Hungry Humpbacks

Hungry humpbacks: measuring seasonal foraging intensity at South Georgia

Start date
1 April, 2023
End date
30 September, 2025

Whales are the largest krill predators in the UK Overseas territory of South Georgia, yet their impacts on krill stocks are poorly understood. Recently, whale surveys revealed high summer abundance and extended use of South Georgia waters into winter, coincident with the winter krill fishery. This DARWIN PLUS project measures how humpback whale foraging intensity varies across the feeding season in South Georgia, using UAV-based (drone) measurements of body condition and satellite-tracking of whale diving rates to measure season-specific krill consumption, and inform krill quota-setting for the Subarea 48.3 CCAMLR krill risk assessment.

A large ship in the snow
Scientists fly a UAV at South Georgia. Image: Amy Kennedy

The UAV pilots will collect calibrated UAV aerial images from humpback whales near Cumberland Bay, South Georgia. Small-boat surveys will also be conducted near Cumberland Bay, collecting whale sightings, photo-identifications and biopsy samples. Humpback whales will be instrumented with depth-recording satellite tags, to identify spatial habitat-use and how foraging depth and intensity varies across the feeding season.

Humpback whales in Cumberland Bay, South Georgia. Image: John Dickens

This project will provide seasonal krill consumption estimates for humpbacks and generate satellite tracking-based winter habitat use models to describe whale distribution. Both datasets will be integrated into the CCAMLR Area 48.3 krill risk assessment and will provide baseline measurements of krill consumption in South Georgia waters by whales across seasons.

Funding: Darwin Plus, South Georgia Heritage Trust and Friends of South Georgia Island. Logistical support from the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Follow the progress of the project here:


The first Stakeholders meeting for the Hungry Humpbacks project was held on the 5th September 2023. You can find excerpts of this meeting here.

The first field leg of the project took place in Abrolhos Marine National Park, Brazil from 20 September to 17 October 2023, recording the body condition of humpback whales at the end of their breeding season before they migrate south towards their feeding grounds in South Georgia and the Scotia Arc.

Humpback whale mother and calf, Abrolhos Bank, Brazil. Image: Fredrik Christiansen

During this field project, a total of 121 drone flights were carried out, and more than 200 aerial photographs were taken of individual humpback whales. In addition, 34 skin and blubber biopsy samples were collected to determine the sex and pregnancy status of some of the measured whales. The whales encountered included mothers with calves, sometimes accompanied by an escorting male, singing males, and competitive groups. The whales are now migrating towards their feeding grounds around South Georgia, where they will build up fat reserves for the next winter breeding season.

A large group of humpback whales migrating south in Abrolhos Bank, Brazil. Image: Fredrik Christiansen
A man standing next to a body of water

Stephanie Martin

Coordinator South Georgia Humpback Project

A person wearing a helmet.

Jennifer Jackson

Molecular Ecologist/Whale biologist

Ecosystems team

Martin Collins profile picture

Martin Collins

Marine Ecologist and UKs CCAMLR Scientific Rep

BAS Science Strategy Executive Group, Ecosystems team

A person wearing sunglasses and a hat with snow on the ground

Henry Slesser

PhD Student

A woman smiling for the camera

Penny Clarke

PhD Student Pelagic Ecosystems

Ecosystems team

King Edward Point Research Station

King Edward Point is primarily a marine and  fisheries research station.   Owned by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) and operated by British Antarctic Survey …