Vancouver Sun

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A WHALE?

Sci­en­tists at­tempt­ing to de­ter­mine how chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment af­fects cetaceans

- DAPHNE BRAMHAM ELSEHUL BAY, South Ge­or­gia dbramham@post­media.com Twit­ter: @daph­ne­bramham Daphne Bramham is trav­el­ling as a guest of One Ocean Ex­pe­di­tions, which has nei­ther ap­proved nor re­viewed her sto­ries. Animals · Whales · Ecology · Wildlife · Skype · California · University of California, Santa Barbara · Santa Cruz, CA · International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources · European Union · Greenpeace · Texas · Southern Ocean

Hump­back whales are the size of school buses. Minkes, by com­par­i­son, are small ... for whales that is.

All of which is to say that Ari Fried­laen­der’s work seems al­most ridicu­lously dan­ger­ous. To get the data he needs, Fried­laen­der must be close enough to touch hump­back and minke whales.

De­pend­ing on the day, he and his team will at­tach one of two kinds of trans­mit­ters to the backs of whales to mon­i­tor their move­ments and feed­ing pat­terns, or they will be tak­ing small skin and blub­ber sam­ples.

The biopsy sam­ples are used to de­ter­mine how many are preg­nant, how fre­quently they are re­pro­duc­ing, and how a pop­u­la­tion tra­jec­tory is chang­ing over time.

Fried­laen­der’s team also use drones flown from zo­di­acs to get an es­ti­mate of the length of an an­i­mal as well as the width, which gives an idea of the whales’ body con­di­tion.

“Ba­si­cally, we are try­ing to get a grip on what it means to be a whale in the Antarc­tic and what the threats are to their ex­is­tence now, and how the an­i­mals are cop­ing,” he said in a Skype in­ter­view from his of­fice at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in Santa Cruz be­fore he re­turned to the Antarc­tic for his 20th sea­son in late Jan­uary.

The suc­tion-cupped trans­mit­ters are only meant to stay on for a day or so. They track the whales’ un­der­wa­ter move­ments, the depths they dive to, how many times they feed and what depths they are feed­ing at. That data is used to de­ter­mine the “en­er­getic cost” of feed­ing.

Satel­lite tags last any­where from weeks to months, send­ing back in­for­ma­tion sev­eral times a day about where the an­i­mals are. This gives Fried­laen­der data to in­fer more about sea­sonal, be­havioural changes — are the whales mi­grat­ing north dur­ing the Antarc­tic win­ter? Is that mi­gra­tory pat­tern con­sis­tent or does it vary?

Be­cause krill — tiny shrim­p­like crus­taceans — are the pri­mary food source for baleen whales such as hump­backs and minkes as well as most of the species in the South­ern Ocean, how much food the whales are eat­ing can, in turn, be an in­di­ca­tion of the health of krill stocks. So far, cli­mate change — warmer sea and air tem­per­a­tures — has been good for hump­backs, which are mak­ing a come­back af­ter an es­ti­mated 250,000 of them were hunted in the last cen­tury and their sur­vival was in dan­ger.

“The hump­back whales are tak­ing ad­van­tage of the fact

that there is less and less sea ice around the Antarc­tic Penin­sula,” says Fried­laen­der. “The in­verse to that ... is that while it’s a great place to be a hump­back whale now, it’s a very bad place to be a minke whale.”

Be­cause of their size, minkes weren’t heav­ily hunted and are be­lieved to be the most abun­dant of the baleen whales. But minkes have evolved to use sea ice both to find their prey as well as stay away from preda­tors. And with cli­mate change, there is less sea ice.

Some re­search sug­gests that the minke pop­u­la­tion dropped 60 per cent be­tween 1978 and 2004. If that de­cline is ac­cu­rate, the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture says the species would qual­ify as en­dan­gered.

But the IUCN also says that so lit­tle is known about minkes that the data is in­suf­fi­cient. That is why Fried­laen­der’s fo­cus this sea­son has shifted more to minkes.

His hope is that his re­search — sup­ported by One Ocean Ex­pe­di­tions, which pro­vides Fried­laen­der berths on its ships, as well as with zo­di­acs and drivers — may help de­ter­mine the need for a pro­posed con­ser­va­tion area in the Wed­dell Sea.

The sea bor­ders the Antarc­tic Penin­sula, which was one of the most pop­u­lar whal­ing ar­eas and re­mains a pop­u­lar fish­ing ground. Last Oc­to­ber, the Euro­pean Union, along with sev­eral other coun­tries, pro­posed to the Antarc­tic Ocean Com­mis­sion that it be des­ig­nated as an ocean sanc­tu­ary. That pro­posal was de­feated.

But in Jan­uary, Green­peace launched a global ef­fort to garner sup­port for the plan, which will once again be be­fore the com­mis­sion this Oc­to­ber.

“Un­der­stand­ing trends in these an­i­mals is a very longterm process be­cause these are long-lived an­i­mals just like us,” says Fried­laen­der. “So, if they have a calf ev­ery two or so years and it takes them seven or eight years to ma­ture, the time be­tween when you’re go­ing to see a change in the pop­u­la­tion might take a decade or two.”

Still, with one flick of a fin, any one of the whales could flip a zo­diac and send the sci­en­tists fly­ing into the frigid wa­ters be­low the Antarc­tic Cir­cle.

So, I can’t help smil­ing when, for what seems like the 100th time, our ex­pe­di­tion leader Danny John­ston re­minds us to be care­ful get­ting in and out of the boats as we head out to look for whales and other wildlife.

Be­cause only a week ago, it was John­ston — a Texas-raised, for­mer spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion teacher and phi­los­o­phy ma­jor — who was driv­ing Fried­laen­der.

 ?? ARI FRIED­LAEN­DER/NA­TIONAL SCIENCE FOUN­DA­TION ?? A hump­back whale emerges out of the wa­ter off the Antarc­tic Penin­sula. Post­media colum­nist Daphne Bramham is on an 18-day ex­pe­di­tion that crosses the no­to­ri­ously rough Drake Pas­sage from the Falk­land Is­lands to South Ge­or­gia — known as the Serengeti of...
ARI FRIED­LAEN­DER/NA­TIONAL SCIENCE FOUN­DA­TION A hump­back whale emerges out of the wa­ter off the Antarc­tic Penin­sula. Post­media colum­nist Daphne Bramham is on an 18-day ex­pe­di­tion that crosses the no­to­ri­ously rough Drake Pas­sage from the Falk­land Is­lands to South Ge­or­gia — known as the Serengeti of...
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