Biopsy sampling




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Using photographs of the dorsal fin and saddle-patch we can identify individual orcas encountered in Iceland, a technique called photo-identification (photo-ID) and pioneered by researchers in British Columbia.

Individual orcas have unique combinations of natural markings in the fin and saddle patch:

dorsal fin


saddle patch


Adult males are easily distinguishable from all other orcas. They have tall, triangular dorsal fins, whereas juvenile males and adult females may be indistinguishable and have smaller and more curvy dorsal fins. Because of these differences we usually split the individuals we identify into two categories: Males and Others. Only when we have identified an orca for a long period of time and there has been no change in the shape of its fin, or we have consistently seen it travelling accompanied by a calf, can we confidently assign it as an adult female.

Adult male

Female with calf

Because the left and right sides of the saddle patch may differ, as do the scarring patterns, it is common practice to use the left side of orcas for identification purposes. This means that an individual is only added to the catalogue once we have a high-quality left side picture of its dorsal fin and saddle patch. Whenever possible, we try to match left and right sides so we can identify them even in encounters where we only managed to photograph their right sides.

With this information we are studying the number of animals seen in Iceland, their movements within Iceland and between Iceland and Scotland and also the social structure of the population.

One of the main aims of our project is monitoring the status of this population. To do that we need to understand how these whales behave and what they feed upon to better judge the threats they may face and what conservation measures may be required.

One component of our work that helps us assess this is the collection of small biopsy samples of skin and blubber. We can find out lots of things from each small sample and we are using them to investigate:

- the genetic relatedness between individuals, to understand if groups are composed of family members;

- their long-term feeding habits and specialisation on different prey;

- and to quantify the level of accumulation of pollutants in the population.

We use a pneumatic darting system (LKarts, Lars Kleivane) to collect biopsy samples of identified individuals. At the same time we collect the sample we take a picture of the individual we are sampling to make sure we know that animal and that we do not sample the same individual again.

We approach the animals carefully and we only attempt sampling if the animals do not react to our presence. We try to avoid any disturbance and we monitor their reaction when sampling as well. Because we collect very small samples of skin and blubber, healing is fast and by knowing which individuals were sampled we can also monitor how quickly it occurs.

We have been making recordings of the sounds produced by Icelandic orcas since 2008 using a variety of techniques. Different recording systems provide us with different information. In the simplest form we use single hydrophones, which we deploy from the side of the boat. These allow us to record sounds and we often use them onboard the whale-watching boats together with a speaker so that passengers onboard can also listen to the sounds the orcas make in real-time.

The recording system we have most commonly used is a vertical hydrophone array.

This allows us to record the sounds and in addition to localise the sounds we record so we know how far and deep the whale that produced them was from us.

We have also used towed hydrophone arrays that give us information on range but instead of depth tell us which angle the sounds come from.

Dtags also allow us to record the sounds produced by the tagged whale or any other whales nearby. In the winter seasons of 2014 and 2015 we have also deployed stationary hydrophones (an EAR  in 2014 and a custom-made hydrophone in 2015).  Unlike the other systems we use, these can be left to monitor the sounds in one area over several days, 24 hours a day. We deployed them in the inner part of Kolgrafafjörður, where most of the herring was at the time, to monitor the presence of orcas.

To understand the underwater behaviour of orcas, we can use tags that attach to the animals using suction cups. In the summer of 2009 and in the winter and summer field seasons of 2013 and 2014 we tried to deploy Dtags  on the whales.



These tags are attached using a carbon fibre pole or a pneumatic launching system and they record the 3-dimensional movements of the whale as well as all the sounds produced by the whale and its group. The data recorded is such high-resolution that it provides an unprecedented amount of detail on what is happening underwater, where we can’t see the orcas.

The tags can be programmed to loose suction and detach after some time. Because the tag emits a VHF signal every time the whale surfaces, we can track the tagged whale using a VHF antenna. All the data is recorded on the tag, so we need to recover it once it detaches. After detaching, the tag floats to the surface emitting its VHF signal and we can locate and recover it and then download all the data.



In the next picture you can see the long carbon fibre pole and the VHF antennas

To understand how the orcas interact with their prey we can use multibeam sonars. These sonars act almost like underwater cameras allowing us to see what is happening underwater in waters where visibility is very limited and we cannot use underwater cameras. That is the case in the waters of Iceland in both the winter and summer.

In 2013 and 2014 our sponsor Teledyne RESON provided us with a Teledyne RESON SeaBat 7128 to observe the underwater interactions of the orcas with herring schools.

