Between November 2017 and January 10th 2018 a team of 9 sailed from the UK to the Falkland Islands via Spain, the Canaries and Cape Verde. During the voyage the team collected visual and acoustic (hydrophone) data on whales and dolphins, conducted trawls to sample for micro-plastics and also collected and processed sea water samples to be sampled for traces of DNA.The blogs below, written by members of the team detail their adventures.
See more on the Song of the Whale Instagram page
North to South (1)
On Saturday 11th November, we left Gosport’s Endeavour Quay on a calm winters evening, as fireworks lit up the sky along the coast. Our North to South survey will cut through #100degreesoflatitude as we sail to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, via the Canary islands and Cape Verde.
Onboard we have Brian the skipper, first mate Edd, second mate Charly, research assistant Kerry and Lynsey, Charlie, Andy and Thea who have joined the expedition to experience boat life and assist in collecting valuable scientific data. As we left Gosport we were also joined by MCR senior scientist Olly, who trained everyone up in data collection protocols, before leaving us in La Coruna, Spain.
As we left Gosport, spirits were high, with slight apprehensive undertones, as everyone began to digest how much of an adventure stood before us. The calm seas were short lived and during our first night watches of the trip, gale force winds whipped the sea into a frenzy and suddenly conquering seasickness was everyone’s biggest challenge. After a day or so of rockin’ and rollin,’ the seas calmed and as we approached the Bay of Biscay the sea turned glass-like and our appetites returned, as did everyone’s thirst for adventure!
During our incredible 7,000 mile voyage we will be collecting visual and acoustic data to assess the relative abundance of cetaceans, as well as collaborating with other organisations to collect information on marine plastic pollution and Environmental DNA (Edna), contributing to ongoing studies.
DNA is nuclear or mitochondrial DNA that is released from an organism into the environment. This could be in the form of faeces, mucous, shed skin or carcasses etc. By collecting water samples every 1,000km along our North to South expedition as well as in the vicinity of animals, we are contributing to a study aiming to be able to assess what species may have been present in the area over the past 7-21 days. The results from eDNA studies are pioneering and exciting as they can be applied to a number research question ranging from molecular biology, ecology, palaeontology and environmental sciences.
Marine litter is found in all of the world’s oceans and seas, with studies estimating that over seven million tonnes of litter reach the earth’s oceans and seas each year. A staggering amount. As we survey a latitudinal slice of the globe, we will be collecting daily (weather dependant) trawl samples of marine plastics to aid the 5 Gyres Institute in their estimates of global marine plastic pollution. To collect the sample, a ‘Manta Trawl’ (it really does look a bit like a manta ray!) is trawled behind us for half an hour, with any marine plastics in it’s path being collected in the Manta’s mouth (a fine mesh net). The net is then emptied and plastics are sorted and documented to share with the 5 Gyres project.
We have a long, long journey ahead of us, passing through exciting areas, with several new projects on the go. This is an amazing and unique opportunity to study a significant slice of the ocean, in areas that are pretty data deficient. We are all excited, raring and ready to go!
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North to South (2) – Off the coast of Portugal
It is nine days since we left Endeavour Quay, Gosport, for our two month journey to the Falkland Islands. After the stormy first few days, we are all overwhelmingly grateful for the continuing good weather we are now experiencing. The sun is out, the seas are calm, spirits are high and cetaceans are about!
Over the week we have had a wide variety of encounters including bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, striped dolphins, spotted dolphins, a lone pilot whale, sunfish, a humpback whale and Cuvier’s beaked whale.
On day 6, after a deliriously wonderful night’s sleep alongside in La Coruna, devoid of any rocking and rolling, we set off in the sun and calm seas. Many members of team were seen sporting T-shirts for the first time, pasty white arms reflecting the light, left, right and centre. As we left the Spanish shore we spotted multiple pods of common dolphins and even a few groups of bottlenose dolphins. Strangely, for once, they did not seem interested in approaching SOTW and bow-riding, it seems they may have had other things on their minds. Namely food.
Just as the sun was getting low in the sky and everyone had been fuelled with a cup of tea and chocolate biscuit, we heard Andy shout “BLOW! 30 degrees” from the A-frame. A flurry of activity took place, cameras were seized and the team scattered on deck to try and find what Andy had just seen.
