The great whales of Antarctica have begun the slow recovery from being commercially hunted to the brink of extinction. But they are now facing new threats from climate change and fishing pressure and our research will help better understand how to protect them.
Our plan is to tag baleen whales - humpback and minke - in the Southern Ocean. The satellite tags provide location data on a real-time basis every time the whale surfaces so that we can trace the movement paths of whales around the Antarctic. This data can be viewed and tracked on our project website. It means that everyone can follow their progress on a daily basis.
Climate change is impacting the Antarctic Peninsula faster than nearly any other place on the planet. It has impacted the amount of sea ice that in turn directly impacts the supply of Antarctic krill, the main food source for baleen whales, penguins, seals, seabirds, and fish in the Antarctic. But how these dramatic climate driven changes are affecting these animals is unknown.
It appears that humpback whales are increasing in numbers and utilizing the once ice-covered areas, while minke whales rely on sea ice and are becoming rarer in the region.
In addition, an expanding krill fishing industry often targets prime feeding areas for whales and has the potential to compete with Antarctic animals for their food.
The tags will take us below the waves and into the whale’s underwater world. They will allow us to follow whales as they dive and feed and see how changes in sea ice conditions and the distribution of krill affect them. The information is critical to understanding how and why some species are recovering while others have yet to show such signs.
Our team has developed a long-term ecological research program to study baleen whales around the Antarctic Peninsula. To date, we have learned a tremendous amount about how humpback whales feed during the peak of the feeding season (February-April). However, critical areas that these whales utilize in the early summer and late fall remain elusive and largely unstudied. The funding from Hogwarts Running Club will allow us to fill in these gaps, targeting the Bransfield and Gerlache Strait regions, to deploy tags on whales to better define their movement and behavior patterns throughout the foraging season and link these the climate-driven changes in sea ice and krill conditions.
This work will increase our knowledge not only about whales in Antarctica, but will also promote a greater understanding of the impacts of climate change on the Antarctic marine ecosystem and provide scientific support for trying to conserve and protect critical foraging areas for these recovering ocean giants in the face of increasing commercial fishing pressure. The most direct means to do this is to use data to create special marine protected areas that allow for whales and other Antarctic krill predators to feed and thrive while minimizing human impact.
Without support from the Hogwarts Running Club, we would not be able to complete this research project.