Following our first season of surveys at South Georgia in 2018, we were unable to secure a vessel charter to realise our goals for the next summer (January/February 2019) season, so we decided instead to run a field season at King Edward Point research station during this season, and seek a vessel charter to work further offshore in January/February 2020 instead.
In December 2018, a team of six researchers embarked on the journey to King Edward Point research station, with the plan to work from the local BAS-run boats (RIBs and Jet boats) during January and February 2019.
Our goal was to see if whale research could be done in the coastal waters near to Cumberland Bay (between St Andrews Bay to the southeast and Stromness Bay to the northeast), and to conduct photo-ID, collect skin samples, fly drones to collect overhead images, and to satellite tag whales. Because small boats were used and equipment was limited, acoustics weren’t used to find whales during this season.
We were very fortunate to have substantial funding and logistical assistance in carrying out this season of work, from the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, from EU BEST, DARWIN PLUS, WWF and South Georgia Heritage Trust / Friends of South Georgia Island.
While we were in the field, we blogged about our activities on our Facebook page – check it out for updates and news about our tagged humpback whales!
Our first season of right whale work at South Georgia has come to an end, and we are cleaning up our gear, packing boxes, doing inventories and taking stock. It was a difficult season, with many bad weather days. Our opportunities to do work were brief and we had to seize those moments when they came- often at 6am before the wind picked up, and often in very marginal conditions where wind and swell were building up and could interfere with our work at any moment. The team worked very hard to make the most of each weather gap, and we began to joke that right whales only come out when the wind is 20 knots or more. It often felt like that. Whale expeditions can be like this: you can put an enormous amount of energy to bring the right people and equipment into place to do this research, only to have the weather and the whales not comply with your tiny human plans. In this case, we are happy to report that the right whales are certainly present in South Georgia waters these days – we found them on nearly every sonobuoy deployment, and on nearly every day when the weather permitted survey.
Here are our vital statistics: 31 days in the field, of which 19 days were spent in South Georgia waters. Within this, there were seven days in which weather conditions permitted any survey work, and within each day sometimes as little as 2 hours had good weather conditions before the day deteriorated. However! We encountered cetaceans 36 times, and encountered right whales 15 times. From these encounters, we saw 31 right whales and obtained photo-identification images of 21 of these. We consider this aspect a great success considering the conditions. Comparing these photographs with those collected on the calving grounds in Argentina and Brazil is the next step to link these whales in with longer-term studies and measure their connections to the South American calving grounds.
Sadly we were not able to deploy a single satellite tag or fly a single drone over a whale, as weather conditions were never good enough when these whales were present to safely carry out these activities. Geneticists Emma and Matt waited valiantly at the bow for many hours for opportunities to collect skin samples.. some days were more successful than others…
We have four skin samples from these efforts- a small number, but one which reflects a lot of field effort in marginal conditions and a valuable resource for our work.
From reviewing the photographs of the right whales we can also inspect the body condition of the animals, so even though we could not run drone flights to measure whale health this year, we can still make some assessments. Our initial sense is that a lot of the whales we encountered in South Georgia were ‘skinny’, with loose skin behind the head. Comparing these images with those from the calving grounds associated with South Georgia (Brazil and Argentina) and from other right whale feeding grounds will be important to understand whether these observations are a cause for concern.
Other highlights of the cruise included an encounter with an Antarctic blue whale mother, calf and escort, and acoustic detections of Antarctic blue whales calling to the north of us throughout the time we were in South Georgia waters (we think they are at the South Georgia continental shelf). This is a really nice sign that Antarctic blue whales are using South Georgia waters in the summer once more. Over 42,000 were killed in these waters during the commercial whaling period, so this is exciting news. We also recorded southern right whale vocalisations for the first time on their feeding grounds, and were able to use these sounds to locate whales. As the evidence of industrial whaling and sealing slowly fades into the wild landscape of South Georgia, the oceans are beginning to hum with whales once more.
