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Researchers leave port to search for and tag Blue whales in Antarctica

28/01/2013 23:18:10
whales/2012/blue_whale_aad

Blue whale feeding (Photo: Australian Antarctic Division)

Voyage in search of the world's largest creature

January 2013. A team of international whale researchers have sailed from Hobart in search of the biggest creature on Earth, the Antarctic blue whale. The scientists from Australia, United States, United Kingdom, Chile and New Zealand, will use newly-developed passive acoustic sonobuoy methods to track and locate the elusive animals across hundreds of kilometres in the Southern Ocean.

Antarctic Blue Whale Project
Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke said this is the inaugural voyage of the Antarctic Blue Whale Project which aims to estimate the abundance, distribution and behaviour of the species.

Mr Burke said "The Antarctic blue whale can grow to over 30 metres 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. Even the largest dinosaur was smaller than the blue whale. Despite their colossal size we know very little about the animals, including where they breed and feed, and how many remain in our oceans today after industrial whaling slaughtered more than 340,000 of them in the early 1900s."

The researchers will target areas thought to be frequented by the blue whales along the ice edge west of the Ross Sea. If survey methods are successful in locating the whales, photographs of the animals' flanks and biopsy samples will be taken to build individual sighting histories that will assist in estimating population size.

Blue whale were hunted to the edge of extinction, and still little is known about them. This project aims to reveal some of their secrets. Photo credit Paul Goldstein.

Blue whale were hunted to the edge of extinction, and still little is known about them. This project aims to reveal some of their secrets. Photo credit Paul Goldstein.

Satellite tags
The 18-strong team will also work from small boats in freezing Antarctic conditions to deploy satellite tags on the animals.

Not necessary to kill whales for research - Unlike Japan
Burke added "We then aim to be able to track their movements within their Antarctic feeding grounds and potentially further north to their breeding areas. This research shows, in contrast to Japan's so called "scientific whaling" program, that you don't have to kill these majestic creatures to get valuable information about them."

The project is a flagship program of the international Southern Ocean Research Partnership (SORP) involving ten countries - Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa and the United States. SORP was initiated by Australia through the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to promote non-lethal research in the Southern Ocean.

"Today the Antarctic blue whale is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is of global interest as one of the most at risk baleen whale species in the Southern Ocean," Mr Burke said.

"The information gathered in this research will be supplied to the IWC to assist in the conservation and recovery of this iconic species."

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