Below is one example of one of the videos we collected, showing 3 orcas underwater. You can see the whales swimming, their tail fluking and their shadow in the sea-bottom.

Herring seems to be the main prey of Icelandic orcas and it migrates throughout the year between overwintering and spawning grounds.

Orcas can be regularly found in these locations so studying them involves some travel! The fieldwork of the Icelandic Orca project started in 2008 in Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago in Southwest Iceland and continued until 2010.

In 2012 we started a new phase of this project, which also included fieldwork in Grundarfjörður, West Iceland. You can see where we go to in the map.

Vestmannaeyjar is a known spawning ground of the Icelandic summer-spawning herring stock and orcas can be regularly found in these waters in the summer months. This is a familiar location where we have been working for a few years now, typically during the month of July.

We are based in Heimaey, the main island of the archipelago. Daily we search for orcas from land, usually from the local weather station, the highest spot on the island. If the weather allows we go out onboard a small zodiac and we search for orcas from the boat as well. From 2008 to 2010 we focused on collecting photographs of the animals for photo-identification, information on their behaviour, particularly during feeding, acoustic recordings and deploying DTAGs. In 2013 we collected the same kind of data but also sonar recordings of feeding events. In 2014 we continued photo-identification, acoustic recordings and we also collected biopsy samples of identified individuals.

The Icelandic summer-spawning herring stock has changed the location where it overwinters over the past 30 years. In the 1980's most of the stock spent the winter months in the fjords of East Iceland. Since around 2006, a large part of the herring stock started overwintering in Grundarfjörður, a small fishing village in the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and surrounding waters. However, the orcas apparently only showed up in high numbers in 2011. Since then, orcas can be regularly seen in these waters in the winter months.

We are usually based here from late January to the end of March. We search daily from land for orcas in the fjords, since usually the sea conditions outside the fjords are too poor for our small boat. Orcas can be found more commonly in Grundarfjörður or in Kolgrafafjörður (adjacent fjord). We have been working in collaboration with the tour operators Láki Tours and Discover the World and part of our team goes onboard Láki and Láki II to collect photographs for photo-identification and acoustic recordings. The rest of the team travels onboard a small boat searching for whales and collecting data.

The year of 2012 was a preliminary year and Filipa Samarra went onboard of the Láki and collected photographs from the encountered animals. She started the work in this overwintering ground and confirmed that we had a reliable place to encounter orcas in the winter months. In 2013 we had our first full-team fieldwork and we collected photographs, behavioural information about the animals, acoustic recordings and sonar recordings, particularly during feeding. We also deployed DTAGs that collect data on the underwater acoustic communication and behaviour of the tagged whale. In 2014 we collected the same kind of information as in the previous year but also biopsy samples from identified individuals and we deployed a stationary hydrophone in Kolgrafafjörður, where the animals were seen more often during this winter. In the winter of 2014, the orcas were not just going to Kolgrafafjörður but were going under the bridge in the fjord to the inner smaller part of the fjord. It was quite a show to see it so close from the bridge. Check it out in this video taken by team member Miguel Neves.

Filipa Samarra

Project lead researcher. Currently she is a postdoctoral fellow at the Marine Research Institute in Iceland. She started the Icelandic Orca project back in 2007, mainly studying the acoustic behaviour of orcas for her PhD at the University of St Andrews. Her main interests are the social and foraging behaviour and acoustic communication of orcas.

Sara Tavares

Sara started her PhD at the University of St Andrews in 2013. Her main interests focus on the social structure and genetic relatedness of Icelandic orcas. She uses photo-identification of whales to study the associations between different individuals and genetic analysis to assess if individuals that associate together make family groups.

Patrick Miller

Professor at the University of St Andrews. He has been studying killer whales since 1988, switching his focus of studies from North Pacific killer whales to North Atlantic in 2005. His research has focused on behaviour using suction-cup tags, acoustic methods and visual observations to describe and understand social, foraging, and resting behaviours. Patrick has supervised the students working on the project.

Gísli Víkingsson

Head of Whale Research Marine Research Institute in Iceland. He has been involved in research on Icelandic killer whales since the 1980's when it first started, and now coordinates the photo-ID catalogue database being developed at the Marine Research Institute.

Volker Deecke

Senior Lecturer at the University of Cumbria. He has been studying the acoustic behaviour of orcas both in the Pacific and the Atlantic and has been our collaborator in the summer fieldwork of 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Ivan Fedutin

Research assistant in the Faculty of Biology, Moscow State University. He worked as skipper and provided technical support during the winter fieldwork (2013-2015).

