Written by Lauren Rodriguez, PhD Candidate at the University of Innsbruck (July 2023)

This summer I had the opportunity to spend a month in the beautiful Azores (Portugal), an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Here, my goal was to collect environmental DNA (eDNA) samples from the water around whales either onboard a whale watching boat or research vessel.

To collect samples, I had two types of eDNA filters (which captures the genetic material from water via small pores), a peristaltic pump which aided in the efficiency of water filtration, and tubing to connect the filters to the pump. I’d collect water (either 10L or 30L) from behind whales which either breached (jumped out of the water), fluked (dove down into the water), or were biopsied (a sample of skin collected) using buckets. These buckets could be quite heavy, so I definitely got my workout in on sampling days.

Who was involved in fieldwork? 

I was mainly the one collecting and filtering water, but on occasion, I had assistance from team members of CW Azores, the whale watching company who is a partner of the eWHALE project (Pico, Azores). I also was helped by the biopsy-collection team at the University of Azores (Faial, Azores) who were collecting biopsies from sperm whales.

Lauren Sampling with University of the Azores


Where did you go sampling? 

Mainly, we were sampling around the islands of Pico and Faial (see the map!) and occasionally near São Jorge.

How was the weather/sea conditions? 

Mostly, the weather was beautiful! Blue skies, calm water, and sun. On occasion, there were nasty weather conditions.

Pico, Faial

Which species were you targeting and why? 

Onboard CW Azores vessels, we were targeting any whale species as the goal was to optimize sampling protocols in general whereas with the university team, we were targeting sperm whales. The samples with the university team will be analyzed for the purpose of assessing intraspecific genetic diversity - therefore, the biopsies from sperm whales will be directly compared with genetic data derived from the water!

Sperm Whale @RicardoFGVentura


Which other species did you see? 

During my time in the Azores, I saw so many creatures! The marine mammals that I saw were sperm whales (of course), Northern bottlenose whales, Sowerby’s beaked whales, false killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, and spotted dolphins. I also saw a lot of Cory’s shearwater birds (a common seabird around the Azores), small lizards, and mobula (Devil rays).

What was the most interesting thing that happened in the field? 

While onboard the University of Azores research vessel, we saw a baby sperm whale that was only a couple of hours old! It was very special. That same day, we also got to see a pod of spotted dolphins that had newborns (see picture!).

Spotted Dolphin with Baby

What was the best part of fieldwork? 

Aside from the obvious answer of working alongside whales, my favorite part was working with other marine mammal researchers and whale watching guides. Everyone was very kind and welcomed me with open arms. I even got to attend a festival on the island of Pico with staff from CW Azores!

Lauren with Michael and Rita from CW Azores


Were you working with citizen scientists? If so, were they interested in eWHALE?

Onboard the whale watching boats with CW Azores, most citizen scientists were very interested in hearing about eWHALE and whale research in general! Most hadn’t heard of environmental DNA before but understood the concepts of using DNA evidence from shows like CSI. Whale watchers got to see me collect and filter water for eDNA near sperm whales during their 2-3 hour expedition.

Lauren Sampling with CW Azores