Right Whale Research

Right whales are the most endangered of the great whales. So tirelessly did whalers hunt them that even after 60 years of protection they are rarely seen in the North Pacific where they were once abundant. The tiny, remnant population of less than 400 right whales in the North Atlantic recently suffered a year without calves which raised concern that this population might be going extinct. This species was called the right whale because for centuries it was the “right whale to kill.” It swam slowly, its thick blubber caused it to float when dead and its baleen was worth a fortune. Right whales do not cross the equator, and we now know that the southern hemisphere population is a separate species. Its population is larger than the northern populations. Even though thesouthern hemisphere populations number in the thousands, they are far below pre-exploitation levels.

“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)

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Patagonia Right Whale Program

Right Whale ResearchThe long-term objective of The Right Whale Program is to promote the recovery of right whales on a worldwide basis through research, conservation and education. Right whales occupy a large portion of the world’s oceans. If we protect right whales, the animals that share their habitat will also be protected. The population of southern right whales that we study off Argentina is threatened by habitat destruction. We continue to improve our understanding of right whales, and those findings are incorporated into right whale protection plans in Argentina as well as globally.

Background

For the past 40 years, Ocean Alliance has studied a population of right whales that uses the bays of Península Valdés as a nursery ground–working closely for the past fourteen years with our sister organization, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB), in Argentina. It is the longest continuous study of any great whale based on known individuals. The study began in 1970 when Ocean Alliance president, Roger Payne, discovered that one could tell individual right whales apart by the differing patterns of white markings on their heads. He realized that by following the lives of individuals, one could learn far more about the whales than was being learned from dead whales by scientists who worked with the whaling industry.

This Project is now directed in the U.S. by Dr. Victoria Rowntree, and in Argentina by Dr. Mariano Sironi. Today, many of the animals Roger identified in 1970 still return to the Peninsula, but now their new calves are accompanied by the calves of their daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters. The value of such a long-term study increases exponentially as each new year of data gets added to it. Ocean Alliance now follows the lives of more than 2,600 known individual right whales.

Through annual surveys and focused investigations, Ocean Alliance has created a detailed picture of right whale biology and an invaluable record of the population’s growth, distribution and habitat preferences. The techniques that Ocean Alliance pioneered are now used to study endangered whale species throughout the world.

Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas
 

2010 Right Whale Field Report

Ocean Alliance’s sister organization, Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (ICB), reports from Península Valdés.

Sunsets in Península Valdés have the magic of ever-changing reality. Some are golden, red and violet; others are deeply light blue. Today’s sunset is a curtain of heavy, dark gray clouds announcing the rain we would like to feel in this dry season. As I write, I look at the whales resting in Golfo San José, perhaps unaware of the water that will soon fall from the skies. Surrounded by fluids since before they are born and throughout their lives, whales move in a three dimensional universe of water. Every year we, the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB)/Ocean Alliance researchers, come to this world, foreign and familiar at the same time, seeking to learn more about the lives of these magnificent animals.

This year we do it with the responsibility of carrying out the 40th season of the Patagonia Right Whale Program. Started by Dr. Roger Payne in 1970, it is the longest continuous study of a baleen whale species based on following the lives of known individual whales.

Aerial Survey

On September 25th and 26th, we carried out aerial photo-identification surveys of the right whales that returned to Península Valdés in 2010, flying with pilot Oscar Fratesi, from Trelew Aeroclub. Diego Taboada arranged the survey logistics, John Atkinson was in charge of the photos, and Mariano Sironi and Marcos Ricciardi recorded the number of whales photographed, their age class, their location along the perimeter of the peninsula, and the presence of dead whales on the beaches.

Our surveys are aimed at whale photo-identification, not counts. The flight pattern we use is therefore different from the one used in whale counts. However, we do count the number of whales seen to record the trends in their numbers throughout the years. Through these counts, we know there are more whales now than there were 15 years ago.

In two days of slight wind, we took some 3,000 pictures of all the whales seen in Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San Jose. These photographs show the callosity patterns on the whales heads, which will allow Vicky Rowntree to identify them. Analyzing the aerial survey photographs allows us to update the data about known individuals and incorporate new whales to our catalogue, which already has more than 2,600 known individuals. This year we counted 477 whales, including 214 calves, indicating that at this time of the year, most of the whales at Península Valdés are mothers with calves born in this season. From up in the air, we saw partial albino calves in both gulfs and some beautiful scenes among whales, including a calf trying to climb onto its mother’s huge chest, while she was resting on her back on the sea surface.

Among the many other whales we saw, we recorded whale number 975 in our catalogue. We have known this whale for 23 years having photographed her first in 1987, when she was with a calf. We saw her again in 1995, but this time she had two long linear gashes on either side of her caudal peduncle. Since then the wounds have remained visible and apparently healed. They have not kept her from giving birth to other calves for we have seen her with newborn calves in 1998 and again in this year 2010. The photographs here were taken from the air in 1995 with her wounds visible from above, and from our boat in 2010 swimming with her calf and showing the wound on the right side of her body. It is difficult to be certain what caused these wounds, although they do not seem to be from natural causes and were likely made by a ship’s propellers. Records such as these enable us to monitor the impacts of human activities on whales, and are a major warning sign for us to keep working to reduce these effects on the animals’ health.

