Thursday, 4 September 2008

Last entry

As a final entry I would like to recognized all of you who took their time to come on board and help me on this task. This blog was initially made to help people participating in fieldwork to follow what we were doing in their absence, but I realize that with time, other people started following this. As such I want to formally acknowledge averyone that shared with me all the uncertainty, frustration and joy that working with such elusive animals represents. 19 people from the most diverse background, and from 7 different countries helped to turn this fieldseason in the most successfull on ever, both in terms of sample numbers as in representitevness along the Portuguese coast. To all of you, my most honest and sincere thank you!

Ana Mendonça


José Póvoa (The mighty helmsman)

Malgorzata Pilot (1st Mate)

Paulo Serrano

João Dias

Telma Pereira (Pinipom)

Vittoria Elliot


Neftalí Síllero (1st helmsman)

Esther Alberca

Karis Baker

Ben Johnson

Pedro Neves

Marcela Velasco

Céline Madeira

Margarida Ventura


Susana Gaspar

Not wind, not waves, not the extreme sun nor the pouring rain, not even fog can stop Clavadel and it's crew from finishing their job!

The last crossing: Sines-Portimão

After our last unsuccessful day, we were at the edge fo our time constraint and it was time to move back to Portimão. Usually, this crossing would be done in two steps, a longer one from Sines to Sagres, moving to Portimão only in the next day. However, all of us had time constraints, so we were going to try and do it all in one go. This meant we needed to do aproximately 80 miles straight, without stoping. The forecast was promising. A quiet west wind for a start, increasing and turning North during the afternoon. I tell everyone we are leaving at 0500 sharp, otherwise we'll get to Portimão quite late. When I woke up, however, the port was covered in the most thick fog (where have we seen this before?!)! I tell everyone we should wait for the fog to lift as it is dangerous to leave such a busy port as Sines like this. Questioned what about getting late to Portimão, I reply that if we get to Sagres tired, we can stay in Sagres and leave to Portimão the next day. Mafalda, however, could no afford to do this, as she needed to be home at a specific time. As such I advise her to take a bus that day, as the only thing I was able to assure was a safe crossing, not  a "on time" crossing! She eventually did, and so that left only me, Pedro and Margarida. At aroun 0900 the fog was thicker than ever and it was the time to make a decision. We would either leave, or risk having to wait for the next day. Fortunately, contrary to our other foggy experiences, I now had set up a radar on the boat. I got a good deal on a used one, and had set it up a few days before with the help of my brother. It was time to make use of it. 

At 0930 we leave Sines harbour under the thickest fog, not being able to see more than just a few metres. We never even saw the port pontoons! We were navigating by radar, and radar only. As we leave the prot limitis I set a 3 mile radius alarm around our boat to make sure we would not be caught by surprise. However, the only thing that crossed our way were some fishermen buoys,and at aroun 1200 the fog started to lift. We started on engine with no wind, but soon we had a slight breezecoming from the southwest. We hoist sails andaided by the engine were doing a very nice 6 knots average. The sea was brilliant, everyone was very comfortable having a great time sailing along the Vincentine coast. At around 1800 we start seeing cape St. Vincent, and at around 1900 we were crossing it with a previledged view of its lighthouse, the second most powerful in Europe, with a range of 60 miles and guardin on of the busiest shipping lanes in the world!

After we crossed the cape, the wind picked up and we were soon only on sail, doing between 6 and 7 knots. At this point, Margarida asked if we were staying at Sagres or continuing to Portimão. "You tell me. How are you feeling? Tired?" I replied. Both of them told me thwy were feeling good. "Lets keep going then. No point in stopping!" And so we left cape St. Vincent behind now steadily sailing towards Portimão.

