Southern right whales long had suffered from unchecked exploitation in the early days of industrial whaling. Especially around the subantarctic island of South Georgia, whalers quickly had decimated the slow, fat animals. Since the whaling ban in the 70ies, however, the species made a comeback. Now, an international team of researchers led by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), travels to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia this month (January) to carry out the first scientific whale survey and to check the status of this whale species.

Southern right whales measure around 15 – 18 m and weight between 45 – 80 tons. They have long migration routes between the Antarctic and the warm coastal waters of Argentina. Credit: Michael Wenger
Southern right whales measure around 15 – 18 m and weight between 45 – 80 tons. They have long migration routes between the Antarctic and the warm coastal waters of Argentina. Credit: Michael Wenger

Southern right whale populations were decimated after nearly 300 years of hunting in the South Atlantic. When commercial operations stopped, populations were expected to recover. The team of eight researchers and three crew, will spend five weeks on the research vessel ‘Song of the Whale’ to investigate the health of the animals in their feeding grounds. In addition, they hope to solve the puzzle of why large numbers of dead whale calves have washed up on the shores around Argentina in the last decade. Photo-identifications and satellite tagging have revealed seasonal migrations of right whales between South Georgia waters and their calving ground at Península Valdés in Argentina. However, this area has had notably high calf mortalities, and a growing body of evidence suggests that South Georgia environmental conditions directly influence the breeding success of these whales. It is thought that availability of food at South Georgia is a primary factor influencing their reproductive rates. Whale ecologist Dr Jennifer Jackson from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is leading the expedition cruise. She says: “Very little is known about southern right whales around South Georgia. We want to know how many use these waters, where and what they are feeding on, and how healthy they are. Ultimately we want to understand how the population is recovering from centuries of whaling and to help unravel the mystery of why so many calves have been dying over the last 10 years.”

Southern right whales give birth to calves in the warm waters along the Argentinian coast. They nurse the calves for two years. Like other right whale species, they only reproduce very slowly due to their long life span. Credit: Rosely Miranda
Southern right whales give birth to calves in the warm waters along the Argentinian coast. They nurse the calves for two years. Like other right whale species, they only reproduce very slowly due to their long life span. Credit: Rosely Miranda

The team will locate the whales using advanced acoustics previously used to find Blue whales. By listening for their vocalisation or songs, the team can detect the location of their calls and identify where they are.  Once found, the team will take photographs for photo-identification, collect skin samples, and attach satellite tags to identify and track them. Team members will fly drones to assess their body condition and general state of health. The team is seeking help from tourists, naturalists and other boat operators who will be sailing and working in the waters around the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Scotia Arc from January to March 2018. Good quality photographs and details of sightings of southern right whales will help create a benchmark and health check of the species. The South Georgia Right Whale project spans two consecutive years and seasons: 2017/18 and 2018/19.  The project has two research aims, which are funded separately.  The first, the EU-funded SWIM project aims to carry out a ‘health check’ of the southern right whales that use the feeding grounds around South Georgia and find out where they are feeding. The second, funded by Darwin Plus, aims to create a benchmark population count to see if the species is in recovery. 

The 21-metre research vessel was specifically built for marine research, especially whale research. It is operated by Marine Research Conservation and has a steel hull suitable for polar regions. Credit: Susannah Calderan
The 21-metre research vessel was specifically built for marine research, especially whale research. It is operated by Marine Research Conservation and has a steel hull suitable for polar regions. Credit: Susannah Calderan

Source: Britisch Antarctic Survey