Working with the whales

Photo: One Ocean Expedition

Photo: One Ocean Expedition

Every year, month, week, and day in Antarctica is different. From year to year the whole timbre of the landscape can change with the ice conditions. From day to day the weather can turn on a dime and turn a peaceful and tranquil vista into a dark and wind-battered curtain of snow. Through it all, the animals that make this place home weather the storm and we must do the same.  
Working with whales requires an ingredient list that would rival a witches brew. We need to have whales, whales behaving in a manner that allows us to get close to them, daylight, calm seas, little wind, a platform to work from, etc.  When these things all line up we have to be ready to take advantage of the time and work efficiently.  Once these elements come together we focus our efforts.
This morning, we have calm seas, fair winds and a glorious display of morning light filling the sky at 4 am.  The horizon is peppered with the blows of humpback whales, the 20 foot-tall columns of vaporized water hanging above the sea for a few seconds offers evidence of where the whales were.  At least 15-20 on a quick scan from the bridge of the ship. This is the perfect opportunity for us to work. I prepare our biopsy gear, satellite and suction cup tags and assemble the team for an early morning on the water. We talk about our goals; we would like to deploy a multi-sensor suction cup recording tag to understand the fine-scale movement and foraging patterns of the whales for 24 hours, deploy a long-term satellite tag that will show us the movement patterns of the animal throughout the entire feeding season, and collect a number of biopsy samples that will elucidate the population from which these whales came as well as if they are male or female.
From the small inflatable boat, I direct the driver from a pulpit that sits above the pontoons and always be a slightly higher view from which to see the whales and a platform to lean out just enough to tag the animals. We find a number of animals bubble-net feeding, creating spiraling circles of bubbles underwater to concentrate or aggregate the krill and then lunging up through the center with mouths agape to feed on the small crustaceans. When the whales do this, it is obvious where they are likely to come up and once they do, they are trapped at the surface for half a minute while they sift all of the water out of their mouths before going down once again for another foraging bout. We slowly approach a bubble net as it forms at the surface and when the whales come up, we idle in their direction. I communicate with the driver where the whales are and where we need to position ourselves to place the suction cup tag on the whale’s back.  When it arches to dive, the whale shows us a fine piece of real estate and with a gentle thwack, I place the tag on the whale.  The tag sits at the end of a 25-ft carbon fiber pole that looks like a giant magic wand and it does not take much effort to place the tag on. As soon as the tag is deployed my graduate student collects a small skin and blubber biopsy sample using a crossbow and customized tip that takes a small sample about the size of a pencil eraser.  
Once the tag is deployed we can listen for it with a VHF antenna and receiver. Whenever the tag is above the surface (either on the whale or once it has fallen off and floats) we hear a signal and can keep track of the whale’s location. We spend the rest of the morning following the blows in the early morning air and collecting biopsy samples. The tag will stay on the whale for about 24 hours and then fall off. When it does, we use the tracking gear to locate it and retrieve it. The data are stored on the tag so we have to get it back in order to get the data. When we do it is a flurry of downloading, running code, and generating figures. Our tag is out now, on a humpback whale maneuvering through the icy depths.  When we retrieve it, we will see the motion of the whale, count how many times, where, and when it feeds and how these massive ocean giants make a living in the Antarctic.


Room with a view

Photo: One Ocean Expeditions

Photo: One Ocean Expeditions

Working in polar regions, especially during summer, can be a challenge.  While life on a modern research ship is comfortable, the everlasting days and lack of night time can drain you.  With nearly constant daylight, the opportunity to search for whales and work with them never ends.  As well, the evening and early morning light are magical and one can’t help but be entranced in the pastels and vibrant colors beaming from the horizon while the sun scrapes just below it for a few minutes.

Our research vessel, the ARSV Laurence M Gould, hosts about 25 scientists and nearly that many more officers and crew.  The ship is active 24 hours a day and scientific teams generally are split into two shifts, each for 12 hours.  My team, however, is on call whenever it is light out, whenever there are whales around, and whenever we have the opportunity.  When the ship is in transit between oceanographic sampling stations, we maintain a watch on the bridge to log sightings: species, group size, location, behavior, etc.  If we come across an unusually large number of animals in a small area or have time before the next station is to occur, we take the opportunity to deploy our RHIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boat) to collect biopsy samples and deploy satellite tags.  Spending so much time on the bridge, we see all of the wonders of the Antarctic as they pas by; sea birds, seals, penguins, ice bergs, mountains, etc.  You begin to get a feel for the environment and where the whales are likely to be found.

Maintaining a schedule is important on the ship to create a sense of stability.  Meals are pretty early and the ships are well stocked with fresh foods that last for about three weeks.  After that…things become a bit more routine and less exciting.  But the galley crew do a wonderful job of keeping us well fed and healthy!  Our cabins are small but comfortable, all have bunk beds and a private bathroom with shower.  Two scientists to a cabin, a small desk and storage space for personal gear and clothes.  Most other things remain in our labs and working space.  A porthole lets us see the passing world.  It is critical to be able to shut it though and block out the constant light and sleep in darkness.  Routine is important, and on the ship we have a small gym and comfortable lounge where people can watch movies on a big TV.  There is also a satellite phone to call home and keep in touch, as well as email.  While all of the amenities help to maintain a sense of being in touch, the Antarctic is so unique that you find yourself failing to explain and express the place to friends and family in words or images.

As the whales we work with are not on a schedule or found at known locations, we work whenever they are around regardless of the time.  I average about 4 hours of sleep a day with an occasional nap.  It isn’t sustainable for more than a month or so, but well worth it!  Each evening we put together a science plan for the following day that includes, to the best of our ability, the times and locations of where we will be.  In all of my time in the Antarctic, rarely does a plan accurately forcast what we will do the next day.  The Antarctic has a way of making you change your plans constantly to adapt to the changing conditions and opportunities.

