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.
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.
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 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.
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