The last three days have been pretty tough. We had not seen any whales since the 20th. The weather has been pretty unforgiving, and the winds have pushed a lot of ice in the inlet making it hard to get the zodiacs away from the pier. The weather finally let up today and we were fortunate to travel within the extended boating limits with the bird group to dream island and Biscoe bay.
We sampled three whales today, but probably seen some where around half a dozen in total. The many icebergs within the boating limits make it hard to follow and see the whales at distance. We have collected 13 biopsy samples thus far. So far it has been a pretty slow year. We also had two Adélie penguins jump into our boat today while we were sampling.
We photographed one whale, presumed female because it was accompanied by a juvenile, which had intense scarring on the left side near the dorsal. We are unsure what may have caused it, but it looks as if it is from a potential fishery line interaction. We have yet to have a re-sight within the palmer boating limits, which is a sign that the whales are moving in and out of the area quite rapidly. This is good for us, as it means we will get a sample from a wider range of individuals.
The weather is supposed to be good for the next couple day so hopefully we will be able to get some more echo sounder surveys in and look for krill biomass, and of course get some more whale samples. We were able to see some large mountains today as the sky began to open up.
We learn a huge amount about the humpback whales we study from tiny samples of skin and underlying blubber. We use a specially designed remote biopsy dart system, which we fire from a crossbow, to obtain a tiny sample from each whale we identify in the field.
Each sample measures about 25 mm in length and 5 mm in diameter and weighs only a few grams. In contrast, the whales are about 15 meters long and weigh 40 to 50 tons. The best analogy we can think of is that it’s like a mosquito bite to you or me.
We work hard to ensure that we identify each whale before attempting to sample it. We try to not resample an individual within a field season. We do this by comparing pictures of an animal’s fluke, which is unique to the individual, with our current biopsy/fluke catalog, which is stored on an iPad that we bring onboard. We are able to utilize the pigmentation and scarring of the flukes to identify individuals. If the whale is new to us, we move our Zodiac alongside the whale and fire the biopsy dart at its flank when it arches to dive, usually from a distance of 10 or 15 meters. We are extremely careful throughout the entire sampling process as to not get ahead of the whale or get directly behind its fluke. So far Doug is an excellent driver, and if not for today, I would have a 90% shooting rate, but now am sitting back down around 50%.
The tiny samples provide an enormous amount of information about each whale we sample, including its sex, recent dietary history, reproductive status, and health. We also use genetic markers to infer which breeding population the whale comes from.
Part of my master’s work will be to conduct progesterone assays on the blubber from our samples to determine if female whales are pregnant. We have successfully now documented variations in pregnancy in our samples from 2010, 13, and 14. We are really excited to look at 2015 and this year’s samples over the summer.
So it has been an exciting few days here at Palmer Station. We happened upon our first humpback whale while out calibrating the echo sounders (fancy fish finders), which are an adventure of their own. Doug and I spend most of our working days here at Palmer Station floating around whales in our trusty Zodiac. Most of the time it is a comfortable quaint little office, with space for all of our equipment and, importantly for the work we do, a very good platform to approach whales.
We work in quite hostile environments, so safety is paramount. We have survival equipment on board and there are caches with tents and stoves on some of the islands in our study area, just in case the weather comes up quickly. And it really can come up quickly. One moment it’s calm and pleasant and the next we are in the middle of a blizzard. We keep in touch with the Station by calling in our position every 30 minutes on the VHF radio.
We were out sampling on Sunday when we happened to come across a mom and her calf. Then out of nowhere, a large ominous dorsal fin came up just to our starboard side. It was huge!! It was a large bull killer whale (Orca). Next thing we know we are in a group of 7 killer whales. It was quite spectacular.
We have 6 biopsies so far. We were fortunate to go outside the boating limits today to Dream Island. We were accompanied by the birder group who was counting skua chicks and eggs on Dream. We saw three more humpbacks today and a minke whale, that disappeared after about 10 seconds. One of the humpbacks, whom I named the fat pig, was surface lunge feeding. It was amazing to witness. This particular whale would dive and releasing a net of bubbles to concentrate its prey, we call this phenomena bubble net feeding. The animal would then lunge up through the center of the ring of bubbles, opening its mouth and filling his large bucal cavity with water and krill. It would then roll over on its right side, lazily like and slosh its pectoral and fluke fins around for a while. This series of actions was repeated several times.
