Citizen science and social media impact of ecological research: (II) Watching whales

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Southern Right Whale breaching in Augusta

Background

Welcome! This is the second of seven posts in our blog series: “Citizen science and social media impact of ecological research: Study on southern right whales in South West Australia“. In the blog series, we give a citizen science perspective of our study on southern right whales to help you understand the work done by marine biologists in the field. Please see bottom of this blog post for an overview of future blogs in the series. This second post below explains the process of watching whales for scientific and research purposes.
The overall aim of developing this blog series is to explore possibilities for communication of marine research activities and study the role of social media and citizen science in ecological research.

(2/7) Where to find Southern Right Whales

The first step for field research is knowing where to find the whales. Our team had prior knowledge of the time of year and specific breeding grounds for Southern Right Whales in Australia. But even knowing specific locations, researchers need a good dose of patience, as it can take hours before you can see a whale in the targeted area. The areas monitored are typically in sheltered bays and close to the shore, where mum and calf pairs can be found.

Whales can be seen from the shore and surrounding cliffs or from boats. For this particular study, MUCRU makes use of a small power-boat allowing a maximum of 4 or 5 researchers on-board. In the previous post, we explained how the location and available facilities play a key role to facilitate fieldwork.

Video: Watching whales for scientific and research purposes

From the vessel, your sight is at the level of the water surface and whales swim peacefully just under the surface, making them difficult to spot. Some signs help to make them more visible, like their breathing. As whales reach the water surface to breathe, they expel air (blows) that creates a visible splash and sound. The breathing frequency varies depending on the age, individual, sex and behaviour. In regular conditions it can range from 2 to 5 minutes. Sometimes, whales also jump out of the water (this is called breaching), and can even perform some aerial stunts, but this is rarer to witness.

Approaching the whales from the vessel

Once you have located the whales that can be subject of study, the researchers approach them gently and slowly on a boat. A non-written rule known by many biologists and aboriginal people is “if you look after nature, nature will look after you”. Of course taking care of nature and animals is not risk-free and researchers still face all the natural dangers of any wildlife environment, but it certainly shows an ethical attitude and prevents the whales from suffering unnecessary stress; understanding sustainable tourism and ecological management is one of the goals of the studies carried out by MUCRU.

Using drones, or more technically unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), is a very good alternative to avoid disturbance to wildlife during the study (see recent impact assessment research on this topic: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fmars.2016.00277/full ; https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2016.00277). For this study, our drone flies over the whales with the purpose of identifying whales individually and discerning which ones can be object of study before deciding to get physically closer to them. Drones can also be used to obtain non-intrusive recordings of wildlife behavior and perform data analyses, as we will explain in future posts.

Video: Mother and calf southern right whales in Augusta (aerial footage)

Watching whales: How long and How far?

A regular session of whale-watching fieldwork can take 5 to 6 hours, during which the research team tries to gather as much information as possible and make the best use of the available human and technical resources. This includes videos and pictures showing whales behaviour and movements, sound recordings, as well as sight and annotation of breathing patterns of the mother and calf.

This part of the research is also determined by weather conditions. Southern right whales breed during the Australian winter and some days the climate is simply not adequate to allow research work. Thus, when possible, the team focuses all their efforts to ensure an organized collection of data and a successful fieldwork.

A tracking system was used in our boat, showing data for the course of the day, distance, time, speed, etc. The image below shows the record for one of the successful days of fieldwork in Augusta.

Augusta vessel track 5 August

Research vessel GPS track for a fieldwork day in Flinders Bay, Augusta

Added to 5-6 hours of whale-watching, the outdoor part of the day can extend to a total of 9-10 hours, with little rest for the researchers. The tracking system is activated early in the morning and the 3-4 extra hours shown in the image above are dedicated to retrieving the Dtag, as we will explain in the next post.

Thanks to the contributor to this post:
Mia Lybkær, Aarhus University

Soon you will be able to navigate through the other sections of the blog series:

Citizen science and social media impact of ecological research: Study on southern right whales in South West Australia

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Thank you!

Victor Alvarez PhD
Victor Alvarez PhD
Senior Research Fellow at Murdoch University, Western Australia
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