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.

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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…

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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.

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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

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.