Scientists and humpback whales in Charlotte Bay, Antarctic Peninsula

18 Apr 2019


The Antarctic Peninsula is a critical feeding habitat for a variety of species but this area is under increasing pressure from global warming and fishing. WWF is working in collaboration with Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab (MaRRS) to better understand how these risks are impacting humpback whales in the Peninsula. Chris Johnson, our Antarctic Program Senior Manager, is a marine scientist who has studied whales for 20 years. In March, he joined our research partners who are using drone technology to study whales and help protect this critical habitat.

Chris Johnson in Antarctica
Chris Johnson in Antarctica © Melanie Gade / WWF-US

The Earth’s last wild place

Unsurprisingly, things get a bit nippy on the Antarctic Peninsula. Having appropriate field gear is essential to provide protection from the extreme cold. The air temperature is about -1 Celsius but windy conditions makes it feel more like -10 Celsius. In this photo, I’m near Vernadsky Station, previously known as Faraday Station. This is a year-round research base operated by the Ukraine. It’s a well-known place for discovery. In 1985, scientists found that since the mid-1970s ozone values over Halley and Faraday Research Stations had been steadily dropping when the sun reappeared each spring. NASA scientists used their satellite data to confirm that not only was the hole over British research stations but it covered the entire Antarctic continent. The world came together in response to solve this environmental crisis and implemented action - in the Montreal Protocol. It’s an example of how powerful Antarctica is as a reserve dedicated to peace and science.

Launching a custom-made hexacopter drone
Launching a custom-made hexacopter drone © Chris Johnson / WWF-Aus

Flying high

Duke University Marine Lab PhD student KC Bierlich and engineer, Julian Dale are launching a custom-made hexacopter drone from a zodiac - a five metre inflatable boat we use to research whales. The drone has a number of sensors allowing a pilot to see where it’s going, then photograph and make precise measurements of individual whales. Every time the team is in-the-field, we learn something new, and Julian adapts the technology and gear accordingly. This technology is changing the way we study and understand how these species feed. Over time, we’ll be able to monitor how climate change may impact their health.

Scientists and humpback whales in Charlotte Bay, Antarctic Peninsula (1000px)
Scientists and humpback whales in Charlotte Bay, Antarctic Peninsula © KC Bierlich / Duke University Marine Robotics & Remote Sensing Lab - Imagery collected under research permits: ACA #2015-011= #2016-024 & #2017-034; NMFS #14809; US NSF #1440435 & 1643877.

A view from the top

Humpback whales are curious and sometimes playful animals. In the southern hemisphere, they make epic migrations from their tropical breeding grounds to feed on tiny krill in Antarctic waters. To find them, we deploy the zodiac and listen for the ‘blows’ - the powerful sounds they make when they exhale air. When they’re feeding and resting, humpback whales can be very, very curious. This photo was taken by KC Bierlich of the research team from the drone. Sometimes humpbacks approach the zodiac and swim around and under the boat. Often they turn on their side to have a look and hang around for company. It’s pretty special to look eye-to-eye with an Antarctic giant!

Drone footage of humpback whales bubble net feeding in Antarctica
Drone footage of humpback whales bubble net feeding in Antarctica © Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab. Research conducted under permit by NOAA.

Bubbly creatures

Bubble-net feeding is a cooperative feeding method used by groups of humpback whales. In Antarctic seas, they target krill and through a team effort they disorient and corral them into a net of bubbles. Humpback whales dive below a huge swarm of krill, rising to the surface blowing bubbles in a circular net to capture their tiny prey. Using drones, we have a new tool to capture and study this important behaviour. When the whales open their mouths at the surface to engulf a swarm of krill, it’s a spectacular view from above. Humpback whales have a number of throat grooves that run from the top of the chin all the way down to the navel.These grooves allow the mouth to expand. The Antarctic Peninsula is a crucial feeding ground for many species of whale, including humpbacks.

Humpback whale breach
Humpback whale breach © Logan Pallin / Friedlaender Lab: Univ. of California, Santa Cruz"

Making a splash

Humpbacks whales often breach in their tropic breeding grounds. Breaching is a form of surfacing behaviour where most or all of the whale's body leaves the water. There are many theories as to why whales do this: to communicate, attract other whales, or warn off other males. But no one really knows exactly why yet. It’s doesn’t often happen in Antarctica, where they’re feeding and resting, but truly spectacular to see when it does - especially when it’s close. To learn more about our work in Antarctica visit Help save our marine life. Donate to protect our oceans