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Southern Right Whale Program

Scientists Employ Satellite Tags To Solve Whale-Sized Mystery

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For the first time, scientists working in the waters of Patagonia are using satellite tags to remotely track southern right whales from their breeding/calving grounds in the sheltered bays of Península Valdés, Argentina, to unknown feeding grounds somewhere in the western South Atlantic. This could eventually provide clues to the cause of one of the largest great whale die-off ever recorded.

The international effort for answers includes members from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Aqualie Institute of Brazil, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Cascadia Research Collective, working in cooperation with Fundación Patagonia Natural, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas / Ocean Alliance, the University of California, Davis, the Dirección de Flora y Fauna (Wildlife Service), la Secretaría de Turismo, el Ministerio de Ambiente (Ministry of the Environment) of Argentina’s Chubut Province.

The announcement was made as conservationists are holding the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia – a once-in-a-decade global forum on protected areas.

Said Dr. Graham Harris, Director of WCS’s Argentina Program: “A provincial protected area and a key area with a long history of work by WCS, Peninsula Valdés was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in June of 2014 due to its importance to protect both terrestrial wildlife and marine species along its waters. As the World Parks Congress in Sydney is underway, it is imperative to highlight the importance of protected areas like Peninsula Valdes to safeguard unique wildlife and habitats.”

satellite tagging southern right whalesOver the past month, the team succeeded in affixing satellite transmitters to five southern right whales, a difficult task conducted during varying weather conditions in Golfo Nuevo, one of the two protected gulfs of Península Valdés and an important breeding ground for the southern right whale.

Vicky Rowntree, director of Ocean Alliance’s Right Whale Program comments: “It’s incredibly exciting to follow the daily movements of individual whales which we usually see only one day a year, at most, when we conduct our annual photo-identification surveys. The tagged whale that traveled southwest for a bit and then retraced its path was fascinating–why did it change its direction, what was it looking for and what did it find? By matching photographs of right whales taken in places far from the Peninsula Valdes, we’ve known for years that some PV mothers calve off Brazil in alternate years and that three PV whales traveled to feed in the krill-rich waters in the western South Atlantic off the island of South Georgia. These snapshots in time have been extremely important in delineating the population’s habitat but satellite tracking is allowing us to follow day-to-day movements and understand they make, the paths they follow and if the tags keep transmitting, hopefully, their feeding destinations. I can’t wait to search for the tagged whales in our PV catalogue of 3,000 individuals that have been photographed at PV over the past 44 years and attach life histories to their journeys.”

Over the past decade, southern right whale calves have died in unprecedented numbers (more than 400 between 2003-2011) for reasons still unclear to scientists. Different hypotheses for this mortality have been considered, including disease, certain types of contaminant, and harassment and wounding by kelp gulls, a frequent occurrence in Península Valdés.

southern right whale callositiesThis new research will help assess where the whales are feeding, namely if there could be any threats to the whales along their migration route or on their feeding grounds and if the research team can conduct additional tagging and studies to determine any issues associated with food or nutritional stress causing calf loss by some mothers.

Said Mariano Sironi, Scientific Director of the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas in Argentina: “This project follows the recommendations made by the International Whaling Commission when it analyzed the recent increase in right whale calf mortality in Península Valdés. It is the result of the cooperation between non-governmental organizations, universities and government agencies. The scientific data resulting from this project will provide a new scale to our understanding of southern right whale behavior. Differences in movement patterns among the tagged individuals will certainly be fascinating.”

The deployed tags will transmit the geographical position and behavioral information of the animals up to Earth-orbiting satellites multiple times a day, allowing researchers to follow whales remotely. The researchers selected calving females and solitary juveniles for satellite tagging in order to glean insights into habitat use and migratory movements for different sex and age groups.

satellite tagging southern right whalesData accumulated thus far reveal unprecedented information for southern right whales: real-time information on long-range movements across marine regions. Two of the five whales have remained in the waters of Golfo Nuevo, while the other three have already left the bay. One of the animals is currently in deep waters of the South Atlantic, one has been spending its time over the continental shelf, and another has moved into deep offshore waters, but has returned to the continental shelf break. Movements from all whales have lead researchers to some areas where the tagged animals are likely feeding, and further discoveries of feeding grounds for this population may be revealed as the team tracks the movements of tagged animals.