Then there it was. The tall bushy blow and unmistakable dorsal fin of a humpback whale cutting silently through the water. After a few breaths at the surface, the whale arched it’s back ready for a deeper dive, raising it’s fluke out of the water. Photographs of the fluke are a great way of identifying individual whales. Through looking at the nicks, notches and pigmentation patterns on the fluke, we can identify individuals, just like with a human thumb print. If it matches with a photo identification catalogue, we may be able to trace where this whale has come from and where it ends up on it’s migration.
For many of the team onboard, this was their first humpback whale sighting.
However, no one onboard had seen a Cuvier’s beaked whale before. On day seven that changed. The sea was so calm there was barely a ripple and we could clearly see the white head of the tiny Cuvier’s beaked whale breaking the surface of the water before its grey-brown body. Cuvier’s beaked whales are now known to dive to depths of two miles for over two hours, making the chances of seeing them at the surface fairly slim. But this Cuvier’s milled around for fifteen minutes, allowing us to get photo ID shots and an eDNA water sample in the vicinity.
All in all, a fantastic week, with so much to write about it is hard to condense into a single blog post! Stay tuned for more updates as we make our way to Gran Canaria and Cape Verde where we will be picking up new team members.
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North to South (3) – Gran Canaria, batteries and on towards Cape Verde
Our journey south continues onwards towards the Canary Islands and our next landfall. We all enjoy a handful of calm, sunny and increasingly warmer days but sadly the sightings have been less frequent. Striped dolphins made an appearance and delighted those on night watch as they played at the bow, triggering bioluminescence in their wakes. We approached Las Palmas, Gran Canaria at midday on the 23rd November having being treated to a fantastic sighting of a large pod of pilot whales. They approached close to the vessel in calm and sunny conditions making for a good photo opportunity.
Due to some battery issues, our stay in Las Palmas was extended but all on board enjoyed some time off to explore and recharge after the stint at sea. The team worked well together to make short work of the chores to be done, including shifting over a tonne of batteries from the engine room and off the boat! Two shopping trips and a laundry trip later and the crew were eager to get back out to sea. This time, joined by a new member of the team, Louiza. Welcome aboard!
The temperature had really increased on leaving Gran Canaria and with that came the emergence of the sun cream and the shorts! The sea state remained calm and we have been rewarded with a handful of great sightings. The first came on day 18 of our trip with a good view of a large pod of Risso’s dolphins, including one breaching and creating a lot of splashing! The sea state continued to drop that day to almost mirror like conditions. Lynsey and Thea were up on the A frame when something strange appeared to be happening ahead on the surface of the water. We slowed the engine and noticed what looked like footprints created by a large whale, but we hadn’t seen the whale yet?! After a few minutes, small fish approached the surface, shortly followed by said large whale. After a handful of submarine-like surfacings we could confidently say that what we were looking at was a sei whale- a new species for many of the team.
It was clear that these waters are home to many animals, and we seemed to be continually accompanied by the sounds of dolphins, pilot whales and sperm whales as we monitored the hydrophone. The team were increasingly desperate to actually spot a sperm whale and every time we heard the distinct clicks of these mammals, the excitement on the boat grew. Following the loud clicks heard in calm conditions at around midday, Kerry spotted the first few blows from the surfacing animal approximately 3km away and we altered our course in the hope of getting a closer look. We carefully tracked the clicks on the hydrophone and after an hour of hearing them getting louder and louder we slowed the engine to wait for the silence which occurs when the whale stops clicking at the surface. It was Lynsey that spotted then animal again, this time only 400m away from the vessel and there was suddenly a mad scramble for cameras and to alert all on board. The sperm whale remained at the surface, creating a blow which rises at a 45° angle for about 10 minutes. All aboard were poised and ready for the money shot when the animal lifts its fluke and dives back down into the depths. An amazing sight, and one that the crew will remember for a long time to come!
