Updated: Jun 2, 2022
It was mid-season. Whale-watching tourism season went sky-high, and boats from whale watching companies were filled with tourists, meaning, we had no more boat to go out to the sea. Miguel Cravinho from Terra Azul and Pedro Miguel from Picos de Aventura helped us find other options for a boat. One of them was always available with a valid license, so we went for that boat. It was a 5m by 1.8m RIB. RIP us. Coming from a 10m by 3m RIB (Rubber Inflated Boat), this was quite a change for our work ethic.....
The name of our new research vessel was Farilhão. There's a nice story behind this boat too. Villa Franca Islet is a small island, approx. 500m off the coast of the island São Miguel. Off this islet, (below in the photo) you can see the narrow pillar on the left side of the islet of Villa Franca. That pillar is also called Farilhão, which is a Portuguese word that means exactly what it is, an isolated pillar caused by marine abrasion. It's hard to see in this picture, but that pillar is slightly separated from the main islet, by water.
New boat, new chances....or new struggles?
Of course, it was both, new chances and new struggles. Just to give you a better idea, we went from this 10m RIB:
To this 5m RIB:
So, we did a test-trip on Farilhão, to see if it was feasible to do our work on that boat, and if we had to change any of the research plans that we had. It turned out that, it was quite tight, and the people on board were going to be strictly limited to 4 people (we tried to go on-board with 5 people once before, and that was not to be repeated). We had to fix our spots on the rubber part of the boat and limit our movements on board. Besides ourselves, we also had to find fixed spots for our gear. We needed to fit: a massive pelican case for the drone and batteries, a heavy pelican case for the acoustics equipment, a smaller pelican case for the camera, a bag filled with water, our lunch, sheets, emergency kits, and life jackets. It was like doing a puzzle. We could not see the floor of the RIB anymore, but we fit (when there's a will there's a way!!). Also, in 4 people, with some multitasking, we were miraculously able to do everything. One person was piloting the drone (Fadia), one person catching the drone (so many volunteers, thanks to all of you!), one doing the acoustics, recording the environmental, and drone times (Luana), and skipper (so many skippers helped us too!). And, of course, all of us kept track of the dolphins, and we rotated taking photo ID on the dorsal fins of the dolphins.
We needed another drone pilot....
Despite us being able to rotate and find interested friends/whale watching guides/volunteers to help us on board, it was not always possible to find a person experienced at sea to catch the drone. Also, some tasks needed to be switched on-board depending on the circumstances. For example, occasionally we had dolphins with "complicated" behaviour, which meant that we were losing the dolphins all the time! It was only slightly frustrating... so that meant, we needed more eyes at sea, and pause our work.
Moreover, on somewhat bumpy days (which happens quite quickly in a smaller boat, as you can imagine, the larger the boat, the more stable it is), extra hands were needed to hold the drone pilot from bouncing too much. Yes, I was literally hugged by one of my teammates to not bounce into the ocean. That is because Farilhão had no seats apart from where the skipper was, so we were sitting on the rubber which, yes, is as bouncy as a banana boat when we were driving. As I, the drone pilot, had to keep both hands on the controller, no hands were free to stay in position. Furthermore, "new tasks" on board arose, where other tasks had to be taken over by another person on board. For example, we needed an extra hand to take photographs. The point is, multitasking sometimes reached the impossible, unnecessarily complicating our lives and lengthening our research trips. This required more training with a fixed team. We would be better off with a fixed team, so we could train together and take over tasks faster and more smoothly.While we were searching, Maria Huaman Benitez (our friend and former whale-watching colleage) helped us catching the drone, and saved 2 weeks of fieldwork (thank you!). Next, we were very lucky to find someone, extremely experienced at sea with marine mammals, who was also a drone pilot: Sean O'Callaghan came all the way from Ireland to help us! Once he was trained for the many tasks that we were doing on board, our lives became much easier with the 3 fixed team-members, Luana, Sean, and myself (Fadia). With the availability of a drone pilot, I could occasionally drive the boat on the days that skippers were all not available to help us. With this flexibility and expertise, we were unstoppable, and never missed a good-weather day at sea, thanks to Sean.
No drone dramas!
Of course, it is fun to mention some of the bloopers and struggles we had at sea, because research at sea is simply NOT EASY. It is very difficult, and even with our competent team, who each have countless hours of experience at sea either as researchers, whale-watching guides, or both, the ocean is full of surprises and can suddenly make things more difficult, and more exciting. Not needless to say, unlike last year, we barely had Drone dramas this year! After our permit to fly near the airport zone, we did not encounter any issues there. Our drone never fell in the water, touch wood. All of our equipment came back safely to the boat, and subsequently to land every day. We are so proud!
Finished Master theses!
We are also proud of our 2 collaborating students who finished their Master theses with us! Anne Grundlehner worked on group structure and group counts, where she corrected for the perspective of a tilted gimbal (that is the lens of the drone that can change in angle, which we do to avoid the glare, or reflection of the sun, on the sea surface).
These corrections made all the calculations more accurate. Anne recently submitted her thesis and is about to graduate! Luana Clementino recently submitted her thesis on dolphin communication and is awaiting her results. She also recently presented her findings at the UK & Irish Marine Mammal Student Chapter Conference. A video about her findings will be posted soon!
Do you want to know how many people in 2021 helped with this project? With a basic season-summary and effort? And how this project will further develop? See the next season summary of 2021 coming up soon!
This project is sponsored by grants and collaborated with universities and whale watching companies.
Author: Fadia Al Abbar