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Small Boat, Large Whales

Just before suppertime on Friday evening the krill team sent out a radio broadcast: they’d spotted five humpback whales feeding just off Outcast Island. The two whale biologists at Palmer Station grabbed their orange float coats and asked if we wanted to come along. What happened over the next three hours was well worth missing dinner.

The team studies whales and dolphins by sampling minute amounts of their skin and blubber. The work entails following enormous creatures in very small boats over a cold, deep ocean. It reminded me of the old tales of whaling, except thankfully we weren’t trying to kill whales—we were trying to learn more about their population size, diet, and genetics. Click through the slideshow to learn more about humpback whales and how the team studies them:

Iceberg and WhaleA Rotten Start to a Long CareerBroader Than Our BoatA Fast-Paced Game of Who's WhoA Tell-Tale TailA Moving TargetFishing With a Net of AirQuite a MouthfulA Fine Coating of Whale Breath

Dr. Read and Swaim are part of a four-person team studying whales along the Antarctic Peninsula. The other two, project leader Dr. Ari Friedlaender of Oregon State University and Dr. David Johnston of Duke, are to the south of us on the Laurence M. Gould, the ship that brought us here. Humpback whales were severely overhunted in the early twentieth century, and this research will help scientists understand how the whales are recovering. It’s illegal to hunt or harass whales, and the scientists on the team have to get two sets of permits in order to be allowed to do their research. The restrictions help make sure the research doesn’t harm the whales. Over the past 15 years, tens of thousands of whales and dolphins have been safely sampled by researchers using these methods. We’ll take a closer look at how the sampling procedure works in an upcoming post.

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