Conservation

In pursuit of whales

Words and photographs by Manon Verijdt

Adrenaline is rushing through my veins as we speed over the waves in a zodiac.

We pan around the rugged coastline, huge pine trees standing guard at the edge of the water. I’m here, on a zodiac in the Pacific Ocean near Vancouver Island – I can’t stop smiling. For the first time in my life, I’ve just seen whales. They seemed to fly through the waters around me and at one stage, a humpback breaches dramatically, soaring weightlessly out of the water. This was the moment I became interested in cetaceans and marine biology.

Just one year later I am carrying a heavy tank to the waterfront, sweating it out in a wetsuit, to prepare for my next great adventure – this time, I’m heading underneath the surface of the waves. Even though the waters in the Netherlands are murky and cold, I couldn’t have wished for anything more. There is visibility of around five metres and a voice in my head says that I shouldn’t be doing this. Nevertheless, I keep on swimming and an unexpected form of excitement takes hold of me the moment I see a crayfish. It is hard to explain what it feels like if you see wildlife for the first time while being underwater, but positivity and joy swelled in my chest. Once I emerge from the water I am already longing for the next dive.

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After getting certified, I swapped the chilling waves of the Netherlands for those on the other side of the world, in Curacao. Here I had the opportunity to go both snorkelling and diving, while being surrounded by an abundance of fishes, sea turtles and bright corals. As I got certified in rather bad visibility, it was a true gift that I could now see my entire surroundings in the gin clear waters of the Caribbean. However, diving alone was not enough for me – it was time to give underwater photography a whirl. It required a new level of skills – I had to edge closer to my subjects, adjust strobes and keep neutral buoyancy. Though challenging, I managed to pull it off and once again a new hobby came to life.

It’s mid-February by the time I arrive in a small village on what feels like the edge of the world. It took me two flights and a bus to get here, but by the first glance on the landscape and the never-ending sea I can already tell that this adventure will be worth it. I have arrived in Húsavík, a small and charming town known as ‘the whale capital of Iceland’. This will be my home for the next five months. As you might expect, I came here for the whales and I’ll be working as a research intern at the Húsavík Research Centre. Skjálfandi Bay, located right next to the town, is extremely fertile due to the wide variety of water sources coming into the bay. It is therefore the perfect feeding ground for whales, which can also be seen in the increasing abundance in recent years.

In the past couple of years, volunteers, interns and researchers from all over the world have come to Skjálfandi Bay to gather data on the presence of whales in the bay. The small town of Húsavík has the unique location right next to this bay so as soon as you leave the harbour you emerge yourself in the habitat of the cetaceans. By using whale watching companies as a platform for data collection, GPS coordinates, weather conditions and photos were gathered for each cetacean sighted. Photos consisted mainly of humpback whales’ dorsal fins and flukes, as flukes serve as the fingerprint of whales. After all these years, a huge stack of data had been collected, all ready to be used for research.

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During my research, I used data from 2013 to 2018, with a focus on the humpback whales. Humpback whales have been the most abundant in the last years in the bay and were therefore the perfect species to study. I used GPS data from the surveys to map the humpback whale sightings in the bay, separated by both months and years, to see if a distributional pattern could be found within the survey area. As no research is ever done without good reason, this study can hopefully contribute to gain more insight in the preferred regions of the bay, to work towards a bay where humans and animals can live in harmony, without causing stress to the whales and to limit the number of cases where whales get entangled in fishing gear.

I used data from the past to contribute to the present by gathering information on the whale watching boats. On the first day of the whale watching season in March, I ventured into cold winds and snow in search for whales. Unfortunately, I only saw the back of the boat that day, as I was not prepared for such rough waters. Luckily, a couple days later I did manage to see and photograph my first whale. It was exhilarating. The season had started, and I had finally seen a humpback whale up close. It amazed me to see that flukes can have any colour between black and white, with an unlimited amount of varieties in patterns and scars. Truly every individual is unique. Since 2001, when the data collecting started, approximately 900 individuals have been identified by researchers and by volunteers from the Húsavík Whale Museum. As a result, we now know that some of the whales return annually, with the highest record of having been seen nine times.

During my journey into the marine world I have had the opportunity to explore numerous hobbies and subjects. Besides diving and photographing for myself, I also helped another researcher with a study on puffin acoustics. Though puffins are not marine mammals, they do spend eight months per year on the water surface and these birds have proven to be utterly intriguing.

Before I arrived, I hoped this research internship would provide me with the work experience I need for the future, but it gave me so much more. I’ve found that my field of interest is ever-growing. I’ve discovered joy in the knowledge that my curiosity in the underwater world will never wane.

Photographs of Manon on board Barba by Svenja Woehle.

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