Looking back to plan ahead

Humpback whale Photo: Frank Grebstad

Humpback whale Photo: Frank Grebstad

Preparing to travel and do research in Antarctica is unique.  It is a combination of finding the right equipment to keep warm and dry yet flexible and mobile and all of the scientific gear that is needed to accomplish your research. The preparations start months in advance looking at data from the previous year; where did the ship go, what were the conditions like, where were the whales most abundant, where did they spend the most time once tagged. This information is critical to think about how to maximize the precious little time we have to deploy our instruments and collect samples.

Our main objectives are to locate humpback whales early on in the feeding season and deploy satellite-linked tags that will provide us with positions of where the whale is nearly every time it comes to the surface during the season.  The tags transmit a signal that is received by orbiting satellites and triangulate the location of the whale and send that information to a web site where we can log in and see all of the positions as they are acquired.  We use this information to study the different behavioral states of the whales and can determine when and where whales are foraging.  If you think about whales searching for patches of krill and then when they find a good area, remaining in it to feed, the track of the whale will have very distinct shapes.  Whales that are transiting will generally move in one direction with little change in course from one position to the next.  However, when whales are feeding in what is called ‘area-restricted search’ the turning angles between locations will be variable and the whale will generally stay in the same location for a given period of time.  We can use a number of analytical tools to determine when, where, and for how long each of these foraging bouts takes place and then link these in space and time with environmental co-variates like water depth, distance to the ice, known distributions of Antarctic krill, historic catches from the commercial krill fishery etc.

We will also collect a small skin and blubber sample from each whale that we tag (as well as from other whales that we encounter) that will allow us to determine the sex of the whale, if a female if it is pregnant or not, what the whale has been eating, and what breeding population that whale comes from.  All of these demographic pieces of information are critical to understand how animals behave during the feeding season and where they forage. 

A couple of weeks before departing, we will look at images showing the distribution of sea ice which will dictate where we can and cannot work, and try to locate known areas that are likely to have whales early in the feeding season; these are generally open water areas near the ice edge and often close to shore.  Much of our equipment remains in a warehouse in South America to be placed on our research ship in advance of our flying down.  This includes our biopsy sampling equipment including crossbows and customized bolts with a small float on the end and a hollow tip about the size of a pen cap that collects the sample from the whale.  The satellite tags are deployed using a modified line launching mechanism using compressed air to discharge the tag.  The tags themselves anchor in the skin and blubber of the whale and have a small antenna that is programmed to transmit a signal every time it is out of the water until the battery is exhausted several months later.  We leave this gear at the port of departure to minimize the amount of gear we have to travel with otherwise.  Jackets, waterproof pants and boots, base layers, hat, gloves, sunglasses, computers, cameras, GPS, and all of the related accessories add up!  Suffice it to say, we tip the scales at the airport and push the limits of what we are allowed to carry and check on for baggage!

The trip down is long and arduous.  It takes a full 24 hours to fly from the US to southern Chile or Argentina, including an overnight flight to either Santiago or Buenos Aires.  Once we arrive at the southernmost points of South America in Punta Arenas, Chile or Ushuaia, Argentina, we spend a day loading our cargo on to the ship and then it is a 3-5 day journey across the Drake Passage and to the icy waters surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula where whales and krill and sea ice and glaciers help provide the most amazing and inspiring ecosystem on the planet.  We are lucky to be here and even more fortunate to be able to call this place home for the next few months.


About the extreme scientist Dr. Ari Friedlaender

Humpback Whale Photo: Frank Grebstad

Humpback Whale Photo: Frank Grebstad

Dr. Ari Friedlaender of Oregon State University and his colleague from Duke University will conduct a long-term ecological study on the foraging behavior of humpback whales around the Antarctic Peninsula. 

We asked him why he decided to become a scientist and he told us that it is really the pursuit of knowledge and desire to understand how the natural world work. He is specifically interested in how animals interact with their environment and how human activities impact animals in different ways. 

His research is based on the high energy demand of humpback whales during foraging due to their enormous size. This high demand of energy during foraging can only be met by foraging in areas where their prey are present in large numbers. As a result, humpback whales distribute themselves and move between areas of high prey abundance throughout the Antarctic feeding season. 

He emphasizes that the reason he chose to become a researcher on the Antarctic ecosystem is its uniqueness of animals who have adapted for life in an extreme, yet fragile environment. He is curious on how the animals manage to not only survive but thrive in this system.  As well, learning how animals forage and ‘make a living’ in this environment makes for interesting comparisons with different ocean ecosystems around the world.

The goal of his research is to determine how critical foraging areas relate to historic catches of krill in the region. By deploying satellite-linked time depth recording tags on whales throughout the Antarctic feeding season, the scientists aim to quantify if, when, where, and to what extent commercial fishing effort and humpback whale feeding co-occur. This information is important for managing fishing while also providing useful information on the biology and ecology of these top predators in a changing environment.

Finally, we challenged him to explain the research project in five sentences: 

"We are using information from satellite tags deployed on minke and humpback whales to better understand how their behavior and movement patterns relate to different features of the Antarctic marine ecosystem.  As krill predators with large energetic requirements, we want to understand how the places that are critical feeding areas for these whales overlaps with areas of commercial krill harvest.  If we can better understand the needs of the whales and the areas that are critical for their successful foraging, we can work to minimize the potential for any competition with the krill fishery operating today and well as into the future."