Bottlenose whale sightings

Monday 22 September 2008

Students on a marine mammal field course in Iceland are playing an important role in a rare sighting of the bottlenose whale in the country.

Environmental and marine biology students from the University of St Andrews are currently involved in a sighting that is being compared to the Thames whale episode of 2006, except on this occasion there are up to four whales being observed.

The fourteen students are on the first international field course of its kind – a collaboration between St Andrews and the University of Iceland – and it is hoped that their observations will help locals understand better why the whales ended up in a narrow fjord in Eyjafjördur.

Dr Patrick Miller, of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews, co-organised the course with Dr Marianne Rasmussen from the Húsavík Research Center at Iceland which is being run at the Húsavík whale museum.  Fortunately for the young scientists, the trip co-incided with the remarkable sightings of up to four Northern bottlenose whales which is causing considerable interest amongst locals in Akureyri, the second largest town in Iceland.

Dr Miller commented, “We know of no case where this species has been observed in such a shallow, narrow fjord for so long.  The big question is whether they are in trouble like the Thames whale or actually healthy and feeding.”

Normally considered a deep-diving, oceanic species, between two and four bottlenose whales have been sighted regularly for over a month close to shore by Akureryi.   The whales have not stranded, and have delighted local residents with their fascinating behaviour.  One of the primary aims of the strictly observational field research conducted by the St Andrews students is to find out whether the whales are feeding in the bay.  They hope to establish this by recording them underwater, looking for feeding sounds called ´buzzes´, which toothed whales make when they attempt to capture prey.

“It could either be that these whales have a wider habitat use than has been previously thought and that this is a natural behaviour discovery, or the whales are essentially stuck there and in trouble,” explained Dr Miller.  “My personal feeling after observing them is that they are feeding on fish in that location, so we have an exciting discovery.  The data the students collect should help us tell the difference.”

Sadly one of the four whales was observed entangled on a buoy line a few days ago and only three whales have been seen since.

Dr Miller commented, “That night, the remains of hurricane Ike came through, and the next day the buoy and whale were not sighted.  Only three of the four whales have been observed since then.  We presume the whale caught in the buoy did not survive the storm.”

The students, hailing from Scotland, England, Ireland, the U.S.A., Iceland, Germany and India arrived in Iceland on 9 September and will return home this week.  In addition to observing the whales from boat and the local light house, they have been given lectures on the history of Icelandic whale lore and whaling, the ecosystem and marine mammals of Skjálfandi Bay, and research methods used to study marine mammals in the wild.

Dr Miller said, “The students on this field course have been doing great work, and are very excited that they are doing research that is truly topical and important right now.”

The work has attracted additional funding from the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) and the town of Akureyri.






Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
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