Author: Jana Robertson

Fieldwork in Iceland

Written by Belén García Ovide, PhD Candidate at the University of Iceland (2023)

During the first eDNA sampling season in 2023, best practices for eDNA data collection were tested from July to October in Skjálfandi Bay.

The aim was to collect 18 water samples plus two controls. The data collection was successful and completed on the 23rd of October.

During the field season, I assessed the best strategy that would fit within the existing framework of North Sailing’s whale watching activities and the requirements of the eDNA sampling. Further, to investigate the feasibility of the citizen science approach during eDNA sampling, surveys were disseminated to the public onboard the boats when eDNA sampling took place.

To achieve an optimized sampling strategy for the second field season in 2024, we started testing three different filters suggested by eWHALE (Smith-Root, Sylphium and Sterivex). Smith-Root showed the fastest filtering rate (20 minutes /10 L water) followed by the Sylphium filter (30 minutes / 10 L water).

Water samples were taken twice a week from regular whale watching tours (3h) and dedicated citizen science tours “Whale Sails and Science” (3,5h). At the end of the season, we concluded that both types of tours are adequate to incorporate this research onboard, as long as there are at least two people solely dedicated to collecting the water samples and performing the filtering onboard.

Regarding the citizen science surveys, a total of 81 surveys (before) and 50 surveys (after) introducing the eDNA topic, were filled out during the tours, being so far the highest rate of participation in the eWHALE project this year. This data may be used later for a common publication with the other PhD students at eWHALE.

Who was involved in fieldwork?

The data collection required at least two people. I was mainly the one collecting and filtering water with the assistance of Taime, a team member from the Ocean Missions NGO. Two interns from the University of Iceland Research Center and three North Sailing whale watching guides also took part in the field work when I was not available. I also ensured that the communication between the crew onboard and the people in charge of the sampling was clear and flowed easily and that the captains had enough information to help us take the water samples. In most cases, the reception and communication were very good, and the sampling operation was successful.

Belén collecting water samples with the Ocean Missions NGO


When did you go sampling?

Data collection started 5th of July and was performed up to two times a week depending on weather conditions until we reached a total of 18 samples and two controls (on the 23rd of October). All the samples were collected in Skjálfandi Bay (see map).

Sampling stations during field season in 2023 in Skjálfandi Bay (Húsavík, Iceland)

Which species were you targeting and why?

We were targeting mainly humpback whales as they are the main focus in the eWHALE project. They are the most sighted whale species in the bay and it is relatively easy to approach. The University of Iceland has been studying these whales through photo Identification for more than a decade. Therefore, it is relevant to assess the feasibility to incorporate the DNA approach to the ongoing efforts on humpback whale research in the region. Yet we were willing to try eDNA sampling in other species (eg, minke whales, blue whales) if the opportunity arose.

Humpback Whale


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

Passengers were informed about the sampling during the tour; however, they didn’t participate directly in the sampling in order to avoid contamination of the samples. Generally, they were interested and asking questions!

An advantage of the Whale Sails and Science tour, which is organized in cooperation with the Ocean Missions non-profit organization, is the reduced number of passengers (maximum 20). The smaller passenger group facilitates the sampling, enhances the interaction within guests and increases the awareness, whilst it considerably reduces the risks of contamination of the samples. Generally, more people were interested in this kind of tour.

The high participation on the DNA surveys demonstrate that people were generally interested in the research and willing to participate. However, the weather was often cold and harsh, demotivating people to focus much on something.

Which other species did you see?

Frequently sighted species were minke whales, white beaked dolphins, bule whales (mainly in late May – beginning of June) and occasionally killer whales, Northern bottlenoses and fin whales. We realized that getting a sample directly  from the fluke print of these species can be quite challenging in this area.  Obviously, we saw plenty of seabird’s species, including hundreds of puffins that come to breed every summer in our beautiful  Puffin Island.

What was the best part of fieldwork?

