18 Oct 2018
STUDYING ANTARCTIC GIANTS
By Chris Johnson, Senior Manager, WWF Antarctic Program
How do you manage Antarctica as the climate changes and human influence is on the rise? Allow it to be wild and protect important ocean areas based on sound science.
In January, I travelled with Dr Ari Friedlaender as part of his scientific research team to the Antarctic Peninsula – nature’s frozen wonder where a lucky few travel to experience its iconic wildlife. Visiting the peninsula feels like being in another world, but that doesn’t mean it has escaped human influence. Climate change is having an increasing impact as oceans warm and glaciers retreat, and industrial krill fishing overlaps and threatens key feeding areas for predators like penguins, seals and whales. And it is whales we came to study, specifically whales that come to this region every summer to feed on swarms of tiny Antarctic krill. For ocean giants such as Antarctic minke, humpbacks and fin whales, it’s a favourite summer hot-spot.
Encounter of a lifetime
Access to the Antarctic – including the Antarctic Peninsula – is expensive so scientists are increasingly collaborating with Antarctic tour operators to conduct research and share their experiences with passengers. For this trip, we board the One Ocean Expeditions vessel Akademik Ioffe, a Russian research vessel carrying 82 passengers, field guides and crew, that transforms into an ‘eco tour’ for the Antarctic season.
From the ship, we deploy a ‘zodiac’, a small inflatable boat that can glide through and over chunks of ice to search for whales for two to three hours at a time. The first couple of days are long and cold as we travel up to 50km, weaving in between icebergs, searching for animals in low visibility and listening for their powerful blows. None of this prepares us for our encounter of a lifetime the next day.
We’re scheduled to go out at about 3pm but the alarm sounds early – there is a breaching minke whale 10 metres off the port side (left) of the ship. Ari yells at me to get my gear – now! – as the team grabs their equipment and races down the gangway to a zodiac waiting to go. I pull on my survival gear, throwing my bag packed with equipment on my back as the minke whale breaches over and over, swimming under the ship. Several tourists are already in zodiacs, floating with their engines off. Everything pauses as the research team gets into position.
A world-first ‘whale cam’
Within 60 seconds, Ari has pieced together a long carbon-fibre pole with a digital suction cup tag on the end. This tag has a built-in video-recording motion-sensor that can stay on the animal for up to 24 hours before popping off for us to collect using a radio-tracking device. Its purpose: to help us understand more about critical feeding areas and capture behaviour never before seen in the wild, specifically how minke whales forage on krill.
Fellow crew member Dave Caton, a PhD student from Stanford University, has equipment at the ready for Ari while I video our approach – a journey all of 50 metres from the vessel. With tourists lining the ship, others floating silently in their zodiacs, the scene is set as a natural amphitheatre, all eyes watching our close encounter with one of nature's most mysterious giants. We quickly but cautiously approach the minke, logging on the surface. Then ... ‘pop!’, the sound of the suction cup seal means the tag is on securely – the first tag of this kind ever to be put on a minke whale. An explosive cheer erupts as if a last-second goal is scored in a World Cup soccer final.
The minke whale, adept in his aquatic moves and turns, stays among us for 30 minutes, enjoying his own ‘person watch’. For many of us – myself included – this is our first encounter with an Antarctic minke whale. I am in awe at his inquisitiveness as he raises his head out of the water to look at us all (spy-hopping) or as he breaches in what seems like play. Soon it’s time to find more whales, and our new friend follows us for a while as we leave the ship.
Protecting a wild Antarctica
Back home, after analysing data for our new report – Whales of the Antarctic Peninsula, co-produced with the University of California, Santa Cruz – it’s time to take this new science and present it to policy makers. Over the next two weeks, I swap a polar suit for a suit and tie to lead WWF’s delegation to the yearly Antarctic conservation policy meeting called CCAMLR – the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. It’s here where we negotiate important marine protected areas to help safeguard a thriving wild Antarctica with a diversity of life for future generations.
The research shows that marine protected areas will help conserve a range of Antarctic biodiversity including whales. Removing and restricting activities will help marine ecosystems improve climate resilience. In July, krill fishing companies took action to restrict fishing near important breeding penguin colonies along the Antarctic Peninsula, endorsing protected areas for the region. It’s a good first step, but we need to go further. It’s time for governments to follow this lead and protect the peninsula while we can.