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Killer Whales and Their Prey in Iceland

Expedition Briefing


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Please read the following information before leaving for your expedition.

It provides the most accurate information available and will likely answer any questions you have about the project. You may also reach out to your Program Coordinator with any questions you may have.


COVID-19 Enhanced Health and Safety Measures

This project has been amended to incorporate several health and safety measures to allow responsible fielding of teams during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please refer to the COVID Disclosure Form for more details. 

Before Fielding 
  • Vaccination against COVID-19 is required for all participants. Staying up to date with your vaccinations, including receiving booster doses if available, is strongly encouraged. 
  • Become familiar with and abide by the local COVID requirements up to date vaccinations, including boosters, mandatory quarantine, or other guidelines. 
  • Do not travel to your Earthwatch expedition or program if you: 
    • are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fever, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, or new loss of taste or smell), 
    •  are confirmed or suspected as having COVID-19 within the past 10 days
    •  have been in close contact with someone suspected or confirmed as having COVID-19 in the past 10 days 
  • You are highly encouraged to take a COVID-19 test one day before or the morning of your rendezvous, before meeting up with your team.
While in the Field 
  • Face masks will be required in line with local regulations and/or when instructed by project leadership. In areas or on projects where mask use is no longer required, the use of face masks will be optional. Any individual who wishes to continue to mask will be supported in that decision. 
  • Participants and project staff will continue to wash or sanitize hands frequently and maintain physical distance whenever possible. 
  • All team members will be asked to monitor their own health through daily health checks. 
  • Recreational activities may be limited or require additional face mask requirements to reduce the risk of exposure to team members or to the local community.
  • Meals and activities will take place outside whenever possible. 
  • Ventilation will be increased indoors and within enclosed vehicles whenever possible. 

The Research

In the 1960s, the population of herring in the Northeast Atlantic (Iceland and Norway) nearly collapsed, largely due to overfishing. At the time, there was rising conflict between fishermen and orca populations that were feeding on herring and were reportedly harming fishermen’s nets. Today, the Icelandic government manages the herring stock carefully, and there is little competition between populations of killer whales feeding on herring and commercial fishermen whose livelihoods depend on it. 

However, killer whales, also known as orcas, face other threats that are connected to their diet. In recent years, the North Atlantic marine ecosystems have undergone dramatic changes due to warming waters (Dulvy et al. 2008). Changes in the availability of important fish species have been reported (Astthorsson et al. 2007, 2012; Solmundsson et al. 2010), and this is affecting the distribution, population size, and diet of top predators in the area (Víkingsson et al. 2014, 2015).

For killer whales, understanding how environmental changes (including warming waters) impact their health and survival first requires a more complete understanding of their ecology and diet preferences. While killer whales have used Icelandic waters as a feeding ground for decades, the Icelandic Orca Project represents the longest research program dedicated to understanding their ecology, behavior, and conservation status.

Our research to date suggests that Icelandic killer whales have a variety of feeding strategies. Some killer whales follow the migration of herring, while others appear to switch between herring and other prey types (Samarra and Foote 2015; Samarra et al. 2017).

Understanding whether a large proportion of the Icelandic killer whale population specializes in hunting herring is relevant in the face of changing environmental conditions and will impact our ability to predict how these whales might cope with future climate change and other human impacts. By understanding threats to populations of killer whales, scientists can help to establish policies to better protect these animals.

Research Aims

With the help of volunteers, this project aims to understand how widespread herring specialization is amongst the killer whale population in Iceland and increase our knowledge of the population’s behavior and acoustic communication. By combining land-based observations with boat-based observations, tagging, acoustic recordings, and biological sampling, our goal is to monitor killer whales in a known herring spawning ground and investigate how different groups use the study area. This includes how often feeding on herring occurs, and how different killer whale groups interact behaviorally and acoustically. Understanding which individuals rely upon a single prey species, what proportion of whales share this feeding strategy, and how they interact with other whales, is crucial to our understanding of their behavioral complexity, adaptability, and the threats they may face. 

Our overarching objective is to test the hypothesis that killer whales observed in Vestmannaeyjar are herring specialists. If this is the case then we will expect that:

  1. Killer whale occurrence in the Vestmannaeyjar spawning ground will coincide with the spawning of herring;
  2. Killer whales observed in this area will be predominantly feeding and may adapt their acoustic behavior depending on their behavior;
  3. Long-term dietary markers of whales observed in the area will suggest consistent feeding upon herring.

