19 Apr 2017


A conversation with Dr Ari Friedlaender – a whale ecologist and National Geographic explorer who has worked in the Antarctic for over 15 years, studying ocean giants who visit and call the Southern Ocean their home.

What is one of the most interesting things you’ve found through your research?

From our work with the video tags that WWF-Australia has supported we have learned a great deal about the foraging and social behaviour of humpback whales in Antarctica. We can see that whales spend a great deal of time during the days socialising and resting and then feeding largely throughout the evening and night time. During these feeding bouts, the whales can go as deep as 350 metres but generally feed in the upper 100 metres of the water column.

We have some wonderful data on different feeding strategies from rolling lunges near the surface, to bubble-net feeding, to deep foraging dives lunging through dense patches of krill. The video of whales lunging at depth through dense krill patches is particularly informative because it shows us the angle of attack that the whales use, what the relative density of krill is where the whales are feeding, and even the relative size of the krill that the whales are feeding on. Combined, this provides us a unique perspective into the underwater behaviour of these predators.

What does a typical day look like when you are in-the-field?

A typical day in-the-field goes like this. Early in the morning I will confer with the expedition leader about our location and plans for the day that include tagging, biopsy, drone flights, and so on. If we are tagging that day, we will program the tag with the sampling parameters (when to turn the video on, how frequently is data collected, etc.) and make sure that all the sensors are activated. On the water, we locate animals that are in a behavioural state that is amenable to tag deployment. These usually mean resting whales. 

In the evening, we gather around, lecture and show videos of our experiences and research findings and discuss what we learned. If we are close by to where we deployed a tag, I will go outside and try to listen for it with our VHF telemetry gear. From this we can tell if the tag is still on the whale or if it has been shed. If I cannot hear the tag’s transmitter, I will check my email for an updated Argos GPS position from the tag’s satellite transmitter. Every 4 hours, I receive a message with the most recent position of the whale. We can then use this to relocate the ship to be nearby in the morning so that we can go recover the tag or find the whale to continue observation.

Were there any memorable/significant moments?

Each tag deployment and recovery is special and significant because the data will increase our knowledge of whales and better inform us about the ways that we can protect and conserve ecosystems and the magical animals that are a part of them.

This season, the most memorable moment occurred in Cierva Cove where we deployed a video recording tag on a humpback whale. After we deployed the tag, we shut the engine down and stayed with the animals. Two of the whales became incredibly curious and swam under and around us for over an hour. The whales would spy-hop inches away from our boat, roll on their backs and deftly sweep their massive pectoral flippers along the side of the boat. They were gentle and curious and seemed as interested in us as we were of them. It is hard to describe the feeling of having a 15 metre long 40 tonne whale inches away from you, peering back at you. We were all extremely moved by this experience and feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to interact with a whale so closely and for so long, and see them in their natural habitat with no threats or risks.

What’s next?

The next steps are to organise and analyse the data we collected and write reports and scientific papers to share our findings with the scientific community as well as the public and interested people who care about whales, marine ecosystems, Antarctica, and conserving wild places. We will work with WWF and other organisations to promote our work and generate interest and support for protecting the wild places and animals on our planet.