Entries in #ocean (10)


The Two Species Of Pilot  Whale

The latest blog from Tenerife looks at the only two known species of Pilot Whale; Short-finned and Long-finned.

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Proof of the Problem - Cetacean Conservation 

Last week our whale and dolphin crew notcied a situation that proves why the work we are doing in Tenerife is so important for the conservation of cetaceans. Find out what happened in this blog...

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My Trip As A Marine Biology Student 

"I participated on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation project for a week. After completing my first year of Marine Biology at University, I was looking for a trip to give me inspiration and let me see past all the exams and coursework and know that it does lead to something greater"

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Cetacean Communication: How Whales and Dolphins Use Sound To Interact With Their Environment

Water is an excellent sound conductor, making sound travel 4.5 times faster than air. Other senses are less effective underwater, making hearing essential. Cetaceans are therefore extremely dependent on their highly-developed auditory system which lets them hear, produce sound and echolocation (also called bio-sonar), all of which allows them to sense, interpret and respond to their environment. Because cetaceans rely so heavily on sound for communication and echolocation, noise pollution from human activities is a major threat to their survival.

Basic hearing is done through the ears which are very small vertical slits located just behind each eye. A dolphin’s hearing range is six times better than a human’s! Cetaceans produce three types of sound: whistles, discrete calls and clicks. They use these for communication or echolocation.

Pixabay / Joakant Communication

Communication is highly important to the survival and health of all animals as it allows them to share danger warnings, find mates, teach their offspring and share interests. Cetaceans communicate with each other verbally and non-verbally.

Verbal sounds are clicks, whistles, and groans which they use for different kinds of communication and socializing.  Baleen whales (mysticetes) such as humpbacks and blue whales have low-frequency hearing and produce a complex series of whistles and discrete calls (‘whale songs’) to communicate. These sounds can travel longer distances and are therefore also used for orientation when travelling. Male humpback whales vocalise during the mating season to either ‘flirt’ with the ladies or ward off other males.

Killer whales use whistles for close-range communication and coordination between each other. The most common vocalization of killer whales is the pulsed-call and a pod shares the same calls, a dialect. The dialects are essential for the identification and cohesion within the group. They are learned and transmitted through generations and no two pods have same dialect. Dolphins use unique signature whistle” to identify and call each other. Mothers can imprint a signature whistle upon their calves so they recognise her. Sound is also used to communicate during group hunting, and a pod keeps together by keeping within hearing limits of one another.

Pixabay / djmboxtermanNon-verbal behaviours can be tail-slapping and breaching which produce a sound heard for hundreds of meters below the surface. Tail-slapping for example is used to scare schools of fish together when hunting, while breaching is an alert of an abundant source of food nearby.


Echolocation is a technique used to determine the size, shape, structure, composition, speed and direction of an object; detailed information about the animal’s environment. Bats and other marine mammals also use it, but only cetacean echolocation is sensitive enough to detect the difference between a ping-pong and a golf ball! Humans have copied a cetacean’s echolocation properties in sonar equipment used in submarines and in the mid-1980s the US Navy even trained dolphins to search for mines using echolocation.


Toothed whales (odontocetes) such as killer whales and bottle-nose dolphins produce create high-frequency sounds, a series of short and intense low-frequency pulses (usually clicks) of ultra-sonic sound. These are produced in a complex chamber in the airway atop the head and passed through the melon (fat-filled organ in the forehead) that focuses the sound waves into a beam (just like a magnifying glass focuses a beam of light) which speeds through the water and bounces off surrounding objects. Some of the sound reflects and returns in the form of an echo.

The 80-100 cone-shaped teeth act as antennae to focus incoming sound to the fat-filled cavities of the lower jaw bone (pan bone) which acts like a human’s outer ear. The vibrations are then conducted to the middle ear, to the inner ear bones (hammer, anvil and stirrup) and to the brain. The auditory nerve is three times larger than a human’s and is able to transmit the complex echolocation and vocalization signals. And convert the vibrations into electrical impulses. The size, shape, speed, direction, distance and texture of any object is decoded into an acoustical picture, allowing them to stalk and catch prey even in total darkness. A cetacean’s echolocation is closely integrated with their sight, making it easy to relate things they hear and see.

By Lorain Drennan, Assistant Research Officer

Are you interested in going on a trip to Tenerife to work on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation project? You can also take a look at our other marine conservation projects here.