Soon enough we were sailing in the sunset... 
... then in the dusk...
... and finally, into the night!
At this point, Margarida went down to cook us some dinner. AS this was the final day, there wasn't much left to eat, but she was still able to gather some things and cook a very nice dinner! We ate dinner as we greeted the first stars to come around. Eventually, the only light we could see were the light from the villages along the coast, and given it was full moon, we could clearly see every star in the sky striped by the milky way. Accompanying us was on sailing boat that was sailing a bit faster and stoped at Lagos, and a motorboat that was being outrun by both sailing boats! Sailing is still the most effective way of transport on the sea!!!
Soon we crossed Ponta da Piedade and we were sailing inside the Portimão bay. Wind was unsteady which forced us to some sail changes, but nothing special. As we were aproaching the entrance of the Portimão marina, I heard this very familiar sound. "Guys, I think we have dolphins!" I say. "Oh, come on. You're just pulling our legs!" said Margarida as on of them surface just beside us! We were being followed by a group of 6-8 dolphins. As it was dark we could barely see them, but we could see the trails they left behind as the agitation they caused while swimming caused the fluorescent algae to light up. They looked like fast invisible torpedoes cruising along side us. Suddenly I look up and see a fireworks display startin in a nearby village. We were sailing into port at night, with dolphins following us and a firework display... fieldseason 2008 was finishing in the most glorious way!!! As we are aproaching the port entrance, the wind suddenly drops completely, almost as helping us to put the sails down. At 0100 we moored at the Portimão marina. I look at the handheld GPS to turn it off for the last time this year. I turn to Pedro and Margarida and say "At 2343 miles, fieldwork for 2008 ends. Now I can rest...".

Monday, 1 September 2008

"Never give in,never give in, never give in... we will never give in!"

We still had a few days in Sines until the end of fieldwork to try and make up for the bad sampling there last year. I wasn't very hopeful though. Last year, we were never able to find the place were dolphins usually hanged around, and spent many days without seeing anything. To be honest, I was thinking this would be just some quiet last days probably with not that many samples. The day after we arrive inSines two new volunteers arrived. Mafalda was mechanical engineer undergraduate student at IST, and Margarida was a Biology student in University of Aveiro that heard about the project from Zé.


Margarida Ventura

The first day we went out I wasn't very hopeful, but we soon found a group of dolphins and started sampling.We got 3 before they started moving away faster than we could follow. It may seem a small number but in reality it almost than double the number of samples we had for that region. So not so bad. Next day we found dolphins, but they didn't approach the boat, and the next one we saw no dolphins. The typical scenario in Sines! 1st mate left and another volunteer arrived. Susana Gaspar heard about the project from Pedro and had nothing to do with biology whatsoever, but wanted to come on board and take part of everything.

Susana Gaspar

In that day I talked to Sr. Mascarenhas in Sines who owns a nautical gear shop at the marina and he phoned a local fishermen to ask for dolphins. He gave us a position where to start looking. We went there the next day and to our surprise we found a group of common dolphins (after seeing two minke whales!), but not an ordinary group, but a huge group! We started sampling and the number of samples was steadily increasing. At some point I notice on of the dolphins was incredibly similar to a striped dolphin. I was intrigued, thinking this might be a hybrid, when I realized we were actually approaching another large school of striped dolphins. Soon we had one huge mixed school of common and striped dolphins. I had to be careful not sample a striped dolphin by accident. We stopped at 7 when the group started moving away too fast, and it was getting late and we needed to refuel the boat. These last few days were going quite well after all.

Striped dolphins

Common dolphins found together with the striped dolphins

The next day we went looking for dolphins in the same position but they were nowhere to be found. Late in the day, we found another huge group and we started sampling. Sample by sample we got to 10! Sines was now one of the best sampled places, and I was thinking how unpredictable working with these animals can be. You can spend many days without seeing anything, and then in 3 days get almost as many samples as you need. That's why, on board Clavadel we never give in!!!

The next days we didn't get any more samples... we didn't even saw any dolphins (but we did saw an immature common tern that decided to rest on Clavadel for a while!), but fieldwork was pretty much done, and the number of samples obtained represented not only a major effort, but also a major success. Even though we were all getting tired, our success made it all worth it. We were ready to sail South confident that we had done a good job!

