Killer Whale Research

Studying the impact of climate change on Antarctica’s top predator and its prey

Since 2011, Lindblad Expeditions­-National Geographic has supported ongoing killer whale research* in Antarctica conducted by Dr. John Durban, Dr. Holly Fearnbach, and Bob Pitman with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. This research is revealing the importance of killer whales as top predators in Antarctica’s rapidly warming environment, which will help scientists understand the impact of these changes on this important marine ecosystem.

Aboard Zodiacs dispatched from National Geographic Explorer, the researchers deploy satellite tags to track killer whale movements and migration, to identify key foraging habitats, and assess the impact of their predation. Their research has revealed the deepest dives recorded by any of the world’s killer whales (greater than 2000ft) and documented a remarkable “maintenance migration” of Antarctic killer whales to the edge of the tropics and back (over 5,000 miles round trip), presumably to recover from the demands of foraging in the freezing Antarctic waters.

The researchers also collect tiny skin biopsy samples from individual whales. DNA analysis has revealed that what scientists thought was previously one type of killer whale in Antarctica is actually five separate types. Each type has its own prey preference and hunting techniques, which means that climate change will impact different types of killer whales in unique ways.

Photography plays a big role in the scientists’ research as well. For the first time in 2016, researchers used an unmanned hexacopter to take aerial photos of killer whales from 100 feet above the water. They use these photographs to recognize individual whales from natural markings, measure size and assess body condition from year to year, and estimate abundance and population trends.

To learn more about killer whale research supported by the LEX-­NG Fund, read a blog entry here.

* Research authorized by U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service Permit No. 14097­06.

The Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund aims to protect the last wild places in the ocean while facilitating conservation, research, education, and community development programs in the places we explore. If you would like to learn more about projects supported by the LEX-NG Fund worldwide, please contact the Fund by email. To support our work by making a contribution to the LEX-NG Fund, click here.

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