Electronic tags with ‘whale cams’ deployed on humpback whales in Antarctica have revealed the secret feeding habits of the ocean giants. The small camera tags were placed on the backs of humpback whales by Australian and United States scientists working off the Antarctic Peninsula, in the Gerlache Strait.

A humpback whale surfaces in the Gerlach Strait, Antarctica. Learning more about the whale’s foraging behaviour will help scientists to understand where and how they feed. (Photo: Katja Riedel)
A humpback whale surfaces in the Gerlach Strait, Antarctica. Learning more about the whale’s foraging behaviour will help scientists to understand where and how they feed. (Photo: Katja Riedel)

Whale researcher, Dr Mike Double from the Australian Antarctic Division, said the cameras reveal where and how the mammals are foraging over the summer months. “The tags show the feeding methods used by the humpbacks in this area of Antarctica, including footage showing the whales lunge feeding into tight swarms of krill,” Dr Double said. The camera tags are attached by suction cups to the back of the whales for about 24 hours, before they detach and are retrieved by the scientists. “There’s a camera on the front of the tag and three dimensional motion sensors which record the movement of the whale as well as the time and depth of each dive,” he said.

An orange whale cam tag is attached to the skin of a humpback whale with a suction. After 24h is falls off and is retrieved by the scientists. (Photo: Elanor Bell)
An orange whale cam tag is attached to the skin of a humpback whale with a suction. After 24h is falls off and is retrieved by the scientists. (Photo: Elanor Bell)

Lead collaborator on the study, Dr Ari Friedlaender from Oregon State University, said the suite of data collected allows the scientists to reconstruct the underwater feeding behaviour of the whales in great detail. “The non-lethal research methods allow us to determine how krill abundance affects the feeding success of whales and how any change in krill population due to climate change, commercial fishing, or ocean acidification, may impact the mammals into the future,” Dr Friedlander said. The researchers also deployed longer-term ‘LIMPET tags’ on the smaller Antarctic minke whales. Whale research scientist, Dr Elanor Bell, said there is very little information on minke feeding behaviour. “Minkes are faster and more elusive than humpback whales and often forage in areas with lots of sea ice. This makes it challenging to find and approach them to deploy tracking equipment,” Dr Bell said. “So it was really exciting to be able to attach some LIMPET tags on this voyage. These will transmit the location and dive depth data to satellites every time they surface for up to two months.”

Whale research scientist, Dr Elanor Bell, is deploying a LIMPET tag on a minke whale. These whlaes are faster and more elusive than other whales. (Photo: Dave Brosha)
Whale research scientist, Dr Elanor Bell, is deploying a LIMPET tag on a minke whale. These whlaes are faster and more elusive than other whales. (Photo: Dave Brosha)

“This work is part of a long-term ecological research to better understand the divergent impacts of climate change on the ice-dependent minke whales and more open-water humpback whales in this part of the Antarctic,” she said. The research is being conducted through the International Whaling Commission’s Southern Ocean Research Partnership and supported by One Ocean Expeditions and WWF-Australia. It aims to develop, test and implement non-lethal scientific methods to estimate the abundance and distribution of whales and describe their role in the Antarctic ecosystem.

The research team is out in the Gerlache Strait working hard to attach tags to whales. (Photo: Simon Lucas)
The research team is out in the Gerlache Strait working hard to attach tags to whales. (Photo: Simon Lucas)

Source: Australian Antarctic Division