Marine Conservation Research International is a unique not-for-profit organisation based in the UK conducting practical conservation focused projects internationally on threatened whales and dolphins and their habitats. R/V Song of the Whale is the team’s purpose built sailing research vessel.
Mediterranean Cruise report and new video
The cruise report for a visual and acoustic survey for marine mammals of the Aegean Sea and Levantine Sea, eastern Mediterranean is now available to download. More detailed analysis of the data collected this summer is underway and will be available as a final report early in 2014.
A new GoPro video clip of bowriding Rough-toothed dolphins has been uploaded to the Video gallery.
New reports uploaded
The following reports have been added to the Downloads page:-
- Final report for trans-Atlantic research passages between the UK and USA via the Azores and Iceland, conducted from R/V Song of the Whale 26 March to 28 September 2012
- Final report for a cetacean research project in Iceland conducted from R/V Song of the Whale July to September 2012
- Report of a passive acoustic survey for cetaceans over Portuguese submarine canyons conducted from R/V Song of the Whale May and June 2013
New sound clips added
Spectrograms for Humpback whales and Rough-toothed dolphins have been added to the Sound clips page.
Autumn update from the team
The team are now engaged in the task of analysing the vast amount of acoustic data collected during the summer’s project in the Mediterranean and drafting the first cruise reports. Aboard Song of the Whale Mat is leading an extensive programme of maintenance, and in addition to the usual tasks, preparing the vessel for a full structural survey which is scheduled for early 2014.
This time of year can often seem a bit of an anti-climax after the excitement of the field work, highlights of which included fantastic sightings, stunning underwater GoPro footage and the thrill of finding live porpoises in the Thracian Sea. However an initial scan through the acoustic recordings has resulted in the discovery of important detections of species we hadn’t realised we had encountered when in the field, including detections of beaked whales and harbour porpoises from areas where there has been very little previous survey work. This is really exciting, as is listening again to some of the very unusual detections of the summer, such as these strange octave-stepping whistles from rough-toothed dolphins.
The Sound clips page has recently been updated and a rough-toothed dolphin clip will be added to this shortly.
The Good, the Bad and the Amazing!
Inquisitive Rough-Toothed dolphins
As our research season draws to a close and the team is readying SOTW for the passage back to Ipswich, we look back at the last few months surveying the Eastern Mediterranean. Bow-riding pilot and false-killer whales, breaching fin whales, phosphorescent dolphin tracks, the first live free-swimming porpoises seen in the Northern Aegean Sea since the 1990s, and the first live porpoises ever documented in Turkish Aegean waters, finless bottlenose dolphins, jumping swordfish, new born dolphin calves with foetal folds, mixed dolphin species groups, turtles resting at the surface, a brief sighting of an endangered Mediterranean Monk Seal and countless flying fish were just a few of the highlights. However there were also many challenges including the rapid weather changes in the Northern Aegean, a short-lived fly infestation, the extreme heat, the many goodbyes with changing crew members, many days without any sightings and challenges with permits.
The final weeks of survey around southern Cyprus continued to present surprising and interesting sightings. We picked up a new addition to our crew, Melina Markou, a local Cypriot scientist from the Ministry of the Environment and headed off to cover our planned transects across southern Cyprus and the Eratosthenes Seamount, a proposed CIESM peace park. This area of the Eastern Mediterranean has received very little previous systematic survey effort so we were excited to be able to provide some much needed survey effort. The sightings were few and far between over the next two weeks of survey, which was somewhat expected due to the Eastern Mediterranean having lower levels of primary productivity than the western basin. The hydrophones were much quieter than they had been in the Aegean Sea, mostly filled with the sounds of passing vessels and in some areas very loud seismic pulses and the crew were getting frustrated. Two days into the survey however we had an incredible encounter with a mixed group of rough-toothed and Risso’s dolphins bowriding and milling around the SOTW. Rough-toothed dolphins, a species which was new to all of the team on board, have been documented only a few times in the Eastern Mediterranean, having originally been thought to be an immigrant to the Mediterranean from the Suez Canal, but are now thought to be resident in small numbers in this area. They spent around 40 minutes around the vessel and so we managed to document them through photographic identification images, underwater video and recorded some of their interesting octave-stepping whistles. Later in the week we also had brief sightings of more rough-toothed dolphins, false killer whales and a Mediterranean Monk seal.
Unfortunately, our survey around Cyprus was cut short. Just a few days before the end of our planned survey we developed an engine problem and all survey equipment needed to be turned off as we sailed back to harbour . After a few days in port, many phone calls and a hand-delivered engine part arriving with Andy, Mat our engineer’s brother, the engine was repaired, but only in time for a quick passage back to Rhodes and our final crew change.
Sweltering CTD, dolphins and swim stops
Within our international team we’ve enjoyed, but also struggled a bit with the intense heat between Turkey and Cyprus. On the other hand it makes the swim stops more rewarding than ever and the night watches give us the chance to cool down and be amazed by the stunning starry skies. All the discomfort is worth it; on the hydrophones all kinds of underwater noise from seismic and explosions to sperm whales, dolphins and even shrimps have been recorded. Twice a day we deploy the CTD ( to measure salinity and temperature at different depths) and make calibrated recordings of background noise throughout the Eastern Mediterranean survey area.
