Faroe Islands – the hunt for dolphins and microplastic

posted on January 09, 2020

After a comfortable 36 hour crossing, we could see the distinct sea cliffs of the Faroe Islands on the horizon. A spectacular landscape with steep sea-cliffs and strong currents makes it one of the premiere cruising destinations in the North Atlantic. The Faroe Islands is situated about half way between Norway and Iceland. The remote archipelago comprises 18 rocky islands, known for it´s stunning scenery and a population that still lives closely connected with nature.

We were initially joined by Dr. Marianne H. Rasmussen, University of Iceland's Research Center in Húsavík , a leading specialist in marine mammal research.

As a part of the Arctic Whale strategy, we work with the whales as marine ambassadors to tell the story of marine plastic pollution. Marianne joined us to look for one of the smaller members of the whale family, the Atlantic white-sided dolphin. It's quite an elusive whale, and its conservation status in the North Atlantic is unknown. We spent 3 days trying to locate the whales, but despite of venturing well offshore in calm weather, we were unsuccessful this time around. And so, it is with nature and wild animals. Often times you spend days and weeks without success, until it all changes in a moment, as we can read about in the next blog-post.

Marianne, Diana and Andreas enjoying the first day of comfortable sailing since leaving Stavanger 10 days earlier.

Our next target was one that can be found in all the oceans of the world, and that unfortunately requires little effort to find. Microplastic. Plastic enters the ocean in different in the form of larger items, such as plastic bottles, bags and just about any other visible plastic items we surround ourselves with. Less know is the influx of microplastic from clothing, cosmetics and even tooth paste. Microplastics are small particles of plastic less than 5mm in size.

Trawling for microplastic outside the Mykines island in the Faroe Islands. Photo: Tord Karlsen / Barba.no

Microplastic can also originate from larger pieces of plastic that break down through wear and tear in the ocean, such as a plastic bottle rolling amongst pebbles at a beach. In a similar way as a rock will be grinded down to sand. The microplastic will break down even further, into smaller components called nanoplastics (particles smaller than 100 nm). There are growing concerns related to how plastic pollution, namely in terms of toxicity of different types and sizes of nanoplastics (particles smaller than 100 nm) to marine organisms, either producers or consumers.

Andreas and Diane as they deploy the manta trawl. Photo: Hugh Francis-Anderson / barba.no

We know that plastic enters the oceans at an ever-growing rate, and that is poses a threat of entanglement for a wide array of ocean creatures, and when its mistaken for food and eaten by birds, whales and fish. It remains a big unknown to what extent micro and nanoplastic affects our oceans, and to what extent it accumulates in the food chain affecting whales and humans alike. We do know that many forms of plastic are toxic, and it’s not likely that the microplastic is beneficial to our oceans in any ways. Key to our expedition was shed light on the micro and nanoplastic, as well as if it accumulates in the food chain.

Hugh and Diane during the initial processing of the trawl sample. Photo: barba.no

Our tool for finding microplastic was the manta trawl, which is a net system for sampling the surface of the ocean. It resembles the manta ray, with metal wings and a broad mouth. The sampling procedure consists of towing the trawl alongside the boat for 20 minutes. The trawl filters the water, and provides a sample containing organic debris, as well as microplastic. During the Arctic Whale expedition, we would use the trawl to collect samples all along the route in Norway, Shetland, Faroe Islands and Iceland.

The trawl sample is subsequently stored in 70 % ethanol for later analysis. Photo: barba.no

We subsequently preserved the samples in alcohol, and we plan to get them analyzed early 2020. To properly determine what the plastic content, the organic matter needs to be removed at a laboratory. What we do know from similar sampling across the globe, is that microplastic is found throughout the oceans, from sea surface to the deepest crevice in the sea floor.

The next leg of our journey would be less comfortable, yet more rewarding with the project finally living up to its name. To be continued.



Andreas during a dive in the currents of the Faroe Islands. We always sail with dive gear for recovering gear, underwater repairs as well as for the recreational side of it. Photo: Andreas B. Heide / barba.no

The crossing from Shetland to Faroe Islands. Diane at the helm, accompanied by Andreas and Sandra (co-founders). Photo by Tord Karlsen / barba.no

From the Island of Nolsøy, just opposite Torshavn. By Andreas B. Heide / barba.no

Hugh collecting a sample of plastic on the Island of Hestur. By Tord Karlsen.

Our photographer Tord Karlsen (www.tordkarlsen.com) at work on the scenic west coast of the Faroe Islands. Photo: Andreas B. Heide / barba.no

Our French whale communication specialist Fabrice Schnoller (www.darewin.org/) and Marianne Rasmussen from the University of Iceland working on a hydrophone for recording whale communication. Photo by Tord Karlsen / barba.no

Landfall on the Mykines island, on the western most tip of the Faroe Islands. Photo: Andreas B. Heide / barba.no

Onboard journalist Hugh Francis Anderson (www.hughfrancisanderson.com) stretching his legs on the Mykines Island, prior to the crossing to Iceland. By Andreas B. Heide / barba.no