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How the project started....During a lock-down!

Updated: Mar 26, 2021


While I was still a whale-watching guide, I started discussing with my fellow biologist and skipper colleagues about what we observed during swim-with-dolphin trips off São Miguel Island, Azores. A previous study by Dr. Arianna Cecchetti had already shown us that whale-watching activities caused dolphins (spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and common dolphins) to change their behavior and that the swim-with-dolphins activity was primarily conducted with common dolphins. Since common dolphins are generally challenging to "swim with", there are not many other places in the world where such tourism activity takes place. That's why I thought that we needed to have a better look at the common dolphins of São Miguel.


But the pandemic...


Then COVID-19 happened. Starting a project during a global pandemic (and all the restrictions coming with it) is not an easy task. However, the lock-down in April 2020 also had its positive side: tons of free time! So, while most of the world population was locked up baking some culinary experiments, I decided to write as many grant proposals I could. I also got in touch with some potential supervisors and

soon enough our team was set-up: Dr. Geert Aarts, Prof. Frank van Langevelde at Wageningen University, and Dr. Fleur Visser. After a storm of grant applications, I finally got personal funding from the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, and some donations. Amazingly, we had enough to start the first data collection season in São Miguel! But we were not there yet, this was not the kind of fieldwork that could be done by a single person...


An island full of resources


Finding the right people on the island was surprisingly easy. Thanks to eternal support from Dr. Laura Gonzalez Garcia and Dr. Lorenzo Fiori, we managed to get some good collaborations. Lorenzo Fiori is an experienced (whale & dolphin) behavioral ecologist and drone pilot working as a scientific officer at Terra Azul, one of the whale watching companies on São Miguel. He helped to set up the collaboration, became the main drone pilot to test our protocol at sea, and advisor with methods in the field. We were able to use the boats of Terra Azul, and their drone too, if the equipment was not used for any whale watching activity. Laura Gonzalez Garcia is an experienced marine biologist, oceanographer, and currently a whale and dolphin post-doc researcher in São Miguel. She is our logistics support/coach/advisor on-site and organized the collaboration with Futurismo whale-watching. Finally, Picos de Aventura, also a whale watching company on Sao Miguel, was happy to collaborate. With their main guide, Ana Castanheira, we set-up another collaboration and could use their boats.


"What can we do without look-outs?"

Thanks to Jose Manuel Azevedo, a professor at the University of Azores, we were able to use the equipment and available space at the University. We applied for a research permit from DRAM and a drone flying permit from AAN. All permissions were received on time: The ball was rolling fast! But we were not there yet. Finding dolphins in the Azores, especially with a limited budget, is not an easy task...


Our eyes on land


Look-outs, or "vigias" as they are called in Portuguese, help Azores whale watching companies search for whale and dolphin species from land. These experienced spotters are specialized in what they do. They can even identify species at distances up to 8 miles from the shore, and occasionally even further away! We needed them to help us find the dolphins, and they did! See how difficult it really is to do their job here!


Finally, we needed an experienced skipper to drive the boat. Unfortunately, none of us biologists were up to do the task, but, once again, we were lucky to have so many friends on the island. Skippers had more availability to help us out due to COVID-19, since this resulted in less tourism on the islands and fewer whale-watching trips. Then, finally, we were right there, at the beginning of Azores Delphis Project!


Our first trip was done with Terra Azul, where Tiago Batista offered to drive the boat. Together with professor Jose Manuel Azevedo, Tiago Baptista, Lorenzo Fiori, and a biologist from Terra Azul, Vanessa Costa, we ventured on our first test trip.

Yes, it was still this cold in July.


Author: Fadia Al Abbar

Photo credits: Steve Geelhoed, and Fadia Al Abbar

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