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RV Odyssey researching off El Hierro
The Odyssey crew sails close to shore off the southern coast of El Hierro in search of beaked whales.
Photo - Chris Johnson

March 4, 2005
El Hierro and Beaked Whales
Real Audio Report
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from El Hierro in the Canary Islands.

The crew spent most of our fourth and final research leg surveying the deep waters around the volcanic island of El Hierro. El Hierro is the youngest, smallest and most Westward Island in the Canaries archipelago. Until Colombus' discovery of America in 1492, it was thought to be the western most point of the known world. This is why the first mean zero, known as the Prime Meridian, was established here.

From the Odyssey, El Hierro looks like a barren, rocky volcanic island. However, closer inspection reveals a dazzling variety of landscapes, and a remarkable abundance of marine life. Its volcanic origin gives rise to a steep shelf with water depths of up to 2000 meters less than 3 miles from shore. This provides habitat for a mix of coastal and oceanic cetacean species, while the blend of cool currents with the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream means both sub-tropical and northern species occur here.

Twenty-six species of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are recorded in the archipelago. Five of these belong to the family Ziphiidae or beaked whales, and include Blainville's (Mesoplodon densirostris), True's (Mesoplodon mirus), Gervai's (Mesoplodon europaeus) and Cuvier's (Ziphius cavirostris) beaked whales and the northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus).

Odyssey pulled into Puerto De La Restinga on the southeast coast to take refuge from rough seas. This gave the crew the opportunity to meet local whale researcher Natacha Aguilar De Soto. Natacha is a cetacean biologist working for the Marine Sciences Unit at La Laguna University (ULL) on Tenerife. Since 1998, coastal surveys of El Hierro performed by ULL indicated the presence of beaked whales, Natacha leads the research program on the island.

Natacha Aguilar
Natacha Aguilar De Soto is a cetacean biologist working for the Marine Sciences Unit at La Laguna University (ULL) on Tenerife. Natacha and her team are determined to protect an area that may hold one of the greatest coastal concentrations of Blainville's and Cuvier's beaked whales in the world.
Photo - Chris Johnson

Natacha Aguilar De Soto -

    "Well, there is so much to learn about beaked whales because they are the most unknown of all cetaceans. So it is very lucky out here in El Hierro because the island has no platform, it is really deep near the coast. It can be 2,000 meters a mile from the coast, so we can see the beaked whales from the coast, from a high point on land and then we can approach them with a small boat and take photo ID and do a good study on the population. There is nothing known about the social structure, their reproductive rate and many other things.

    As far as we know it is not done anywhere else. In the Azores for example they see sperm whales from shore, I don't know if they see beaked whales, but here we see them everyday there is good weather - both species."

Genevieve Johnson -

Natacha and her research team regularly see two species close to shore off El Hierro, Cuvier's and Blainville's beaked whales. Remarkably, both species are seen all year round. Blainville's beaked whales are known to breed here with a reproductive peak in autumn. At this time of year, the researchers regularly see small calves. Interestingly, the researchers see no Cuvier's beaked whale juveniles or calves, which means they must move somewhere else to reproduce. It is not known if they are moving towards open ocean in the Atlantic or the other side of the archipelago. However the same adults return to El Hierro because the researchers sighted several individuals over a number of years.

In 2003, ULL and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) researched over two field seasons in El Hierro, with the objective of studying population distribution and tagging beaked whales using DTAG, an acoustic and motion recording tag attached with suction cups developed by Mark Johnson and Peter Tyack (Johnson & Tyack, 2003).

Natacha Aguilar De Soto -

    "We are doing this tagging study in collaboration with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and that is teaching us a lot about how these animals use the environment, how they are diving deep at 1300 meters - tight groups of Blainville's with the calves, with grown calves. Every animal of the group is diving together so they have a tight group cohesion."
Blainville Beaked Whale
A Blainville's beaked whale.
Watch a short video of a Blainville's beaked whale off El Hierro -   56k   200k
Video courtesy of Natacha Aguilar De Soto - La Laguna University & Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution. Photo by Victor Otaola

Genevieve Johnson -

Until now, this behavior was unknown in deep diving cetaceans. Other deep divers such as sperm whales, pilot whales and northern bottlenose whales are known to leave their calves at the surface with another adult or sub-adult, a behavior known as 'babysitting'. It is an altruistic behavior in the sense that the females have to go down to feed and then they in turn take care of the calves of the other females. In the bottlenose whale, young males are also observed taking care of small calves left at the surface by their mothers.