There is still a lot of ice around which makes getting in and out of the boat ramp quite difficult. Also makes sighting whales quite challenging as well. The crabeater seals are quite pleased with the amount of ice however. Doug and I will be going back out tomorrow to finish the echo sounder calibration so we can start prey mapping (looking for krill).
I’ve just finished uploading some great photos of the past week on the ship, here.
You’ll notice this is the same blog post from yesterday on a different website. You can find photos at the end of the most recent post. I encourage you to read more of the blogs on that site, which is the blog site for the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna lab at Oregon State University.
Yesterday someone said to me, “I don’t know if it was sunrise or sunset, but it was beautiful” So it goes on the LMG, the surrounding scenery is incredible but the general work schedule on this research ship makes it difficult to remember what time of day it is.
Here on the Antarctic Peninsula, the sun never really sets and our daily schedules are dependent on things like the diel vertical migration of krill, the current wind speed and the amount of sea ice in between us and our study species, the humpback whale. For these reasons, we sometimes find ourselves starting our workday at odd hours, like 11:45 pm (or 4:00 am).
We are about one week into our journey and so far, so good! We have spent the last four days transiting between various sampling stations around Palmer deep, which is an underwater canyon just south of our home base at Palmer station. When conditions allowed, we loaded up our tagging and biopsy gear into a small boat and went to look for humpback whales. We’ve been incredibly successful with the limited amount of time we’ve had on the water and this morning we finished deploying our sixth tag.
We brought a few different types of satellite tags with us to deploy on humpback whales. One type is an implantable satellite tag that transmits location data over a long period of time. These data allow us to gain a better understanding of the large-scale movement and distribution patterns of these animals. The other tag we deploy is a suction cup tag, named for the four small suction cups that attach the tag to the whale. These multi-sensor tags measure location as well as fine scale underwater movement (e.g. pitch, roll, and heading). They are also equipped with forward and backward facing cameras and most importantly, radio transmitters! This allows us to recover the tags once they fall off the animal and float to the surface (after about 24 hours). The data we get from these tags will allow us to quantify fine-scale foraging behavior in terms of underwater maneuverability, prey type and the frequency, depth and time of day that feeding occurs.
When we deployed each of these tags we also obtained a biopsy sample and fluke photos. Fluke photos and biopsy samples allow us to distinguish between individual animals, and the biopsy samples will also be used to study the demographics of this population through genetic analysis.
Now that we’ve deployed all of our satellite tags and have recovered the suction cup tag just in the nick of time (!), we are starting our first major transect line toward the continental shelf. We will be continuing south along these grid lines for the next week.
Right now we don’t have a good enough internet connection on the ship to post photos, but I’m hoping to get around that and have a few up for you soon!
Logan: Today I had the pleasure of visiting the Torgersen Island Adelie Penguin colony. We can see the colony from station at a distance. We circled the island in the zodiac and I admired the tall peaks of jagged rock that these penguins somehow managed to traverse to get to the nesting sites. Unfortunately we had to approach the loading zone down wind of the colony, an area you do not want to be if you have a weak stomach. Immediately my stomach began to churn as I smelled the distasteful odor of Adelie guano that lined the rocky terrain in a pink shear.
We landed on the island and I quickly began to traverse the rock terrain to the peak of the island near the colony nesting sites. We were instructed earlier in the day that the chicks had already hatched and that we were to remain at distance as to not distract the parents with chicks. The Brown Skua, a large predatory bird, takes advantage of unprotected chicks, carrying them away from the colony to feed on the tiny brown fluff balls. I managed to find a good spot to sit on the rocks and turn on my GoPro and just sit and observe the activities of these beautiful birds. The noise that this colony could produce was outstanding. I watched these birds interact with each other in many different ways. Some would raise their necks high into the air as a sign of what I believed to be courtship, while others were just laid on the ground trying to stay cool. This particular colony is in decline. These penguins are an ice dependent species, and as the climate in this area continues to warm, this colony will likely disappear.