As the weather has grown increasingly warmer the crew have searched for new methods in which to stay cool, including throwing a bucket of water over the head before spending an hour on the A frame. The morning that Brian suggested a swim stop was a good morning for all! At midday, after the mantra trawl we pulled in the hydrophone and slowed the engine. Charlie, Thea, Kerry and Edd were the bravest and took a plunge into approximately 2875m of water from the A-frame whilst all others hopped (or fell, in Lynsey’s case) from the swim platform. A swim around the boat was enjoyed by all before we continued our journey south and crossed the Tropic of Cancer. Next stop, the Cape Verde islands in a few days time.
North to South (4) Cape Verde and on towards the Equator
Another beautiful sunrise greeted Song of the Whale on Sunday 3rd December. We sailed west across the top of the Cape Verde archipelago, to make landfall later that day; our final stop before the Falklands.
In the last few days approaching Cape Verde we have seen lots of flying fish, they shoot away from the boat and glide for such long periods, up to a couple of hundred meters! Unfortunately a few unlucky ones land on the deck, which is always a nasty surprise for whoever finds them! The flying fish have also attracted Brown Boobies to the boat; it has been great entertainment as they try to catch the flying fish (most of the time failing miserably).
The 20 knots of wind, and reefs in the main and yankee (sails) added to the excitement of the morning. There was a haze on the horizon and some clouds in the sky but soon enough the spikey peaks of the islands of Cape Verde began to rise straight out of the choppy sea. We prepared for our arrival by pulling in the 400m hydrophone, and hoisting the Cape Verde courtesy and yellow quarantine flags. We were all enjoying the approach and just as Charlie went to brush his teeth squeals erupted out on deck; a Blainvilles beaked whale surfed down a wave right next to the boat! Yet another incredible sighting to add to the list!
Thoughts soon turned to what we may find in this new land. Kerry’s Guidebook to Cape Verde had been passed around and we were expecting a mixture of cultural music, fresh local produce and potentially malaria carrying mosquitos. Cape Verde was new to all of us and it is so exciting sailing into a new port. It always differs massively from your imagination and what you interpret from the charts. It was beautiful to sail through such a rugged landscape (Not dissimilar to West Scotland Andy remarked).
As you may have expected Cape Verde had a very African feel and felt so very different from Las Palmas. It had taken us six days to sail between the two groups of islands and this gives you a very different appreciation of time and distance compared to a quick hop on a plane. New places and cultures are so exciting to explore and experience, and sailing to places gives you a much more connected picture of our planet.
On arrival in Mindelo we cracked on with the jobs list. Cleaning the boat top to bottom, topping up with fuel, food provisioning and doing another massive laundry run were the main tasks for the crew. There was a conveniently placed floating bar in the marina which suited as a good meeting point before our evening meals. As there were only two shower cards you could tell who had had their showers first and who had been waiting the longest at the bar!
After two days on land, and a fully stocked and squeaky-clean boat and crew, it was time for the off. 4500nm nonstop to the Falklands Islands! Unfortunately Andy was leaving us at Cape Verde and so we had to say a sad farewell. He was great company on board and we have never heard as many terrible jokes in such a short space of time. However, every cloud has a silver lining and we get to welcome Jan onboard, her enthusiasm is so infectious and she has fitted straight in with the team.
Since our departure on December 5th we have had a beautiful four days of sailing, with 10 to 15 knots of wind on a broad reach, giving us 4-6 knots of boat speed. The four days have been crammed with new species; a beautiful red billed tropic bird, a leatherback turtle, 40 or so rough toothed dolphins and a 50- strong group of pan-tropical spotted dolphins, as well as jumping tuna!
It is definitely getting hotter and more and more sticky as the Latitude decreases. There has been a haze in the air for the last two days, which has protected us somewhat from the intensity of the Sun, but needless to say we are all beginning to melt.
Spirits on board are high, we are working through the crew advent calendar (the person on washing up gets to open it), chatting merrily in the cockpit, and are loving this incredible experience, fingers crossed that the winds and whales continue!
