Entries in #science (14)



Have you ever wondered why the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, has such a big head? Nearly one third of the cetacean’s entire body mass is made up by its gigantic melon, and at first glance it looks very impractical. Plowing its way through the water like a school bus, it's hard to imagine how much energy must be burnt in the process. When you compare it to the very streamlined bottlenose dolphin, the sperm whale’s head appears to be a clear impediment. So why is it so huge?

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Do Dolphins and Whales  Sleep?

It’s hard to imagine a whale or dolphin sleeping. Do they simply float at the surface, completely unaware of their surroundings?

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A Perfect First  Expedition

It was a perfect day to hit the water; a bit of wispy cloud sitting near the horizon, just outlining the bright blue sky above us. It was breathing a gentle force 2, enough to cool us off under the hot sun but not nearly enough to send hats flying into the Atlantic.

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My First Week As Assistant Research Officer 

Rachel, our new Assistant Research Officer on the project has recently started and tells us about how she has been getting on in her first week

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Conscious Cetaceans: The Intelligence of Non-human Persons

We base our understanding of animal intelligence on human intelligence. But what is intelligence? Could a species be superior to humans?

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James’ Top Tips to Prepare for Tenerife

This week long project is by far one of the best things I have ever done. The feeling I got when I saw the dorsal fin of a whale rise from the ocean for the first time was indescribable, and one that I recommend everyone to experience themselves.

When travelling to any unfamiliar country, preparation is key; the importance of it should be any traveller’s primary concern. Frontier provide an abundance of valuable information in regards to preparing for your exhibition, and from personal experience I highly recommend referring to these documents carefully before the commencement of your trip! The main objective of this project is to collect data and take photos of various cetaceans for identification purposes, therefore one of the primary pieces of equipment you are encouraged to bring is a digital camera, as you will need your own camera in order to efficiently photograph the cetaceans. I, like many people I’m sure, do not own my own camera; therefore I borrowed a friend’s camera for the week. I would recommend doing something similar as it is a vital piece of equipment and by bringing one, as your phone just won’t do and it will ensure you have the best possible experience throughout your project.

You will be walking a lot during your time in Tenerife, as the accommodation is quite a distance from the harbour where you will be boarding the whale watching boats, therefore appropriate, comfortable footwear should be brought! On occasion you may have the opportunity to go to the beach after your time on a whale watching boat, therefore I recommend bringing sandals and a pair of walking shoes with you on your days out of the volunteer house.

During the days on the whale watching boats you will obviously not be back home until late afternoon or evening. And you will leave early in the morning, so you may be away from your possessions for up 8 hours. With this in mind, a durable bag or rucksack is another vital piece of equipment. I mistakenly did not bring a bag or rucksack with me, so on the first day on the whale watching boat I was carrying my possessions in a plastic supermarket bag, which was not ideal! Not only did this make my travels around the island a lot more difficult, there was also the risk that my items could have been damaged or misplaced when walking or on the boats. I bought a bag on my second day on the island however and this made my travels and experiences a lot more enjoyable. Also, learning a few basic Spanish words would help you greatly when conversing with the locals!

If you are thinking about applying for this project, all I have to say is go for it. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Personally I have learnt a vast amount of valuable information about cetaceans and the methods researchers use to study them, and I know you will to.

By James Boyd, Research Assistant

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.


Charismatic Cetaceans: Why We Love Whales And Dolphins - A Blessing And A Curse

Welcome to this four part series about cetaceans! Cetaceans include whales, dolphins and porpoise and their conservation is the main focus of our project here in Tenerife. But why do we humans love cetaceans so much? How do cetaceans interact with their environment? Why have cetaceans been given rights as non-human persons? Why do cetaceans need protecting? Find out everything in our four part Cetacean series!

