An Australian-led group of scientists has for the first time tracked down and tagged Antarctic blue whales by using acoustic technology to follow their songs, the government said yesterday.
The blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, is rarely spotted in the Southern Ocean, but a group of intrepid researchers were able to locate and tag a number of the mammals after picking up on their deep and complex vocals.
Researcher Virginia Andrews-Goff said it was the first time acoustics have been used to lead researchers to the whales in real time, with those monitoring the whale noises working around the clock to pinpoint them.
“The acoustics led us to the whales,” she said. “They are quite, almost alien-like, deep resonating sounds. They are quite intense. Very interesting to listen to.”
Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke said the researchers, who spent seven weeks working from small boats in freezing Antarctic conditions, were captivated by the remarkable behavior of the whales they saw.
“The Antarctic blue whale can grow to over 30m in length and weigh up to 180 tonnes, its tongue alone is heavier than an elephant and its heart is as big as a small car,” Burke said. “Even the largest dinosaur was smaller than the blue whale.”
Andrews-Goff said the scientists were often out in boats only 6m in length, sitting alongside the 30m giants.
“I felt like an ant next to one of these massive whales. They are huge,” she said.
The scientists collected 23 biopsy samples and attached satellite tags to two of the whales, giving them never-before-obtained data on the animals’ movements during their summer feeding season and their foraging behavior.
“This method of studying Antarctic blue whales has been so successful it will now become the blueprint for other whale researchers across the world,” Andrews-Goff said.
“We know very little about Antarctic blue whales’ movement, we don’t really know migration patterns, we don’t really know if some animals migrate and some animals don’t,” she said. “We can assume that we know where the whales feed but by using these satellite tags we can actually see where they are spending a lot of their time and if that’s associated with environmental features like the sea ice edge.”