South to Sines

After the success of the last few days, we decided to rest for a couple of days. In addition, the forecast was for 5 m high waves and strong waves, so much that many of the harbours in Portugal were effectively closed. In any case, we deserved the rest! 1st mate would be arriving soon, and we planned to go to Lisbon on one day, pick up 1st mate, and then go to Sine the next day. However, when I woke up the planned day at 0400 I heard the masts whistling to the wind... it was stronger than predicted. I thought for a while and told Zé we were not going that day after all. Wind was strong, the sea was still rough and I preferred to cross cape Roca with weak wind than with strong wind. And we really didn't need to go that day. That meant that 1st mate was coming to join us in Peniche and do all the way to Sines. The next we leave at 0500 sharp, however there was almost no wind, and we had to do it on both sail and engine. Eventually the wind would pick up allowing us to save some fuel, but we ended up having to use the engine at some point. Soon we were reaching cape Roca, and the wind just wouldn't pick up. However, cape Roca did not let us down. As soon as we crossed it wind started picking up. 15 knots... 18 knot... 22 knots... "We are doing great finally!" I said as we reached a speed of 7 knots. It didn't dtop there though, and soon wind was topping 35 knots. After the second gush iver 35 knots I said to Zé "I'm going to lower the genoa, it's getting too windy." I moce to the front and as soon as I take the sail down I listen to Zé saying: "38... 42... 44! What the hell is this?!" This was cape Roca at it's best! From a wind speed of 6-7 knots we turned to a wind speed of 44 knots in just 15 minutes. We were on mainsail only reaching speeds of 9 knots, and the wind topping 44 knots frquently. It was the strongest wind we had ever faced in this project! 1st mate was down bellow and I rushed to call him. "I can see the weather has changed slightly" he said. "Yes, wind is topping 44 knots, if it gets stronger we might need to put main down as well and go on engine... we were completely caught by surprise with too much sail on". "Yes, but finally we have some wind!" he replied... at this point, I had learned to expect such comments from him! However, as fast as the wind picked up, it started to become weaker as we approached cape Raso and soon it was back to 10 knots. At that point we hoisted the genoa again to keep the speed up. We eventually got to Oeiras Marina, early enough to go for showers and still have some good rest. That day, my dear mother came to boat and brought dinner for everyone. We were so tired that it felt like heaven!

The next day forecast was for stronger wind, but when we left Oeiras marina at around 0800 the wind was hardly noticeable. We hoisted main and aided with the engine. At some point it picked up enough to allow us to do 6 knots just on main, but it soon dropped. However, as we crossed cape Espichel it picked up again and we were soon doing an average of 6.5 knots on both sails. It was an amazing sailing day, with strong winds from the stern, small but strong waves pushing us towards Sines, and the sea was of an intense dark blue with the random white ripples of the waves breaking with the wind. As we approached Sines the wind got stronger and given the angle of the wind was straight from the stern, it was hard to keep the boat steady with both sails. As we were getting close, we took the genoa down and went on main only. We were still doing over 6 knots, so we were doing some perfect sailing. the waves were getting bigger as well, and at some point I could feel a particularly big one picking the boat up. At the same time we got a gush of stronger wind and I place the boat in the right position to surf the wave.We all felt the acceleration in our stomachs... 1st mate started laughing and Zé picked up the handheld GPS to check the speed "12 Knots!!! We just reached 12 knots of speed!!!" It was the fastest the boat had ever sailed in this project. Another record broken! At 1900 we moored at Sines marina after what was a perfect sailing day.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

The Success of Peniche

The fay after we arrive at Peniche was going to be windy and so we decided to rest and sort out the Marina place. Telma was leaving as well, so I decided to stay in Port. The Marina problem was sorted very easily. I was told by the port officials to go to "Clube Naval" of Peniche and ask for a place on the inside of the Marina. There I talked to Sra. Antonieta who was simply impeccable. She did all she could to find us a better place, and eventually did. So, in the middle of the afternoon, we moved to a place where we could have an electric plug guaranteed. I also took the chance to buy some stuff I needed for the boat,namely a new mooring cable for the stern of the boat, and a new stern light that was stolen from us in Porto Marina. The rest of the day was pretty much spent resting. Next day me and Pedro would be going out to try and start sampling. We had done it before, so we would do it again.

Next day we went out with nice weather and some mild wind. The number of herring gulls lying in the waters outside the port was impressive. Herring gulls nest in Berlengas, and due to the lack of predator their numbers grew exponentially. They are now considered a plague in Peniche, but all efforts to contain their numbers have been largely unsuccessful. We set course to a place were me and 1st mate saw dolphins when coming up. When we were approaching that point I went to the bow and started looking for dolphins.Soon, a groups of 5 was in sight, right in the exact same place we saw them earlier! I prepare the gear to start sampling. I waited patiently for my chance. I soon get a clean shot and fire a perfect one... a perfect sample was coming on the dart! I process the sample and prepare for the second shot. Again, success! Things were looking good. By lunch time we had collected 4 samples. However we lost the dolphins and we decided to have lunch while searching for them further West.
Pedro taking the helm with Farilhões in sight, one of the islands that are part of Berlengas archipelago.