Miriam preparing to deploy the CTD.
After a couple of days without any sightings (except for rubbish) and without even birds sighted, I was afraid that this could be an overfished sea without much life in it. But after two very exciting encounters with Risso’s dolphins and striped dolphins, together with a lot of sperm whale clicks on the hydrophone, life in this sea was evident. The Risso’s dolphins behaved amazingly around the boat and stayed with us for a long time. It was a big group of 15-20 individuals and during their bowriding activities we were able to make a lot of photo-ID pictures and an underwater movie. It was almost the same story with the striped dolphins who appeared in a big group, one day after the Risso’s: they surfed the swell approaching the boat and then jumped out of the water while on our bow. The clear turquoise Mediterranean waters allowed the animals underwater behaviours to be easily seen and captured on video.
Tessa van Heumen
Rocking Days on Song of the Whale (13 August 2013)
Before joining Song of the Whale, I had heard about this amazing research vessel during a marine mammal class in Istanbul University when I was a student of Faculty of Fisheries. I listened to many great stories about SOTW from some of my teachers who have been on board and have never forgotten this boat until I got an opportunity to be on SOTW this summer.
I joined SOTW for the Northern Aegean survey to find a porpoise population in this area, the first survey on this subject. After this gorgeous survey I returned home to Turkey with very good memories and a really strong wish to return to SOTW. Then 2 weeks later one of my teachers, who was on the boat, called and asked me to return for 15 days more for another survey in the Southern Aegean and Mediterranean Seas for Sperm Whales. I did not even think for a second to response. Now I am on the boat again.
We completed the southern Aegean research cruise surveying from Rhodes to Athens including working in Sigacik Bay, Turkey, where we detected and tracked Sperm Whale clicks. We tracked them for around 2 hours, but they were so shy, and the sea state was poor so unfortunately we were not able to see them.
We are in Eastern Mediterranean Sea at the moment, heading to Cyprus along a series of transect lines and while I am typing this diary I have heard that we are recording Sperm Whale clicks. I have a very strong belief that we are going to see them today – fingers crossed.
Since I returned to the boat, the weather conditions have been very mixed. At times, we have had very strong winds with giant waves and spray and quite cold temperatures for the Mediterranean and sometimes no wind and very high temperatures. Observations have continued in these exhausting conditions. But the SOTW team is still full of energy, excited to find the whales and waiting for right moment with all their patience.
Macit Ege Ercan graduated from Istanbul University, Faculty of Fisheries in June 2012 and is carrying out his Marine Mammals master program in Marine Biology Department of Istanbul University. He is also volunteer of Turkish Marine Research Foundation (TUDAV).
Shepherd’s beaked whales
In April/May this year, MCR team members Olly Boisseau and Miriam Romagosa travelled to South Australia to lead a marine mammal survey with IFAW’s Oceania office. The study took place in an area that the Australian Government has leased for oil and gas exploration, but no systematic studies for marine mammals have previously been conducted there during the southern autumn. This particular area is situated in the eastern Great Australian Bight (GAB), an area of upwelling where cool nutrient-rich waters from the deep rise to the surface. The southern autumn is considered a shoulder season between aggregations of feeding blue whales visiting in the summer and breeding southern right whales in the winter; therefore, our study was planned to provide baseline data on the cetaceans inhabiting this poorly understood area during this time of year.
Track lines made by SV Pelican during the survey; primary track (orange), secondary track (black) and tertiary tracks (red). Grey lines are transiting tracks.
In addition to Miriam and Olly from the MCR team, the team comprised 11 others: five crew, four volunteers, one videographer and IFAW’s marine campaigner. The research was conducted from the SV Pelican, a 19 m catamaran. The survey lasted for 13 days and covered 15,130 km2 including continental shelf, slope and abyssal habitats. Working in the Southern Ocean means that bad weather is almost guaranteed but the survey was able to proceed despite big swells and high winds for much of the time. The team had sightings of pilot whales, bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and seals, even though conditions were not ideal. Fortunately, the 300 m hydrophone towed behind Pelican also detected sperm whales, pilot whales and dolphins whatever the weather we encountered. The highlight of the survey was the last day when calm sea conditions prevailed and the team were fortunate to spot three Shepherd’s beaked whales, a very rarely-seen species only sighted alive at sea on fewer than 10 occasions worldwide. These magnificent creatures from the deep came within 50 m of the boat, allowing the team to take photographs which in turn allowed us to identify this extremely rare species. To the delight of the team, we were even able to determine the gender of one animal; a tooth was clearly visible in his jaw, a feature diagnostic of male beaked whales.
Shepherd’s beaked whale group encountered on 6th May.
