A curious minke whale playing with the team’s zodiac

5 Apr 2023

IN PHOTOS: PROTECTING ANTARCTICA’S GIANTS

WWF’s team scientists have recently returned from an incredible Antarctic expedition, among ice, whales and the Antarctic ocean.

Chris Johnson, Global Lead for WWF’s Protecting Whales and Dolphins Initiative, spent the past month working with fellow scientist Dr Ari Friedlaender of University of Santa Cruz and others to study whales in Antarctica.

The team were undertaking research to better understand where baleen whales feed, how much they feed and which are their most important habitats on the Antarctic Peninsula and along their migratory routes (or blue corridors) in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Growing evidence shows that whales play a critical role in maintaining ocean health and our global climate but are facing growing threats. Our aim is to inform conservation strategies to connect and protect key Antarctic ocean habitats across their migratory superhighways, or blue corridors, spanning thousands of kilometers.

This work is supported by our partners Intrepid Travel. Travelling alongside our scientists, passengers on Intrepid’s Ocean Endeavour voyage were provided an unparalleled opportunity to discover Antarctica and its wildlife while learning about the region's whales' migration patterns from WWF-Australia researchers.

Chris Johnson in Antarctica
Chris Johnson, Global Lead for WWF’s Protecting Whales and Dolphins Initiative, spent the last month in Antarctica © WWF-Australia / Chris Johnson

The team were using new technologies like digital tags and drones combined with research methods such a biopsies and photo-ID, to study the ecology baleen whales. In combination, these tools help scientists determine how much these whales eat, where they source their food from and which habitats on the Antarctic Peninsula are the most important for them during the summer foraging months.

Humpback whales in Antarctica, captured via drone in 2023.
Humpback whales swim in Antarctica, 2023. © WWF-Australia / Chris Johnson

The Antarctic Peninsula is a key foraging area for many whale species. There, they feed on Antarctic krill, their main prey in the Southern Ocean. Krill abundance depends on sea ice, as young krill feed on organisms that live on the ice itself.  However, this year sea ice hit record lows in Antarctica for a second year in a row.  

In new research co-authored by scientists from UCSC and WWF, have seen that years with low krill availability impact a humpback whale’s ability to fall pregnant the following year. In this way, krill is crucial to whales’ reproduction as females need to eat enough to gain adequate body fat to support any upcoming pregnancies. Continued warming and increased fishing along the Western Antarctic Peninsula will continue to reduce sea ice, impacting krill stocks, which will have devastating effects for the humpback whale population and other krill predators in the region.

The team gets a bird’s eye view of Antarctic minke whales from a drone. The science team uses a drone to capture video and images of whales to measure and monitor their body condition and health. Here the team are attempted to deploy a small digital suction tag on a minke whale to study their behaviour.
The team gets a bird’s eye view of Antarctic minke whales earlier this year © WWF-Australia / Chris Johnson

One way to monitor the impact of low krill stocks on whales is by using photogrammetry (the science of extracting information from photographs), in this case via a drone, to measure the width and length of these whales and see how they are bulking up on Antarctic krill during the foraging season. Humpback whales make seasonal migrations between the Antarctic Peninsula to feed in the summer, and then travel north thousands of kilometres to coastal waters in Colombia, Panama and Ecuador to breed.

The team uses small Zodiac boats deployed from a ship to search for and study whales in one of the most spectacular and remote regions on earth.
Zodiac boats deployed from the ship to search for and study whales, Antarctica 2023 © WWF-Australia / Chris Johnson

The data collected during this expedition will directly contribute to the team’s understanding of Antarctica’s whale populations and help them develop a conservation policy for these iconic species. WWF is advocating for implementing protection measures across their entire migratory pathway, or whale superhighway. This include conserving and protecting 30% of their crucial ocean habitat through implementing Marine Protected Areas, and strengthened management regulations to reduce threats. On the Antarctic Peninsula, industrial krill fishing is having a growing negative impact that needs stronger regulations now.

A curious minke whale playing with the team’s zodiac.
A curious minke whale playing with the team’s zodiac © WWF-Australia / Chris Johnson

Spending a month researching whales often means the team had some incredible encounters that sometimes defies the imagination. One afternoon, they had a curious Antarctic minke whale swim around the zodiac, turning on its side while having a look. The team were in awe of how gentle of a giant it was!

The WWF whale team at the end of an amazing expedition! - Left to right Dr Natalia Botero-Acosta (Colombia), Eva Prendergast (Intrepid Travel), Dr Ari Friedlaender (UCSC), and Chris Johnson (WWF)
The WWF whale team at the end of an amazing expedition! - Left to right Dr Natalia Botero-Acosta (Colombia), Eva Prendergast (Intrepid Travel), Dr Ari Friedlaender (UCSC), and Chris Johnson (WWF) © WWF-Australia / Chris Connor

Feeling inspired? Join us! WWF-Australia researchers will be conducting scientific research into Antarctica’s great whales and sharing it onboard selected departures of Intrepid’s Ocean Endeavour voyages in 2024.

The voyage will offer travellers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about this work through a number of interactive experiences.

Imagery collected under scientific permits: NMFS #23095, ACA # 021-006.