Tagging Whales in the Antarctic Seas

Wilhelmina Bay (Sun., 5/23/10) – Elliot, starfish loves you!
by -- May 24th, 2010

After having a day of squirrelly un-tag-able whales yesterday, the tagging team was charged and ready to go this morning.

They launched the small boats early (8:30 am) and immediately found multiple whales in the area. The visual survey team kept track of humpbacks from the RV Palmer while the tagging and prey mapping boats checked out some of the groups of whales to assess their affinity for Dtags. The first two groups of whales that they approached were resting in the middle of new ice – and lots of it.

 

Small boats on ice

Small boats on ice

 

Using binoculars from the bridge of the Palmer, I could see chunks of ice on the backs of the whales each time they surfaced. The tagging team decided not to put a tag on the whales in the ice, mainly because if the tag didn’t stay on the whale there would be a very good chance that the tag would come off under the ice and be trapped there for a while. After a couple of hours, they found a group of three whales that seemed amenable to being tagged. The first tag was deployed on the juvenile in the group a little before noon. Once the tag was on, the RVIB Palmer left the small boats to conduct a visual survey.

Tag pole view

Tagging a juvenile humpback whale

 

 

The visual team surveyed through the Plata Passage, which goes behind Nansen Island.  This was an exciting opportunity to explore a new area of Wilhelmina Bay.

 

Tracking visual

Our visual survey track today. (Thanks to Roland for creating a map with today’s track!)

 

 

 

It was beautiful! There was 100% ice cover for most of our 2.5 hr survey, and steep glacier-topped mountains flanked both sides of the passage. We tried to concentrate on looking for whales as we were dwarfed by amazing crevasses and small avalanches in the sides of the mountains. We saw many crabeater seals on the ice and passed incredible icebergs.

Crabeaters pair

Crabeater seals on ice

 

King of the ice

Awesome iceberg

The most amazing part of our survey was when five minke whales (one singleton and two pairs) were spotted in the middle of all of the ice! Danielle spotted the first blow – not an easy feat in solid ice that stretches for kilometers – and Maria Stenzel (National Geographic) got great pictures of the last pair of minkes surfacingthrough the ice desperate for a breath (look closely…).

 

Minke whale breath

Minke whale breath on ice

 

We began to see lots and lots of humpback whales once we got past Nansen Island and closer to the Gerlache Strait and open water. Once again, our visual survey team was kept busy by many, many sightings — the horizon was sprinkled with tall, columnar humpback blows (each of which we do our best to count).

 

Danielle and Meagan on a break from visual surveys on the ice tower

Hard working visual observers

 

 

We met up with the small boats back in the western part of Wilhelmina Bay. They had spent their afternoon keeping up with the tagged juvenile, aka “Kid,” and recording its behavior. ‘Kid’ and he/she’s two buddies were very rambunctious and socially interacted with many other groups of whales in the bay.

 

Tonight, we are tracking ’Kid’s’ feeding activities around Wilhelmina Bay. As Reny mentioned a few days ago, the tags have a VHF radio antenna that lets us keep track of the tagged whale using radio tracking technology. So, Andrew (our master radio tracker) spends most of his night (and day, although he’s supposed to be sleeping) with headphones on waiting to hear the beeps from the tag. We all try to help him out and take a few tracking shifts in the evening and morning (sleep, Andrew!), so Lindsey and I started off tracking tonight from 1600-1800 hrs. The job was pretty easy this time because the tagged whale seemed to be sitting relatively still around the mouth of Wilhelmina. She (or he) was making three to five minute dives, presumably feeding, and then coming up to the surface for about a minute in between dives. The mates and crew of the Palmer are exceptional, which makes tracking the whales through the night so much easier for us. Tomorrow morning the tag will come off and we will retrieve it and all of its data.

 

So, that’s it for today (phew!). In other news, we really miss our dear friend Elliott Hazen. Elliott was a key member of this Antarctic research trip last year, but was unable to join us this year because he and his wife, Lucie, are expecting their first child in June (congrats!). These pictures are an ode to Elliott. We miss you!

 

Elliot I

Elliot in prey boat

Elliot II

Elliot kills the tow fish

Elliot VI

Roland teaches Elliot about krill

Elliot III

Elliot and Dan on iPhones

Elliot V

Elliot on Morale Phone

Elliot IV

Elliot rocks out

 

 

(Elliott’s RIVB Palmer appearances would not have been possible without the generous help from our electronic technician, Kris. Thanks, Kris!)

 

-Meagan

 

2 Comments

  1. Elliott
    May 25, 2010

    Awww

    Hey guys,

    Thanks for the great post! I wish I could be there with you guys also, but it sounds like you all have everything under control! Keep up the good work.

  2. Elizabeth
    Jun 1, 2010

    Squirrely Whales Eh???

    So there’s some Squirrely Whales out there? Hmmm…..does it make you miss a little squirrel back here in Florida?
    hehehe:-)

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