Growing up to 55 feet in length and weighing up to 60 tons, the southern right whale is the most abundant species of the world’s three species of right whale. Unlike the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales (both Endangered), southern rights have managed to rebound from centuries of commercial whaling, with populations that have grown by as much as approximately seven percent annually since 1970. Of the estimated total population of southern right whales found throughout the entire Southern Hemisphere, around one third use the protected bays of Península Valdés as a breeding and calving habitat between the months of June and December.

Source: http://www.wcs.org/press/press-releases/scientists-working-on-whale-sized-mystery.aspx

 

Southern Right Whale Aerial Survey Results

By | oct14, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

BLOG 3 – 17 September 2014

The Right Whale Program Research Update from the Field in Patagonia

The research season with the southern right whales at Península Valdés is progressing with good news. John Atkinson and I completed the 44th annual right whale photo-identification survey with a record number of whales seen: 757, most of which were mothers with their newborn calves. The first day we completed the survey of the northern bay, Golfo San José, and the second day we did Golfo Nuevo, the southern bay. This year there is a suprisingly large difference in the number of whales in each gulf, with nearly three times more whales in Golfo Nuevo than in San José. Read More

Returning to Whale Camp

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BLOG 1 – 3 September 2014

Greetings from Patagonia! We are just starting the 44th field research season of the Right Whale Program at Península Valdés, Argentina. Diego Taboada, José Carracedo and I drove from Buenos Aires down to Patagonia. The 17-hour drive took us from the great city to the isolated beauty of Whale Camp, the research station on the shores of Golfo San José. Not only were the whales waiting for us… an amazing group of young guanacos also greeted us at night! A very beautiful sight. Read More

Our Right Whale Team to Present at IWC Meeting on Increased Calf Mortality

By | aug14, Ocean Alliance News, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

Researchers from our Southern Right Whale Program, our partners at Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program will be presenting five abstracts (listed below) at an International Whaling Commission meeting that will be held on Aug 5-6, 2014 in Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Read More

A Happy Discovery from our Southern Right Whale Program

By | jun14, Ocean Alliance News, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

If you’ve ever been on a whale watch, you’ve no doubt seen a naturalist busy snapping photos of the whales encountered. Far from taking pretty pictures, in most cases the naturalist is taking shots to identify and record the sighting of individual whales. With whales who are recurring visitors, they can track their life histories–their health, births, and wounds, and by comparing photographs with those of other organizations they can track migration patterns. Read More

A Comprehensive New Look at the Threats Facing Southern Right Whales

By | Ocean Alliance News, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

Roger Payne in Patagonia - Photo by Flip NicklinSince Roger Payne began studying the southern right whales of Península Valdés, Argentina with Vicky Rowntree in the early seventies, threats to the whales have changed with the times, and a recent uptick in calf mortalities is raising new questions. Originally targeted by whalers as the “right whale to kill” because of its slow speed and tendency to float, this most endangered of the great whales faces challenges from diseases to the latest — kelp gull attacks.

With these new challenges have come new cooperation between organizations studying the southern right whale. Jasjeet Dhanota has put together a comprehensive look at the threats facing the southern right whales of Península Valdés in the latest issue of Evotis, the quarterly publication of UC Davis One Health Institute. She has interviewed many of the researchers on the ground about their work, including Vicky Rowntree, and Mariano Sironi of Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas.

Gull attacks - Photo by Mariano Sironi -The article also includes a video about the kelp gull attacks by former Voyage of the Odyssey team members Chris and Genevieve Johnson, who now run Whale Trackers — a series of online documentary programs about cetaceans.

Read the full article here.

The Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Whale Conservation Institute/Ocean Alliance, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and Fundación Patagonia Natural; and by universities including the University of California, Davis and the University of Utah. The US National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Marine Mammal Commission helped establish the program, and it is supported today by donations from foundations, private donors, and NGOs

Vicky Rowntree Speaks to BBC News About Counting Whales from Space

By | feb14, Ocean Alliance News, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

Southern Right Whale ID - Photo by John AtkinsonThe news broke this week that scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, led by Peter Fretwell, have created new satellite technologies that will allow researchers to conduct whale surveys from space instead of the traditional aerial and land-based surveys.

