Rare whale song captured in the Southern Ocean

Feature story - January 8, 2008
Earlier this week, our crew on the Esperanza awoke to find themselves surrounded by at least 50 humpback whales feeding in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Leandra, our on-board scientist, captured some rare and unique underwater sounds as part of our ongoing research programme.

A whale and her young calf.

You don't need to fire an exploding harpoon into a whale and kill it in order to study it. While we deploy hydrophones and take photographs as our Great Whale Trail expedition continues, we are proving that the scientific excuse for killing whales is a sham and we are demanding that the Japanese government stop the whale hunt in the Southern Ocean.  This week we added research into whale song to the satellite tracking, skin biopsy, and photo identification work in which we've been collaborating with scientists from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Cook Islands Whale Research, and Opération Cétacés (New Caledonia).


Humpback whales are the only whales that truly "sing", and it is only the males that do it, usually when they are in their tropical breeding grounds. But sometimes songs are heard while the whales are migrating and very occasionally when they are feeding. So this recording of a humpback singing in the Southern Ocean is very valuable for research on humpback behaviour. Nobody really knows why they sing but one of the most popular scientific theories is that the males use it to show off to the females -- in much the same way peacocks have elaborate tails in order to try and attract a potential mate.

While Esperanza's crew documented this baleen banquet for science, spectators from around in the world were able to take part in a virtual whale watching trip via the newly updated live web cam on the ship, which provided a fantastic view from the top of the ship's mast.

Greenpeace's collaboration with scientists in the South Pacific to track humpbacks via satellite has already yielded results which scientists have called "amazing."  In stark contrast, the Japanese Fisheries Agency's Research Programme has been dismissed by the International Whaling Commission as having very little scientific value.  It is, essentially, a hoax -- with the results of the research turning up on supermarket shelves, restaurant menus and even dog food rather than in scientific journals.

On board, the BBC's Jonah Fisher wrote in his diary:

A month ago the Japanese fleet was still planning to kill 50 humpbacks as part of their scientifically licensed whaling programme. If they had been in the same spot as the Greenpeace ship today, they could probably have got their quota in one go. In every direction there were humpbacks surfacing - and with their curious nature it would have made an easy day for the harpoonist.

The Japanese whaling fleet is currently in the Southern Ocean to slaughter up to 935 minke whales and 50 endangered fin whales. While the crew of the Esperanza will defend the whales from the harpoons they will also continue to show how to carry out real whalescience demonstrating that the only way a scientist shoots a whale iswith a camera.

On December 22nd, the Japanese government backed down in the face of pressure from Greenpeace supporters, whale advocates, and conservation-minded governments, announcing that they would not hunt humpbacks this season.

But we have heard that plans are being made to build a brand new whaling factory ship -- a larger ship than the Nisshin Maru, one capable of processing many more whales. It will be built at a cost of billions of yen in Japanese taxpayers money.  Such a ship would be built specifically to kill and process thousands of whales, including humpbacks in the future.  Japanese tax payers must be wondering why they are paying scandalous sums of money for a sham science programme which results in tonnes of whale meat being stockpiled. Surely there are better things to spend that money on.