Whales and dolphins are among a select group called ‘charismatic megafauna’. This means they are big animals with a cute smile - and humans simply love that! Ever wondered why the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) logo is a giant panda? Because it is a cute big fluffy animal with a smile! Okay, it is a little more complicated, but only just.

pixabay | mikakapturWe humans like things to look nice and be able to relate to them. Looks matter! It is not just about swiping left or right on Tinder. It has been scientifically proven we are hard-wired to respond positively to “cute” – big eyes, round heads, short snouts – and it translates directly into dollar bills (or the currency of your choice). Dolphins are the perfect example of “cute”. Their fixed smile give them a friendly and happy appearance and their anatomy is non-threatening; for example their pectoral fins and streamlined body are much like our arms and torso. Compare this to the image of a spider with eight crawling hairy legs and alien-like eyes. With the exception of some little boys’ obsession with creepy crawlies, people prefer dolphins over spiders.

Relatability matters! We long to travel the world barefoot and jump out of flying contraptions… but when it comes down to it, we are creatures of habit, enjoying familiar situations. We like animals to be similar to us and share intelligence, behaviours and social structures. The more similar, the more we identify with them, and the more we feel a moral duty of care to protect them. Dolphins are very intelligent social creatures with a curious nature. We relate to them when listening to their clicks and whistles, watching their playful behaviour such as jumping and playing, blowing bubbles or playing with objects.

flickr | Ania MendrekCetaceans check the boxes: good aesthetics and relatability and voilà, a charismatic megafauna with high economic value to humans. Whales were hunted for their meat, blubber and oil. As science developed it became apparent that these were intelligent social creatures and after the 1970s Save the Whale campaign they were seen as an environmental icon and “gentle giants” who roam the seas peacefully. The whale songs are even used as relaxing meditation music!

flickr | Ezra Freeloveflickr | Rennett StoweWhales and dolphins became part of pop-culture with Flipper in the 1960s and Free Willy in 1993. This new interest in cetaceans sparked a growth of marine parks and aquariums. Belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) with their unique white colour and their range of facial expressions, were first to be held in captivity. Nowadays, bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are the most common species in marine parks due to their intelligence, trainability, playfulness and friendly appearance as well as the striking killer whales (Orcinus orca). However, in captivity, cetaceans are lacking space and the resemblance to their wild habitat. In the United States the legal requirements for killer whale tank is 15 metres in diameter for two individuals, whereas in the wild an orca can travel up to 160 kilometres a day! As a result, cetaceans can have reduced life expectancies, high levels of stress and even psychosis. Note: If you haven’t yet, you need to watch the critically acclaimed 2013 documentary ‘Blackfish’ which shows the reality behind the tank-life.

It doesn’t take an expert to see that cetaceans are too big and intelligent to be suitable for life in a tank. In some countries dolphins have even received the status of non-human persons, giving them special rights, including it being morally unacceptable to keep them in captivity.

flickr | きうこLuckily, a cetacean’s value is not limited to ticket-sales at a marine park. As charismatic megafauna they easily capture public and media attention, and spark political interest, therefore being more likely to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act and funding for their conservation.

Often, they are an essential part of marine ecosystems as they have a high trophic level (meaning they are on top of the food chain) and can act as an indicator species: Their diet and habitat is supported by a high biodiversity; if this biodiversity declines, so does the quality of their habitat and quantity of their food, and eventually cetaceans. So they can tell us a lot about the state of an ecosystem and are of great ecological value!

Combined with their popularity, it makes them the perfect flagship species to raise awareness about other environmental features!

How? Well, because humans want to protect them, and by doing so they indirectly protect the underlying ecosystems and the small slimy ugly species also found in these ecosystems. No matter how interesting you try to make an image of a piece of seaweed look, it won’t be received as well as a dolphin. In fact, using a flagship species such is what non-governmental organisations (NGOs) use in order to get sponsorship, public awareness or media attention to support the conservation of less charismatic species and therefore biodiversity at large.

flickr | UnsplashSo next time you see a whale or dolphin take a moment to think about why we love them so much. Think about their smiles and about how it is both the curse of being held in captivity and a blessing because of the conservation efforts made!

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.


A Day In a Life Of… A Tenerife Whale and Dolphin Conservation Volunteer. 

Every day here has been different, with a few commonalities: new experiences, heat and lots of walking! We started the day around 8am depending on the boat we were going on (and the noisy animals outside the house), got ready and headed out to the boats. After successfully navigating the bus system of Tenerife, titsa, the sea is only a stones throw away, as are the cetaceans (My new word for the week - the term for dolphins and whales)!

