Interview with marine biologist Lisa Steiner

Marine Biologist Lisa Steiner
Marine Biologist Lisa Steiner

Lisa Steiner is a marine biologist who works on the island of Faial in the Azores.

Lisa’s research focuses on identifying individual sperm whales by the shape of their tail fin, and mapping their migration patterns and population sizes.  Lisa runs our 5 and 9 day research holidays on the island of Faial where you can go out with her on her boat and not only see the spectacular marine life of the Azores, but also learn the intricacies of both her research and wider marine conservation.

Sperm whales develop a unique pattern along the trailing edge of their tail fin due to fatigue and this pattern is used to identify them individually
Sperm whales develop a unique pattern along the trailing edge of their tail fin due to fatigue and this pattern is used to identify them individually

We interviewed Lisa to find out more about her job as a marine biologist in the Azores…

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, what your are researching and what it involves?

I went to University in Miami, studying Marine Science/Biology and got a job on “Song of the Whale” The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s research boat 2 weeks after I graduated.  They were studying sperm whales in the Azores and I have been here ever since! I take photographs of the tails of the whales and identify different individuals from the shape of the tail. The work has expanded over the years and now I collaborate with other researchers studying the baleen whales, such as blue, fin sei & humpback, taking photos of their identifying features such as skin pattern or dorsal fins and the tails of the humpback whales.

What do you enjoy most about your research/life in the Azores?

Life in the Azores is quite a relaxing when I am not at sea. My job is fantastic, I get to watch whales & dolphins all summer! You never know what you will see when you leave the harbour in the morning. I really like to see animals that I have seen in previous years. I can recognise about 100 individual sperm whales when they show their tail at the start of their dive. Being surprised by these animals is one of the best things, when they do something unexpected, or show curiosity about the boat. I also enjoy watching the reactions of the people on the boat when they are seeing a whale or a dolphin for the first time; I have been responsible for tears from several clients over the years!

The often spotted Common Dolphin
The often spotted Common Dolphin

What has been your most exciting discovery?

I have had a few over the years! I have “discovered” a few species not been previously seen in the Azores, such as rough-tooth dolphin, Sei & Bryde’s whales as well as True’s beaked whale. I was part of the team to see the first North Atlantic Right whale in the Azores for over 100 years in 2009! I have matched 6 male sperm whales from the Azores to Norway and also 13 females that have gone to the Canary Islands and returned (this last one is not yet published) Three of “my” humpback whales have been seen in the Cape Verde Islands!

What do you see as the biggest threat to the whale and dolphin population in the world?

There are a few threats to whales & dolphins: the main threats being plastic & noise pollution, entanglements in fishing gear/nets. Plastic enters the food chain and because whales & dolphins live so long, this can eventually cause blockages to their system. Not long ago, a sperm whale was found with a stomach full of plastic. Noise from shipping can interfere with the long-range communication of some species, making it more difficult for them to find each other in the vast expanse of the ocean.

If whale watching is not done in a non-disturbing way, this may also prove to be detrimental to them.

If money was no object, what would be your marine biologist dream?

To have my own boat to be able to watch & identify whales in different parts of the world.

Sperm whale breach
Sperm whale breach

Do sperm whales live in groups?

Females live in social groups with their calves and juveniles. They usually remain in the same group for their entire lives. The males leave when they are around 13-15 to live with other males & as they age they become more solitary.

Why do some stay in the Azores, and others travel?

I think food is the main reason that sperm whales move around. The males spend more time in the colder regions because there is more food to feed their larger bodies.

How deep do Sperm whales dive?

They can dive up to 3000m. One was found entangled in the undersea cables which run along the bottom of the ocean.

Do you publish your findings on the internet and if so, where?

I publish my results in scientific journals or present them at Marine Mammal Conferences. You can download some of the publications as pdfs from the Whale Watch Azores website.

Sperm whale double fluke
Sperm whale double fluke

When do you think the best time to see whales and dolphins is in the Azores?

This must be the most frequently asked question!!  There is not a particularly best time to watch whales & dolphins. There is always something to see! The largest variety is usually seen in the spring when we tend to see the baleen whales, such as blue, fin, sei & humpback whales migrating past the islands. Sperm whales are present all year around. Beaked & bottlenose whales are usually seen in July and August. Spotted dolphin arrive at the end of June and remain until the end of the summer.

Have you noticed any changes in whale and dolphin population around the Azores since you’ve been working there?

I have not noticed any big differences with the sperm whales. We see calves in many of the groups we see, so I think their population is holding steady at least. Some years we tend to have more or less dolphin sightings than others, based mostly on food availability I believe. 2014 has been an amazing year for baleen whale sightings and I am not sure why that is so. Most likely food related. If there is krill, the animals will spend a longer time here rather than moving on to the feeding grounds further in the North.

Do you work with whale researchers in other parts of the world?

I collaborate with researchers working around the Atlantic on the identification of individual whales, from Norway, Iceland, UK, Italy, Greece, France, Guadaloupe, Bermuda, Dominica, Canada, Ireland, Cape Verdes, Canaries and USA.

And finally, what’s your favourite Azorean dish?

Although I live in the middle of the ocean, I am a carnivore! So I would have to say steak & chips! But if you are talking about a traditional Azorean dish, then there is a dish with pork & bananas dish served at one of the restaurants here which is yummy!


Lisa's whale researching boat
Lisa’s whale researching boat

Thanks Lisa!

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