Tagging Whales in the Antarctic Seas

Piccard Cove (Fri., 5/1/09) – A Cove of Whales and a Blizzard of Penguins
by -- May 4th, 2009

The home page on the ship’s intranet said that today was a good day to be a scientist a truer word was never spoken.

Our first tag of the trip!

Our first tag of the trip!

The home page on the ship’s intranet said that today was a good day to be a scientist  a truer word was never spoken.  While the tagging team was out deploying our first DTag, and the hydro-acoustic team was mapping krill, Dave, Eletta, Lindsey, Reny and I spent the day surveying Piccard Cove for whales, penguins and seals aboard the ASRV Gould.

Piccard Cove is a tiny place  perhaps 6 by 10 kilometers and it is chock-a-block full of whales, penguins and fur seals.  We counted 133 humpbacks in the Cove today, plus thousands of Gentoo penguins and who knows how many seals.  And we didn’t even manage to survey the entire Cove.  I’ve never been so busy during a survey  we had more than 100 sightings and our data logging program finally gave up the ghost late this afternoon, as if it just couldn’t handle another entry.

(44) Tag on!

Tag on!

All these predators are here for food.  Just before we went to bed last night, we watched a massive krill swarm rise to the surface, creating a layer about 200 meters thick and filling the entire cove.  The whales apparently took full advantage of this superabundant food supply last night  by dawn, when the krill dropped back down to below 100 meters, the whales had stopped feeding and were lounging around everywhere in the Cove, snoozing at the water’s surface.  It snowed steadily all day today and a few of the sleepy whales managed to accumulate an inch or more of snow on their backs.  Amazing.

Soon most of the whales will leave the Antarctic and head north to breed in the tropics.  They won’t feed again until they return to these cold, prey-rich waters next spring.  So, in the waning days of autumn, they are busy feeding and storing energy for their long fast.  As a result, they are amazingly fat  one small whale approached the Gould this morning to have a look at us and we were amazed by its rotundity (is that a real word?).

(43) Penguin in Piccard Cove

Penguin in Piccard Cove

We’ll be back on the water tomorrow for more adventures.  We’ll leave you with one useful nature fact  we learned today that a group of penguins is referred to as a ‘waddle’ on land and a ‘raft’ in the water (although we prefer the terms ‘flurry’ and ‘blizzard’ depending on the size of the group).

Finally – hi to Jamie’s grandmother and Happy Birthday Wyatt and Dan!

Notes from the tag team:

Aloha all, from one of the few non-Dukies in the science party!  Andy hit the nail on the head, today was a banner day for our cruise.  We were able to collect good data from all arms of the project, from hydroacoustics to ADCP to visual surveys to yes, our very first successful tag deployment!

Though it may sound very glamorous to be in Antarctica studying humpback whales (ok, it is a little glamorous), what you might not hear as often is that it is TIRING.  Spending all day bracing against the wind and straining your eyes, or dancing (yes, dancing) on the small boats to keep warm, and then having large amounts of data to quickly but carefully download, backup, and process, and then preparing equipment to do it all again tomorrow, is exhausting.  As such, rather than a well-crafted story, here are a few bullet point highlights from today in the life of “Zodiac Awesome”.

  • Wake up early to prepare the tags, eat a couple sticks of butter (it’s cold out there!), and load the boats.
  • First things first, name your zodiac.  It came down to “Pokey” or “Awesome”, and today Zodiac “Awesome” won.  Turned out to be pretty appropriate.
  • Find some whales to tag.  Luckily this was not a problem!  We ended up tagging one that was in the midst of a social group of several animals who were rolling around at the surface and exhibiting some pretty interesting behaviors.
  • After this point, we learned we had tagged the fattest, laziest one of the bunch.  Our tagged whale slept for most of the day, just sitting at the surface.  However, with encroaching walls of snow and an otherwise occupied Gould, we stuck with it to make sure we didn’t lose contact.
  • This is where the dancing to keep warm comes in.  FYI, the Charleston, the electric slide, and the sprinkler are all better activities for warming up oneself than just simple jumping jacks (take it from someone from Hawaii  I can get cold better than anyone!)
  • The tag came off just a little later than we expected it to (so we had a few tense moments followed by even greater celebration), and we made it back to the Gould just as it started to get dark.
  • The day was pretty much awesome.  The behavior of the whale (though mellow, it was easy to track) and the beautiful weather (though it was snowing, the water was extremely calm) allowed us this dry run to make sure everything worked and that all the datasets will fit together.  Next we’re hoping to do a longer deployment to try to capture some of the nighttime feeding behavior of the whales.
  • And now I get to go to sleep.  Awesome.

4 Comments

  1. Ben
    May 4, 2009

    Awesome Indeed!

    What a spectacle to behold so many whales in such high density, lounging and feeding! Mission accomplished with Dtagging too! Ha, I like flurries and blizzards for penguin groupings too, although it reminds me of milkshakes, which gets a little weird when you mix the concepts.

    • Cool
      May 7, 2009

      Awesome Indeed!

      Shout out to Cool A!!! Sounds like you could walk across the bay on the backs of whales!! Have fun on the big blue watery road and be careful that those avenging whales with the big unicorns on their heads don’t pop your Awesome Boat!

  2. Rindog
    May 7, 2009

    Whale Dance

    Is there a dance that you do to ensure that it will be a good day to be a scientist? Please share. The surrounding whales and landscape sounds amazing.

  3. Jackie
    May 8, 2009

    Butter

    2 sticks of butter!!! Really? Is that shared, or an individual portion? Yum, I guess 😐

©2016 Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University | Box 90328 | Durham, NC 27708
how to contact us > | login to the site > | site disclaimers >

footer nav stuff