We put on our Frontier t-shirts before the boat trips to ensure the crew always enthusiastically welcomed us, and started our data collection, which continued throughout the trip. In a week we make it on all three boats: Peter Pan, Shogun and Eden, all different shapes and sizes, giving you a unique experience every time. My trip on Eden was probably the most memorable, getting to be within touching distance of around 15 Spotted Dolphins as they bow rode just below our feet. It was magical and I was very sad when it was time to turn the boat around and head back to shore. The three trips were also different lengths, between 2 and 5 hours with the chance to jump into the very cold sea on the two longer trips, which I am glad I did once but never again! On Shogun I also had a wonderful chat in pigeon Franglais to an elderly French lady which was extremely entertaining!

Once back at the shore we would either stop for a small rest in a beach front bar to catch a bit of WiFi, or head home, sleepy from a long day on the boats. Once home data entry was the priority, your own contribution into the research of cetaceans that live and move through the water around the Canary Islands.

One person cooked a night, and then debrief around the dinner table was always interesting; learning what other people had done that day and working out the plan for tomorrow. Then chatting, or a film (we watched Blackfish to celebrate SeaWorld halting their Orca whale breeding programme), or general relaxation commenced. It was amazing how tired you could be after a day of whale watching, so sleep usually consumed us much earlier than I would like to admit. It did however mean we were ready for our next day to do more whale watching, learn more about these amazing animals and continue exploring the island.

A week I won’t forget soon, and one I was sad to leave.

The dolphins and whales were more amazing that I imagined and I feel very privileged to have watched them in their natural habitat.

By Katherine Risk - Research Assistant

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.


Dolphin Watching: Benefits and Future

Dolphin watching has grown to be one of the most successful types of tourism in the world, offering economic returns as well as educational, research, and conservation benefits. It has shown a growth rate 3 to 4 times higher than other forms of tourism and has transformed many communities. It does however beg the question: Can this industry remain sustainable and continue to have the benefits, economic and ecological, for the communities?

In addition to the obvious direct economic benefits to the local communities that come hand-in-hand with increased tourism, dolphin watching can help provide indirect benefits such as an alternative source of income and a diversification in business for competing local stakeholders. A solid example of such stakeholders are local fisheries. Fisheries are known to be impacted by dolphin populations not only through competition for fish stocks but also through the inadvertent destruction of fishing equipment by the animals. In many cases dolphin populations have even been known to be actively culled because of it. A dolphin watching industry in which people who would otherwise be competitors are employed, instantly transforms them into allies with a vested interest in protecting cetaceans.

The goal however of high quality, sustainable dolphin watching is not just for it to be commercially successful and sustainable. Dolphin watching has as a main mission to educate people about the sea and the need for its conservation. The appeal of dolphins can in a way be “used” as a flagship species to promote a more general biophilic sense in urban humans and inspire them to preserve and protect the marine environment.

Reducing ones “footprint” is a key concept in the provision of high quality dolphin watching. This would include (among others) limitations such as reducing the time and area in which whale watching boats can be active which can massively help with reducing the ecological impact the industry may have, limitations in the distance that must be maintained when approaching the animals, the number of boats that can approach a group of animals at any given time, the time they can remain in their vicinity and the times a particular group can be repeatedly visited.

To judge the success of the industry, one has to weigh the benefits of the industry against its disadvantages. The key elements in achieving the desired outcome, as defined by Erich Hoyt in “A Blueprint for Dolphin and Whale Watching Development, are the following:
•    Good long-term management
•    Strict and regular scientific input
•    Attention to the values of conservation
•    Investment in people, both local and visiting, good customer care and community relations
•    Educational input and output

For such strategies to work there is however a need for a strong legal component with regulations, enforcement, and education as well as close cooperation between dolphin-watching operations, government agencies, NGOs and researchers.

As a conclusion, dolphin-watching can be massively beneficial both economically and with respect to conservation and education, however considering the growth rate of the industry, the success or failure in this endeavor currently balances on the tip on the knife and depends on highly controlled ethical and responsible management and practice informed by scientific research.

By Kimon - Assistant Reseacrch 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.