Scientists have attached cameras to whales to unlock the mysteries of their life in Antarctica … and it is revealing a bonanza of information.
This includes where, when and how they feed, their social lives, and even how they must blow hard to clear sea ice so they can breathe.
Crucially, data being gathered will enable better protection of whale feeding areas.
The researchers use suction cups to attach non-invasive digital tags – which contain sensors and a ‘whale cam’ – onto the backs of humpback and minke whales.
As the whales plunge, we go below the surface with them and experience a day in the life of an ocean giant, including the various ways they feed on krill.
“We have some wonderful data on different feeding strategies from rolling lunges near the surface, to bubble net feeding, to deep foraging dives lunging through dense patches of krill,” said Dr Ari Friedlaender, an associate professor from Oregon State University and lead scientist on the whale study.
“We have been able to show that whales spend a great deal of time during the days socializing and resting and then feeding largely throughout the evening and night time.
“Whales are aggregating in a number of bays – including Wilhelmina Bay, Cierva Cove, Fournier Bay, Errera Channel – in high numbers and are feeding there for weeks at a time.
“Every time we deploy a tag or collect a sample, we learn something new about whales in the Antarctic.”
“Once we have an idea about where the whales feed, how often, where they go and rest, we can use this to inform policy and management to protect these whales and their ecosystem,” he said.
Dr Friedlaender recounted one occasion when they tagged an individual and it and another whale circled their boat for over an hour.
“They were gentle and curious and seemed as interested in us as we were of them. It is hard to describe the feeling of having a 15-metre, 40-tonne whale inches away from you, peering back at you. We were all extremely moved by this experience,” he said.
The camera tags are on each whale for between 24 and 48 hours before they detach and are retrieved by scientists and reused.
WWF-Australia has provided funding for three ‘whale cams’ to help scientists better understand critical feeding areas in the Southern Ocean and the impact of shrinking ice caused by warming sea temperatures.
“Marine protected areas are important tools to protect species and enable habitats to become more resilient and thrive into the future,” said Chris Johnson, WWF-Australia Ocean Science manager.
“Growing human impacts such as climate change and increasing krill fishing overlapping in their critical feeding areas need to be managed carefully,” he said.
Establishing well-managed marine protected areas can help maintain krill populations and deliver effective biodiversity conservation, helping protect future generations of whales.
The research is being conducted in collaboration with scientists at the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart and under the auspices of the International Whaling Commission’s, Southern Ocean Research Partnership (IWC-SORP).
The aim of the Partnership is to implement and promote non-lethal whale research techniques to maximise conservation outcomes for Southern Ocean whales.
Dr Ari Friedlaender’s work was conducted from the OneOcean Expeditions vessel, Akademik Ioffe.
Video of the whale tagging, whale cam vision, an interview with Dr Friedlaender, and still shots are available on request.
Mark Symons, WWF-Australia Senior Media Officer, 0400 985 571, firstname.lastname@example.org