In addition, the cetacean biodiversity in South Iceland is very little known due to a lack of research and observation through whale-watching. Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), as top predators, act as indicators of ecosystem health. Therefore, we have a broader goal to record the cetacean biodiversity in this region to better understand the importance and health of this habitat.

How You Will Help

Volunteers will be included in most aspects of the data collection. Due to its exposed location in the North Atlantic Ocean, as well as the timing of the primary herring spawning period, weather is the main limiting factor for conducting both land and boat-based field work in Vestmannaeyjar. This can result in several days of land-based activities only, and few opportunities to be outdoors. Similarly, the weather may limit opportunities to join the research boat, as the small vessels we use are more limited by weather conditions. We appreciate your flexibility and understanding.

Specific volunteer tasks include:

  • Land-Based Observations: You will help observe all species of whales from land using high-magnification binoculars from key elevated observation points. You will record the positions and behavior of whales observed and help record data on environmental factors. We expect about half of the days to be suitable for land-based observations, but this may change from team to team depending on weather conditions. It is possible that even fewer days are available for land-based work.
  • Boat-Based Observations: You will help researchers on board the research vessel by performing behavioral observations and collecting acoustic recordings. You will also help collect pictures for photo identification of individual killer whales, humpback whales, or pilot whales. Often, less than half of the days are suitable for boat work, which is more weather-sensitive than land-based work. On occasion, weather conditions can be quite bad and only one or two days may be suitable for boat work, but this may change from team to team depending on weather conditions. We will always try our best to conduct as many observations as possible, but fog, high winds, and large swells can occur often in this exposed subarctic field site. We appreciate your flexibility.
  • Processing Photographs and Acoustic Recording: In the office, you will help process photographs for photo identification. You will also be trained in how to process acoustic recordings. These activities will take place when the weather is unsuitable for field work, but please bear in mind that this activity may be a large portion of your overall expedition in periods of bad weather.

Life in the Field

Upon your arrival, we will present the general expedition and house rules. You’ll receive a safety briefing (safety protocol onshore and boating safety) and important tips for successful field work. 

In the following days, we will review the safety protocol onshore, along with boating safety, and best practices in the field. We will also introduce the research, general field sampling techniques, and a framework for all the project’s key protocols. You will have time to practice research tasks, both at sea and onshore at the main observation points. During bad weather days, a mixture of data processing, lectures on different research topics and documentaries related to marine mammals will be presented. . Work hours on these days may be reduced to give participants a chance to relax and explore the island. 


Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

When we begin our field work each day, the project staff will introduce and demonstrate each new task. We’ll work with you until you’re comfortable with any new activities. We will also supervise research tasks to ensure quality data collection.


Day 1: Arrival & Introduction

  • You will be picked up by field staff and travel from the Vestmannaeyjar ferry port to the project accommodations, unpack, and settle in. We’ll present the course of the expedition and an overview of the research before having a light meal in the accommodations.
  • We suggest an early night to prepare for the week ahead.

Day 2

  • You’ll receive a safety briefing and overview of the field work tasks in detail. We will then continue with training throughout the rest of the day, both in the harbor and in the office. If time allows, we may visit the land observation point.

Days 3–11

  • On good weather days, breakfast will be around 7:00 a.m., and the team will split into two groups. Groups will be divided between the land station and the research vessel. These groups will alternate between boat and land work on consecutive days. We strive to make opportunities for all participants to take part in both aspects of the data collection (boat and land-based work), but this will always be weather-dependent. 
  • All teams should be ready to head to their respective workstations at 9:00 a.m. If weather is unfavorable, the day will be spent in the office and hours will be reduced.
  • All teams will reconvene around 6:00 p.m. at the field station or back at the house.
  • The teams may assist in carrying equipment back to the field station, but staff will carry out any necessary maintenance.
  • The staff will plan for the next working day before dinner, checking the weather forecast and making a preliminary decision on whether the teams will go out or not the next morning.
  • At the end of dinner, we will inform all participants of the plan for the next day.
  • Participants will then have time off in the evening to relax. On some nights, project staff members will offer movies featuring Iceland and Icelandic wildlife. Staff members will occasionally visit a local indoor saltwater pool with outdoor hot tubs. The pool costs 1,000 ISK per visit (cost subject to change). Volunteers are more than welcome to join.

