Just off the north coast of Iceland, scientists are collecting data on whale breath to find out if they are stressed by whale watching boats, a booming industry in recent years.
Researchers from Whale Wise, a marine conservation charity, are studying the stress levels of whales in their hormones.
From their small sailboat, a drone takes off. After six hours of waiting, scientists have finally spotted a humpback whale.
Attached to the flying object are two Petri dishes – transparent cylindrical vessels – which will collect water droplets from the whale’s spray.
The time to collect the sample is short – the length of a whale’s breath.
This time, the drone carefully flies over the whale, crossing the spray from the whale’s vent… and mission accomplished. He returns to the sailboat, delivering his precious cargo to the researchers.
Once wrapped in paraffin and frozen, the samples will be sent to a lab for analysis.
The researchers aim to collect samples before a whale-watching boat arrives, and then thereafter, and then compare the two samples to determine the direct impact of that encounter on stress levels.
Tourists are increasingly flocking to the North Atlantic waters off Iceland to admire the majestic creatures, although 2020 has been a calm year due to the pandemic.
More than 360,000 whale watchers were recorded in 2019, three times more than ten years ago.
Almost a third of them started their whale watching excursion in Husavik harbor, heading for the cold waters of Skjalfandi Bay.
Previous studies on the impact of tourism on whales, based on behavioral observations, concluded that tourism caused only minor disturbance to mammals.
The most recent study, from 2011, found that whale watching trips disrupted minke whales in Faxa Bay, near Reykjavik, in the south of the country.
“We found that minke whales were disturbed in their diet, but it was only a short-term disturbance,” one of the study’s authors, Marianne Rasmussen, director of the Center, told AFP. of the University of Iceland at Husavik. “It didn’t affect their overall physical condition.”
The method used by Whale Wise this summer has been used elsewhere by biologists but it was a first for researchers in Iceland.
“From the samples, you can look at hormones like cortisol, which is a stress hormone, and then you can determine the physiological stress levels of these whales,” said Tom Grove, co-founder of Whale Wise and doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh.
Since 2018, 59 samples have been collected. While a minimum of 50 are needed for a proper scan, he hopes to collect around 100.
This summer, some of the samples were collected with the French environmental group Unu Mondo Expedition, which traveled to Iceland for a month-long expedition to study issues related to climate change.
“Whales are important to us, to our lives, because they are part of the ecosystem of our planet,” said Sophie Simonin, 29, co-founder of the organization.
“They also absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide,” she added.
According to a December 2019 study by the International Monetary Fund, a large whale captures an average of 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Although whales are a tourist attraction, they are also hunted in Iceland.
The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, but Iceland, which had opposed the moratorium, resumed hunting in 2003.
Iceland only bans blue whale hunting. But while the country has established an annual quota of 209 fin whales and 217 minke whales through 2023, no whales have been hunted this year for the third year in a row, as whalers say it is not financially viable. .
by Jérémie Richard, AFP