Finding right whales

The acoustic team on Song of the Whale will be trying to find Southern right whales – by listening to them. Maximising our opportunities to work with right whales is key to the success of the project, but first we need to find out where they are. Obviously we can search for them visually, but they need to be close enough, the weather needs to be good enough, and there needs to be enough daylight to allow us to find them.

But finding whales acoustically doesn’t need daylight or calm seas – just hydrophones (underwater microphones). Whales and dolphins use underwater sounds to help them navigate, communicate and find food. Baleen whales make a range of low frequency vocalisations which sound like moans and groans to us. If we can listen in on these sounds, and work out what direction they are coming from, they can lead us to the whales themselves.

But how do you listen for whales? Over the last few years, as part of a team from the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), we have been developing a way of using military technology designed to locate submarines to instead listen for whales. These devices, called DIFAR sonobuoys, contain underwater sensors which detect sounds but also have a magnetic compass for determining the sounds’ direction. The military deploy them from planes and helicopters to listen for submarines. We can launch them from a research vessel to listen for whales. The sonobuoys then transmit their information back to the vessel by radio, where it is decoded and analysed onboard using specialist hardware and software. We listen to the sounds, identify the whale species we are hearing and plot the direction they are coming from.

Deploying a sonobuoy in the Southern Ocean (credit: Dave Allen/NIWA)

We first tried out this methodology with AAD in the Antarctic almost five years ago. Our target species was Antarctic blue whales, and we were very effective at finding them, tracking whales from hundreds of miles away and gradually, by deploying sonobuoys and plotting their bearings, getting close enough to the animals to see their large powerful blows on the horizon, which finally led us to them.

We have now used this methodology to find blue whales on three Antarctic voyages, significantly raising our encounter rate over what would be possible just by trying to locate animals visually. But we’ve been acoustically detecting other whale species too. Their vocalisations are not as loud, and do not travel as far as blue whales’, but fin whales, humpback whales and sei whales can all be detected by our sonobuoys.

So now we are setting our sights on Southern right whales off South Georgia. As with other baleen whales, right whales’ vocalisations are detectable by our sonobuoys, allowing us to find whales whatever the weather so that when conditions allow, we can make the most of our research time in South Georgia.

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!

Visit to Song of the Whale

In September, team members Emma, Susie, Russell and Jen paid a visit to our lovely charter vessel Song of the Whale at its mooring in Ipswich, and to meet with Richard and Anna, who run Marine Conservation Research and operate the Song of the Whale. Acousticians Russell and Susie know Richard, Anna and the boat very well from many previous voyages together.

Song of the Whale moored in Ipswich. The elevated, netted viewing platform can be seen in the foreground. Image: Susie Calderan

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.

Susie Calderan does a ‘mock’ drone release to help us visualise how this will work at sea from the foredeck! Image: Russell Leaper.

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 in the meantime.

Practising drone flights

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.

The APH22 at rest. Image: Michael Moore.

This type of drone has been used for photogrammetry before, and is the equipment of choice for NOAA’s marine mammal program who have used this system to study North Atlantic right whales, killer whales and humpback whales.

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.

Jen and Matt practice drone catch and release. Image: Michael Moore.

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!

Inspire with Petrie dish
The DJI Inspire drone with a Petrie dish mounted to collect blow samples. Image: Michael Moore