The BBC News spoke to our Right Whale Program Director Vicky Rowntree about our work with southern right whales in Argentina and what this new technology will mean for the future of whale research. Listen to the interview here.

SHARING DAYS WITH JANE GOODALL AND ROGER PAYNE IN PATAGONIA

By | Ocean Alliance News, Roger Payne, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

Roger Payne and Jane Goodall on beachTo wake up in the morning and find a lovely woman in the kitchen preparing a cup of hot coffee for breakfast.

To walk out the door and see a tall man on the porch, reading a book or writing some notes in his computer.

To cook and look out the window and see this woman and this man walking along the beach in front of the house and having a lively conversation.

These and other moments wouldn’t have been so special (in fact, so amazingly special!) for us if this woman and this man weren’t Jane Goodall and Roger Payne. But they are. And they are special (amazingly special!) people. Read More

ROGER PAYNE BRINGS JANE GOODALL TO WHALE CAMP

By | Ocean Alliance News, Roger Payne, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

 

Jane Goodall and Chimp - Photo by Michael NeugebauerRoger

Forty-three years ago Roger Payne built a shelter on the beach at Peninsula Valdes in Argentina to study the southern right whale. At the same time, Jane Goodall was living in the jungles of Tanzania studying her chosen species –  the chimpanzee. Each feared for the survival of their study subject and both have worked continuously since then to educate the world about conservation.  Read More

OCEAN ALLIANCE’S PARTNER ORGANIZATION IN ARGENTINA, INSTITUTO DE CONSERVACION DE BALLENAS (ICB), WINS PRESTIGIOUS ENVIRONMENTAL AWARD

By | Ocean Alliance News, Roger Payne, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

On September 27, 2013 Diego Alejandro Taboada, President of ICB, received a phone call.  According to the caller, ICB had received the BBVA Foundation’s Award for Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America for “its extraordinary contribution over more than forty years to the understanding and conservation of the southern right whale.” Read More

JUST ANOTHER DAY AT WHALE CAMP – RAINBOW AND MOTHER/CALF PARADE!

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BLOG 7 September 6, 2013

An amazing day today!

Rainbow Over Whale Camp - Photo by Vicky Rowntree Just after the airflight team left to survey the whales, the rising sun created a beautiful rainbow that arched over the cliff-top observation site and appeared to land in the water directly in front of whale camp. After a dousing rain, I hiked to the cliffs and found a spot protected from the strong wind behind a broad bush to leave my backpack full of gear. Just as I dropped my pack I heard a loud blow beneath me and quickly unpacked the camera to take identification photographs of the white markings on the head of the whale that was passing by.  What followed was amazing!! Read More

ALARMING NUMBER OF SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE CALF FATALITIES

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BLOG 6 – September 2013 – Research Station in Península Valdés

Dead Right Whale Calf 2008 - Photo by Iain KerrI make “focal animal follows” of mothers and their calves to determine the amount of time they spend in high and low energy behaviors. The Península Valdés right whales have a big problem.  An unusually high number of calves have died on this calving ground since 2005. Read More

PARENTING YOUR TWO TON BUNDLE OF JOY

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BLOG 5 – September 2013 – Research Station in Península Valdés

Cliff Observation Site - Photo by Vicki RowntreeWhenever the wind is not blowing too hard, I spend my time on the cliffs of Península Valdés watching mother/calf pairs as they pass beneath me on their way to and from camp bay. I choose a mother/calf pair that is swimming along the coast towards me and continuously record the behavior of each whale until they pass out of sight. “Focal animal follows” are a wonderful way to get to know individual whales and learn how they spend their day. Read More

YET ANOTHER THREAT TO WHALES – GULL ATTACKS

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BLOG 4 – 1 September 2013 – at the Research Station in Península Valdés

Gull Attack on Right Whale We spent the day recording behavioral data from the cliffs. Vicky records the behavior of right whale mothers and calves, and their respiration rate as a way to estimate their body condition. I began our annual monitoring of the frequency of gull attacks on the whales. Kelp gulls have learned to feed on the skin and blubber of live whales at Península Valdés. The gulls land and peck on the back of the whales, opening lesions and affecting the whales’ behavior. Read More

