Second year of aerial whale surveys in Antarctica

A319 aerial whale survey
Taking off on a whale aerial survey (Photo: Natalie Kelly)
Killer whales near CaseyIcebergs from the air

13th December 2009

Antarctic minke whales (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) are the smallest and most abundant of the baleen whales in the Southern Ocean. Their populations are monitored by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) using an annual ship-based survey (known as the IDCR/SOWER-IWC programme). Unfortunately, the vessels used in the IDCR/SOWER voyages are not ice-strengthened, so the annual surveys have been confined to outside of the pack ice.

The International Whaling Commission has reported a decline in the total number (i.e., circumpolar) of Antarctic minke whales over the last three decades (although agreement upon the most recent abundance estimates is still being negotiated). A number of possible explanations for this apparent decline in the abundance have been put forward. One compelling hypothesis is that changes in the position of the ice edge in concert with the relative proportion of Antarctic minke whales in pack ice may have decreased the number of animals available to be counted outside of the ice.

With the aim of estimating the proportion of Antarctic minke whales in pack ice during the summer months, an Australian fixed-wing aerial survey programme (based in East Antarctica), has been in development over the last two summer seasons. This coming summer we will fly a full-scale aerial survey for minke whales in pack ice between 93 degrees and 113 degrees East, from mid-December through to early February. To calibrate these results, an IWC-SOWER voyage will be operating outside of the pack ice between 100 and 115 degrees East at a similar time. In addition to abundance estimation, data derived from this coming season's survey will also help us understand the pack ice habitat preferences of Antarctic minke whales in East Antarctica.

In addition to doing traditional human-based whale counts from aircraft, high-definition video and digital photograph systems will be used to monitor beneath the aircraft where the observers cannot see and to provide another independent platform to validate human sightings. This technology is relatively novel for whale research and we are confident it will greatly add to the results of our aerial survey. The results of our aerial survey, and the collaboration with the IWC-SOWER voyage, will be presented at the International Whaling Commission in Morocco in June, 2010.

Kelly, N., Peel, D., Pike, D., Bravington, M.V. and Gales, N. (2009). An aerial survey for Antarctic minke whales in sea ice off East Antarctica: A pilot study. Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, Madeira, Portugal, SC/61/IA3, 14 pp.

Kelly, N., Peel, D., Bravington, M. and Gales, N. (2009). A planned aerial survey for minke whales in East Antarctica during summer 2009/10. Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, Madeira, Portugal, SC/61/IA4, 5 pp.

Kelly, N., Peel, D., Bravington, M.V. and Gales, N. (2009). A description of killer whales (Orcinus orca) observed in Vincennes Bay, Eastern Antarctica. Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, Madeira, Portugal, SC/61/SM10, 12 pp.

Kelly, N., Peel, D., Pike, D., Bravington, M.V. and Gales, N. (2008). Aerial survey of minke whales off East Antarctica: report on 2007/08 test survey and future plans. Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, Santiago, Chile, SC/60/IA4, 8 pp.

Kelly, N., Peel, D., Pike, D. Aerial survey of minke whales off East Antarctica: report on 2007/08 test survey and future plans. Internal report prepared for Australian Antarctic Division, 57 pp.

Hedley, S., Bravington, M., Gales, N., Kelly, N. and Peel, D. (2007). Aerial survey for minke whales off eastern Antarctica. Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, Anchorage, Alaska, SC/59/IA2, 47 pp.

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