Tagging Whales in the Antarctic Seas

At Sea (Sun., 5/3/09) – White Noise
by -- May 4th, 2009

schshhhhhhhhhhthchhchhhhhhthhchhchhhcrackleshcchsnaphrhchhchchch chilechrhchhcshhehhchhehhhfhhhehhhehhshhehhhshhehehchhchhhhh hthhchhchhhcrackleshcchsnaphrhchhchchchcehshhshchshhshfhschshhshhchs hhchshhchhshshrhhshchilechhshhhhthchhchhhhhhthhchhchhhcrackleshcch snaphrhchpeppershshshchchsahchthachdhahhahahhfhhhehhhehhshhehhhs hhehehchhchhhhhhthchshshchhchshchhchhchhhhhhthhchhchhhcracklesh cchsnaphrhchhchchchcshchshchshsnap *beep*…….

We have had a couple of busy days this weekend. Yesterday we surveyed the southern portion of Piccard Cove and had 68 visual detections of marine predators. The majority of these were humpback whales logging at the surface, and when the day ended we had counted over 100 individual whales. Amazing! We cut the visual surveys short to aid with tagging operations, otherwise we would have topped our sightings from the previous day.

Our visual survey operations were truncated to help with tagging efforts, and this resulted in the retrieval of one tag that had been deployed all day, and the attachment of a new tag on a humpback for our first overnight deployment. This last point brings me to the subject of the current weblog entry. Radio tracking.

I haven’t done *a lot* of radio tracking of marine mammals at night in my life, but I have done enough of it to recognize the archetypal pattern inherent in each and every undertaking. It is almost always an emotional roller coaster that leaves the trackers exhausted and the PI a complete wet noodle. It goes something like this:

Stage 1. Anticipation. People are usually restless, watching and waiting for the shift from visual tracking of the tagged animal to tracking them solely on the few beeps its tag produces when the animals comes briefly to the surface.

Stage 2. Anxiety about being the ‘one’. As night descends the tracking begins, and more often than not the animal strays further from the boat than the researchers would like. The effect of this on those responsible for tracking the whale is almost always the same – growing anxiety that they will be the one to ‘lose’ the animal during their shift. If lucky, their shift ends with clear reception of VHF beeps on their headphones, and their anxiety is replaced by relief.

Stage 3. Panic. A couple of shifts have passed and no one has heard the whale in over an hour. Oh oh.

Stage 4. Blame and liability. After catching a few hours of sleep, rejuvenated researchers return to the bridge to find that the whale has not been detected in some time. The questions start to circulate… When was the last time that the whale was heard? Who was on that shift? At this point you better hope that you have an excellent tracking pedigree or you might be hung out to dry.

Stage 5. Depression. Everyone is shattered after countless hours of listening to white noise… searching amidst the chaos for the one bright blip of audio order – the blessed beep. Hollow eyes and tight lips are on most faces. Coffee is consumed in large quantities. Sometimes researchers are driven to aural hallucinations, and every single bit of radio interference that the ship makes (and there are many) seems like it could be the cure to this dreaded depression.

Stage 6. Elation! When it is least expected, someone looks up and catches the eye of a co-worker tracking on the other side of the bridge and says “Did you hear that?”

We are currently deep within stage 5. Wish us luck!

Back to tracking…

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5 Comments

  1. Ben
    May 4, 2009

    Living on a Prayer!

    Hope you guys are happily onto Stage 6. Sounds like a real nail biter.

  2. Jamie
    May 4, 2009

    Great depiction of the tracking through the night!

    Dave,

    You hit the description of tracking, especially through the night, right on the head. As I read through it, I could actually feel myself going through the motions from many a tense evening on tag-watch, watching the VHF directional indicator and head buried into the headphones listening to static and praying for a beep, because you DON’T want to be “the one” that lost the animal through the night.

    The trip sounds fantastic thus far, keep up the great work and see you in July for another round!

    Jamie

  3. Tom M
    May 5, 2009

    Stage 6

    So what is stage 6 and 7? Sounds pretty intense down there Dave. Sweet post. I will have trouble sleeping tonight probably!
    Tom

  4. Tom M
    May 5, 2009

    Outposts

    Dave – so you do not put out boundary listening buoys to keep better tabs on the whale? If if they ping a boundary buoy you know where to go listen for them. How far does a whale travel in a day there? Or is the space there just so vast and demanding that doing this is well crazy?
    Landlubber Guy

  5. Adam
    May 12, 2009

    Stage 6 and 7

    Stage 6: publication
    Stage 7: profit!

    I’m having flashbacks to those few nights on the Sette off Kona last July.

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