Olga Filatova

 Research Fellow in the Faculty of Biology, Moscow State University. She has been studying the cultural evolution of orca dialects. She worked as an acoustician in the winter fieldwork (2013-2015) and analysed Icelandic orca acoustic recordings.

Miguel Neves

MSc. He worked as a project field assistant in the winter fieldwork of 2013 and 2015 and winter and summer fieldwork of 2014, 2015 and summer 2016. He is also responsible for the project’s website.

Paul Wensveen

Postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Iceland. He has been part of the Icelandic Orca Project since 2013 and specializes within the project on the use of acoustic recorders, animal-borne tags and land-based observation. Also Co-PI on the citizen-science project funded by The Earthwatch Institute since 2018.

Many other colleagues, students and fieldwork participants have contributed to this project throughout the years, below is a list of everyone involved:

Ricardo Antunes, Kagari Aoki, Ralph Baylor, Julie Béesau, Matthew Bivins, Jacopo Bridda, Timothy Carden, Anne Valerie Duc, Graeme Ellis, Alexandra Fennell, Annika Firmenich, David Gaspard, Katherine Gavrilchuk, Gary Haskins, Sébastien Houillier, Yukihisa Kogure, Leticiaà Legat, Allan Ligon, Marie Louis, Craig Matkin, Simon Moss, Dan Olson, Jón Pállson, Annemieke Podt, Marianne Rasmussen, Gaëtan Richard, Marjoleine Roos, Katsufumi Sato, René Swift, Mogens Trolle, Katja Vinding, Jane Watson, Hannah Williams, Hannah Wood, Hajime Yoshino.

BBC Two "Killer Whales: Beneath the Surface" TV Documentary

This episode featured exciting research taking place around the world allowing us to learn more about killer whales. You can find more information on the BBC website. Icelandic orca research was also featured in this documentary, with images of the work conducted in Grundarfjörður.

National Geographic Weekend radio show Episode: 1331

The research on Icelandic orcas was featured in the National Geographic Weekend radio show. The 2-hr programme features several stories and you can hear each one or the whole podcast online. Check out the website detailing the programme here.

The sighting of one of our familiar females in Scotland (featured in our blog) has generated quite a buzz!  One of the Icelandic newspapers picked it up and featured the story.

Our project was featured in the January issue of the National Geographic Portugal magazine in a 6-page feature entitled "As voltas das orcas". The feature has now been made available online so you can read it all here.

Our sponsor Teledyne RESON has included a feature about our project on their website, where you can watch some of the observations of killer whales underwater that we got using the multibeam sonar. Click here for more information.

The whole summer field team was featured in local newspaper Eyjafréttir explaining the research we were conducting in Vestmannaeyjar.

Our recent study on social structure of Icelandic orcas was featured in Hakai Magazine - One Ocean, Many Killer Whale Cultures! You can can read the full article here.

We would like to deeply thank all the supporters, funders and sponsors throughout the years of our project. A special thanks to our collaborators, the whale-watching and tour companies that cooperate with us during fieldwork, particularly Discover the World, Láki Tours, Viking Tours and RibSafari. We are also very grateful to all the people that each year assist us with preparations involved with fieldwork and sightings reports. We would especially like to mention Sverrir Daníel Halldórsson, Gisli Ólafsson, Johnny Cramer, Cathy Harlow, Alexa Kershaw, Baldur Thorvaldsson, Páll Marvin Jónsson, Sigurmundur Einarsson, Unnur Ólafsdóttir. Thank you to the wonderful local people in the field locations that at some point helped us out with our work. We are also grateful to everyone who over the years has sent us photographs of sightings in Iceland and that are interested in learning more about these incredible animals and encourage us to accomplish that. Particularly our collaborators in Faxaflói bay, Chiara Bertulli and tour company Elding, especially Megan Wittaker, have very kindly shared their orca sightings. Thank you also to our colleagues that have provided equipment for our project, Dr. Marc Lammers for providing the EAR and Dr. Mark Johnson for providing us with Dtags, as well as our sponsor Teledyne RESON for providing us with the multibeam sonar. We are deeply grateful to Leonard Boekee from Orcazine for designing our project's logo. And, last but not least, thanks to all our colleagues who every year work hard to keep this project going and to get to know more about Icelandic orcas.


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Website by Miguel Neves; Logo by Leonard Boekee