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 www.MarineConservationResearch.org, and via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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 www.marineconservationresearch.co.uk 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