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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

R/V Song of the Whale en route to the Falkland Islands.


RV Song of the Whale departing Gosport bound for the Falklands.

8th December 2017.  R/V Song of the Whale is now well on the way to the Falkland Islands, having left the UK in mid-November.  However, preparations for the trip south began many months ago; When it was confirmed that SOTW had been selected as the research platform for the BAS right whale research project taking place around South Georgia in early 2018, we started to line up appropriate staff, get the boat ready for a  long, offshore project and work on the logistics for the trip, in consultation with Jen and Russell. Although R/V Song of the Whale was designed and built to work in remote and harsh environments, such as the Southern Ocean, the vessel has so far remained working in the northern hemisphere, so venturing  into the far reaches of the Southern Ocean is an exciting prospect.

Prior to departure, Mat, the SOTW team’s Engineer, made  preparations to ensure that all the systems were primed and ready for the long trip; South Georgia is a week’s sail from the already remote Falkland Islands and so it is more important than ever that the vessel is able to operate  self-sufficiently for an extended period of time.  Consequently additional spares as well as provisions have been loaded, as well as being prepared for the cold, potentially harsh offshore conditions. There were also a few tweaks to the equipment inventory required to facilitate the BAS research team’s work tracking and studying South Atlantic right whales off South Georgia, including provision for an additional long whip antenna at the mast head for directional sonobuoy work, a new extended bow platform and raised rails on the foredeck to aid the biopsy sampling work.

New sampling bowsprit platform under construction.

Then, in late October, SOTW was hauled out and the bottom painted; A week or so later the team who would be joining the SOTW to head south, gathered in Gosport for departure; the crew included some familiar faces, long time SOTW Skipper Brian, Edd and Kerry (both of whom have been previous full time members of the team, albeit some years back) and Charly have joined us from Scotland, and an enthusiastic team of participants, keen to support the research and conservation activities of the SOTW project as well as gain sailing experience and have some adventures on the way, make up the team of nine aboard for this two month long, largely offshore passage.

En route, the team are gathering acoustic and visual data on marine mammals as they pass through  100 degrees of latitude (#100degreeslatitude), as well as undertaking manta trawls for plastic samples (in collaboration with 5Gyres Institute (#5Gyrestrawlshare) and collecting environmental DNA samples (we are working with Morten Tange Olsen from the Natural History Museum of Denmark), to assist with the development of techniques to investigate the presence and diversity of cetaceans from DNA fragments in seawater.

Plastic particles collected by the Manta trawl en route to the Canary Islands.

On leaving the south coast, a rough English Channel crossing helped everyone find their sea-legs, while the notorious Bay of Biscay was unexpectedly calm. Following a few days alongside in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, to pick up a new participant, re-provision and replace the batteries (as a crack had developed in one of the main service batteries on the passage from the UK), the team set off for the Cape Verde Islands – the final stop on the eastern side of the Atlantic before striking across the Atlantic towards South America.  So far, sperm whales, humpback whales, pilot whales and beaked whales have been encountered, as well as lots of dolphins, including rough-toothed and Risso’s dolphins.

Sperm whale fluke photographed off Mauritania.

Follow the team on board, as they leave the Cape Verde archipelago to cross the Atlantic Ocean, towards South America, on MCR’s blog, and via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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.

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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.