The Icelandic Orca Project

Sep 17, 2018 by afdadmin
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By Steve Kavokos, Iceland Explorer at large @stevechristopher__

I couldn’t close these editorials without highlighting some of the people who made them possible. The Icelandic Orca Project is like a well-oiled machine, piloted by Dr. Filipa Samarra and her partner Paul Wensveen.

Filipa Samara is a true orca expert and leader of the team. She has pioneered an ongoing long-term project aiming to study the population of killer whales occurring in Icelandic coastal waters. Filipa has focused on orca’s social and acoustic behaviour, as well as foraging ecology and population dynamics. Her observations are effortless and her questioning surrounding Icelandic orcas is drawn from a thirst for knowledge. Filipa’s passion for answering questions and her experience in the field make her an essential person not only in her team but for the fate of Icelandic orcas.

Filipa’s partner Paul is another person you want in the room for clear answers on orca acoustics. Paul gave us all one-hour schooling on the amount of noise in the ocean and his studies on how it affects orcas and the greater cetacean family. Paul does research in Ecology, Marine Biology and Acoustics. 

Then there’s Sara De Clerck. Sara is a Ph.D. student from Belgium. She graduated with a bachelor in biology, and is currently enrolled in the IMBRSea program (, the largest international masters program in marine science. Sara is focussed on ecosystem functioning regarding food chain ecology and climate change.

I asked Sara what made her choose a life in marine conservation, and orcas in particular.

“Since childhood, I cared about animals and saved organisms that were in need of help. In recent years my interest in marine mammals grew, especially my interest in orcas. My master thesis focusses on the population of Icelandic killer whales and how vessels have a potential effect on them”

The team was extensive. From Ayca, who is the team’s rock and photographer, Tom, the dude who can tell you the possible cause of death or diet of a marine mammal, just by studying its DNA sample. Deborah, who is working with a 3D printing of skulls and has worked in palaeontology. Rebecca, the team’s smiling marine biologist, and Katerina, the glue binding the operational team together.

Luke Penketh is very much like Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. Young, gifted, and full of questions. He studied Zoology BSc at UCL, where he focused on behavioural ecology and conservation. He worked as a researcher with gibbons in Thailand, whale sharks in the Philippines, dolphins and minkes in Scotland, and now orcas in Iceland.

Luke is the tech star of the team. He is one of the guys everyone approaches to get things moving and working. While he brings scientific knowledge like the others, he also has an innate ability to get things moving, and is always infectiously positive. I asked Luke why he works in conservation.

“My main focus is to see a connection between the important science and on the ground action in people.  Many people feel disillusioned in a world of sometimes-overwhelming issues like climate change, poverty, and equality.  It often feels like these issues are unconquerable, but there’s so much we can do individually to have a big impact.”

Luke is currently in the process of building an app called A Greater Mass, which aims to issue simple weekly challenges and actions that may feel small individually, but have a large collective impact.

Last but not least is Gary, a mentor reminiscent of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Gary is a wise man with unmatched knowledge surrounding cetaceans and marine mammals. He has dedicated his life to conservation and has seen plenty. Where we may assume knowledge about orcas and marine mammals, Gary is the first to peel back assumptions and work with raw experience. From what to do in a mass stranding, to understanding marine mammal diving depths and identifying marine mammals. He would be the guy that briefs Attenborough on what to say on screen.

I have never met a better group of people, working hard in the conservation industry. It’s a hard, long road. The Icelandic Orca Project is built on looking out for one another, learning about marine mammals, and being awesome.

I send them my thanks.