As well as gaining notoriety over the past few years as a 'hotspot' for beaked whales, the Canary Islands are also known for beaked whale strandings. There has been more mass strandings of beaked whales in the Canaries in conjunction with military sonar use, than anywhere else in the world.

Between 1985 and 2003, at least 7 mass strandings of beaked whales were recorded in conjunction with naval manoeuvres in the archipelago, involving a minimum of 55 dead whales. This kind of sonar has previously been related to mass strandings of Cuvier's beaked whale in Greece and four species of beaked whale in the Bahamas. Since the use of naval sonar in the Bahamas in March 2000, the area's population of Cuvier's beaked whale have seemingly disappeared, leading researchers to conclude they either abandoned their habitat or died.

The present study in El Hierro is part of a coordinated effort by La Laguna University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to try to understand the behaviour, social structure and distribution of beaked whales. They are currently collecting and presenting data in order to provide an insight into their apparent acute sensitivity to anthropogenic sound and to help identify areas of high density of beaked whales, where the use of military sonar should be avoided. Natacha and her team are determined to protect an area that may hold one of the greatest coastal concentrations of Blainville's and Cuvier's beaked whales in the world.

Natacha Aguilar De Soto -

    "The last one (stranding) was in July 2004 and the anti-submarine sonars were used more than 100 miles from the archipelago and still there were four beaked whales drove ashore, which means probably there were many more that never made it. The one before that was in 2002 and there were 14 beaked whales that were killed by the military sonar. The problem is that even if there are some resolutions from the European parliament about sonars in Europe and that there should be a moratorium on the use of these tactical sonars until the impact on the marine fauna has been established. Still the military not only of Spain but also NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) doesn't really want to apply that, so we have a problem because Canary Islands seems to be a very important area for beaked whales.

    We have discovered probably one of the more dense populations of beaked whales known in the world near the coast. So it is a high-risk area and it is a very sensitive place for acoustic pollution."
Cuvier's Beaked Whale
Cuvier's beaked whale
Photo by Marta Guerra, La Laguna University: Tenerife, Canary Islands

Genevieve Johnson -

In 2004, at the ACCOBAMS (The Agreement of Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area) second meeting of the parties in Palma De Majorca, the Spanish government announced a ban of naval sonar use in the territorial waters around the Canary Islands. Unfortunately, this only restricts testing within 12 nautical miles of land and will have little effect in reducing the impact on beaked whales.

Most people are not aware that our oceans are becoming an increasingly noisy environment and that these man-made, introduced sounds are adversely effecting marine mammals and probably many other marine species. According to Christopher Clark, Director of Cornell University's Bioacoustics Research Program, the noise generated by ships traffic, oil exploration and underwater military activity is doubling every decade. According to Ocean Alliance Founder and President, Dr. Roger Payne, "Blue whales make a low moan, which would be heard thousands of miles away, before the ocean was polluted with ship traffic".

Payne deduces that "In the North Atlantic, ocean noise has reduced the area in which two fin whales can hear each other by four orders of Magnitude", or 10,000 times.

Undersea oil exploration also creates noise. The oil industry uses powerful air guns to search for hydrocarbons lying deep beneath the ocean floor. Researchers listening to whale sounds in the mid-Atlantic have heard air guns sounds being generated off the African coast. Oil exploration is also occurring in the Canary Islands creating concern among cetacean researchers and local governments.

Natacha Aguilar De Soto -

    "There has been some seismic exploration very near the coast of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote to ten kilometers and they have discovered it is very possible there is a deposit of hydrocarbons. So now the Spanish Government is deciding if they are going to license the company REPSOL to drill. There is a big worry by the Canary Island government that this is going to have a big effect on the marine fauna along the coast because it is clear that the oil platforms increase the level of pollutants radically."

Genevieve Johnson -

Naval military sonar introduces still more noise into the oceans, with sufficient evidence to conclude, according to Dr. Payne, that the high-intensity sounds generated are harmful and even fatal to marine mammals, in particular, beaked whales.

According to Natacha, there is still much work to be done in raising awareness among the local community about the threats to cetaceans in the Canaries. However, people are starting to take notice.

El Hierro Landscape
The rich volcanic landscape of El Hierro.
Photo - Chris Johnson

Natacha Aguilar De Soto -

    "Well beaked whales are such an ellusive animal that not many people know about them, but now the Canarian's are reacting against having beaked whales on the beach. The local governments of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, and the government here on El Hierro are saying they do not want their marine fauna to be effected by any military sonar or any other causes and they are asking the Spanish government to stop any kind of acoustic pollution that can effect the marine fauna here. So that is good."

Links:

Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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