Spotting Fin Whales In Tenerife 

Whales and dolphins are resident in the waters around Tenerife. On almost all our boat trips we see pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins or Atlantic spotted dolphins; they are the main species we work with on the project and it’s exciting to see them whenever we go out. Some days though, are very different!

Six weeks on the island and I am still in awe every time I see cetaceans; I get excited like a child.

It’s a beautiful sight: The pilot whales mostly rest during the day and float at the surface when we find them. The dolphins are more active, whizzing around the boat, from left to right, overtaking us from the back and surfacing every few minutes.

After a weekend of “getting things done” around the house, I went out on one of the boats and whilst scanning the horizon for whales, we suddenly saw something big surfacing ahead of us, quite close. The captain had the best view, but within seconds we all saw it: Over 20 metres long, a large body, nothing even remotely like a pilot whale. A fin whale! Another boat had spotted it too and had already had a good look at it – definitely a fin whale.

There we were, staring.

They migrate between Tenerife and La Gomera during winter and spring time and are spotted around the island twice a year; this was one of those times. It was not a very busy trip and everyone moved to the front of the boat. The crew was discussing how often they had seen them. Not often. It was the first one this year. And then we saw it again! The large body appeared next to the boat, under the water surface, we followed the tail past the front of the boat and looked right. Just then, on the right side, a blow, another, much bigger whale surfaced and there they both were.

Spirits were high on the boat! The excitement blocked out everything else, but the moment we saw both whales, someone shouted “son dos, son dos!” and we all clapped between oooohs and ahhhhs. The cameraman kept saying “I am keeping the DVD!” – he had never seen one this close in the six years he had been on the job, the captain and skipper had their phones out to record it, even they don’t see this every day and with every glimpse at the whales, we celebrated (albeit reasonably quietly so as not to disturb them).

With such an incredible sighting, I went straight back on the boat for the afternoon trip as the crew and I were hoping for one thing: Another sighting of the fin whales. The first one was by accident – or chance! – this time we headed straight into the direction we had seen it. And indeed, there it was. I managed to get the shot I wanted: The blow, the body surfacing, the fin. Almost a week later, I still watch the video every day (sometimes in slow motion and including our cheers in the background) to remind myself of the moment.

The presence of the fin whales seemed to have influenced the other marine animals, everyone behaved a little differently that day: We saw very few pilot whales, although of course we didn’t look as hard either, the sea birds were all very agitated, and we had big groups of Atlantic spotted dolphins swim all around the boat and in the waves at the front of the boat. Sometimes up to 50 animals at a time! Nothing was as impressive as seeing the second largest whale though, this day is engraved in my memory.

By Claire Herbaux - Field Communications Officer

Are you interested in going on a trip to Tenerife to work on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation project? You can also take a look at our other marine conservation projects here.


The Effects of Microbeads On Our Oceans 

How many times a day do you brush your teeth? Or wash your hands with soap? Did you know that every time you brush your teeth you could be washing as many as 100, 000 micro beads into the water system?

Micro beads are tiny plastic particles found in many household products and cosmetics such as toothpaste and face scrubs.  Made of polyethene (a material which does not break down and biodegrade over time) they enter our natural water systems and this is where they will stay in one form or another...

So what’s so bad about micro plastics?

Not only do micro plastics build up in our water systems and ultimately the oceans, they are highly absorbent and can add further pesticides and other chemicals to the marine environment. This poses a problem for any form of life that relies on water…which is to say all life on Earth!  

Being so tiny it is frighteningly easy to imagine how micro beads can be ingested by a variety of species and can build up in the food chain.  These particles and the associated harmful chemicals can even be found in food prepared for human consumption and also in human tissue.  

Most people have heard of marine animals mistakenly eating plastic waste such as carrier bags; in the water they can look like jellyfish to unsuspecting turtles, or ingesting large volumes of plastic debris and fishing equipment which can effectively block their digestion system perhaps preventing them from feeding efficiently or rupturing their stomachs to their extreme injury and sometimes their death. Imagine then the risk of not only ingesting plastics that we can see but also millions of micro beads that are so minute we can’t!

Take for example the short-finned pilot whale, a resident species here in the waters of Tenerife which provides so much joy to many visitors and supports a thriving tourism industry. Their main food sources are cephalopods, such as squid, which in turn are filter feeders.  Filter feeders sort through the water they are swallowing and can extract tiny pelagic species such as zooplankton. If I told you micro beads are approximately the same size as many of these zooplankton organisms can you see where the problems begin?  

