Tagging Whales in the Antarctic Seas

Andvord Bay (Sat., 5/16/09) – Visions of sugarwhales dancing in my head
by -- May 18th, 2009

It was like Christmas Eve,­ getting to go tag a whale in the morning on a zodiac in Antarctica! What a dream!

Megan and a sleepy humpback

Megan and a sleepy humpback

Last night at 7pm, Doug called together a “Science Sharing” meeting in the lounge. Each group of scientists shared all of the data collected so far from the first leg of the whale-tagging cruise. The data included whale abundance data, acoustic data, krill tracking, 4-D visualizations of dive patterns, and spatial mapping of each component of the project. The information was fascinating. Pat provided the geospatial data and Colin provided data from the whale movement through the water column. Meng is working on comparing data from the CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) measurements with the ADCP (current profiler) data to estimate krill densities in the bays where the tagging occurred. He also used data from wind/current movement to determine why the density of krill was so great in certain areas, which in turn attributed to the high numbers of whales. Dave also mentioned that this may be the highest density of whales ever recorded. Roland’s krill visualization tools were wonderful as well ­with 4-D (x, y, time & space) images of the ship’s SONAR data and the prey mapping boat’s data for krill densities. Seeing all the facets of the project collaborating and working together with their information was truly seeing science at work.

After the meeting, Ari asked if I wanted to go on the tag boat in the morning! WOW, really? I was so excited! “Of course!” was my reply. From then on, I was so excited, I could not stand it! It was like Christmas Eve,­ getting to go tag a whale in the morning on a zodiac in Antarctica! What a dream! I had ‘visions of sugarwhales dancing in my head’ as I went to sleep.

(71) scenic fluke

scenic fluke

8:30am is the meet time for boarding the zodiacs. I got all of my gear ready: ­hat, gloves, glove liners, two pairs of socks, toe warmers, hand warmers, goggles, float suit, video camera, and water bottle. I was about to jump out of my skin I was so excited! It was a beautiful morning; sun coming up over the mountaintops in the cove of Andvord Bay, and the wind was cooperating. Ari, Dave, Alison and I got into the zodiac with MT (Marine Technician) Dan operating the motor. The two whales that we approached were to the starboard side and about 1800 meters away from the ship. As we got closer, Ari gave instructions to Dan about how to best approach the animal. Ari got the tag prepared with the pole, Alison got the camera ready to snap photos of the whale for identification and Dave lowered the submersible camera into the water. We drifted towards the animal, Ari raised the tag above and lowered it with just enough force to get the tag to adhere to the whale with the suction cups. Apparently we woke up the whale because it moved and took a dive downward. The whale that was next to our tag animal also moved and went down into the water. Seeing them through the sapphire colored water was spectacular. After just a few minutes, they surfaced and started to relax into their position known as “logging” where they float at the surface in resting mode. When they surfaced, we started to hear the “beep” of the Dtag on our handheld receiver. Life is good: ­whale tagged, tag functioning, nice weather, and we are working in Antarctica!

During the day, we collected and recorded data from the animal such as range, bearing, behavior and surrounding conditions (approaching animals, glacial calving, etc). We were fortunate to be tucked into the cove because we noted some dark clouds passing by and got a few minutes of light snow and sleet. With the short days, the light started to fade at about 3pm and the brash ice made it more difficult to follow the tag in the zodiacs. We headed back to the ship after we confirmed the team on the bridge could also hear the tag on the ship’s receivers. Now the process of the overnight tracking begins. Each person gets at least one two-hour shift on the bridge during the night to continuously track the whale. The tag is set to release from the whale at 7:10am. Weather permitting, the zodiac will be deployed around 8:30am and the tag will be retrieved.

After dinner tonight, Dave downloaded his underwater footage of the day and shared it with everyone. Almost as cool as being in the zodiac during the whale tagging! The video showed a great image of the whale during the tag placement and the dive that it took. The animal is enormous and so fat that we had to question if she was pregnant! The whales are apparently thriving here!

What a day; absolutely incredible! Now I am off to sleep with dreams of real live sugarwhales dancing in my head!

1 Comment

  1. Jackie
    May 19, 2009

    Tagging

    Awesome teamwork! It sounds like a dream come true. Wish I could join you 🙂

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