Looking back on a busy field season

Solène Derville, EnTroPie Lab, Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia (Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres)

After one month and a half in the field, I am now comfortably sitting at my desk in the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) in Nouméa and I am finally finding the time to look back on my first marine mammal field experience.

The New Caledonian South Lagoon is certainly not the worst place on earth to study whales. While some people spend hours trying to spot extremely rare and shy species living in freezing cold polar waters, I have to endure a 25°C temperature, turquoise waters and a study species desperate for attention (series of a dozen breaches are not uncommon). As with all field work, there were ups and downs but following humpback whales during the 2015 breeding season was by far the most exhilarating field experience I’ve ever had.

During the austral winter, humpback whales are thought to travel and stay in different areas of the New Caledonian Economic Exclusive Zone. Using satellite telemetry, several seamounts (e.g. Antigonia), banks (e.g. Torche bank) and shallow areas have been shown to play an important role for breeding and migrating humpback whales (Garrigue et al. In Press). However, as much as we would like to study whales in these areas, offshore field missions are logistically and financially hard to conduct. This is why most of the data on humpback whales in New Caledonian waters have been collected in coastal waters, and more specifically in the South Lagoon. Opération Cétacés, a local NGO, has been studying whales in this area for about two decades and I was lucky to participate in this year’s field season with their experienced team.

The South Lagoon of New Caledonia
The South Lagoon of New Caledonia

The usual day in Prony (the village that we live in during the whale season) usually starts early. We get up at about 5:30, and start by engulfing a bowl of porridge (nicknamed “globi” and considered as a highly exotic dish). By 6:30 everyone is standing in our rigid-hulled inflatable boat, listening to the weather forecast on the radio. After a 15 minute trip across the bay of Prony, two people disembark and climb to a land-based lookout, the N’Doua Cape, where they will spend the day trying to spot humpback whales and guiding the boat towards their location via VHF radio communication. The vessel-based team slowly approaches the whale groups to do photo-identification (using the unique marks on the ventral surface of the tail flukes), biopsy collection, and behavioral activity monitoring. The particular coastal geography of this study area (see previous post: Crossing Latitudes) allows us to uniquely combine land-based and boat-based surveying. These methods increase our encounter rate and allow us to collect more individual-based data. Yet, compared to a standardized boat-based surveys, our survey effort is much more complex to estimate and account for in a spatial distribution model.

This season, the number of whale encounters was particularly high. We spent 31 days at sea and observed a total of 99 groups. Using photo-identification, we documented 113 different individuals, some of which were first observed more than 15 years ago! Biopsy samples were collected from 139 different individuals and we managed to record 4h of songs performed by six different whales. Given that the size of the New Caledonian population is currently thought to be less than 1000 individuals, our sampling is not too bad!

A calf breaching out of the water on a late afternoon. No wonder humpback whales are favored by whale-watching companies, they can be very active at the surface!
A calf breaching out of the water on a late afternoon. No wonder humpback whales are favored by whale-watching companies, they can be very active at the surface!
These two adult whales were part of a very active competitive group of eight individuals and displayed a peculiar behavior that included gently rolling and rubbing themselves against each other.
These two adult whales were part of a very active competitive group of eight individuals and displayed a peculiar behavior that included gently rolling and rubbing themselves against each other.

Another great achievement of this season was the tagging of two adult humpback whales with ARGOS satellite-tracking devices. It was a thrilling experience to be part of this procedure and witness the level of concentration and experience required to place a tag on a whale. Our two individuals, one a presumed male and the other a female with calf, were respectively baptized Lutèce (the name Romans gave to Paris) and Ovalie (an old fashioned way to call rugby in France). Their tags transmitted for 15 and 20 days respectively, which was not long enough to follow their migration south towards Antarctica. Yet, both whales spent time on seamounts that are known to play an important role for humpback whales in the region. We were very interested in Ovalie’s track (map given below), as she travelled along the Loyalty ridge, a seafloor structure of great interest to us. We suspect that whales could be using this ridge as a navigational aid and/or using shallow areas (seamounts and banks) along the ridge as resting or breeding habitats. The amount of humpback whales present in this area and the eventual role played by oceanic features along the Loyalty ridge will be the subject of my future research.

Raw ARGOS track: Ovalie visiting seamounts south of New Caledonia and then travelling towards the Loyalty ridge (Don’t worry whales didn’t start walking on land since you saw your last National Geographic documentary; the accuracy of the satellite transmitter is to blame. For some of these points accuracy simply can’t be estimated –classes A and B- and unrealistic locations will have to be removed before performing analysis. In general, accuracy of ARGOS locations ranges between 250 and 1500m).
Raw ARGOS track: Ovalie visiting seamounts south of New Caledonia and then travelling towards the Loyalty ridge (Don’t worry whales didn’t start walking on land since you saw your last National Geographic documentary; the accuracy of the satellite transmitter is to blame. For some of these points accuracy simply can’t be estimated –classes A and B- and unrealistic locations will have to be removed before performing analysis. In general, accuracy of ARGOS locations ranges between 250 and 1500m).

 

But now that we have all this data, let’s get back to work! As much as I love being in the field, there comes a time when you have to sit in front of your computer and try to make sense of all this information you collected.

And that is where my collaboration with the GEMM Lab comes in! I am looking forward to visiting Newport once again in December and to start shedding a light on the ‘How’s and ‘Why’s of New Caledonian humpback whales’ space use.

Literature cited:

Garrigue, C., Clapham, P. J., Geyer, Y., Kennedy, A. S., & Zerbini, A. N. (In Press). Satellite tracking reveals novel migratory patterns and the importance of seamounts for endangered South Pacific Humpback Whales. Royal Society Open Science.

 

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