Filter feeders cannot filter out all of the micro beads and separate them from the zooplankton.  Later an unsuspecting pilot whale thinks he has found a tasty squid for dinner and will continue to prey on his favourite food throughout his lifetime.  After 10/20/50 years how many micro beads do you think he will have ingested? Is it good for him? As well as affecting the digestive system it is possible the build-up of these particles and chemicals could negatively affect the reproductive and nervous systems too.  

As well as losing individuals and eventually entire populations and species through deaths caused directly by plastic damage, strandings and poisoning, the build-up of micro plastics in their bodies could mean that they cannot reproduce effectively and sustain their populations or ultimately the existence of their species.

The US and Canada have now banned the use of micro beads in cosmetics and several EU countries have lobbied to impose a similar ban throughout the Union but until then what are we going to do?

By Cara Donald - Whale and Dolphin Conservation Project

Are you interested in going on a trip to Tenerife to work on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation project? You can also take a look at our other marine conservation projects here.


Top 5 Tips Against Sea Sickness

It happens, some of us feel a little queasy when we get on boats. Sometimes it’s the waves, sometimes the walking around, but there are times when it is more than our stomachs can handle. In our case, when we are on the whale watching boats, we don’t simply look out onto the sea, but take notes, look up GPS coordinates, focus on writing and walk around; it can make you feel dizzy.

The boat crew makes it part of their safety briefing: Let them know, ask for a plastic bag, DO NOT go inside or downstairs to the bathrooms – it is hard to handle when you are unwell.

It is not the best of feelings, but in order to enjoy the trips, it is worth looking into how to avoid sea sickness the next time. Look online and you will find a myriad of tips and tricks, some helpful, some not, some not applicable. Avoid going? That would mean missing out on great experiences! Lie down? See above. Buy motion sickness tablets which make you drowsy? Do I need to repeat that we want to be aware of our surroundings?

Here are the best ways to survive a boat trip and actually see the whales, take part in the project, and enjoy it.

Step 1: Have a good breakfast and also bring a snack. There is a bit of time between breakfast and the trip, so make sure you don’t go on an empty stomach.

Step 2: Sea sickness tablets. Find the kind with caffeine or ginger, and ideally one which allows for two tablets. This way, you take one before getting on, and if you feel unwell, you can take a second.

Step 3:
Listen carefully to the crew. They will remind you where and how to sit, where not to go, and they will make you feel at ease. It’s true when they say they have probably dealt with worse. After all, you have already followed steps 1 and 2, so you are ahead of those who went on not knowing.

Step 4:
Enjoy the journey! Don’t think about whether you might get sick, it won’t help. The more distracted you are – looking for whales and at the scenery for example – the less you will think about the uncomfortable truths of sea sickness. Bring a hat or sit in the shade. Having the heat of the sun burn on your head won’t make you feel any better and neither will staring at a phone, book, or anything which distracts you from looking at the horizon.

By Claire Herbaux - Field Communications Officer

Are you interested in going on a trip to Tenerife to work on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation project? You can also take a look at our other marine conservation projects here.


The Species You Can Experience On The Project

I came to Tenerife as part of my work experience for college and on my boat trips I saw five different types of cetaceans! Here is a little more about the species found around Tenerife:

The most common cetaceans in the Canary Islands are the sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins, short-finned pilot whales and Risso’s dolphin.

Short-finned pilot whales are the most common species found around Tenerife. They are around 4.7-7.3m in length and 1-3 tonnes in weight, their diet consists of giant squid and a variety of fish (they will chase the giant squid up to depths of 1000m at high speeds), the females can live for up to 60+ years whereas the males only live for around 45. The best ways to tell that it is a pilot whale is by their bulbous head and because their dorsal fin is positioned far forward on the back, curved towards the tail.

Sperm whales are the resident species of Santa Cruz. The males are around 17-18m long and the females are around 15m long, they weigh around 20-57 tonnes and they feed on deep water squid, octopus and large fish. The most interesting thing is they can dive deeper and longer than any other mammal.

Bottlenose dolphins are much smaller, around 3-4.2m in length and weigh 0.5 tonnes. Their diet consists of fish, squid and octopus. The best way to recognise a bottlenose dolphin is by their short beak with their sloping forehead and a high dorsal fin (the fin at the top). They also rear their calves up to the age of 3-4 years old; then the males will leave in pairs. The dolphins live in female groups of 20-30 animals.

Risso’s dolphins are resident on the west coast and are around 2.6-3m long and weigh 300-500kg. They live off squid, octopus, fish and crustaceans. They start off in life as a dark grey colour and their whiteness colour develops due to the build-up of scars over their lifetime through fights with each other and they are also known to be aggressive towards other cetacean species.

