Huge success in Cape Verde for IWDG ... UPDATED

9th Sep 2014

12 September 2014

The IWDG CVI 2014 expedition has ended in Mindelo, Sao Vicente after an astonishing two weeks. The last few days have continued to surprise us with killer whales off Sao Nicolau and another mother calf pair, plus an escort (presumably a male) off Branco. We have never recorded humpbacks off Branco so this is totally unexpected. We also managed to get biopsy samples from a mother and calf pair and some nearly usable fluke shots.

So today we have visited Vanda Monteiro of INDP,  the fisheries institute in Mindelo who are also responsible for whale and dolphin conservation in Cape Verde and who has always been very supportive of our efforts, and joined us for a week in 2006 during the second IWDG CVI expedition. We informed her that there are many humpbacks around and it is very likely that they are southern hemisphere whales making Cape Verde important for two populations of humpback whales, indeed it would be the only site in the Atlantic Ocean which is a breeding site for whales from both hemispheres. A very special place.

IWDG first visited Cape Verde in 2003 to try and locate the breeding grounds of the humpbacks seen in Irish waters. While we have not found the breeding grounds, neither have our efforts shown it is NOT the Cape Verde. However, through this work we have now contributed very significantly to to the knowledge on a small but very important population of one of natures most majestic creatures and some of us now want to continue to visit Cape Verde to contribute to protect a very special part of the world, for whales and people.  

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8 September 2014

The last two days we have operated out of Praia on Santiago which is the political capital of Cape Verde. A busy place, not to our liking but we had to bunker up on food, fuel and water and clear the maritime police. It is adjacent to deep water but as we approached Praia we had two blows from humpbacks off the harbour and two breaching humpbacks in the distance, surprising given the water depth. After bunkering we spent the afternoon trying to find the humpbacks seen the previous day and just when it looked like we would have our first no-sighting day a small group of beaked whales surfaced near our boat. Although we took images and film footage we are still not certain what they were but all signs indicated Gervais beaked whale, a species rarely observed in the wild and this may indeed be the first HD footage of this elusive species. The previous day we saw a small group of what we think were Blainville’s beaked whale in the channel between Santiago and Maio so although we have not managed to approach humpbacks we have recorded some rare beaked whales. Today we head up the west side of Santiago and track into the deep channel between Santiago and Fogo, a still active volcano, so maybe we will see some more rare deep-diving species. 

 

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6 September 2014 

It just gets better !!! .... As we tried to leave Baia de Sal Rei we saw a humpback breach three times in the distance, however after waiting an hour we pushed on disappointed at not seeing it again as it might have been a new whale. We had to push on as we have a long trip to Maio but after only a couple of hours we came upon a mother and very small calf. The first confirmed sighting of a humpback and calf in Cape Verde during the summer. We tried to get a biopsy sample but just couldnt get close enough and eventually we had to move on.
So we have now confirmed breeding and we just need to determine from where they came .....
 
 

 

4 September 2014 

Success, we not only found a humpback whale, but we obtained a biopsy sample.  After a slow morning on anchor in Sal Rei as a strong wind blew across the bay we slipped anchor around 2pm and zig-zagged slowly south across the bay as heading into the wind and swell was not an option. Within an hour a single dorsal fin appeared near the boat – rough toothed dolphin – but it was not seen again, then suddenly the water boiled as 200-300 melon-headed whales appeared out of nowhere and charged through the swell and waves. Amazing. We were hardly over the shock when Beatrice saw a splash followed by a blow and there was no mistaking the bushy blow of a humpback whale. Pedrin screeched. The crossbow was readied and soon the whale surfaced near the boat but with high swell the chance of a miss with an arrow was too high. Had we missed our chance. No, it surfaced again even closer and a successful hit was made. Sample recovered. Mission accomplished.

 

3 September 2014

Weather conditions were not like the previous few days with increasing winds. With a weary crew after night watch we continued towards Boa Vista. The only sightings of the day were of a hammerhead shark and a loggerhead turtle. Once at anchor in Sal Rei, (the bay where mother calf pairs are frequently recorded in spring), we went ashore to get provisions, such as food, diesel and water. After dinner we sat down to watch “The return of the humpback whale”, a documentary made 11 years ago when the IWDG tried to establish a link between Irish and Cape Verde humpback whales. It was an early night for everyone.

2   September 2014 

We departed Tarrafel at 07:00 and made our way south into the deep waters off  Sao Nicolau. On our way we   had our first sighting of the day, a very large group of Atlantic spotted dolphins Stenella frontalis. These animals were actively feeding but approached the boat at times. As we were in such calm waters with such a big group, Pedrin and Simon jumped in with their GoPro cameras to get some underwater footage, which Simon managed to get.  From there, we continued our track south to deeper waters but no further sightings were recorded. By lunchtime the wind had started to increase   so we started to make our way towards Carracal. En route we saw skipjack tuna but no more cetaceans were recorded. Once we had the anchor down we all went snorkelling over a coral reef where we saw  whip coral, black coral, golden cap coral and porous coral. Fish species included; blackspot picarel , Cape Verde moro, parrot fish, blue spotted sea bream, yellow goldfish, blackbar soldierfish , scrawled filefish, plain head file  damsel fish,  as well trumpet fish,  trigger fish and a nurse shark.  After   a few hours at this anchorage, and with a rising swell, the skipper decided for safety reasons we should start a slow  night passage towards Boa Vista. We all took shifts on watch until 7am. We didn’t travel too far as we wanted to survey these waters in daylight.     