Recreational Day

  • Usually, we will have one recreational day in the middle of the team, or on a day when there’s poor weather. Volunteers will have the option to visit an aquarium and beluga sanctuary (ticket prices found at https://belugasanctuary.sealifetrust.org/en/tickets/), a folk museum (1000 ISK), and a volcano museum (2,900 ISK). Note: these prices were accurate at the time this briefing was printed and are subject to change. 

Day 12: Program Close and Departure

  • After breakfast, the project staff will pick up volunteers to drop them off in time for the morning ferry. 

Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or singles accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


Expedition participants will stay in a comfortable house near the town center and cafes, restaurants, and local shopping. Participants will be assigned to rooms by gender* with up to two other teammates. Rooming will depend on the final team makeup. Requests for single and couple rooms must be made with Earthwatch in advance and will be accommodated in order of request whenever possible.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgment. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


The house will be equipped with one or two full bathrooms with a hot shower and conventional toilet. Please bring clothes that you can easily wash by hand, as well as a towel. Laundry service is available at the accommodations free of charge (there is a washing machine and drying rack).


You are welcome to bring electrical equipment. The house has 220–240-volt electrical outlets (type C, E, or F).


Free Internet is available at the research station/accommodations. Depending on your mobile phone carrier, cell service will also be available if you have set up your device in advance for international service. 

Please note: Earthwatch encourages volunteers to minimize outgoing calls and immerse themselves in the experience; likewise, family and friends should restrict calls to urgent messages only. Emergency communications will be prioritized.


The research boat and dock are a 5-minute drive from the field station. The land observation point is a 10-minute drive from the field station. Accommodations will be at most a 5-minute drive from the boat docks. For office-based work, the research station is at most a 15 to 20-minute walk from the accommodations.


The project team will purchase groceries for meals, every few days. Volunteers will prepare breakfast and lunch. There is always a variety of food to choose from for breakfast and lunch. Cooking dinner is a task shared by volunteers and staff members, according to the schedule of house chores, which is prepared in advance by the staff.

As field work may sometimes last longer, we recommend that you always pack a snack.

Volunteers can expect continental-European cuisine using fresh ingredients. To be more sustainable, most meals will be vegetarian/vegan but occasionally meat or fish options will be available. 

Volunteers can also expect a fixed menu with simple recipes to help guide them when helping the field staff.


The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Cow milk, soya milk, yogurt, various cereals, bread, toast, eggs, ham, cheese, butter, jam, peanut butter, honey, various spreads, fruit and vegetables, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, juices, water.
  • Lunch: Typically sandwiches (possible toppings include butter, cheese, jam, peanut butter, and an assortment of deli meats, vegetables, and condiments) for the teams going out in the field. On bad-weather days, the teams will be given sufficient time for lunch in case they walk back to the accommodations to prepare meals. 
  • Dinner: Dinner will be prepared by volunteers and research staff, depending on a schedule and menu previously prepared by the staff, and will typically consist of pasta, rice, pizza, oven-baked foods, etc.
  • Snacks: Fruit, sandwiches, nuts, chips, pretzels, granola bars, etc.
  • Beverages: Water, juices.

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms. 

This project will consist mostly of vegetarian/vegan meals, although meat and fish will also be available occasionally. Gluten-free, and lactose-free diets may also be possible, but please contact Earthwatch in advance to inform us of your dietary preferences.

Project Conditions

The information that follows is as accurate as possible, but please keep in mind that conditions may change.

Weather conditions can be variable and may include high winds, rainfall, and changes in temperature. Please note that there can be extended periods of several days of bad weather that will make for very limited opportunities to be outdoors. The research conducted outdoors will be done onboard a small boat around the island, which has no cabin and limited seating. Moderate fitness and balance are required, but we strive to make the project as accessible as possible. For land-based activities, volunteers will walk up a hill to the observation point and may have to carry project equipment.


For weather and region-specific information, please visit Wunderground.com and search for your project location.


