Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) surfacing in front of the WWF research team, Gulf of Corcovado © WWF / Francisco Viddi

A small research vessel alongside a blue whale, South America © WWF / Francisco Viddi

Blue whale satellite tagging

Keywords
  • antarctica
  • whales

For the largest animal ever known – capable of reaching lengths of up to 33 metres – the blue whale has certainly maintained a secret life. But that's all about to change.

WWF has launched an ambitious project to unravel some of the mysteries of this ocean giant, and to identify and protect its most critical habitats into the bargain. In a world first, a team of WWF researchers in Chile have attached satellite tags to seven whales to trace their movements, gaining vital insights into their migratory and feeding patterns.

It's exciting stuff. We know virtually nothing about where whales travel in the southern hemisphere or the places critical to their survival. But it's also extremely challenging. Individual whales can swim 200 kilometres a day and are surprisingly fast. They also roam over a vast area. We’re going to have to keep up, tracking more whales and continuing this research over several years to gather reliable information.

 

WWF research team looking for blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) in the Gulf of Corcovado, South America © WWF / Robert Guenther

But it couldn't come sooner. Blue whales are threatened by widespread habitat degradation, pollution, pressure on their food stocks (especially krill) and human disturbances. Noise from sonar, drilling and shipping can interfere with the whales’ own communications and navigation, sending them dangerously off course. They also lack evasive instincts and it's not uncommon for them to fatally collide with ships or become entangled in fishing gear.

 

WWF is working with the Centro Ballena Azul (Blue Whale Centre) in Chile to reveal the secret lives of whales in the eastern Pacific Ocean. This ground-breaking project is in collaboration with WWF-Australia, WWF-Chile and WWF-Germany, and generously supported by Blackmores.



By using satellite tags, we hope to identify consistent patterns of migration that will help us to identify priority areas for the protection Of blue whales. That way, these giants can travel, give birth and forage in safety.


Chris Johnson

WWF-Australia Oceans Science Manager




FACTS

  • The blue whale is the largest animal ever known to have existed, reaching lengths of up to 33 metres. During the 20th century blue whales were the target of whaling activities and even after commercial whaling was banned in 1964, the former Soviet Union continued to exploit them. Antarctic blue whales are classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
  • The blue whale is the loudest creature on Earth. Its call reaches up to 188 decibels –louder than a jet (140 decibels) – and can be heard hundreds of kilometres away.
  • There are three recognised subspecies of blue whale. The pygmy blue whale grows to a maximum length of about 24 metres and is found in the southern hemisphere and northern Indian Ocean. The northern hemisphere subspecies is around 23-27 metres long, females being larger than males. The Antarctic blue whale is the largest of all and measures up to 33 metres in length.
  • Blue whales have a heart the size of a small car. Their tongue is as big as an elephant.



TIMELINE OF ACTION

  • April 2015 Field team comprising WWF-Chile and Centro Ballena Azul scientists tagged seven blue whales in the Gulf of Corcovado, in southern Chile. Six of these tags provided excellent signals.
  • September 2015 Tracking showed the whales heading north towards the Galapagos Islands.
  • April 2016 Second field season [no results as yet].

© Sian Breen / WWF-Aus

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