 

1 September 2014

The day started lovely with calm seas as we left Tarrafel to zig-zag along the shelf edge to the south of Sao Nicolau. Nothing was seen all morning until just after lunch a large Manta Ray around 3m wing length cruised past the boat. we jumped in and Perin xaptured some amazing footaage on his Go-Pro and Joanne emitted a shreak as it swam under her....

The sea became choppy as we made the tip of the point where the waters meet and the wind drops down the mountains but two sharp fins were seen briefly in an area with a concentration of Cape Verde and Cory's Shearwaters. We searched the area and suddenly out of nowhere a full breach and large splash. Nobody caught the whale on camera but we were strongly of the opinion it was a Kogia sp. and the only one recorded in Cape Verde waters is Dwarf Sperm Whale. Time had slipped away and we would not have made Carracal before night so we headed back to Tarrafel for the night.  We were all a little disapointed as we had hoped to see short-finned pilot whale and maybe oceanic dolphins but a Manta Ray and Kogia is not a bad return.

31 August 2014

A loggerhead turtle circled our yacht as we left Mindelo at around 8am to head north around Sao Vicente towards Sao Nicolau. Sea conditions were perfect as we kept to the north of Saint Luzia, Branco and Raso. Apart from Cape Verde Shearwaters and the occasional Red-billed tropicbird and Bulwer’s Petrel we had no sightings. As we arrived off Sao Nicolau earlier than expected after a fresh wind powered Equinox at 7kts with comfort we tacked and sailed offshore to survey the waters between Tarrafel and Raso. Around 5pm we saw distance splashes, which at first looked like fish, but were in fact melon-headed whales. 

These are quite rarely seen and a poorly understood species which have mass-stranded on Cape Verde on a number of occasions. Despite their energetic behaviour and avoidance of the yacht we managed to get some good images. This is my first sighting of this species and it is one we hope to biopsy but it is going to be difficult as they are small and flighty but did let us approach when we sailed a parallel course. As the light dropped we headed into anchor off Tarrafel, the largest town on Sao Nicolau and hope we can find these whales again in the morning.

30 August 2014

This evening we joined our yacht Equinox, after two days in Mindelo sorting out equipment and provisions. Our flight to Sao Vicinte was 15 hours late so we were pretty tired when we touched down in Mindelo at 5am Irish time. Our luggage still needed another day to catch up with us. Unfortunately as my luggage, which included a crossbow in a funny looking case was waiting at the airport for a few hours it alerted the police who would not let it enter the country without official clearance.  We spent the day between police headquarters, Maritime customs and the Fisheries agency to get the neccessary paperwork but it was granted and it finally  cleared customs. In fairness to all those concerned, they were doing their job and acted swiftly ank them for allowing the crossbow in as without the ability to take biopsy samples our objectives of this research trip would have been severly compromised.

So tomorrow we set sail for Sao Nicolau via Santa Luzia and hope to encounter some dolphins and "blackfish" around the islands.

28 August 2014

The IWDG are returning to Cape Verde Islands off west Africa to continue their search for humpback whales. This is the fifth expedition to this remote island archipelago since 2003 and IWDG have helped to not only raise the conservation status of humpbacks in Cape Verde but also to re-assess the nature of humpback whale ecology in the North Atlantic.

This fifth expedition however has a very different angle as it is the first time we have visited Cape Verde in the autumn. This time of year humpbacks breeding in Cape Verde in March – May are at their high latitudes including Ireland, so why are we searching for humpback whales on their breeding grounds at this time of year ?

There is some evidence that humpbacks from the Southern Hemisphere (feeding near Antarctica) may also breed in Cape Verde, but later in the year, during the austral spring (August - September). We hope to test this hypothesis by collecting photo-id data and skin samples for molecular genetics to compare them with samples from other sites. This is a lofty ambition and even finding humpbacks at this time of year is very difficult.

However we have had some sightings over the last three weeks from contacts in CVI and we hope to get lucky. We are also interested in “blackfish”, that group of small, black, toothed whales including short-finned pilot, melon-headed and pygmy killer whales that are known to occur in CVI but of which very little is known. Some are captured for local consumption and so a better knowledge of their population is important.

Today we fly to Mindelo on Sao Vicente to pick up a 41 foot Lipari catamaran which will be our survey vessel over the next two weeks. Our charter starts on Saturday but a large swell from Tropical Storm is hitting Cape Verde on Sunday so we might be delayed.

Simon Berrow is acting as cruise leader, IWDG Director Fiacc O’Brolchain is skipper once again on his second expedition to CVI on behalf of the IWDG, IWDG Conservation Officer Joanne O’Brien is on her first trip to Cape Verde and cameraman Tony Whelan on his third expedition. We will be joined by Beatrice Jann from the Swiss Whale Society who has been working in Cape Verde on humpbacks since 1989 and Pedrin Lopez Suarez who lives on Boa Vista and has been carrying out a huge amount of photo-id on humpback whales off this island over the last 5 years.

We will be providing updates as often as we can on the website and facebook so please do follow our progress.

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CVI2014 is funded by the Island Foundation in the US and Karl Meyer Foundation based in Lichenstein. IWDG are extremely grateful for their continued support