Tracking the oceanic movements of right whales

Guest post by Amy Kennedy.

If you’ve ever been whale watching, or watched a nature program about whales, you might think it’s easy to find and study whales and dolphins in the wild. In coastal towns around the globe, the eco-tourism industry has made it fairly commonplace to jump on a boat and spend a few pleasant hours bobbing around and watching marine mammals in their natural habitat.  In those same places, researchers can also get on a boat and spend the day photographing, biopsying and/or recording whales’ sounds.  This research is incredibly valuable and has essentially formed the entire base of knowledge we have about large whales worldwide, but there are some major questions that this type of research cannot answer.  For example, how do you know what a whale is doing while it’s underwater?  How do you know what a whale is doing at night?  How do you know what a whale is doing day after day, month after month, or season after season? Well, one way to answer those questions is to tag it.

Amy tag pic 1
Figure 1: A satellite tag on a humpback whale in the Aleutian Islands. Photo taken under NMFS permit #14245 by Amy Kennedy.  All tagging operations are conducted under NMFS regulated permits and International Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) vetted and approved protocol.

Satellite tagging data are being used worldwide to create detailed, fine-scale tracks of whale movements, revealing behaviors that were previously unknown.  For example, a humpback whale tagging project I conducted in the Bering Sea (Alaska, USA) revealed remarkable variation in movement between animals that were tagged at the same time of year and at roughly the same location. All of the whales tagged here between 2008 and 2011 stayed in roughly the same area (feeding near Umnak and Unalaska Islands) except one. Whale G (Figure 2 below) astonished us all by travelling from it’s tagging location to another well known feeding area off Chukotka, Russia before circling back down to an offshore canyon. This whale swam approximately 3,000km in 26 days within a feeding season! This type of long-distance, within-season movement had not been previously documented and could have an impact on stock management and population estimates. There’s really no other way to discover and record individual events like these without satellite tagging technology.

Amy track pic 2
Figure 2. Satellite tracks of two humpback whales tagged in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, in 2010.
From: Kennedy AS, Zerbini AN, Rone BK, Clapham PJ. (2014)  Individual variation in movements of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) satellite-tracked in the eastern Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea.  Endangered Species Research 23: 187-195

The North Pacific right whale (Figure 3 below) is the most endangered large whale population in the world, with only around 30 animals left in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.  Their population was decimated by a long campaign of Yankee whaling, followed by a devastating decade of illegal Soviet whaling.  Attempting to research an animal that numbers in the tens, yet could be found anywhere in the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and the Arctic, redefines the proverbial “needle in a haystack” search.

Amy NPRW pic 3
Figure 3: One of only 30 remaining North Pacific right whales (Eubalaena japonica). Photo taken under NMFS permit #14245 by Amy Kennedy.

Fortunately, during dedicated research cruises in 2004, 2008, and 2009 we were able to locate and tag a number of these whales.  The fine-scale movement data we were able to collect has been invaluable in describing the habitat use of this critically endangered animal. In fact, the tracks we recorded from these animals led to the designation of a “Critical Habitat” region (Figure 4 below, black outline) by the National Marine Fisheries Service (a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Our tracking data also led to the discovery that North Pacific right whales behave differently as ocean temperatures change.  During warm-water years, the whales travel farther distances, presumably in search of food, than in cold-water years where they stay very close to oceanic fronts that concentrate their prey (Figure 4).

Amy NPRW tracks pic 4
Figure 4: Satellite tracks of NPRW in the Bering Sea (Alaska, USA) showing the Critical Habitat (black outline) and ocean temperatures in 2004, 2008, and 2009.
From: Zerbini AN, Baumgartner MF, Kennedy AS, Rone BK, Wade PR, Clapham PJ.  (2014) Ecological and management implications of endangered North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) space-use patterns in the Bering Sea.  Marine Ecology Progress Series: Vol. 532: 269-281.

During the WHALE:SWIM project, we hope to apply this same technology to track right whales in the South Georgia ecosystem.  Like the North Pacific right whale, the southern right whales were decimated by decades of whaling, and very little is known about their fine-scale movement and habitat use in this important feeding ground today.  Tagging data, combined with the acoustic, genetic, and oceanographic information we’ll be collecting during the project, will hopefully provide us with previously unknown information about these animals’ feeding behaviors and movement patterns.

Amy Kennedy will be satellite tracking right whales in South Georgia for the Whale:SWIM project. Learn more about her work here.


Cruise Preparations

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.

BAS_4714_Scotia Sea Region
Map showing South Georgia and the polar regions of the South Atlantic. Image: BAS

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,
  • Assemble and train a team of experts to carry out our fieldwork,
  • 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.
sonobuoy pallet
A pallet of reconditioned, ex-Navy DiFAR sonobuoys arrives at the British Antarctic Survey. These will be used to acoustically localise the whales in the field. Image: Jen Jackson

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!

Surveys at King Edward Point, 2019

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.

RIB at glacier
We used the BAS RIB to do close-up whale research at South Georgia, with a mounted bowsprit attached to the front. Image: Darryl MacDonald

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.

Map of South G showing survey location

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!

South Georgia team 2019
The 2019 South Georgia field team. From L to R: Connor Bamford, Emma Carroll, Jen Jackson, Darryl MacDonald, Amy Kennedy, Steph Martin, Baptiste Brebel (BAS boatman), Zac Priestly (BAS boatman)


Homeward Bound

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.

Example of regular South Georgia weather conditions! Image: Emilie Stepien

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…

A bit splashy at the bow! Our biopsy team were safely secured to the masts when they worked at the front of the boat. This was one of the worst weather moments for them. Image: Amy Kennedy

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.

South Georgia southern right whale with unusual looking callosities on the head. Image: Amy Kennedy.

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.

Song of the Whale team: South Georgia
The 2018 Song of the Whale SWIM field team at Grytviken, South Georgia. Bottom row L to R: Kirstin Jones (crew), Amy Kennedy, Susie Calderan, Emilie Stepien. Top row L to R: Emma Carroll, Brian Morrison (skipper), Mat Jerram (crew), Matt Leslie, Artur Andriolo, Russell Leaper, Jen Jackson