Tracking whales from space

Feature story - 11 October, 2007
Every year humpback whales migrate thousands of kilometres from the warmth of the South Pacific to their feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. It is a journey full of danger, as the whales must now contend with numerous threats along the way. From entanglement in fishing gear to the effects of climate change. And this year, for the first time in 20 years they will arrive in the sanctuary and have to contend with the whalers' harpoons.

A Humpback whale swims past the Cook Island whale research boat, enjoying the warm water and the protected reefs of Rarotonga (Cook Islands).

It is a journey that has until now been a mystery. We know where the whales breed, in the warm waters of the South Pacific and where the whales feed, in the iceberg filled waters of the Southern Ocean. The journey the whales take between these two distant places however, is unknown.

The mystery may finally be revealed this year because we are collaborating with scientists from Opération Cétacés in New Caledonia and the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation (CCRC) in the Cook Islands to find out where the whales go on their epic migration.

The scientists at Opération Cétacés and CCRC have placed satellite tags on 20 humpback whales and we are now receiving regular updates from the satellites on the whales locations as they travel along the 'Great Whale Trail'. The satellite data isn't just for the scientists though, you can follow the whales with our interactive google map.

Looking at the map already raises some fascinating questions, for real and amateur scientists alike. The whales from the Cook Islands are heading in a westerly direction, not south as you might expect. Some of the whales are even swimming away from the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary!

Maybe they are swimming towards a current that sweeps across the Pacific Ocean to the east coast of Australia before turning south. Maybe there is another other ocean feature they are heading for that we don't know about.

The whales from New Caledonia are also showing some fascinating behaviour with most of them heading south as expected but fanning out over a huge area, not staying together. One of the New Caledonia whales is heading west to the Australian coast.

As well as the map of the whales migration and profiles of the whales, you can also sign up for your free 'Whale Mail' which gives regular updates on the whales migration, threats they face along the way and all other whale related action, and you can also be part of a competition to name some of the whales!

By collaborating with Opération Cétacés and CCRC, we are supporting important, non-lethal research into the migration of humpback whales.

By combining the satellite data with other non-lethal research like biopsy darts (small pieces of skin and blubber that can be DNA analysed) and scientific observation, the final mysteries about the lives of humpback whales can be unravelled without harming the whales.

This research, is in stark contrast to the unnecessary, fake research that the Japanese Fisheries Agency carries out each year by killing around 1,000 whales in the Southern Ocean.

After swimming thousands of kilometres to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary the whales should be safe. The whales we are tracking however, could be in the sights of the whalers in just a couple of months time.

To keep up to date with all the  latest whale news, sign up below for your regular 'Whale Mail'.

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