Our 19-foot (six-meter) V-hull boat has no restrooms available and seating space is very limited. Occasionally, we will ride into a headwind or have some swell, which will make some rides bumpy. If you do need to use the bathroom, it is possible to urinate off the back of the boat, or use a bucket onboard, which we will have for emergencies only.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Cope with cold, windy, and potentially rainy conditions for extended periods of time with temperatures around 40–50°F (4-10°C).
  • Sit and/or stand in a small motorboat for periods of 5–8 hours or more with limited space. Good balance is important.
  • As a safety precaution, we ask that volunteers be able to swim.
  • Be comfortable wearing a flotation suit that’s insulated. Note: suit sizes are limited; while we will try to provide a suit that best fits your size, we appreciate your flexibility. Volunteers are advised to always use their suits either on the land station or on the research vessel. Weather and temperatures are variable and strong, cold winds are common, so having layers like thermals and long underwear are strongly advised to wear under the suit, as well as hats and gloves.
  • For the land-based activities, carry equipment uphill for approximately 300m from the car park to the observation platform over thick grass.
  • Be comfortable looking through binoculars at sea and on land to help scout for whales.
  • Carry personal daily supplies such as lunch, water, and some small field equipment.
  • Enjoy being outdoors most of the day in variable weather, in the potential presence of wild animals.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Always comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures.
  • Effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.

Note: The primary research vessel can only seat a few persons comfortably, and keeping the boat balanced is essential for the safety of the team. There are also limited flotation suit sizes available. In addition, the boat journey can often be quite bumpy making it unsuitable for people with back problems.

Note: If you are near or over 220 pounds (or are likely to require a larger-sized suit) or have any back problems, please contact Earthwatch as you might be limited to specific research tasks during your expedition.

Health and Safety


Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up to date (for example diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations. 

If traveling from countries or regions where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination. 

Vaccination against COVID-19 is required for all participants. Staying up to date with your vaccinations, including receiving booster doses as applicable is strongly encouraged. 

Project Risks and Precautions


Land vehicles will transport volunteers to the land observation point base (5–10-minute drive). For boat-based teams, the accommodations are at most a 5-minute drive from the boat docks, and vehicles will transport volunteers and equipment. Only project staff will operate vehicles. Seat belts must always be worn. For office-based work, the research station is at most a 15 to 20-minute walk from the accommodations.

We will use boats to travel across open water to study sites. The vessel is fully equipped with safety equipment (life jackets, flares, VHF radios, throw rope, and first aid kit), navigation, and communication items. It is always possible for the ride to become bumpy for some portion of the trip, so the boat work is not advisable for volunteers with back problems. Volunteers are not permitted to drive the boat. Volunteers must also always wear the proper flotation suits and lifejackets when on the boats. The boat will typically remain within a one-hour journey of the harbor.


Both the land team and boat team will be exposed to wind, rain, and cold temperatures. Volunteers should wear layers of clothes and rain jackets when necessary. Boat and land-based teams will have flotation suits for insulation (provided by the project).


You will walk to the observation point, which is approximately 300m. You may take your time with any sections of challenging terrain.


Please inform project staff if you need a moment away from the team. Volunteers will always work in groups of at least two. The scientists take great care to know, at all times, where each volunteer is working, so that lost volunteers can be located quickly. If you leave the accommodations to go off on your own, you must always notify the project staff first and sign out from the project. You must also let staff know when you will return.


We will cover appropriate responses to wildlife encounters in the introductory briefing. Do not approach or touch any wildlife.


Volunteers will be on the research vessels at sea or on the land station for three to eight hours per day. Bring warm and protective hats and clothing, along with sunglasses. To avoid dehydration, volunteers will bring two water bottles each day, and extra water will be available.


Volunteers will be briefed on the safety measures at sea including instructions for boarding and disembarking the boat. Appropriate footwear should be worn on the vessel, and volunteers should follow the captain’s instructions for safety protocols when the boat is in motion.


The land observation point is at a high elevation and has sheer cliff drop-offs. The observation point is also covered in thick grass, which can be slippery when wet. Volunteers should stay at least 10 feet away from the cliff edge as a precaution.


All volunteers will receive a safety briefing prior to research activities on the boat and will be told where safety equipment is located and how to use the equipment. Volunteers are screened for swimming ability. The boat is fully equipped with safety gear (life jackets for all crew members, fire extinguishers, first-aid kit, VHF radio, mobile phone, etc.). Smoking is not allowed on the boat. The captain will have a valid nautical license and extensive navigation experience. The staff will go over safety protocols in the event someone falls out of the boat. Volunteers will always wear flotation suits and life jackets when on the boat as a precaution against falling overboard. The staff will also brief volunteers on the deployment of hydrophones and avoiding the cables, which are potential trip hazards.


Vestmannaeyjar is a generally safe region for travelers; however, do not leave valuables unattended in public areas.


While rare on the island, earthquakes and eruptions are possible, as the island and surrounding ocean have active volcanoes. Volunteers will be briefed on warning notices, the safest locations on-site during tremors/eruptions, evacuation procedures, and the group gathering point.


