Talley's plays role in whale mission

An expedition which left Port Nelson yesterday will transport Australian scientists to the Southern Ocean on a Nelson deepsea trawler to learn more about the world's largest animal, the blue whale.

The ice-strengthened Amaltal Explorer left Port Nelson at around midday on Wednesday. It is due back in port on March 17 after gathering information about the whales' population and taking tissue samples.

It will also attempt to place a satellite tracking device on a blue whale - something not achieved yet.

The 68-metre Talley's ship has been chartered by the Australian Government as part of the Antarctic Blue Whale Project being carried out by the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, a collaborative scientific effort including New Zealand, the United States, South Africa, and several South American and European nations.

The Antarctic blue whale - one of several sub-species - had been a prime target of the whaling industry before hunting was banned in 1966 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Thought to be the biggest creature to ever live, it remains on the critically endangered list.

Scientific co-ordinator Dr Victoria Wadley of the Australian Government's Antarctic division said the trip's aim was to determine the blue whale population around Antarctica.

"What we are doing now will be setting the scene for other voyages as part of this circumpolar project."

The ship would have a seven-day passage to get to its research area.

"Historical and other data indicates that the blue whales feed at the edge of the ice."

About half of the ship's complement of 36 were scientists from a range of disciplines. The Explorer was being used because "it had all the facilities that we needed".

Dr Wadley said the "big mission" was to find the blue whales.

"Because they are so rare, they're very difficult to find, even though they're huge. So we use some modern sophisticated methods which don't hurt the whales in order to find them, particularly passive acoustics using sonar buoys to listen for the whales' songs to get a bearing."

Scientists would then identify individuals using cameras, and take tiny tissue samples with a small dart to "skim the surface" of the whale's body and obtain a few milligrams of tissue.

"It is essential that we can identify individuals for our statistical studies."

More than 300,000 blue whales were killed during the industrial whaling era and scientists estimated that the surviving population might number a few hundred up to a few thousand.

"Part of our mission is to get a better estimate of their abundance."

The whales, which grow up to 30 metres and can weigh well over 100 tonnes, come to the Southern Ocean to feed on krill during the summer, and migrate to warmer waters to breed.

"But we don't know where. No-one has ever had a satellite tag on a blue whale. It would be interesting if we could manage that but it would be a very great achievement if we could do it."

Dr Wadley did not wish to comment on the controversial

Japanese "scientific whaling" programme in which many whales of other species have been killed for "research".

"It's quite clear from our studies that you can successfully study whales without killing them," she said.

"There's no need to harm the whales in order to get the information required and to deliver the research results for their conservation. A big part of our mission is to use these non-lethal methods to deliver our research results."

The data would be supplied to the IWC, the body responsible for whale conservation, and to scientific journals and people interested in the conservation of whales.

"But this is going to be a long-term project because the whales are so rare. We don't expect to find out everything on this voyage."

She said the research, funded by Australia, was "a multimillion-dollar project over many years".

Talley's and charter company Gardline "have a wonderful can-do attitude", Dr Wadley said.

"They've been doing everything possible to make the research successful."

Talley's Nelson division operations manager Andy Smith said it was inappropriate for him to comment, "but it's a bloody good project, that's all I'll say".

The Nelson Mail