From the tiniest creatures to the biggest, everything in the oceans is interconnected, forming a whole network where each species has an important role to maintain the ecosystem health and function.
During our expeditions, we study whales, seabirds and more recently zooplankton communities. Studying biodiversity give us valuable information on the ecology, distribution and health status of the different species that live in or visit Icelandic waters.
Up to 23 different species of cetaceans have been found in Icelandic waters, with humpback and minke whales and white beaked dolphins being the most frequently spotted, alongside fin, sei, and killer whales and the immense blue whale too (the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth!). Even hybrids between the two largest animals on Earth (blue and fin whales) have been seen close to shore.
In some of the species, like humpback whales, individuals can be identified by looking at the pattern underneath the tail and their dorsal fins. Others, by the patterns they have on their back, like the dotted pattern in the blue whale.
By photoidentification, we not only recognize individuals and study migration patterns and movements but also, we can estimate how many individuals are coming back to these rich feeding grounds every year. In Iceland there are photoidentification databases for humpback whales, killer whales, blue whales, fin whales, minke whales, white beak dolphins and more recently, northern bottlenose whales. Some of these catalogs (linked) are open to the public to share and invite people to upload their sightings.
Although some species, like the humpback whales, seem to be recovered from whale hunting, whales are still struggling today. Climate change, lack of food, entanglements and collisions with big ships are threatening the survival of these giants.
The specific research of Charla Basran focuses on studying entanglement cases of humpback whales in Iceland and has found that around 20-30% of the whales have entangled in fishing gear before.
The glacier fjords in the West offer extraordinary sea bird spectacles in the spring time as the birds come to the cliffs for nesting! Seabirds choose remote places, isolated from predators and human life, for nesting. That is perhaps the reason why sea life still thrives in this special island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet, seabirds are one of the most vulnerable animals to climate change and human impacts; such as habitat degradation, entanglements with fishing gear and plastic pollution. This means that it is extremely important to draw attention on the need of their conservation and avoid the collapse of some of the species. In Iceland, climate change, entanglements with fishing gear and local hunting are the main threats to sea birds.
Each survey consists of 30 min fully focus on the horizon and try to register and photograph as many species as possible. This is a fun way to collect data and learning about their biology and how to recognize each species! These surveys allow us to monitor the distribution range and seasonality of seabirds as well as understand potential threats for their survival.
For example, a sighting of a species that is considered “rare” to see because it is out of the distribution range, or because it was considered to be gone a long time ago from these waters, are valuable sightings for bird experts. Reporting issues with seabirds and entanglements is important to study the complex life that these amazing creatures are facing, and it helps to increase awareness and efforts on sea bird conservation.