Antarctic blue whale project

Blue whale; © Mike Johnson
The blowhole of an Antarctic blue whale (Photo: Kylie Owen)
The blowhole of an Antarctic blue whale (Photo: Kylie Owen)
The dorsal fin of an Antarctic blue whale  (Photo: Paula Olson)The small boat team in the Remora approach an Antarctic blue whale (Photo: Carlos Olavarria)Decline and slow recovery of Antarctic Blue WhalesA photo of the hwales head with its eye staring right at the camera.

During the 20th century nearly 1.3 million blue, fin and humpback (large baleen) whales were killed by industrial whaling. In 1964, with several species close to extinction, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned their exploitation. Currently our understanding of Antarctic blue whale ecology, behaviour and post-exploitation recovery is very poor. For example, only two abundance estimates for Antarctic blue whales (ABW) have been derived since 1964, each with low precision.

The Antarctic Blue Whale Project employs a multi-disciplinary approach to investigate foraging ecology, habitat preferences, and ultimately contribute to a precise circumpolar Antarctic blue whale abundance estimate. This project represents a coordinated, international research programme, focused on understanding both the recovery of Antarctic blue whales and their important role in the Southern Ocean ecosystem.

The objectives of the Antarctic Blue Whale Project (ABWP) are:

  • to continue the development and refinement of methods to locate and sample Antarctic blue whales in the Southern Ocean
  • to employ these methods to collect sufficient data to deliver a new circumpolar abundance estimate for Antarctic blue whales
  • to improve understanding of Antarctic blue whale population structure, the linkages between breeding and feeding grounds, and characterise whale behaviour on the feeding grounds.

The Antarctic Blue Whale Project is undertaken as an international collaboration led by Mike Double at the Australian Antarctic Division. A detailed project overview is available and the project is guided by a scientific committee and four technical committees.


Project development

The methods and approaches adopted in the Antarctic Blue Whale Project have been peer-reviewed and endorsed by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Validating the reliability of passive acoustic localisation: a novel method for encountering rare and remote Antarctic blue whales (2015) Endangered Species Research

A simulation study of acoustic-assisted tracking of whales for mark-recapture surveys (2014) PLOS ONE

Antarctic Blue Whale surveys: augmenting via genetics for close-kin and ordinal age [PDF] (2014)

Precision of a Future Antarctic blue whales Line Transect Survey [PDF] (2014)

Exploration of a future mark-recapture study of Antarctic Blue Whales [PDF] (2014)

Satellite telemetry derived summer movements of Antarctic blue whales [PDF] (2013)

Long-range acoustic tracking of Antarctic blue whales [PDF] (2013)

Strategies to obtain a new circumpolar abundance estimate for Antarctic Blue Whales: survey design and sampling protocols [PDF] (2012)

Real-time tracking of Blue Whales using DIFAR sonobuoys [PDF] (2012)

Exploratory analyses of potential encounter rates for an acoustic tracking survey method for blue whales [PDF] (2012)

Strategies to obtain a new abundance estimate for Antarctic blue whales: a feasibility study [PDF] (2011)

Cruise planning and reports

Report of the 2013/14 South African Antarctic blue whale survey, 000° - 020°E [PDF] (2014)

SORP research report: the South African blue whale project [PDF] (2013)

Antarctic blue whale voyage 2013: science plan [PDF] (2013)

Antarctic blue whale voyage 2013: science report [PDF] (2013)

Cruise report of the 2013 Antarctic blue whale voyage of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership [PDF] (2013)

Abundance estimation of Antarctic Blue Whales: preliminary voyage plan for SORP in March 2013 [PDF] (2012)

Development of acoustic methods: cruise report on SORP 2012 Antarctic Blue Whale voyages [PDF] (2012)

International Whaling Commission papers

Additional papers from this IWC-SORP project submitted to the International Whaling Commission:

Blue whale songs recorded around South Island, New Zealand [PDF] (2013)

Photo-identification of Antarctic blue whales during the SORP Antarctic Blue Whale Voyage (2013) [PDF] (2013)

New Zealand blue whales: initial photo-identification of a little-known population [PDF] (2013)

A complete list can be found on IWC papers and reports.