Close-up of Farilhões

At some point I decided to come back closer to shore and found dolphins pretty much in the same place we left them. "So that's where they were!!" I commented. I restarted sampling. Shot after shot I was getting some perfect samples and dolphins didn't seem to mind at all. At some point the wind increased slightly, but we were doing so good that I didn't even realized it. We stopped at 9 samples and only because I didn't want to risk and make the dolphins suspicious. It was hard for me to believe, after all the difficulties we faced in Porto and Figueira, that this was going so smoothly. In the end, I started taking pictures of their dorsal fins to add to our catalogue.

Every time a crew member comes back to Clavadel, I feel a cycle is complete. On one hand it's like, the experience was good enough for them to want to come back, and on the other is like Clavadel is starting to build is own stable crew. It happened first with Zé and Nef, coming back this year after last year work, and this year with Telma and Ana. The first day we sampled Zé came back again for the third time, making him the most regular and stable crewmember. In the end of the week, 1st mate would be coming back as well for a week to help with fieldwork. There are happy days in the life of a dolphin researcher after all!!!!! :)

When I told Zé I had just came back from the first day with 9 samples he couldn't beleive it. "That means..." "Yes!" I stopped him "It's the record of the most samples obtained in a single day since the beginning of the project! And all in the first day we went out in a given place.". "Man, we're going to finish Peniche in no time!". "Don't celebrate before the end, we still have 20 more to collect." I advised cautiously. I learned not to be too optimistic al in this work, it is most likely that you'll end up deeply frustrated!

Second day of sampling in Peniche was definitely the toughest, but also the most rewarding. Although we started out with good weather, the threatening front we were seeing n the horizon soon approached us. We were still able to get a couple of samples before it reached us, but Berlengas were soon covered. "Is that fog or rain?" I asked Zé. "I think it's fog". "Shit!!! I think it's rain... I hope it's rain!".

It was rain indeed, and soon we had only a couple of miles of visibility. Mild rain soon became pouring rain and my trousers were soon soaked. Dolphins were around though, and I couldn't afford the luxury of stopping. Aiming was harder than ever. I had to keep my sunglasses to eliminate the reflection of the water and aim more effectively, but that meant that, besides my best efforts, they were soon soaked as well. Adding to that, the drops of rain falling in the sea, made the surface fuzzy and so hard to spot the dolphins. At sample number 8, I decided to change my trousers for the waterproof ones. Back in business, I was now the only one staying on the bow. At some point I started hearing some loud screams. As I look up to see what it was, I see a small RIB full of people all hysterical because of the dolphins. What was a small boat like that venturing so far out to sea in a day like that. I was already a bit upset to have to sample in that weather, so having a boat nearby really was the last thing I wanted. I effusively "ask" them to leave, which they did. Not sure if because of me, but it worked anyway! I stopped at 11 samples! It was the absolute record of samples obtained on one day. As we were coming back, weather started to improve until it was sunny again! Zé commented "This is just so that people in port will look at us and think: look how lucky those guys are, going out on a sailing boat in such a great weather like this!!!". It was ironic that rain had started exactly in the moment we started sampling, and cleared when we finished.

The two successful says meant we only needed 10 more samples before we could leave Peniche. Given our first days, I was becoming increasingly more confident it was possible. I went to bed early to save my strengths for the next day. It would be a decisive one. A successfull day meant we could still move to Sines and try and complete sampling there before the end of August. It would also turn this into a highly successful fieldseason, irrespectively of how many samples we were able to collect in Sines.

The next day I wake up early but only to find the port covered in fog. In the present conditions, no wind meant a front was passing through and fog was likely to settle. My hopes were being shattered. We waited far a while for the fog the lift but it was proving hard. We chated about almost everything to distract us from the waiting. Eventually we got tired and I reckoned the fog was lifting. Zé agreed so I just decided to leave. If it was too bad, we could always come back. As we left port the fog wasn't much better, but we could navigate safely. However, as soon as we crossed cape Carvoeiro, the fog lifted and we were facing the most calm sea with a deep blue sky above. We were ready to start sampling. Little by little, the number of samples increased. I had to be careful not to sample the same individuals twice, as I could recognize them and see them surfacing in my line of sight. Eventually there was only one left. I aim... I get a clear shot... and I shoot. "Done!!! Sample number 30 from Peniche is done. Let's go home!" Dolphins kept bowriding, so we took pictures of their fins. Eventually we were done, and I took the chance to just watch the dolphins bowriding. As I leaned on the bow, I could hear them vocalize and I wondered what could those sounds mean!

