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An uncertain future

ISSUE 7
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The condition of marine mammals such as whales is a barometer for the health of our planet, as Angie Butler discovers on a research expedition in Antarctica


Sailing across an unusually calm Drake Passage towards the Antarctic Peninsula in the company of whale expert Dr. Ari Friedlaender, an acclaimed research scientist from Oregon State University, we were enchanted by the antics of dolphins surfing the bow wave. But what happened next was totally unexpected. From the bridge, Friedlaender, whose primary work is understanding the foraging behaviour between marine mammals and their prey, suddenly spotted two blue whales, the largest living mammals on earth, more than 80 feet long and weighing 150 tons apiece. These gargantuan cetaceans glided in slow motion ahead of the ship, graceful and silent but for their blows, ejecting 30-foot vertical spouts of water into the air. "This is only the third time I have seen blue whales in the Southern Ocean and the first time in the Drake Passage!" exclaimed an excited Friedlaender. "You have to remember that between 1904 and 2000, more than two million whales were slaughtered and 360,644 of those were blue whales. With only 2,000 of these magnificent creatures left in the Southern Ocean, we have experienced an exceptionally rare sighting."

 

For the next two weeks we would be under the tutelage of the charismatic Dr Friedlaender, tall, bearded and thickset, his hair drawn back into a ponytail and his patience unfaltering. At the end of a long day at sea in his Zodiac, tagging and taking samples from the whales, he would give illustrated talks followed by questions from passengers mesmerised by these near-mythical sea creatures. Intriguing, too, was his crossbow, the tool he uses to take samples from whales. By firing an arrow into the whale's side – which feels no worse than a mosquito bite, he says – the head of the arrow collects tissue biopsies before dropping into the water to be retrieved by the scientist. The samples are frozen and taken back to the labs, providing important data such as molecular, genetic and pollutant studies, stock structure, sex of the animal and population structures.

 

As the Antarctic summer was drawing to a close, this was a golden opportunity to study these titans during their feeding fest on krill, a small crustacean, before moving to warmer waters. Krill form vast shoals that live on phytoplankton and are key to the survival of marine mammals and penguins in the Southern Ocean. But as sea ice decreases around the Antarctic Peninsula due to global warming, so does krill. This critical food source, dependent on sea ice to feed and breed, has declined as much as 80% in the past 40 years.

 

Baleen whales such as blue, fin, minke and humpbacks depend on krill. Friedlaender suggests they could change their feeding habits by feeding elsewhere, whereas penguins and certain seal species would certainly be doomed. "I remember a season in Wilhelmina Bay, a few years back, where we counted 500 humpback whales feeding on an estimated 2.3 million tons of krill that measured 200m thick," he says. "Whether we will witness this again, I am not sure."

 

Whale hunting by the Japanese was also a prickly subject on board. Between the years of 1971 and 1981, Soviet and Japanese whalers caught 65,000 minke whales in Antarctic waters until banned by the International Whaling Commission. Japan claims that the killing of some 3,600 whales in the past 14 years has been for 'scientific purposes'. "We as scientists are proving that it is possible to conduct non-lethal research," says Friedlaender. "And very little, if any, of Japan's science has been shared internationally." The case to ban the hunting was brought to the UN's International Court of Justice by Australia and New Zealand and it was upheld. Unfortunately, Pacific waters weren't specifically mentioned in the ruling and Japan is now turning its attention to the North Pacific.

 

enormous challenges

 

It takes some 20 years for the science that Friedlaender and his colleagues are collating to give an accurate picture of what lies ahead for marine mammals in the Southern Ocean. Undeniably, there are already enormous challenges. Entanglement in fishing gear is common, as are collisions with ships. Marine mammals' reaction to sound, in particular sonar, is a real concern. Oil and gas exploration generate extreme seismic noise that travels for thousands of miles in the ocean, masking communication between whales. Noise pollution is most likely a contribution to the mortality rate of beached whales.

 

Yet climate change is the biggest threat. Krill need ice to breed and feed. Less ice, fewer krill, and a seismic change in how our marine wildlife will survive in the future. And lest we forget, whales and all marine creatures are the barometers of the condition of our oceans and in turn, our planet.

WAY TO GO

Dr Friedlaender will be on board One Ocean Expedition's ship Sergey Vavilov again from March 16-26, 2015. Fares from US$6,795 full board; flights are extra. Tel: 01926 641938 / ice-tracks.com).

 

This 11-day expedition can also be booked though Steppes Travel (Tel: 0843 636 8323 / steppestravel.co.uk) and WildWings (Tel: 0117 9658 333/ wildwings.co.uk). Guests will be able to help the scientists on board with their work, identifying and monitoring whales.

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