Popular articles

Listening to the blues (2012) Australian Antarctic Magazine

Protecting the icons of the deep [PDF] (2013) International Innovation

Out of the blue [PDF] (2013) Island

Songs reveal elusive giants (2013) Australian Antarctic Magazine


Antarctic blue whale voyage

Video transcript

Dr Virginia Andrews-Goff, Whale Tagger

What an incredible privilege to get up close to these animals, you can't imagine how large they are. Words just cannot describe it, and everyone on that vessel when we first came up close to a blue whale let out a gasp.

Dr Jay Barlow, Science Co-ordinator

Overall, the mission has been tremendously successful. It exceeded all of my expectations. I think the most exciting achievement is just our having the ability now to find these blue whales in the really thin soup that is blue whales in the Southern Ocean right now. There used to be 200,000 blue whales in these waters and now there's something like one percent of that, it might be two percent, but it's really hard in the vast areas here to find them. Now we have this acoustic technology that allows us to do it with unprecedented speed and accuracy.

Dr Brian Miller, Lead Acoustician

My daily job involves deploying sonobuoys and managing a team of passive acoustics experts who are listening for whale sounds and guiding the ship to the whales, working with the ship's crew and additional observers to make sure that we have every chance possible to see the whales. 

[Speaking into radio] Yes, we've detected blue whale calls.

So this is the first voyage of its kind. Our success rate has been very high. We've demonstrated these techniques, that listening for whales and heading towards them can enable us to sample and get to very rare Antarctic blue whales.

Paula Olsen, Lead Observer

Photo identification of blue whales involves taking photographs that allow us to recognise blue whales as individuals similar to taking a photograph of a human. With photo ID data, you can estimate population abundance, you can delineate stock structure between different population stocks of blue whales, you can also track movements on fine and large scales such as migration routes. These photographs we're collecting on this voyage will be contributed to a larger, southern hemisphere-wide whale catalogue.

Dave Donnelly, Coxswain

I guess one of the key things with this is to make sure that you're working within the parameters of your permitting, and also that you have a really good understanding of behaviour and being able to read whether or not you're having a negative impact on the animals. The Antarctic voyage has thrown out a lot of challenges to someone like myself, being my first time down to this region. Not only the climate and the conditions that you're faced with, but also these animals which I've never worked with before. They're extremely fast, they're quite large as everyone would know, and for what it's worth I prefer to work with them close to the ice edge where they seem to be more relaxed.

Dr Virginia Andrews-Goff, Whale Tagger

We have a very experienced coxswain who drives around the whales and has learnt whale behaviour for the last ten or so years so he generally predicts what the whales are doing and when he sees a moment to get close to the whales he will pick that moment to bring the boat in fairly quickly. Often the water is very rough so I'm bouncing about in the bowsprit trying to focus on a whale and where I need to deploy my tag. We'd like the tag to have the most opportunity to communicate with the ARGOS satellite system so the tag needs to be forward on the body and quite high on the body so it's out of the water as much as possible for the surfacings that the whale makes. 

Once I placed a tag on the blue whale I was actually in a state of disbelief and shock. I didn't react at all, it was in slow motion and I turned around and I looked at my colleagues. I needed their confirmation that I'd actually tagged an Antarctic blue whale. Once that had happened I was grinning from ear to ear.

Since we placed the tag in the whale it's managed to travel north incredibly quickly, and then travel west. So it's travelled over 1000 kilometres since we tagged it. We have very little knowledge of the movements of Antarctic blue whales and in particular we are interested in the linkages between breeding and feeding grounds. 

Dr Natalie Schmitt, Whale Geneticist

Well it's amazing what we can do with these samples, we can learn so much about these animals, and in a fairly non-intrusive way. So from each skin sample we collect from a blue whale we then extract DNA from that sample and through that DNA we can obtain genetic signatures for each individual and then we can track that individual - has that individual been sampled previously on this voyage? So we can look at movement within a season, and we can also match those genetic signatures to individuals that have been sampled on previous voyages between seasons on a broad scale. 

Dr Brian Miller, Lead Acoustician

I couldn't imagine a better bunch of scientists or crew to work with. They’re all dedicated and hard-working, getting up every morning at 5:00 am, putting on their heavy clothes, going out into the sometimes driving snow, looking for whales, it's not an easy task.

This page was last modified on July 26, 2016.