Besides the many unforgettable encounters with the whales, I think the good atmosphere onboard and the coordination between the crew and the people in charge of the sampling was the best part for me to see. There was a constant feeling of teamwork and for every fluke print we got, everyone was excited and celebrated, including the passengers onboard! so I think it was definitely bringing added value to the tours, specially in the regular whale watching tours.

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

Several very interesting things happened while we were collecting samples in our bay, such as the day we were able to sample a stream that came from Greenland with glacier water. But the one we remember with the most enthusiasm was a day with calm and flat seas, without wind and with a huge sun, when while we were filtering calmly in the stern and all the passengers were in the bow, we suddenly heard two energetic and powerful blows right next to us. Two northern bottlenose beaked whales had appeared! These animals are not at all common in Skjálfandi, but every year they spend a few days in August with us. Being able to enjoy them like this was quite a gift.

Fieldwork Fun in Iceland

Fieldwork in Italy

Written by Eleonora Barbaccia, PhD Candidate at the Politecnico di Milano (2023)

Which was the research focus?

In the field data collection 2023, Tethys Research Institute (Tethys), in collaboration with eWHALE Project, had the task to collect varying water volumes (2, 5, 10 liters), as the goal was to investigate the minimum quantity of water required to find eDNA traces inside!

Which eDNA filters were used?

The eDNA filters which were used during the sampling campaign in Italy were: 27 Sylphium (0.8 µm_Sylphium) (3 x 9 encounters) + 3 of controls and 27 Smith-Root (1.2 µm_ Smith-Root), SR (3 x 9 encounters) + 3 of controls, resulting in 60 filters (see Photo).

Italy Sampling Protocol 2023


How many litres of water did you have to collect?

A 15-litre bucket was used to collect 20 litres of water for each encounter, from which 2 litres, 5 litres and 10 litres were subsequently filtered.

Where did you go sampling?

The sampling campaign was carried out in the Pelagos Marine Protected Area, a Special Marine Protected Area established on 25 November 1999 for the protection of marine mammals in the Mediterranean Sea, covering some 90,000 km2 in the north-west Mediterranean between Italy, France and the island of Sardinia, including Corsica and the Tuscan archipelago (see photo).

Pelagos Sanctuary Map


Which species were you targeting and why?

The target species of Italy in 2023 was the sperm whale, but we also managed to sample the most common ones, obtaining 22 encounters (individuals and/or groups of individuals) of 6 different species, including:

  • 7 Sperm Whale
  • 6 Fin whale
  • 2 Striped dolphin
  • 2 Bottlenose dolphin
  • 3 Long-finned pilot whale
  • 2 Risso’s dolphin

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

On board Pelagos (the Tethys research vessel), most of the citizen scientists were very interested in learning about the ecology of Mediterranean marine mammals and the eWHALE project (see photo). As in the other two locations, most of the whale watching customers were unfamiliar with environmental DNA, but by the end of the week-long cruise, they had significantly increased their knowledge by being able to observe and learn about the whole process.

Citizen scientists learning about the eDNA sampling process on board Pelagos


Which other species are possible to encounter in the study area?

In addition to cetacean’s species, other megafauna are also likely to be found in the Pelagos, including sea turtles (Caretta caretta), sunfish (Mola mola), mobula (Mobula mobular), and seabirds.

How were the weather/sea conditions?

During the summer in the Pelagos Sanctuary, the weather is usually ideal for research cruises and data collection. Only on a few occasions during the course of the season can rough seas and storms occur, and on these occasions, the daily sea trip must be cancelled.

What was the best part of fieldwork?

Apart from meeting marine mammals, which is always an unforgettable experience, the best part of this job is being in contact with people who are passionate and willing to learn more about the ecology and conservation of these magnificent species.

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

During one of the sightings, a very curious sperm whale approached the bow of the boat, stuck its head out of the water, and looked at us intently. It was a wonderful feeling and an unforgettable experience.

Fieldwork in the Azores

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