There is a health care center on the island located at Sólhlíð 10, in the town center. It consists of a primary health care center including on-call emergency doctor service 24 hours a day and a small 15-bed hospital with an on-call physician/doctor as well. During working hours, the health care center can be contacted via telephone at 432-2500 for assistance or appointment booking, but in the case of an emergency, one can come directly to the reception. Out of working hours, the central health care help desk should be contacted (1700) for assistance, and they will contact the island’s on-call doctor. In case of emergency, the number to call is 112, and a local ambulance service operated by the health care center can assist. In the case of major injuries or illness, patients can be transported via air ambulance to Landspitalinn hospital in Reykjavík either by plane or helicopter.


COVID-19 is an infectious disease. Although most people who have COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness, it can also cause severe illness and even death. Some people are at increased risk of severe illness. The COVID-19 virus spreads from person to person via close contact, primarily through exposure to the respiratory droplets of an infected person. Medication availability and treatment for COVID-19 varies from country to country and specific treatment options may not be possible in your destination.

Projects and participants fielding with Earthwatch commit to a number of enhanced safety measures as described in the COVID Disclosure Form. Enhanced safety measures may include physical distancing, wearing face masks, regular hand washing and surface sanitizing, heeding advice from project leadership or local authorities, adjusted logistics, and monitoring one’s own health throughout the expedition. If you get symptoms of COVID 19 or test positive while traveling you may be subject to quarantine and other local regulations that may disrupt your travel plans. Please plan for extended travel days. 

Travel Planning


The scientists will meet you when you arrive in Vestmannaeyjar on Day 1. You will be met at the Vestmannaeyjar ferry landing dock in the late afternoon. Domestic flights to Vestmannaeyjar are discouraged as availability varies and is unreliable due to high winds and fog often leading to last-minute cancellations. The bus and ferry system are a more reliable way to travel to your rendezvous location. 

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


You are responsible for reviewing and abiding by the local COVID guidelines and regulations for your destination. This may include proof of testing upon arrival or departure, up to date vaccinations against COVID-19, including boosters, mandatory quarantine, or other requirements. 

For information regarding Iceland, please visit: COVID-19 Information—U.S. Embassy in Iceland (usembassy.gov) and Official information about COVID-19 in Iceland 

Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers canceling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website: www.travisa.com.

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


  • Icelandic Orca Project researchers are the main authors or co-authors of several scientific papers, published in scientific journals; a list of these can be found here: icelandic-orcas.com/#publications; please contact fipsamarra@gmail.com if you require copies of any of these publications and can’t access them.
  • Astthorsson OS, Gislason A and Jonsson S (2007) Climate variability and the Icelandic marine ecosystem. Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography 54:2456-2477
  • Samarra FIP, Vighi M, Aguilar A and Víkingsson GA (2017). Intra-population variation in isotopic niche in herring-eating killer whales. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 564: 199-210
  • Astthorsson OS, Valdimarsson H, Gudmundsdottir A and Óskarsson GJ (2012) Climate-related variations in the occurrence and distribution of mackerel (Scomber scombrus) in Icelandic waters. ICES Journal of Marine Science 69(7): 1289-1297
  • Dulvy NK, Rogers SI, Jennings S, Stelzenmuller V, Dye SR and Skjoldal HR (2008) Climate change and deepening of the North Sea fish assemblage: a biotic indicator of warming seas. Journal of Applied Ecology 45:1029-1039
  • Samarra FIP and Foote AD (2015) Seasonal movements of killer whales between Iceland and Scotland. Aquatic Biology 24: 75-79
  • Solmundson J, Jonsson E and Bjornsson H (2010) Phase transition in recruitment and distribution of monkfish (Lophius piscatorius) in Icelandic waters. Marine Biology 157: 295-305
  • Víkingsson GA, Elvarsson BT, Olafsdottir D, Sigurjónsson J, Chosson V and Galan A (2014) Recent changes in the diet composition of common minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) in Icelandic waters. A consequence of climate change? Marine Biology Research 10: 138-152
  • Víkingsson GA, Pike DG, Valdimarsson H, Schleimer A, Gunnlaugsson T, Silva T, Elvarsson BT, Mikkelsen B, Øien N, Desportes G, Bogason V and Hammond PS (2015) Distribution, abundance, and feeding ecology of baleen whales in Icelandic waters: have recent environmental changes had an effect? Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 3:1-16



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