Killer whales are instantly recognizable and live in all the world’s oceans, but relatively little is known about their habits in remote locations such as Antarctica. These largest members of the dolphin family are the top predators in the Antarctic marine environment and a deeper understanding of their ecology can provide key information on the functioning of the Earth’s most rapidly changing ecosystem.

Aerial photograph of a large group of killer whales in the Gerlache Strait, off the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Vertical aerial images like this can be used to measure the size and body condition of whales.
Photo by © Holly Fearnbach/John Durban, taken under NMFS Research Permit No. 19091 and Antarctic Conservation Act Permit ACA 2017-029

Since 2011 a group of marine mammal scientists have been supported by the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund to facilitate their ongoing killer whale research in Antarctica, and they will return in the upcoming season. A whale research team, led by SR3 scientist Dr. Holly Fearnbach with colleagues Dr. John Durban and Leigh Hickmott, will join three expeditions on the National Geographic Explorer—January 15, 25 and February 4, 2019—as they continue their ongoing studies into the health of whale populations in the rapidly warming waters around the Antarctic Peninsula.

Killer whales are the oceans’ top predators, but observations of their predation are rare. This attack on a gentoo penguin was photographed from the National Geographic Explorer. Photo by © Holly Fearnbach

The team will use a small, unmanned hexacopter drone to study three highly visible whale species: a top predator, the killer whale, and two top krill consumers, the humpback and Antarctic minke whale. The drone will be used to collect high-resolution vertical images that will be analyzed to measure the size and body condition of individual whales, as well as exhaled breath samples (“blow”) from humpback and minke whales to measure microorganisms in the respiratory tract, a common source of whale disease. This study will compare these health metrics to other regions around the world to diagnose and describe current health of whales around the Antarctic Peninsula, and consequently the status of the ecosystem upon which they depend for food.

An unmanned hexacopter hovers over an Antarctic minke whale during a blow sample collection. Photo by © Leigh Hickmott, with research conducted under NMFS Permit No. 19091 and Antarctic Conservation Act Permit ACA 2017-029.

Their research has revealed the deepest dives recorded by any of the world’s killer whales (>2000ft) and documented a remarkable “maintenance migration” of Antarctic killer whales to the edge of the tropics and back (>5,000-mile round trip), presumably to recover from the demands of foraging in the freezing Antarctic waters. Their research is not all high-tech, however: they also use photographs to recognize individual whales from natural markings and estimate abundance and population trends, and often use photographs contributed by guests and naturalists on board the National Geographic Explorer.

Killer whales are frequently observed during Antarctic expeditions aboard National Geographic Explorer, providing researchers with the opportunity to learn about their ecology. Photo by © John Durban

Read more about science aboard National Geographic Explorer at The Atlantic and CBS NewsTo travel with these whale researchers, join us aboard our Journey to Antarctica in 2019. 

 

 

 

 

 

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