THE FINGERPRINTS OF THE RIGHT WHALE – CALLOSITIES

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BLOG 3 – 30 August 2013 – from Península Valdés

Guanacos in Patagonia - Photo by Iain KerrWe spent a good part of this week at technical meetings and running errands in Puerto Madryn, the city nearest to Península Valdés. It is now 6:30 PM on a calm afternoon. As I write this, I am sitting in the truck in the middle of nowhere, looking at the endless shrubland around me, while a family of guanacos (the South American camels) walks slowly among the thorny bushes. We drove to this particular spot because it is one of the few “high” places where we can get cell phone signal to connect to the outside world, send and receive messages, make phone calls… and wait for a friend. Read More

THE OLD MAN AND THE WHALE

By | Southern Right Whale Program, Whales | No Comments

The Old Man and the WhaleAs the Right Whale team arrives in Patagonia for our 43rd field season we wanted to share with you a unique opportunity to learn more about Península Valdés – the people, the setting and the whales. The Old Man and the Whale is a small treasure of a book that will transport you to our whale camp, written by a man who knows it well. John Atkinson has been traveling to Patagonia from Canada every year for over 21 years, for the sole purpose of hanging out of an airplane to take aerial photos of the whales. He has immersed himself in the culture, so it only made sense for him as a full-time writer to write a story about a place he loves. Read More

INTRODUCING MARIANO SIRONI – RIGHT WHALE PROGRAM SCIENTIFIC DIRECTOR

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Mariano and tail - Aug 2010I was born and raised in Córdoba, in central Argentina, several hundred kilometers away from the sea. Although I was only six years old, I vividly remember the first time I saw the ocean. It was on a summer vacation with my family in the coast of Uruguay, close to the Brazilian border. We camped for two weeks in a beautiful national park with long beaches in the western South Atlantic. Read More

OUR 43RD FIELD SEASON IN PATAGONIA BEGINS

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Southern Right Whale Mother and CalfRight whales are the most endangered of great whales. When Dr. Roger Payne started gathering data on the Southern Right whale in Peninsula Valdez, Argentina in 1970 he was concerned that this species might be lost forever and so Ocean Alliance’s Southern Right Whale Program began.

For centuries, right whales were hunted mercilessly. Early whalers called them “the right whales to kill” because they are slow, have a thick blubber layer that produces abundant oil, and float when dead. Southern right whales were protected internationally in 1935. As whalers stopped hunting right whales, the populations in the southern hemisphere have recovered substantially, although they are still below their pre-whaling sizes.

Over the last 43 years we have conducted aerial surveys monitoring the right whale populations, our catalog now contains over 3,000 photo-identified individual right whales from Península Valdés, Argentina. Important findings on the biology of right whales were obtained using benign, non-lethal techniques. Among other things, we now know that females reproduce on average once every three years, their mean age at first parturition is 9 years, the annual rate of population increase is 5.1%, juveniles use breeding grounds to socialize with other juveniles and to potentially learn important behaviors, and right whales can shift their distribution along the shorelines of Península Valdés over decades.

The documented growth of the population of southern right whales in Argentina has been regarded for several decades as a sign of hope that recovery can occur in a whale species, but recent mortality events suggest that this population of whales may be less healthy and robust than previously thought. This reinforces the importance of continuing our research and monitoring efforts to help understand the population trends and their causes.

Southern Right Whale The great whales are important indicators of ocean health because they consume such large quantities of food and occupy home ranges that span thousands of miles. The Patagonian right whale population is recognized as one of the best indicators of the response of baleen whales to climate change in the Southern Ocean because the reproductive histories of so many of its individuals have been recorded continuously for four decades. Continuing the annual aerial surveys of the Patagonian right whale population is essential for understanding the health of this population and its extremely important western South Atlantic ecosystem.

“The (Right Whale) data you (Ocean Alliance) hold would no doubt be the single most valuable source of information on whales and their environment available… there really is nothing else out there quite as good.”
– Steve Reilly, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The Patagonian Right Whale Program is now a collaborative effort of Ocean Alliance and Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB), an Argentine nonprofit founded by Roxana Schteinbarg and Diego Taboada, based in Buenos Aires. For more information please visit the the ICB website or the English version.

We look forward to sharing with you our 43rd field season in Argentina in the coming weeks.