Expedition to ‘health-check’ southern right whales

Expedition to ‘health-check’ southern right whales
Southern right whale populations were decimated after nearly 300 years of hunting in the South Atlantic. © Willem CC BY-NC 2.0

An international team of researchers, led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), to travel to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia to carry out the first scientific survey on southern right whales since whaling stopped in the 1970s.

Populations of southern right whales were decimated after nearly 300 years of hunting in the South Atlantic. When commercial operations stopped, populations were expected to recover. The team of eight researchers and three crew will spend five weeks on the research vessel ‘Song of the Whale’ to investigate the health of the animals in their feeding grounds. In addition, they hope to solve the puzzle of why large numbers of dead whale calves have washed up on the shores around Argentina in the last decade.

Photo-identifications and satellite tagging have revealed seasonal migrations of right whales between South Georgia waters and their calving ground at Península Valdés in Argentina. However, this area has had notably high calf mortalities, and a growing body of evidence suggests that South Georgia environmental conditions directly influence the breeding success of these whales. It is thought that availability of food at South Georgia is a primary factor influencing their reproductive rates.

Whale ecologist Dr Jennifer Jackson from BAS, who is leading the expedition cruise, said: “Very little is known about southern right whales around South Georgia. We want to know how many use these waters, where and what they are feeding on, and how healthy they are. Ultimately we want to understand how the population is recovering from centuries of whaling and to help unravel the mystery of why so many calves have been dying over the last 10 years.”

The team will locate the whales using advanced acoustics previously used to find blue whales. By listening for their vocalisation or songs, the team can detect the location of their calls and identify where they are.  Once found, the team will take photographs for photo-identification, collect skin samples, and attach satellite tags to identify and track them. Team members will fly drones over the whales to assess their body condition and general state of health.

The team is also seeking help from tourists, naturalists and other boat operators who will be sailing and working in the waters around the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Scotia Arc from January to March 2018. Good quality photographs and details of sightings of southern right whales will help create a benchmark and health check of the species.

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