The Antarctic blue whale is the largest creature in the world; it is also one of the most difficult animals to track. In fact, researchers have had such a hard time successfully tracking their activity that very little is known about how the animal feeds and migrates. But an Australian-led group of scientists recently found a way to successfully track these massive giants.
Researcher Virginia Andrews-Goff and a team of researchers spent seven weeks tracking the whales, working around the clock in small boats in the freezing waters of Antarctica. During their expedition, they picked up the deep, complex vocals of the enormous whales. Those vocals were then used to track the animals in real time. Eventually, the team was brought to a group of whales in the Southern Ocean, an area of water in which Antarctic blue whales are rarely seen.
“The acoustics led us to the whales,” Andrews-Goff told AFP. “They are quiet, almost alien-like, deep, resonating sounds. They are quite intense. Very interesting to listen to.”
In their six-meter boats, the researchers sat alongside the massive creatures. It was an experience that Andrews-Goff won’t soon forget.
“I felt like an ant next to one of these massive whales. They are huge,” she said.
To get a better idea of how Andrews-Goff and her team felt, Environment Minister Tony Burke explains just how large these humongous creatures are.
“The Antarctic blue whale can grow to over 30 meters in length and weigh up to 180 tons. It’s tongue is heavier than an elephant and its heart is as bit as a small car,” Environment Minister Tony Burke told AFP. “Even the largest dinosaur was smaller than the blue whale.”
But the scientists were able to do more than just track and sit alongside the whales; they were able to collect a total of 23 biopsies from the whales. They also managed to satellite tag two whales. And though one of the trackers stopped working after 17 days and the other is working erratically, the information gathered will give the scientists never-before obtained information about the whale’s 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 told The Nation. “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. 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. So the information that we can get from these tags is really useful.”