Citizen Science/ Happy Whale Blog

Ashley Hamilton and Daniele Bianchi – 2019 SOI staff members

It was Day 5 of our expedition and we started out the morning in the sunshine and calm seas with zodiac tours around Disko Bay off the coast of Ilulissat, Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). We rafted a group of zodiacs together and George Woodhouse led us in a singalong of “Physics and Love” while the birds soared above and the ice melted and cracked all around us.  

Zodiac concert in Disko Bay © Ashley Hamilton

As we were cruising along we suddenly heard the unmistakeable loud blow of a whale! Three humpback whales began surfacing ahead of us feasting on the krill around the ice bergs. For many of the students it was their first ever sighting of a whale, so everyone was on the edge of the zodiac careful not to fall into the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. Students on Ice participant Julia Braeunig said it was her first time seeing a whale and that it was “absolutely beautiful!”

Whales in Disko Bay © Ashley Hamilton

It’s wonderful that these whales are still even in these waters after being almost hunted to extinction throughout the past century, not to mention the current health issues of our oceans, which we are learning about from scientists throughout our expedition. They tell us that the whales are recovering well, and with organizations like Happywhale we are learning more about their behaviour, the different populations, and their migration patterns.

We captured a detailed photo of one of the Humpback flukes. This is really helpful for the researchers at Happywhale as each humpback whale has a set of unique patterns and ridges on the underside of their fluke that allows us to track individual whales as they move throughout the world’s oceans. Using an iPad provided by Happywhale ( and a GPS unit provided by INTAROS ( we were able to submit a photo and GPS coordinates of the whale and add it to Happywhale’s ever growing database of whales.

Fluke in Disko Bay © Ashley Hamilton

We were excited to find out the researchers found a match for our whale and that it had been previously seen 2017 in Greenland in a very similar location to where we were. These whales have what is called “site fidelity” meaning that year after year they often return to the same sites to feed. We learned that this whale has not been named yet, so we are holding a fundraising contest to name it. All the funds will go to an organization chosen by the students to help with whale research and ocean conservation.

Students loved being part of other citizen science projects while onboard. Every day the students kept a detailed record of bird sightings. Using an app called “eBird” through Cornell University, students recorded the different species of birds that they saw, such as thick billed murres, arctic terns, black legged kittiwakes, black guillemots, and many more!

We also participated in the drift bottle project where glass bottles containing GPS coordinates, a personalized message and contact information are sealed with wax thrown overboard where they drift with the ocean currents, sometimes turning up on distant shores such as Ireland, the UK, Spain, or Iceland.

Secchi disk in action. Students in a zodiac measuring the concentrations of phytoplankton in the ocean. © Ashley Hamilton

So much more ocean research happens every day during our zodiac tours where one of our boats is always dedicated to citizen science research. Students learn how to collect data using a variety of instruments such as the Secchi disk to determine phytoplankton concentration and a CTD instrument to measure the ocean’s temperature, salinity, and pH. Hard to believe they were brave enough to do a polar plunge knowing the water was -0.1 Celsius!

We also carried with us on the science zodiac a small and a large plankton net. With the small net, we sampled the phytoplankton thriving in the surface sunlit waters. These are unicellular, minuscule plants (the mesh of the net is a twentieth of a millimeter wide!) that form the base of the food web of the Arctic. They are so small that we had to take the sample to the ship, where we could see them under the magnifying lens of our microscope. We observed chains of diatoms and dinoflagellates with weird, geometric shapes, beautiful yet invisible to the naked eye.

With the large net, we sampled zooplankton, the small animals that graze on phytoplankton, and in turn provide the food for all the predators of the arctic. Straight out of the net, we could readily observe myriads copepods, and swarms of pteropods, the “sea butterflies” that gracefully swim in the frigid arctic waters. These creatures form the diet of arctic fish and whales, so it was no surprise we sighted humpback whales at this site!

We also sampled waters for environmental DNA: two liters of water need to be filtered for each sample, following a very specific protocol that the students quickly mastered. The samples will be later frozen and sent for DNA sequencing to the researchers that run the program. Every sea creature continuously sheds DNA in the water, either through their skin, or pee, or poop, and this DNA can be analyzed to detect which species of animals where present in the waters at the time the samples were taken. We were so excited that the samples we collected likely contained DNA from the humpback whales. But to know the final answer, we will have to wait until the results of the DNA sequencing come back in the next months.

The students can continue to interact with these citizen science projects at home using the apps they learned about on board, just as anyone who has access to apps can participate as well, helping scientists all over the world learn more about the ways we can understand and continue to care for the planet.

Get involved in Citizen Science and check out these Apps:

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This website was made possible by a generous contribution from the Leacross Foundation.