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North to South (5) Sailing into Midsummer
As the newbie on board it falls to me to relate some of the experiences of the last few days on board and also tell you more about the routine of daily life. Two weeks in and I am still finding my sea legs and possibly looking for new ones. My day usually begins, whether intentionally or not, with a rather rapid departure from my berth (which always seems to be conveniently at a 30 degree angle) and, accompanied by a sudden lurch, I make an almost seamless passage out of the cabin and across the corridor towards the heads at breakneck speed with no input from myself. With a bit of luck the heads door will be open and I will make the 20 cm step up and arrive at the sink in a somewhat bemused state. If I am not so lucky the heads will already be occupied and the door closed and I will arrive heavily at the door with a loud thud. This alerts all aboard that I am on the move and so the day begins.
Daily life encompasses everything from the highs of cetacean encounters to the lesser but still important events of general housekeeping. We have three watches a day spread out over 24 hours which require certain tasks to be performed: spotting, logging data and helming. All of which are essential for the survey and safe running of the vessel and, as we operate 24/7, there are always at least two people on watch at any one time. The ordinary chores still have to be done too of course and the boat has to be maintained in a ship-shape fashion. For this reason, there is a daily list of chores to be performed on rotation and, as in all cases, everyone does their fair share. Regular duties include cleaning the heads, vacuuming, general cleaning, washing up and cooking as well as checking cameras. On other days extra things may be done. Yesterday, for example, was laundry day and we had more than three sheets to the wind. Secure pegging is the key however. It’s no ordinary washing line.
So far we have had some exceptional encounters with cetaceans including one sighting of 17 Sperm Whales. However, there are days and sometimes several in a row, where sightings are not made and this is not unexpected. In this vast ocean with areas 5000m deep and more it is hardly surprising that we do not encounter species that often and which themselves may be travelling through. This area is still largely unexplored beneath the waves which makes our survey so interesting. Our encounters are by their very nature in the domain of the various species but also on their terms. This makes any sighting a privilege and the more memorable. I wonder if we have been the first to hear and record some of these individual creatures.
However, when sightings are infrequent there are other aspects to enjoy on Song of the Whale. There are plenty of opportunities to learn and discuss with like minds but it is also good to take time to relax and rest between shifts. In amongst the shooting stars and Portuguese Men of War there are many other special moments to be had and crossing the equator was one such time. Good company, great food and a once-in-a-lifetime event for many of us all added up to a great evening. Two members of the team decided to dunk their heads in buckets of seawater to mark the event whilst others just enjoyed the spectacle. Homage was paid to Neptune and we relished the thought that we had actually sailed across the 0 degrees of latitude line rather than flown or ‘motored’. Not many can say that these days Something we must be aware of on the high seas are stowaways and this week there have been two at least, (over and above the elusive and rather nippy mozzie in the forward heads). The first is the breadmaking genie who works his or her magic silently and leaves only a calling card – two perfectly formed loaves scenting the air. The second is more seasonal. Over the last few days it has become apparent that the Christmas Fairy has visited. First a couple of decorative touches were seen, then a small tree appeared with some lights and garlands. To top it all a strange deposit of white, icy cold material was found on the deck and without warning several members of the crew felt compelled to engage in a classic traditional, albeit rapidly melting, snowball fight. So the festivities have begun.
This morning I realised that it was the Summer Solstice here in the Southern hemisphere and while Britain shivers and enjoys the shortest day we will be in tropical climes with still longer days to come. Strangely, as I looked heavenwards to see The Southern Cross then Jupiter and the red planet, I realised one very special thing about this trip. Suddenly, my world has become a much bigger place with more to think about than ever before. And there’s still so much to experience as we continue our journey South.
North to South (6) Christmas and a Southern Right Whale
As I write, we are officially into the new year, Christmas was celebrated in
the traditional style of organised chaos. The day started off with waking up
to a 2m swell and realising that I had volunteered to make pancakes,
needless to say it was already a rather messy affair when the shout of
“WHALE!” came echoing down into the galley causing the whisk to be thrown in
the sink and the galley was evacuated two steps at a time. We were greeted
by the sight of two beautiful rorqual whales surfing the swell just below
the surface, the clear water allowing us to see their pale flanks speeding
along beside us.
