Whale research – Behind the scenes #2

What are whale researchers trying to figure out in Antarctica?

Research on whales is still in its infancy. Ari Friedlaender, PhD from Oregon State University and his international team are conducting science samples in Antarctica to improve the knowledge on Antarctic local and migratory pods:

  • To understand how these whales feed we deploy multi-sensor video recording tags that stick to the whales with suction cups for ~ 24 hours.  These tags allow us to literally see below the surface and ride along with the whales to see and understand where they go, when and how often they feed, and what they are feeding on.  We deploy these tags using a long carbon-fiber pole from the Zodiac and retrieve the tag when it falls off the whale.  This is a tool that we have used literally hundreds of times before, but every time we get a tag we learn something new and amazing about the underwater lives of these animals.
  • There has been very little research on the feeding patterns of whales and how mothers teach their calves how to feed. To understand where the whales go during the feeding season we deploy small satellite-linked tags to the whales that stay on for about one month and transmit the location of the whale when it is at the surface.  We can use this information to track the movement of animals in relation to things like sea ice to see where the whales prefer to go, how long they spend in certain places, and when they migrate to their tropical breeding grounds.
  • To understand how big the population is and whether or not it is growing, we collect small skin and blubber biopsy samples.  From a sample about the size of the nail on your little finger we can tell the sex of the whale, if it is pregnant or not, what it is feeding on, what its contaminant load is, whether it is under stress, and what population of whales it comes from.  By collecting a large number of samples we can begin to look at trends in the population and if/how quickly it is growing.
  • In order to see how healthy the whales are and literally how big they are, we will use UAS (unmanned aerial systems) commonly referred to as drones.  By flying a small copter over whales when they are at the surface we can make very precise measurements of the length and girth of the whale.  By comparing measurements of whales at different times of the year we can begin to understand when the whales are gaining weight and successfully feeding.  Combined with our biopsy samples we can also see if males or females grow at different rates and whether or not some whales are pregnant.
  • By putting all of this information together, along with an understanding of how the rapid warming around the Antarctic Peninsula is affecting the amount and timing of sea ice cover, we can begin to understand the impact that humans are having on this unique and magnificent ecosystem.

Have you missed part 1? CLICK HERE to read the story from the beginning.

One Ocean Expeditions operates expedition cruises in remote areas of the world, with its main goal to create ambassadors about/for the ocean. In order to raise awareness for marine mammal research, One Ocean Expeditions calls to tag your most recent or favourite image of a whale encounter anywhere in the world #OOEwhalemigration.
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