The results from this survey highlight the importance of the eastern GAB for many other species in addition to visiting blue and right whales. Indeed, many of the species encountered may be resident year round and thus this area may represent a critical habitat for an assemblage of species. The majority of acoustic detections and sightings were made around the shelf edge slope within the proposed seismic survey area. As many of the species we encountered are deep diving species vulnerable to anthropogenic sounds, there is growing concern for the effects of ocean noise on marine life in the relatively pristine waters of South Australia.
The survey report can be downloaded here.
Listening for sperm whales amongst the noise
Striped dolphin breaching at sunset. By Conor Ryan
After completing an intensive search of the northern Aegean Sea for harbour porpoises, Song of the Whale headed south last week surveying for sperm whales. Most people do not associate the Aegean Sea with deep-diving cetaceans such as sperm whales; however there are three deep water troughs (greater than 1000m) which may provide suitable habitat. Using our 400m hydrophone array, we were able to detect and track sperm whales to the west of Kusadasi, Turkey. However the ever-present ship noise made our job very challenging. Most of the ship traffic out of the Black Sea passes through these relatively narrow waters, generating noise levels that are of concern considering that cetaceans utilise sound to find prey and to communicate. Our primary aim for this part of the survey was to measure this background noise level using a calibrated hydrophone which we have been deploying twice a day.
There are some important things to consider when measuring background noise levels, such as changes in the density of seawater, which may channel sound more efficiently at certain depths. This is affected by the salinity and temperature of the water which can be quite variable in the Aegean due to influence of the relatively fresh Black Sea and the highly saline Mediterranean Sea waters mixing. To account for this important factor in our noise measurements, we conduct CTD casts. These are vertical profiles of the conductivity (salinity), temperature and depth which we record using our CTD. The CTD is effectively a water pump connected to several instruments which we drop vertically to a certain depth, and retrieve again.
CTD cast from the Northern Aegean showing denser Mediterranean water below and fresher Black Sea water above. The depth at which a sharp drop in temperature occurs is called the ‘thermocline’.
During the last few days we have been deploying lots of gear, pulling in and out the hydrophones and getting plenty of sailing done (reducing our noise and carbon footprints!). This type of exercise is always very welcome when living in a confined space at sea, and the warm swim/washing stops are a nice reward after a hard day’s work. We have had an unexpected 11th crew member on board this week – a tired racing pigeon landed on the aft deck, sheltering from the sun under our hydrophone covers. ‘Blinky’ was treated to a selection of cheeses, crackers, muesli and water and often came out for a wander around deck when we were deploying gear. Once within reach of land, she took off and flew strongly towards Lesbos Island.
Tomorrow morning we will make a port stop for a big crew change. We will be saying goodbye to Luke O’Connor (of stunning GoPro footage fame) who has been our intern and has lived on the boat since leaving the UK back in May. Chief scientist and gastronomist extraordinaire Olly Boisseau (of Greek dancing fame) will head back to the UK after a two week stint, and Matt (skipper) and Edd (mate) are taking a break. Our Turkish and Greek friends Arda, Ayaka, Eleni and Myrto will also be leaving having done Trojan work over the past fortnight. So it’s time to get the boat ready for shore to stock up on supplies before our next spell in the field.
Conor Ryan 31 July 2013
Mother and calf encounter as porpoise survey draws to a close
I first sailed as a volunteer on board Song of the Whale in spring last year. I wouldn’t have imagined then that I would end up working full-time with the SOTW team. After joining SOTW for the passage from Iceland to Ipswich in September, I was fortunate enough to be offered a job working on the analysis of acoustic data collected during the 2012 research season. Now I am back on board SOTW and it’s great to feel the sea breeze again and the excitement of field work.
Perfect sighting conditions.
Following a crew change in Kavala, Greece, we have spent the last week surveying the coastal waters of the North Aegean Sea for porpoises. The latest additions to the team are Myrto and Eleni from Pelagos Institute and Ayaka and Arda, researchers from Istanbul University and the Turkish Marine Research Foundation. Yesterday was the last day of our dedicated harbour porpoise survey and there could have been no better way of ending it than with mirror calm seas and lots of porpoise sightings. One encounter was particularly exciting as we were close enough to identify a mother with her calf! This is a significant record, as it shows that porpoises appear to use this region to breed. This survey has lasted for 16 days with a total of 1800 km of effort in the Thracian Sea (North Aegean Sea). During this time we have looked for porpoises following a methodology that will enable us to estimate how many animals inhabit the region, and to describe their distribution. We will now have to wait for the analysis of the acoustic data that may reveal more porpoise detections within the area. Moreover, we’ve had almost daily encounters with bottlenose dolphins, seen feeding aggregations of common dolphins and bluefin tuna, saw a jumping swordfish and a loggerhead turtle and have enjoyed beautiful sunsets.
Ahead of us is another exciting survey, this time covering the whole Aegean Sea and focused on sperm whales and other cetaceans. The Aegean Sea is an area within the Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey where very different habitats can be found in close proximity going from shallow waters, to shelf edges and very deep waters over short distances. With the help of our hydrophones we hope to track and count sperm whales, study their distribution, take photos to identify individuals, and also to collect data on any other cetacean species encountered in these varied habitats.
Miriam. 27th July 2013