After pancakes for breakfast we spent the day with a slightly more relaxed
approach to the rota, everyone had their own little jobs to do in the making
of Christmas dinner and extraordinarily we managed to get a full vegetarian
roast out of the tiny little oven! Most of the praise has to go to Lynsey
who spent the morning organising the rabble (not an easy task) and slaving
away down in the galley as the boat rode the waves.
A flaming Christmas
pudding and Christmas crackers topped off the huge quantities of food
consumed that day. We entertained ourselves with a rather hilarious attempt
at playing carols on the whistles from the crackers, a rather competitive
girls vs boys pub quiz (girls won, obviously) as well as little Christmas
tattoos and the general hilarity of trying to do a traditional Christmas
while tilted at a 30 degree angle!
The next few days sort of passed in a post-Christmas haze and we had the
first in a series of turtle sightings, some we were able to identify as
loggerheads and some we have been unable to identify.
We had 2 days of glorious flat calm weather before New Year and we used
these opportunities to get a few swim stops in before the water got much
colder. In the calm weather we were also able to conduct some manta trawls
for plastic particles.
In the fine net towed behind the boat, we pick up more than the
microplastics we are aiming for, we also get a gorgeous sample of
zooplankton and phytoplankton which is also an interest of mine. After my
first carefully sorted sample promptly got thrown overboard by Charlie (I
still haven’t forgiven him) I managed to find and set up the light
microscope available on board and spent several hours after each trawl
pouring through the critters scooped up in our net. The variety of organisms
is simply astounding from tiny fish fry and glass eels, to small blue things
(that’s a technical term) that zoom around the petri dish and gelatinous
ctenophores that pulse through the water. I know that, should my university
lecturers read this, they will be horrified that I can’t remember the
difference between an amphipod and an isopod, and can’t even begin to fathom
where to start identifying some of the organisms.
New year was seen in with Kerry attempting to teach us some ceilidh dances,
but promptly realising that a rocking boat may not be the best place for
rookies! A cold can of beer and a chorus of Auld Lang Syne (don’t ask why
that is on my ipod) brought the year 2017 to a close before we staggered off
to our bunks thoroughly knackered.
The first day of 2018 was full of optimism and albatrosses!! We crossed the
1000-miles-to-go marker and saw two species of albatross, much to Lynsey’s
delight. From then, the sightings have just been getting better, we’ve had
several mystery cetaceans and on the 3rd January, just before dinner, we saw
our first Southern Right Whale!!! Other whales were also surfacing around
the boat, sleek and streamlined rorquals with high dorsal fins (possible Sei
whales), though what had drawn the different species together we cannot be
sure (Anna -suggests it because they eat the same type of prey – copepods).
Words can’t really describe just how happy we all were when we looked back
through the photos and saw the unmistakable dark body and callosities
(pronunciation still hotly debated) of the Right Whale, one of the cetaceans
most of us said would be a highlight of the trip. This one did not
disappoint, surfacing just behind the stern, it’s glistening dark body came
to the surface looking magnificent and, compared to the slender rorquals,
looking like a rugby player at a football match, in a totally different
The following evening brought more delights and we soon had more blows
around our boat than we knew what to do with. I was frantically trying to
fill in sightings forms while keeping track of whose sighting was where, it
was happy pandemonium made better only by the call for dinner.
Talking of dinner; I have to say that the food on here has surpassed my
wildest expectations, even at this stage of the trip when I was expecting
simple dishes due to the limited supply of fresh veg, whoever is cooking
still manages to exceed expectations. From pizza rolls and super mac n
cheese, to delicious curries and vegetable crumble, every evening a
seemingly impossible amount of food materialises in the galley, and promptly
We are slowly but surely getting towards the end of our extraordinary
voyage, one that for many of us, is a once in a lifetime opportunity. While
none of us really want this to end, I think we are all in equal parts
excited and apprehensive about getting to land. I mean, what are we going to
do with our lives when we don’t have a rota, or a watch beeping every 15
minutes to tell us what to do? How are we going to cope with not being able
to have midday naps, or two sleeps! And I can’t even remember what it feels
like to walk on a surface that isn’t constantly moving or at a precarious
angle. But for now we are all savouring these last few days, the amazing
sightings of birds and beasts and the wonderful company that has truly made
this trip one of the best things I have ever done.
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