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A day at ‘work’ surveying dolphins... Surprises, suspense and action!

Action! Still drowsy after a 32 hour trip from Scotland to Chiloé I crawl out of my sleeping bag. Glorious dawnlight and only a light breeze greet me – perfect weather for surveying the more exposed parts of Isla Cailín in our Quellón study area here in the Chiloé archipelago in southern Chile. I’ve only arrived but the team has been in the field since January. Soon we’re on the water, high fives among our team of four, and off we whizz in our small inflatable zodiac -Yaqu- to search for dolphins. Ten minutes into the journey - there they are, in one of their usual places at the entrance to Bahía Yaldad where I saw them for the first time 16 years ago: Chilean dolphins! The four dolphins only make a short appearance, and get on with their business not wanting to cooperate with us or presenting their dorsal fins so I can take photographs to identify individuals from their nicks and marks on the fin. Fome! (This is a great Chilean word expressing frustration and boredom ….)

Out we cruise into the wide bay of Quellón heading south.

Picture caption: Two Chilean dolphins with small marks (notches) on their dorsal fins – we use these marks to identify individual dolphins and monitor them over time. This photo was taken on another day when the dolphins were more cooperative. (photo (c) S. Heinrich)

Next up a big surprise! Their smooth rounded backs and backward pointing dorsal fins hardly break the surface of the water…. Is this real or are my eyes being tricked by wavelets? They are real – Burmeister’s porpoises. And they treat us to one of the best encounters we’ve had all season and provide us with some unique underwater footage – see previous blog entry and the great underwater video evidence (on youtube). Burmeister’s porpoises are usually the most difficult, elusive and unapproachable of our three study species, but these two friendly porpoises clearly win today’s price for best performance!

Picture caption: The two friendly Burmeister’s porpoises surface next to our boat.

(photo (c) S. Heinrich)

We continue on and… bang! A few seconds ago the blue-eyed cormorant flew past us laboriously flapping its wings to stay airborne… the black-white imperial cormorant looks like an awkward cross of an albatross and a penguin. Cormorants usually circle around our zodiac as if our appearance has distracted them from where they were going and they need to do rounds to remember…. This particular cormorant flaps past us, veers to the left and heads off, then turns around and heads straight back at us going full throttle… we joke that Mariana sitting on the left side of the zodiac should watch her head as the low flying cormorant is approaching… But no one is prepared for what happens next… Bang! The cormorant misses Mariana by a feather’s width as it hits our left bow at full speed, fending itself off with its feet and bouncing off the rubber pontoon into the water. Our zodiac screeches to a halt….. worried and rather bemused we scan the sea for the cormorant…. It reappears at the surface looking dazed but unharmed. All good then, and time for us to laugh out loud.

Picture caption: Blue-eyed cormorants in flight (not the one that collided with us).

(photo (c) S. Heinrich)

About 10 minutes later we spot big splashes ahead. Dolphins! This time they are Peale’s dolphins moving at high speed with lots of splashes and aerial action. This marks study species number three in in as many hours– not bad for my first day on the water! The Peale’s dolphins are in high action mode, chasing about and zooming in and out of our bow wave… This is no good for photo-identification but looks promising for Caye’s biopsy sampling. Caye prepares his hand-held “harpoon” (a long stick with a little biopsy tip at the end and tensioned by hand with a rubber band). Caye takes tiny biopsy samples of the dolphins’ skin and sometimes a bit of blubber to investigate the dolphins’ health status for his PhD thesis. These biopsy samples are also used for genetic analyses, to look at relatedness and population structure as well as diet composition (using stable isotope analyses). So a wealth of valuable and otherwise impossible to get information can be gathered from just one tiny bit of dolphin tissue. For the dolphin this is nothing more than a little prick. We’ve never seen more than a tail flick as a reaction and the sampled dolphin often returns straight back to jostle its companions for the best spot on our bow….

Picture caption: Peale’s dolphins making splashes in front of Mount Corcovado.

(photo (c) S. Heinrich)

Caye balances his tall frame on the bow, harpoon at the ready, as Poli accelerates the boat to get the dolphins’ attention. I crouch next to Caye trying to take photos while Mariana balances a pole with our Go-Pro camera attached above it all to film the action… Within seconds Caye has his first sample of this field season. We turn, dolphins return, bam, second sample. Excellent! We stop so Caye can process the samples and to take notes of the encounter.

Picture caption: Caye processing a biopsy sample.

The dolphins are still chasing around so we decide to get some underwater footage of them riding our bow wave. Caye holds the Go-Pro Hero3 camera in his hand in the water just near the bow… Pare! Pare! Pare! This is the call for an emergency stop. Mariana hits the Man Overboard button on the GPS to log position. The camera has slipped Caye’s cold hand and has dropped into the sea – in the heat of the action he’s forgotten to attach its flotation strap so the Go-Pro sinks like a little silvery stone to the sandy bottom. And with it, it takes the amazing underwater video footage that we’ve earlier recorded of the Burmeister’s porpoises! This cannot be happening... shock all around and a palpable sense of loss. We measure the depth at the spot of loss – 7 m, with poor visibility, sandy bottom and lots of kelp around. This is bad…

Within a few kilometre radius around us six or seven small fishing boats are working with divers who search for clams in the sandy bottom. We approach the nearest boat to ask for help. The divers on Chiloé dive with air supplied via long hoses and pumped to them from the boat (they do not use tanks). We can see two yellow hoses extend from the boat and disappear into the water. The divers will be busy for another half an hour or so and the boat master tells us to wait until they’re done. We return to our spot of loss and drop anchor. As we’re sitting silently contemplating any chance of recovering the camera (I put the probability at less than 1%) another fishing boat motors past us… We wave and they come closer. Two burly divers in their neoprene suits are standing on the front deck. We explain what’s happened to us, and within 1 minute the first one has dropped into the water to search around our zodiac… The second one soon follows with a big splash…. Bubbles and two yellow hoses surround us. The chance of finding a silvery Go-Pro camera the size of your palm in murky water with algae covering the sandy bottom and in a search area of at least 50m radius is slimmer than slim. But the incredible happens! Within ten minutes the second burly diver surfaces next to the zodiac with our camera held high in his fist!!! A black neoprene clad hero with a silvery Go-Pro camera in his hand. Our jubilant cheers can be heard all the way to Quellón!

Picture caption: Fishing boat.

We continue our surveys and encounter another group of Peale’s dolphins close to a beach popular with tourists. A lot of people are watching from shore as we carefully manoeuver around the dolphins trying to collect data. With so many eyes watching Caye is reluctant to get out the sampling pole, and the Go-Pro Hero remains safely tucked away.

There’s only so much excitement one can take in a day…

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