Saturday, August 10, 2013


A neonate pilot whale passes by the boat
Dtag on 1 of 4 long-finned pilot whales in our group
It was a really difficult call to make.

It began as a perfect day.  Leaving the harbor at first light, the gentle winds kept the fog at bay. Throughout the morning, we found a couple of larger groups of animals, some of which we had tagged during previous expeditions to the Strait.  Too big for our current investigations, we cautiously took photo ID pictures and left the animals to their frolicking.  

In one group we even spotted a tiny neonate (a newborn pilot whale) that could not have been more than a few months old.  We don’t work with groups containing neonates for fear of disturbing them during such a vulnerable stage in their lives. 

After a few hours things began to go downhill.  We found ourselves on the extreme Eastern edge of the Strait; there were no pilot whales in sight, and this far East it could be a long time before we found new ones.  The waves were also picking up.  A strong storm was forecast for the evening, and our narrow weather window was closing.  With sagging spirits and an exhausted team, we needed to decide whether to return to port or struggle back westward through the heavy currents.

We chose to push on for a little longer, and thank goodness that we did!  Within an hour, Philippe pointed out the next group of pilot whales in an unexpected calm patch of water. These animals were playful, with an older juvenile quickly coming in close to investigate our boat. We held off approaching the rest of the group while collecting 15 minutes of behavioral observations from a distance. Then we maneuvered slowly towards the animals – and suddenly, the words “Tag on, tag on” rang throughout the boat. One of our tags sat neatly right in front of the dorsal fin of a big, adult male! This male was with three other animals including the older juvenile that had inspected our boat, and within 90 minutes we had tagged all of them!   As the last tag was placed on the juvenile, we all take a quick moment to celebrate. 

After 6 hours of fantastic behavioral observations, our tags released perfectly as programmed.  We carefully homed in on the radio signal for each tag and fished the valuable data out of the ocean. We retrieved the last tag and headed into the port of Algeciras just as the sun was setting on the Rock of Gibraltar.

Frants Jensen and Nicholas Macfarlane

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