We were done. In 3 days, me Pedro and Zé collected all the samples we needed from Peniche. Nice weather, dolphins exhibiting the perfect behaviour and the new sampling system allowed us to do the most successful sampling ever since the beginning of this work. The only thing that crossed my mind then was the famous quote by Winston Churchill:

"We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire... Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job."

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Final days in Figueira

Contrary to our best hopes, Figueira proved a very tough place to sample. The weather did not get better... in fact it got worse! The day after Neftalí left new volunteers arrived,at 1100 sharp. All three of them came from Vertigem, Pedro Neves, Alexia Pereira and Bárbara Sepodas. Pedro will stay until the end of the fieldseason, while Bárbara and Alexia would stay for a couple of weeks, but unfortunately for them, the weather was stopping us from going out to sea. Later, Marcela Velasco came from the Netherlands to join us for a few days. She works at ITC on her masters thesis and heard about the project from Neftalí. There were still a few days until we were able to go out to sea. The day was not promising, but we hoped to have a breach in the morning. We went out, saw some dolphins, but weren't able to sample. The animals just wouldn't approach the boat. The waves soon got bigger and just became impossible to work in, so we headed back. The rest of the day would be again free for everyone to do what they wanted. However, at the end of the afternoon, bad luck struck the project again. After the bumpy ride back home, Bárbara was not feeling good with a seasickness that wouldn't go away. She decided to leave, and Alexia decided she could not leave her friend behind, so left as well. The crew was down to Marcela and Pedro. We were able to get out a few days but weather was just rubbish.

Pedro Neves

Marcela Velasco

Marcela soon left, and even though she saw some dolphins, she didn't see any sampling! Marcela was then replaced by Céline Madeira, who is working for her masters in the University of Algarve in flatfish genetics. Céline proved a worthy crew and finnally she helped us in getting a few more very important samples. We decided that we could not wait for good weather to work and we just had to go out as long as it was safe. we eventually were able to get some samples everyday (even if just one or two), and take some very important pictures. During these days, we saw several thing that comfirmed out fears that pressure from fishermen in these water was very strong. More than once we saw fishing cables drifting in the sea (we collected the ones we could, others were just too heavy), and we saw the dramatic effects these could have on wildlife. One Gannet could not fly because it was entangled in one of them. There was nothing we could do, and it would soon die from starvation!

Céline Madeira

Unfortunately, Céline had to leave early due to family issues. It was up to me and Pedro to get the samples needed, and those days were very tough. On on of these days we were again surprised by fog, and ended up searching for dolphins in the middle of the fog! We did get them however, at a rate of 2-3 a day. The last day might be remembered as one of the toughest! High waves, dark clouds hovering low in the sky, and even though we saw one of the biggest groups in the season we could only get two samples. What we saw was amazing though... hundreds of dolphins hunting a massive school of fish, with even more hundreds of birds flying above and diving one after the others, like Japanese Kamikaze fighters. Some of the smaller Petrels were so full of fish that they were unable to lift off of the water when we crossed them with the boat. In the end, however, we got more samples than from Porto, which was quite remarkable given all the difficulties we faced. We were getting on the limit of time we could stay in Figueira. We still had Peniche to sample and time was running out. Given how hard sampling was until now, the prognostic was not good. We would need the time to complete sampling in Peniche!

Two day before we were planning to sail South, Telma sent a message asking if we needed help. In the next day she joined us for the crossing. The forecast was high waves (2-4 m high) and strong North wind. Nortada was finally playing in our favour. And it did indeed! In the day we set out to go South, I wake up at 0400 and suddenly realized I had forget to pay for the marina. I go to the marina reception to see the time they opened, but in the best Portuguese style, there was nothing there. I walk to the police station that registers all the boats to ask "It opens at 0900!". Crap!!! I wanted to leave early and now I can only leave at around 0930 maximum. Well, if it gets too late we'll just stop in Nazaré. We were hoisting sails at 1000 which was much later than we were planning! However, Nortada was making us go really fast, and we never went below 6 knots. Waves were tall and wide, gently pushing towards our destination, while dolphins followed us for most of the time. Soon we had Farilhões in sight and then Berlenga, both part of the Berlengas archipelago. At 1800 we were crossing cape Carvoeiro doing 8 knots!

At 1900 we arrived in Peniche Marina after topping 9 knots in the bay before the port. The Marina was so crowded though, that we had to moor to another boat. In the end we were unable to plug the boat to a power source, which was most unfortunate. Stable isotope samples have to be frozen all the time, and I can only guarantee that if I plug into the marina everyday to feed the freezers. Next day I would have to sort that out!