Our work continues as we assess body condition and population connections, and investigate the sightings and acoustic data we collected in order to better understand whale distribution. All tourist contributed photographs will also be really helpful to add individuals to the South Georgia right whale catalogue and assess connections. Next year we will return to South Georgia to further assess population recovery of right whales, learning from these experiences and surely building new ones.
Preparing for a scientific expedition to any remote region is no simple task, and requires many months, often years, of preparation. Our Whale:SWIM project is also ambitious: to carry out the first ever systematic whale surveys in the turbulent waters of the highly remote, sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.
Our studies are vitally important however, to understand how and where whales are recovering from the intense whaling campaign which nearly made their populations extinct 50 years ago. So our motivation is high, but with just over a year to prepare, every month of preparation has been vital! We will set sail for South Georgia on 22nd January 2018 from the Falkland Islands, only 14 months after our funding was confirmed and with a mountain of tasks to get through in that period.
Since winning EU BEST 2.0 funding in November 2016 we have been working fast to:
Order and build the bespoke equipment required for our surveys,
Apply for and obtain all the necessary permits to work in South Georgia waters and carry out our science plan,
Secure a good boat able to take on the challenges of the voyage and the range of science we need to do,
Ensure all health and safety considerations are in place to keep everyone safe,
Purchase everything we need (and some things we didn’t realise we would need!) to safely carry out our tasks and bring our precious data and samples home again safely.
Thankfully, working within the British Antarctic Survey, I can call on our very experienced team of Antarctic logistics experts, who have helped to make an impossible task more possible, helped to build bespoke equipment, organised shipping of precious items from distant locations, and helped me to assemble and pack our scientific cargo for shipping down to Stanley in the Falklands Islands on our ship the RSS Ernest Shackleton.
The RSS Ernest Shackleton sets sail for the Falkland Islands in late October and will deliver our scientific cargo there, for us to collect in January and put onto the Song of the Whale. On the way, it will travel through the tropics as well as the usual dose of wet and wild weather – the adventure starts here!
The boat is very well designed for whale research, with ample workstation space amidships, a laboratory area at the stern and berths for up to 12 individuals (there will be eight researchers and three crew on this voyage). It also has a good-sized viewing platform elevated above the deck (5m above sea level) to assist with visual surveys.
We had a great evening with Richard and Anna, getting to know how things work on the boat and hearing about old times with Russell and Susie. Richard treated us to a tasty vegetarian spaghetti bolognese dinner, setting the tone for many meals to come – the Song of the Whale is a fully vegetarian vessel! The great majority of our crew members are already veggies and very happy to get this news. It will be a really welcome experience to be the norm rather than the exception for once.
The boat now has a lot of preparation ahead, before heading off down south in mid-November. We’re excited to see it again in the Falklands in January, and will be following its mid-latitude adventures at www.marineconservationresearch.co.uk in the meantime.
In August, I joined our UAV pilot Matt and friend and collaborator Michael Moore at Michael’s home near Cape Cod, to get familiar with the drone we will be using to collect photogrammetry data from the whales. The particular drone we will use is called the APH-22, and it is especially calibrated so that it can measure drone height above sea level and therefore accurately measure whale length and width (body condition) from above.
Piloting the drone is a job for at least two people. While the drone pilot is manning the controls, the second operator must carefully release the drone into the sky, keep a close eye on the drone’s base station and camera feed (so that they can identify exactly when to take pictures with the camera mounted on the drone, and when blow samples are collected from the whale), and catch the drone when it returns. This is no trivial task on the deck of a moving boat! So a helmet, visor and long-armed pair of Kevlar gloves are worn to keep the drone catcher safe from harm during this process. The field team also have to keep a careful lookout to see and avoid manned aircraft.
Collecting whale blow is really useful for finding out how healthy they are, by studying the suite of bacteria (the ‘microbiome‘) in the samples we collect with DNA sequencing. This work will be led by Dr Amy Apprill at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. After we collect these samples from the whales, they have to be stored at -80°C in order to remain fresh, which means we will be stashing a liquid Nitrogen storage drum on the deck of the boat, to keep everything very cold. Even sub-Antarctic waters don’t get that cold!