Erin, Ari, and Doug are still out on the LMG trying to place our suction cup tags on nearby humpback whales. Have not heard from them yet, but hopefully I get a call that a tag has been placed. That is all for today!!!
Well we are now on Day three of the ship. Unfortunately the rocking of the vessel does not help me sleep. But I guess the more I am awake the more time I can spend on the bridge looking for animals.
We crossed the 60th parallel (60 deg. South) at about 10:35 this morning. It is currently 3:23 pm and a huge bout of fog has come in and surrounded us, making whale sightings a bit more challenging. Just prior to crossing the 60th parallel, we crossed over into the southern ocean. In doing so the temperature dropped from about 4°C to about 1°C. It even snowed this morning.
We spotted our first whale at about 8:30 am. Passed by a bunch of fin whales. They are easy to spot at distance as their blow towers over the rest of the water in a cloud of mist. They have a smaller dorsal generally as compared to the sei whales we seen coming through the straits of Magellan and are an olive/brown color. Have made several sightings of these guys through out the course of the day, of which one individual decided to roll and show the bottom of his/her left fluke blade.
We have also started to see some different bird species as well, my favorite of which is the cape petrel. Their lacey, checkerboard black and white patters are just stunning. We have also seen some giant petrels, Wilson’s storm petrels, grey-headed albatross and now some light-mantled sooty albatross.
At about 7:30 I noticed some spray coming across the water, the winds were not so bad so I assumed there were some whales near by. Not long after a giant dorsal fin emerged about 20 ft starboard of the vessel. It was a group of three killer whales, of which one was a male (have large dorsal fins). They did not stay for long. Once they got closer they appeared to take a deep dive and disappear.
We are travelling first to a station at Cape Shirreff to drop off a scientist and pick up their garbage. From there we will proceed to Palmer Station (another 20 hours or 200 miles) traversing through the Gerlache Strait. We should finally arrive at Palmer station sometime the afternoon of the 8th. Hopefully we can be up and running in about a day.
Here is the current weather in the Drake Passage: Swells about 4-6 ft. high, we are in roughly 4000 m of water. The wind is travelling on average of 15 knots and the wind chill is -11.8° C. The water temperature is now 1.07° C.
The R/V Lawrence M. Gould departed Punta Arenas, Chile yesterday, marking the beginning of the annual Palmer LTER research cruise. Myself (Erin Pickett) and my lab mate Logan Pallin, are looking forward to sharing our adventures and research with you over the next three and a half months! Logan and I are graduate students at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute. While on the cruise and at Palmer Station, Logan and I will be working with our graduate advisor, Dr. Ari Friedlaender, and with Dr. Doug Nowacek from Duke University. Ari and Doug are two of the Principal Investigators leading the cetacean component of the Palmer LTER project.
The work that we will be doing over the next few months is part of a long term ecological research (LTER) program based out of Palmer Station, Anvers Island, along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Over the next few months our whale team will be conducting cetacean surveys and collecting acoustic-based prey measurements of Antarctic krill. Much of our effort will be focused on humpback whales, and we will be using methods such as photo identification, tagging and biopsy sampling to understand more about this species recent recovery in this area and to learn more about the ecological roles that these large baleen whales play in the marine ecosystem along the peninsula.
We are especially interested in learning more about the foraging ecology of humpback and minke whales, how their behavior is influenced by their primary prey (Antarctic krill), and how their population demographics (genetics, sex, hormones) may change over time. Many of the region’s top predators share this prey resource, which is declining as a result of sea ice loss. A central objective of our research is to understand how climate induced changes in this polar marine environment are affecting these top predators.
Until we reach the northern boundary of our study area where we will begin our official surveys, we will be occupying ourselves on the ship with a bit of bird watching. I’ll be teaching Logan how to distinguish a duck from a petrel, and a “freaking huge bird” from a Royal albatross. So far in addition to a couple of royal albatross we’ve spotted white chinned petrels, black-browed albatross, and South American terns. It’s nearly tropical outside this afternoon, breezy and 11.2˚C, and a group of Peale’s dolphins are riding our bow wake, so enough writing for one day!