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British Antarctic Survey team from Cambridge to study health of whales that were hunted to the brink

By Paul Brackley

A southern right whale. Picture: Carlos Olavarria
A southern right whale. Picture: Carlos Olavarria

First scientific survey since whaling ceased in the 1970s

The BAS research vessel Song of the Whale. Picture: Susannah Calderan / BAS
The BAS research vessel Song of the Whale. Picture: Susannah Calderan / BAS

A British Antarctic Survey team has departed for the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia to carry out the first scientific whale survey since whaling ceased in the 1970s.

Nearly 300 years of hunting in the South Atlantic decimated populations of southern right whales but populations were expected to recover when commercial operations stopped.

Now an international team of eight researchers and three crew will spend five weeks on the research vessel Song of the Whale to investigate what has happened to them in their breeding grounds.

They also aim to solve the puzzle of why large numbers of dead whale calves have washed up on the shores of Argentina over the last decade.

Whale ecologist Dr Jennifer Jackson, from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge, is leading the expedition cruise and said: “Very little is known about southern right whales around South Georgia. We want to know how many use these waters, where and what they are feeding on, and how healthy they are.

“Ultimately we want to understand how the population is recovering from centuries of whaling and to help unravel the mystery of why so many calves have been dying over the last 10 years.”

Using satellite tagging and photo identification – right whales have patches of very rough, white skin on their heads unique to every individual – research has shown seasonal migrations of right whales between South Georgia waters and their calving ground at Península Valdés in Argentina.

But the area has had a high number of calf mortalities and there is growing evidence South Georgia’s environmental conditions influence the breeding success of these whales, with the availability of food a key factor.

Using advanced acoustic techniques previously used to find blue whales, the researchers will locate the whales through their vocalisation or songs, then photograph them, take skin samples and attach satellite tags. Drones will be flown over to assess their condition and general health.

Right whales were so-called because their slow swimming speed, inquisitive nature and the fact that they floated when killed made them the ‘right’ species to hunt.

Their oil was used in many products, including margarine and soap, and in lamps and vehicles.

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