A few of the behaviours shown by the whales when we were on the boats is the ‘spy hop’, when the whale rises vertically towards the surface with its head out of the water. The ‘tail slap’ this is when they raise their tail flukes and slap them forcefully on the surface of the water. And finally ‘breach’ this is an acrobatic display where the whales use their tails to launch themselves out of the water and then land back on the surface with a splash!

By Jodie Croft - Whale & Dolphin Conservation Project

Are you interested in going on a trip to Tenerife to work on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation project? You can also take a look at our other marine conservation projects here.


Menopause in Cetaceans 

Let’s talk about sex, baby. Well, sort of, reproduction really but hopefully I caught your attention. Menopause. Probably something most people don’t want to think a lot about, but biologically it is actually really interesting… at least I think so.

Let’s think about it a bit, what is menopause? Well essentially it is just a female living on for many years after losing her ability to reproduce. It doesn’t sound like much, but from a biological perspective the entire purpose of any organism is to pass its genetic material on to the next generation, so once an individual loses its ability to do that, their existence becomes unnecessary. If a female can’t produce and raise offspring is survival really worth it? So it isn’t really surprising that very few species have long female survival periods after stopping reproduction, yet a few species do. Humans, of course, is the obvious one, but it also occurs in killer whales, possibly in elephants, and… you guessed it – short-finned pilot whales, the star of the Tenerife show!

Since I’ve told you menopause is actually biologically unusual, you may wonder why it happens at all. It may help you to know that both killer whales and short-finned pilot whales exist in what are known as matrilines, or matriarchal societies. Here, female offspring will stay with their mother throughout their life, with in turn their female offspring remaining, forming a group of closely related females. Males tend to leave the group, at least partly, in order to reproduce with females they aren’t related to. Female short-finned pilot whales will not reproduce after the age of 40, yet they can live to around 65 years old, so there must be a good reason for sticking around for another quarter of a century!

Granny, Grandma, Nanny, whatever you call her, everyone loves their Grandmother right? But think about how much knowledge she has, how many years of life experience she can pass on to her children and her children’s children. I’m sure if you think about it you’ve learned something from your Grandmother, even if it’s just the secret family recipe for the world’s best apple pie! Just as in humans, older female short-finned pilot whales hold a wealth of information which can help their offspring to survive and reproduce successfully. So even though she may no longer be producing more of her own offspring, her years of knowledge are ensuring that her genetic material that’s already out there is getting the best possible chance of surviving in to another generation. Let’s hear it for Granny pilot whale!

By Bryony Manley - Assistant Research Officer

Are you interested in going on a trip to Tenerife to work on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation project? You can also take a look at our other marine conservation projects here.


My Top 11 Experiences From Two Weeks In Tenerife 

My two weeks here in Tenerife during the festive period has been a very memorable experience. Volunteering on this project has opened up my eyes even more on the environment, and has inspired me to get involved in other conservation projects.

My two weeks in Tenerife:

1.    5 hour hike to the highest mountain in Spain; El Teide and visiting a natural volcanic swimming pool. Cao, from Anaga excursions, was very informative and taught us about Tenerife and the history of the volcanos.


2.    Learning about cetaceans and the importance of taking pictures on their distinctive fin so that we can identify and monitor them.

3.    Learning about the Spanish and Canarian culture and language.

4.    A memorable moment was when we saw hundreds of Atlantic spotted dolphins travelling and giving us quite a show with their jumps and tail flicks. It was very memorable and I was glad to see that there are still a good amount of dolphins in the waters of Tenerife.

5.    Tenerife is an adventure island with cool places to see and plenty of sporting activities to keep you busy, from cycling to paddle boarding.

6.    The crew on the  boats are a nice cheeky bunch who kept us entertained during our boat rides.

7.    My project coordinator Bryony taught me loads about marine life.

8.    After our boat rides and inputting the data then matching the fins to identification catalogue, we read, cooked, and watched films.

9.    Doing a mini project to learn more about how plastic pollution affects our oceans and the marine life.

10.    Meeting new people.

11.    To end the trip, we celebrated New Year’s Eve in the capital city of Santa Cruz which was a lot of fun experiencing the more local culture.

By Alison Lwin - Whale & Dolphin Conservation Volunteer

Are you interested in going on a trip to Tenerife to work on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation project? You can also take a look at our other marine conservation projects here.