Sperm Whale Research
The sperm whale is one of the deepest diving whales, descending as far as two miles below sea level. This species seems to be the largest toothed predator ever to have lived on Earth. However, the way sperm whales catch their prey remains a mystery that is of great interest to scientists.
However, due to the logistics of following a sperm whale to its feeding depths, whale researchers have been able to examine very little of the underwater behavior of these animals. Until recently, scientists could only observe sperm whales at the surface or during shallow dives in relatively clear water.
Ocean Alliance CEO, Iain Kerr, developed a process to track sperm whales using a multi-beam scanning sonar. This technique enables researchers to calculate: the whale’s rate of descent, of ascent, its maximum depth of dive, its bearing, and its speed throughout complete dives. This information enables institute researchers to create a three-dimensional diagram of sperm whale dives. Using this technology the crew of the research vessel Odyssey made a fifteen-month study of sperm whale diving and feeding behavior on the whales’ breeding grounds near the Galapagos Islands.
Ocean Alliance research on sperm whale behavior includes: acoustic research, satellite tracking, as well as a collection and analysis of sperm whale skin and fecal samples. Hydrophones are used to record the echolocation clicks and other vocalizations of the whales at the same time that a deep-water probe is deployed that records temperature, as well as oxygen and salinity levels. By combining hydrophone and probe data with the dive diagrams researchers can study correlations between the behaviors of diving and sounding behavior and environmental conditions.
To monitor whale movement, Ocean Alliance researchers assisted Dr. Bruce Mate (Oregon State University, professor of Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceanography) in attempting to attach satellite-linked radio tags to three sperm whales. Two of the tags were designed to register location, water temperature and depth; the third registered location only.