Monitoring Kelp Gull attacks on the whales

Gulls feed on the skin and the blubber of southern right whales living at Península Valdés. They alter the whales’ normal behavior, interfere with lactation, reduce resting time, and increase the whales’ swimming speeds. Every year since 1995 we have recorded the frequency of gull harassment on whales and changes in the whales behavior from observation sites in each gulf so that we can document the results of efforts to manage this problem. We give special thanks to the Biology students and researchers Macarena Agrelo, Lorena Barranco, Lucrecia Lipoma, María Laura Marcías, Carina Marón and Florencia Vilches for their hard and commitment to collecting the data for this project year after year.

Right Whale Health Monitoring Program

ICB/Ocean Alliance is committed to continuing the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program (SRWHMP) at Peninsula Valdes, in cooperation with Wildlife Conservation Society, Fundación Patagonia Natural and Fundación Ecocentro. The Valdes right whale population has recently experienced a series of years with unusually high mortalities. From 2003 through 2009, 366 right whales died (91% were calves). The SRWHMP is in operation from mid June to Mid December. It’s field operations are run by veterinarian Andrea Chirife, Veterinary M.D. who directs a Stranding Reporting Network and a team of biologists, veterinary students and volunteers. Strandings are found through the Reporting Network and by aerial and truck surveys of beaches in regions where the whales concentrate. The team examines each dead whale that is found or reported and records its location, photographs, measures, and conducts an external to look for injuries. If the whale is in fresh enough body condition a complete internal exam is conducted and tissue samples are collected to determine cause of death. Tissue samples are analyzed for disease pathologies, genetic identity, the presence of toxins, and evidence of diet and foraging locations (stable isotopes and fatty acid analyses). All results are provided annually to the government officials in the Province of Chubut who are responsible for managing the whales and their habitat

As of November (updated after September field report), 50 dead whales were found at Península Valdés in 2010, including 11 adults and 39 calves born this season. Given that the right whale species in the northern hemisphere are the most endangered of the large whales and that high numbers of right whales that have been dying at Península Valdés in recent years, it is more important than ever to continue this program to determine why these whales are dying (no common cause has been found so far despite extensive examinations) and to develop a better understanding of right whale needs and the factors contributing to their deaths.

Monitoring Body Condition

Vicky Rowntree continued her research evaluating the body condition of right whales that return to Valdés each year. Assuming that whales that are able to hold their breath for longer periods are in better body condition (as is true in humans), Vicky records the time between blows in both mothers and calves, through continuous focal animal monitoring from the cliffs. She records calf-size and the height of the fat roll behind the mother’s blow hole as indicators of age and the amount of energy reserves remaining in the mother’s blubber. Having made these observations repeatedly for several years; Vicky has found significant within-year and between-year variation in the average length of time individuals hold their breaths. This means that the body condition of an individual is often different from its neighbor and that the average blow intervals of all whales can be longer is some years and shorter in others.

Research on plankton and whale nutrition

ICB researcher Carina Marón has just begun her first year of research on plankton and whale nutrition as a doctoral student in the Biology Department of the University of Utah. Low food abundance may be a reason for the high mortality rates of right whale calves at Península Valdés in recent years. Our long record of calving events for known mothers has shown that the whales produce fewer calves than expected in years of low krill abundance on their feeding grounds. Whales also feed on copepods along the Patagonian continental shelf, but the nutritional value of copepods compared to krill has not yet been studied.

During the field season, Cari and her collaborators collected plankton samples at Península Valdés, with the help of the whale-watch companies Southern Spirit and Peke Sosa Avistajes in Puerto Pirámide. Cari also sub-sampled plankton collections gathered from the Patagonian Shelf by researchers from the Patagonian National Research Center (CENPAT) in Puerto Madryn and the National Institute for Fisheries Research and Development (INIDEP) in Mar del Plata, a variety of sites from the South Atlantic where right whales may feed in summer. Cari did this work in collaboration with Viviana Sastre of the Toxic Algal Bloom division of the Coastal Waters Monitoring Program of Chubut Province and Mónica Hoffmeyer of the Argentine Oceanographic Institute in Bahía Blanca.

For her doctoral research, Cari will be analyzing the nutritional value of copepods and krill from the South Atlantic to determine which of these two prey types provides a richer food source for whales. She will also examine the fatty acid profiles in blubber samples collected from dead calves to determine what their mothers ate (primarily krill or copepods) to produce the milk that they fed to their calves.

For 16 years now, I have dedicated my career to the study of right whales living at Península Valdés. Amidst the sea of whales that surrounds the peninsula, I feel that the contributions we are making through the ICB/Ocean Alliance to unfold so many mysteries about these creatures is just a handful of sand compared to the ocean’s immensity. Like Atahualpa Yupanqui used to say … “sand grains are small, but there certainly are mountains of sand.” I encourage you to add more grains and handfuls of sand to our mission of preserving whales and their environment through research and education. We thank numerous friends, collaborators, government agencies, civil organizations and companies that firmly believe in ICB/Ocean Alliance’s mission. It is really comforting for all of us to know that there are more and more people working for this same cause.

Sincerely,

Dr. Mariano Sironi, Scientific Director
Reporting from Golfo San José, Península Valdés

(Field Report by Mariano Sironi, translated into English by Denise Ledesma, ICB volunteer in Cordoba)