Iceland: The Research
Sunny skies and calm prevailing winds greet us on our first morning in Iceland. We're up early, drinking strong coffee and watching the sun rise over the bay from our temporary home at Elding Whale Watching while we await the arrival of the final member of our team. As if on cue, marine biologist Jake Levenson steps out of a taxi at 8:00 am sharp, tagging equipment and VHF receivers in tow. He's all smiles, bushy tailed and bright eyed despite the fact that he's been traveling all night. Our team has assembled from different corners of the planet and is eager to get to work.
We've gathered here to collect important data that will be used to inform marine spatial planning in Faxafloi Bay, which represents the front lines between whale watchers and whalers. An arbitrary line cuts through the bay, designating the nearshore waters as a whale sanctuary and prohibiting whaling within its perimeter. This invisible boundary is not rooted in science and incorporates nothing that we know about whale movements or migration patterns. We're here to help change that.
Whale watching in Iceland is a big deal. Over 118,000 tourists visited Faxafloi to join whale watching trips last year, resulting in approximately 7.1 million dollars in ticket sale revenue to the local economy. Each minke whale landed earns the whalers only about $7,550, roughly the same amount of income generated from a single whale watching trip with 125 passengers. The whale watching industry is a sustainable form of tourism that supports this economy.
Local whale watching companies are pushing to extend the Faxafloi Bay protected area boundary in order to better safeguard their industry. IceWhale, the whale watchers' association of Iceland, is leading the charge in light of a recent count showing a decline in minke whale numbers. We're collecting data about the fine scale movements and behavior of these animals within the sanctuary to support their efforts. The data we gather will support a clear, focused and compelling case for protected are expansion, spearheaded by Icelandic locals whose livelihoods depend on keeping minke whales alive.
Elding Whale Watching (www.elding.is) has been kind enough to donate their well equipped boats and talented crew to support our research efforts. Today, we'll be conducting the tagging from a small rigid hull inflatable boat ("RHIB") normally used for marine rescue. It's fast, maneuverable, and surprisingly sturdy. Our RHIB captain Siggy, an Icelander with an infectious smile, sports only a thin long sleeved tshirt as the rest of us don survival suits. "You can smell the minkes!" he laughs as he welcomes us on to the small boat. He's not kidding: the spray from a minkes exhalation has a distinct odor that many describe as bad breath. It's decidingly not pleasant and has helped these whales earn the nickname "stinky minkes".
Our RHIB is flanked by Elding's flagship whale watching boat to be used as a support vessel. Featuring wifi, hot coffee, and a cozy lounge, it's a much welcome respite for our researchers braving the artic wind and rain on the RHIB. It also offers an elevated vantage point that is essential for spotting whales. Researchers stationed on the support vessel report sightings to the RHIB via a handheld marine radio. They also take photo ID shots, upload any encounters to the Spotter Pro database, and record tag deployment data.
Before we depart, Megan Whittaker, the lead naturalist and researcher for Elding Whale Watching,carefully reviews the safety procedures with the team. Megan has been studying whales in Faxafloi Bay for the last eight years, and heads up a team of volunteer researchers that conduct daily surveys of the bay. She's sharp, focused, and has an uncanny ability to spot whales from miles away.
After we review tag deployment procedures, we set out from Reykjavik Harbor under filtered northern sunlight. Located in Southeast Iceland, Faxafloi Bay is ringed by a stunning landscape of dramatic snowy peaks and misty blue gray fjords. We're escorted out of the harbor by alighting puffins and arctic terns, and a friendly juvenile humpback affectionately named "Thruster" by Elding researchers.
We're joined by Dr. Marianne Rasmussen, a brilliant cetacean scientist from the University of Iceland. Marianne, a soft spoken Dane, is the director of the University of Iceland's research center in Husavik and a tagging guru. She's an undisputed expert on cetaceans in Faxafloi Bay, having studied them here for almost 20 years. Over Thai food at a local restaurant, she tells us that Husavik is home to only 2,200 residents, but visited by 80,000 whale watching tourists annually. The importance of the whale watching industry to Iceland is not lost on us.
Once we reach the boundary line of the sanctuary, Jake and Marianne activate the Acusounde tag and we double check the VHF receivers. Once deployed on a minke whale, it will track the animal's behavoir and record acoustic data. If we're successful, this will be the first time this information has been gathered in Iceland. We don our survival suits ("float coats") and join Siggy in the RHIB.
"Minke at 1:00, 100 yards off the bow!" Megan shouts over the radio. Siggy punches the throttle, and we lurch forward in a clean arc towards the whale, which is surface feeding in the midst of a restless flock of seabirds. The animal's inky gray back curves into a delicate arch before soundlessly sinking below the surface as if in slow motion. "Deep dive," says Jake, as he retreats from the bow, tag in hand.
We repeat this process again and again and again. We follow aggregations of feeding seabirds, which often serve as an indicator for whales feasting on small fish below the surface, and our spotters call out directions to our team on the RHIB. Minkes, unlike humpbacks, are somewhat unpredictable in their swim patterns, and we have several near misses deploying the tag on animals that surface near our small boat. Rain, sun, rain, sun, rain, rain. We're soaked and shaking from exhaustion but buoyed by the important work we're doing. After twelve hours, we decide to call it a day.
As we're headed back to the harbor, we pass Hvalur, a large whaling boat steaming out of the bay en route to hunt endangered fin whales offshore. The boat is sleek, fast, and is guided by a gleaming grenade tipped harpoon extending from its bow.
Tomorrow we start early.