“At times in my life, the only place I have been happy is when I am on stage”
– Bob Dylan
A friend of mine told me once that when he is waiting for a wolf, early in the morning, in a huge valley lost in the middle of the deep Galicia, he imagines a stage with a lot of instruments on its floor, the light turned off, the curtain closed. Suddenly, when the wolf appears, someone opens the curtain, switchs on the lights and the music starts.
I am not happy on stage, I am happy seeing the nature (and specially some mythic species) on it. The Canary Islands are one of the best stages in the world, I know that since the first time I came, but sometimes the show can even overwhelm you. The last 5 days, I’ve been volunteering at El Hierro with Dr. Natacha Aguilar (from the Universidad de la Laguna) and her extremely nice team, working on cetaceans in the University of La Laguna, and the show can justify by itself a 6 months stay at la Laguna. It must be said the project is performed by the University of la Laguna with permit from the Canary Islands Government. Therefore, all the pictures below were taken by me but are property of the university.
First of all, let’s talk about el Hierro. The most tropical island of the Canaries, it houses one of the most enviable Biosphere’ Reserves of the world, placed in the southern coast of the island: el Mar de las Calmas. What makes it as special is that it was the local fishermen who decided to create it, worried about the strong decrease on captures. Everyone at el Hierro knows a lot of things about the birds, the cetaceans, the geology and even the plants of the island. Everyone is proud of being “herreño” and I must say they are completely allowed to be so. If you think about going there, you must know the local cheese is excellent and the time would be stopped as soon as you land on the sole peaceful airport of the world.
Our work consisted on taking pictures of as many beakes whales as possible to identify the individuals and try to see how is its biology and specially their social structures. The main purpose were the beaked whales, but we also gave some atention to Bryde’s whales, Atlantic spotted dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins and (personally) some nice birds. The methodology was quite accurate: there was an observation point in the coast and then a boat that can go all over the bay. Most of animals were detected from the coast and then they told the position of the sighting to the boat using a radio. The place is a cetacean paradise and it’s possible to enjoy 2 species of beaked whale just by looking from the coast with a scope. Most seawatchers would have to recognize that’s not what we are used to! It’s enough saying the average is 1 sighting of beaked whales per hour, but you won’t be never bored since you can enjoy the Bryde’s whales Balaenoptera edeni and (most of days) a lot of dolphins while waiting for the beaked whales. The area had also been one of the hot spots of the Canaries to see the red-billed tropicbird Phaeton aethereus, but those days I’ve not been lucky with that.
Each day was a different experience. In the first one, we saw an elusive big whale that was probably a Bryde’s and then, thanks to Jacobo’s sailing skills, we enjoyed some Cuvier’s beaked whales Ziphius cavirostris as I hadn’t did before. The day finished with a party of Atlantic spotted dolphin Stenella frontalis playing with us.
The next day I saw, for sure, one of the most impressive things of my life (at least till now!): 4 Blainville’s beaked whales Mesoplodon densirostris surrounding our boat, coming to breathe at the surface just a couple of meters by our side… They dove as beaked whales are supposed to do (they only spend the 9% of its time on the suface), but they come again near the boat faster than we could had expected. To have such a close and long encounter with beaked whales is a gift, these are shy creatures specially evolved to avoid researchers. Even in a place like El Hierro, one of the best in the world to see them, the research team has to wait many hours, sometimes days, watching continuously under the hot sun to get just a short glimpse of these deep diving creatures that spend 2 min at the surface every 20 min to 1 hour dive (on average, up to 1.5 hours!). The day was livened up by a Loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta and a 3rd summer Pomarine skua Stercorarius pomarinus.
The following day I was destined to the land observation point. The wheather was nice, Boettger’s Lizards Gallotia caesaris were feeding the peel of the fruits we were eating and a couple of Barbary falcons Falco peregrinoides were sat in a close cliff. More of the same but from a different (not worse at all!) point of view. Some unidentified (probably Bryde’s) whales and (probably Atlantic spotted) dolphins and the best of the day: 3 Cuvier’s beaked whales jumping in its singular style. Moreover, the first Bulwer’s petrel Bulweria bulweri I’ve seen from the coast passed throw.
To forget about the sadness of my last day, again aboard, a Bryde’s whale surrounded by hundreds of tuna fishes emerged extremely close. For those who had seen that, you would know that it’s not possible to think about other things when seeing an extremely close big whale. Bryde´s whales used to stay in El Hierro all summer in the years, not so long ago, when many fishermen came from all the Canary Islands to fish tuna. Both, tuna and the whales, arrived together following their prey, and fishermen used the whales to find the fish. Now, maybe because the water temperature has changed, maybe because tunas are overfished before they arrive to the Canaries, there are not so many tunas and not so many whales. However, still Bryde´s whales cross El Hierro in their annual migration, and this year is specially good for pelagic life, with lots of food in the ocean thanks to special oceanographic conditions, so this spring the sea in the Canaries is being a miracle of life, full of dolphins, whales, birds, and fish, as it should always be.
I have to thank all the team for that oportunity: Natacha, Jacobo, Andrea, Agus (specially her, why not?), Juliana, Hernán, Nerea, Silvia, Mar and Fátima. Also to the nice local people Cacho, Raiko and Ale. We laughed, we worked and now we all have some unforgetable images taped in our memories.