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South Georgia Right Whale project

South Georgia Right Whale project

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

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, the EU-funded BEST Whale:SWIM project aims 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, funded by Darwin Plus, 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 onc 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, the international team of eight researchers and 3 crew will investigate the health of the southern right whale population in its feeding ground in 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 will also measure genetic diversity and the health status of the population. The survey will use advanced acoustics to locate whales, once found the team will take photographs for photo-identification, collect skin samples, and attach satellite tags to identify and track them. Team members will fly drones over the whales to assess their body condition and general state of health.

Research vessel ‘Song of the Whale’ which will assist the team with the southern right whale survey. 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 sucess at South Georgia is a primary factor influencing their reporductve 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 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) and Happy Whale.

The BEST Whale:SWIM project is funded by EU BEST 2.0. Find out more about the project here.

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 from January to March 2018.  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 BEST Whale:SWIM 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 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.


Funded by EU BEST 2.0

Jennifer Jackson

Molecular Phylogeneticist

Ecosystems team

Cruise members

  Dr Emma CarrollUniversity of St Andrews, Scotland

 Dr Amy Kennedy – University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Oceans (JISAO)

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

 Susannah Calderan

 Russell Leaper – International Fund for Animal Welfare

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

Emilie Stepien – University of Southern Denmark

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

Steph Martin

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1 November, 2018

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