

When I first heard about the Orca Morgan’s story I was angry. Angry at those who had stolen her chance of finding her family and stolen her life. It’s not the fact that she was taken from the wild, she was alone and starving when found, it’s natural to want to help. That I understand. What I am angry about is that once in human care she was put on display against the conditions of her permit, fed dead instead of live fish and ultimately, despite all the evidence and a viable release programme, sent to live the rest of her days in a concrete tank in Tenerife where she is bullied and abused by the other whales and it seems her keepers.

The fight to free Morgan continues, the verdict from the latest court hearing is due sometime in April (they keep delaying for some reason…) and all the while people keep protesting, raising awareness not only of Morgan’s story but also of the plight of all other captive cetaceans. The battle against SeaWorld and all other dolphinariums is well and truly underway.

The issue of whales and dolphins being kept in captivity and particularly Morgan is just one of the campaigns the World Cetacean Alliance is running. The Long Swim to Freedom campaign features the issue to free Morgan AND to save the last 50 Maui’s dolphins – New Zealand’s critically endangered endemic dolphin. And what better way to raise awareness and support for this campaign then at WhaleFest 2014 the world’s biggest celebration of wild whales and dolphins. But how to make an impact beyond those who tread the halls of WhaleFest? How to send a message to the world beyond?

Well, why do what we are all dreaming of and release an Orca?

Sounds impossible right? Well for Morgan, and the many other Orca in captivity there are very real options for this! But aside from that, for a group of willing volunteers no matter how much they may want to, releasing a real Orca into the sea off Brighton may be pushing it. But who says it has to be real to make an impact? 

Our Morgan, lifted onto Brighton beach 

So that is what the amazing people at WhaleFest did. They got a life sized Orca, named Morgan, and they drove her to the promenade in a real rescue stretcher. There she was hoisted up and over the railings onto the pebble beach using a real crane. From there, amongst the crowds of people, she was carried down the beach and into the water. Rescue boats from British Divers Marine Life Rescue (the charity which actually does rescue stranded whales and dolphins from around the British coast) came and escorted her offshore. Through the mist of a foggy evening our Morgan was set free, to the tumultuous shouts and applause of the watching crowd.

Followed by crowds Morgan is carried down the beach to the sea

Once on the water she is taken over to waiting rescue boats
by non other than World Renowned Orca Researcher Ingrid Visser

BDMLR boats lead Morgan away into the fog and to her freedom

Of course our Morgan was brought back ashore – we are certainly not ones to pollute our ocean with rubber and plastic no matter what shape it takes – but the message was there, clear and simple. Free Morgan.

Find out more about the fight to Free Morgan at the Free Morgan Foundation website and find out more about the World Cetacean Alliance and the work they are doing here. 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

In a pear tree...?

A hooked blood red bill, red rims circling a beady black eye. A broad black line runs through the eye down and round a creamy white bib. Startling black streaks line the neck merging into a grey belly that switches to a soft brown underneath. Russet brown, black and white stripes stand out brilliantly on the flanks. The back is that soft brown while the top of the tail returns to grey. A small, dumpy bird that sits on bright red scaly legs and flies with rapid stiff wings when spooked….

Such a strange exotic looking bird but rather than sitting in a pear tree these guys are usually found running through open fields in small groups. It is the red-legged partridge...

Red-legged Partridge

Not a native species to Britain, but an introduced species from continental Europe where it is mainly found in France and Spain. These days as well as the wild population an estimated 6 million red-legged partridge are released each year for shooting.

Aside from being a non-native species whose numbers are artificially inflated there is another reason why red-legged partridge are not ringed. Under the British and Irish Ringing Scheme in the majority of cases the metal ring is placed on a bird’s tarsus. There are very few exceptions (usually waders) where the metal ring or colour rings are placed on the tibia. Under other ringing schemes they do ring on the tibia as my lovely Mediterranean gull is demonstrating...

Foreign ringed Mediterranean Gull with rings on tibia and tarsus

The red-legged partridge has however a spur (big bump) on its tarsus. So when one blundered into my net, leaving a neat partridge shaped hole (oops!), I couldn’t ring it but I could marvel at this rather striking bird.

Red-legged Partridge highlighting the spur on its tarsus