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South Georgia Right Whale project

In South Georgia Right Whale project

South Georgia Right Whale project

Start date
1 January, 2018
End date
1 January, 2020

Long term surveys of the recovery of whales from historical exploitation in South Georgia waters are carried out by the British Antarctic Survey’s “Wild Water Whales” project. At present the main project running is the South Georgia Right Whale project.

The South Georgia Right Whale project is a dedicated population survey of southern right whales, in their feeding grounds off South Georgia, since whaling ceased in the 1970s. This project has two research aims, which are separately funded.  The first stage of the project, the EU-funded BEST 2.0 project, aimed to carry out a ‘health check’ of the southern right whales that use the feeding grounds around South Georgia and find out where they are feeding. The second stage of the project, funded by Darwin Plus with additional support from South Georgia Heritage Trust and Friends of South Georgia Island, aims to create a benchmark population count to see if the species is in recovery.

The southern right whale is so-called because historically they were the ‘right’ whales to hunt owing to their slow swimming speed, inquisitive nature and because they floated once they had been struck. Their populations declined dramatically during nearly 300 years of whaling in the South Atlantic. When commercial whaling ceased the populations were expected to recover. During the first stage of the project in 2018, the international team of eight researchers and 3 crew investigated the health of the southern right whale population in its feeding ground in South Georgia waters, on the vessel Song of the Whale. They blogged about the expedition here. In 2019, an expedition team of 6 researchers spent two months living on the British Antarctic Survey operated King Edward Point station conducting small boat surveys of nearshore water between Stromness Harbour and St Andrews Bay. In the third stage of the project an expedition team of 10 researchers are conducting surveys around South Georgia on the R/V Braveheart and continuing to collect data on southern right whales and other species using South Georgia waters.

A right whale ‘spyhops’ in South Georgia waters. Photo credit: Dave Rootes.

The scientists aim to find out how many southern right whales use these waters and where and what they are feeding on. They are also measuring the genetic diversity and health status of the population. The surveys use advanced acoustics to locate whales, once found the team take photographs for photo-identification, collect skin samples, and attach satellite tags to identify and track them. Team members fly drones over the whales to assess their body condition and general state of health.

Research vessel ‘Song of the Whale’ supported the team with the southern right whale survey in 2018. Photo credit: Susannah Calderan

In addition, photo-identifications and satellite tagging have revealed seasonal movements of southern right whales from feeding in South Georgia waters in summer  to their calving grounds at Península Valdés in Argentina. The Península Valdés calving ground has notable high calf mortalities in the last decade. A growing body of evidence suggests that South Georgia environmental conditions directly influence the population dynamics of these whales. This suggests feeding success at South Georgia is a primary factor influencing their reproductive rates. The project hopes to help understand why so many calves have been dying in the region.

This research collaboration involves the following institutes: University of Auckland, University of St Andrews, University of Washington Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean, Federal University of Juiz de Fora (Brazil), International Fund for Animal Welfare, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, University of Southern Denmark, Instituto Aqualine (Spain), NOAA, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Australian Antarctic Division, CONICET, Scottish Association of Marine Science, Projecto Baleia (France), Happy Whale and the University of Pretoria.

The project is also very grateful to the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands for providing significant logistical support.

The wild water whales team and boatmen at King Edward Point base, January 2019

The team is seeking help from tourists, naturalists and other boat operators who will be sailing or working in the waters around the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Scotia Arc during the summer months.  Right whales have patches of very rough, white skin on their heads, which have unique patterns in every individual. Good quality photographs of the heads and details of sightings of southern right whales will help create a benchmark and health check of the species. People should submit photographs to www.happywhale.com who are supporting the project, and report any sightings to the South Georgia museum.

The Wild Water Whales project objectives are:

  • To combine satellite tracks, acoustics and oceanographic data to identify key areas of whale habitat use and foraging patterns in South Georgia waters.
  • To investigate whale prey and habitat use in relation to the krill fishery and in relation to key oceanographic features.
  • To study the migratory connections between the feeding grounds in South Georgia waters and calving grounds in coastal waters off Argentina and Brazil using photographs, genetics and satellite tracking.
  • Collect biological data (skin samples, body image and whale blow samples) on right whale health and body condition to infer habitat quality during the feeding season and improve understanding of the cause of calf mortality associated with this feeding ground.

To measure the level of recovery of whales on their South Georgia feeding ground following whaling.

Funded by Darwin Plus and EU BEST 2.0.

A person wearing a helmet.

Jennifer Jackson

Molecular Ecologist/Whale biologist

Ecosystems team

Expedition members

  Dr Emma Carroll – University of Auckland, New Zealand, Project Co-I, expeditioner 2018 and 2019

 Dr Amy Kennedy – University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Oceans (JISAO), Field team leader, expeditioner 2018, 2019 and 2020

Professor Artur Andriolo – Federal University of Juiz de Fora, Brazil, expeditioner 2018

Susannah Calderan – Scottish Association for Marine Sciences, expeditioner 2018 and 2020

Russell Leaper – International Fund for Animal Welfare, expeditioner 2018 and 2020

Dr Matt Leslie – Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, expeditioner 2018

Emilie Stepien – University of Southern Denmark, expeditioner 2018.

Connor Bamford – British Antarctic Survey and University of Southampton PhD student, expeditioner 2019.

Stephanie Martin – Marine mammal scientist and Tristan de Cunha Environmental and Conservation Policy Officer, expeditioner 2019.

Darryl Macdonald – Professional photographer and drone pilot, expeditioner 2019 and 2020.

Paula Olson – NOAA marine mammal biologist, expeditioner 2020.

Professor Scott Baker – Oregon State University, expeditioner 2020.

Danielle Buss – British Antarctic Survey and University of Cambridge PhD student, expeditioner 2020.

Paul Ensor – Expert field biologist, expeditioner 2020.

Dr Manuela Bassoi – University do Rio Grande do Norte, expeditioner 2020.

Dr Martin Collins – British Antarctic Survey South Georgia science manager, expeditioner 2020.



External collaborators

Dr Alexandre ZerbiniInstituto Aqualie and NOAA

Dr Michael MooreWood Hole Oceanographic Institution

Dr Amy ApprillWood Hole Oceanographic Institution

Dr Carolyn Miller – Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution

Professor Alisa Hall University of St Andrews

Dr Brian Miller Australian Antarctic Division

Dr Natalie Kelly – Australian Antarctic Division

Professor Vicky Rowntree – Ocean Alliance

Dr Luciano ValenzuelaCONICET (Argentine Research Council)

Professor David PondScottish Association for Marine Science

Dr Karina Groch – Projecto Baleia Franca

Ted Cheeseman – HappyWhale

Dr Els Vermeulen, University of Pretoria

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