A Whale Scientist’s High-Tech Tool Kit
Many people ask me what it’s like to research whales. The movies will tell you it’s all glamour and fame: sprinting around on fancy yachts in a bikini, swimming with dolphins and smiling for the underwater camera. The reality is this, I am sitting in a full-body rain suit that is three sizes too big for me, hunkered down against the torrential rain in a ten-foot inflatable dinghy with a two-stroke motor screwed to the back. I have been sitting here for three hours since the break of dawn, silently bailing water out of the skiff and listening to the hydrophones I reeled over the side using a makeshift rig constructed of plywood and PVC pipe. Through my headphones, the sounds of snapping shrimp have become white noise, but there has been no sign of whales. Another few hours pass. Finally, I see a blow and a whale’s back breaks the surface a mile away. Holy cow! Frantic motion as I hastily reel up the hydrophones and fight to start the reluctant motor. Before I can reach the whale, it has already sunk below the surface on a long dive. It will be another 15 minutes until it surfaces again; too far away for me to get an accurate photo for identification. I reel the hydrophones back out and shiver in my soggy rubber boots. Back to waiting for the animals to show themselves.
Researching whales has always been a tall order since cetaceans conduct 95% of their lives under the surface of the water where we can only imagine what they might be doing. The earliest whale researchers were in fact, whalers: they took data from the whales they killed including size, age, body condition, and stomach contents. Some even got clever and tagged whales with pieces of metal containing a date and location. When these whales were caught, whalers would report finding the piece of metal. This way, they learned how far and fast whales could move and began to understand their migration patterns. As technology has progressed, our ability to study creatures who spend only brief moments within reach of our senses has increased. Nowadays, whale researchers have access to some very nifty equipment that can help us understand whales without having to get in the water with them, or even be within a hundred miles of them! Let’s discover what makes up a Whale Scientist’s high-tech tool kit.
Acoustic research has come a long way since the idea of lowering a hydrophone into the water and listening for whale sounds. Now we have whole arrays of hydrophones which record sounds and allow you to determine where each whale is (in three dimensions) at the time it called. Some hydrophones send a real-time stream of sound via satellite relay, so analysts can sit in the comfort of their labs and listen with technology that can localize and classify calls automatically. This allows them to determine right away whether there are whales around the hydrophone, what kind of whale it is, and how far away it is. This is crucial for things like oil and gas exploration, which has to shut down operations if whales are within a few miles of the drilling site. Technology like the SLOCUM glider, which uses its own buoyancy to propel it and runs off thermal energy, can cover thousands of kilometers of open ocean and run for up to five years. A hydrophone attached to a glider can tell us where whales are located in the vast expanses of ocean that we can’t survey by boat, or in areas where boats can’t go, like ice packs.
So we can find where they are if they’re vocalizing. How about learning more about what they’re doing underwater where we can’t see them? How long are their dives? How deep? Where are they feeding and how? To answer these questions, we need tags. Gone are the days of capturing a whale and screwing a metal transponder to its fin. Tags today are small, collect tons of data and are designed to fall off after a short period of time, leaving the whale with a pinprick scar at the very most. My favourite tags are the kind applied with suction cups. Yep, suction cups. New ones are about the size of an iPad, and are slapped onto a whale’s back using a fishing pole-like device. The tag stays on for up to 24 hours and inside are instruments that monitor tiny changes in the whale’s depth using pressure sensors. It also contains an accelerometer to monitor changes in the whale’s speed and position in three dimensions.
Most of this technology is so small and ubiquitous that it can be found on your mobile phone! Fancier tags also contain a hydrophone to monitor the whale’s vocalizations as well as gauge the whale’s motion from the sound of water rushing by. Some even have a video camera, called a ‘critter cam’, which gives us the whale’s point of view! Once we retrieve the tag, we can reconstruct the whale’s underwater journey using a program called TrackPlot that looks like Roller Coaster Tycoon for whales, where we can visualize every turn, twist and feeding lunge the whale makes underwater.
Okay, so we can listen for them and find out what they’re doing underwater. What about what’s going on inside the whale? Short of catching them and dissecting them, how can we determine whether the whale is getting enough to eat? Is it stressed out, pregnant, sick or injured? Who’s the daddy of the new calf? Most of this can be studied using molecular analysis to look for hormones, DNA markers and microscopic parasites. To get at those, we need something from the whale. Skin biopsies can be used to get DNA samples, and blubber can be investigated for toxin load and nutritional needs. Skin is collected using small darts that take a tiny pencil-top eraser-sized chunk of skin and blubber. It may be small, but it still hurts the whale. To get molecular information without touching the whale, we can study its scat (poop), but even this has drawbacks. For instance, salt water corrodes DNA very quickly.
A lot of molecular information can be collected from the mucous exuded in a whale’s breath, but getting close enough to a surfacing whale to collect its boogers is a risky (and gross) prospect at best. Enter SnotBot, an aerial drone that is specially made to collect whale snot. It’s remote-controlled, nearly silent, waterproof, and contains sterile surfaces that can collect uncontaminated molecular samples. It can collect multiple samples from one whale and can last as long as the rechargeable batteries allow. Flown by an expert pilot, SnotBot is a revolutionary way to collect lots of data. It’s not without its problems: sometimes things go wrong and it has to fly relatively low, making it a possible irritant to the whale. However, I can imagine it’s much less irritating and invasive than a dart jabbing into the whale’s side, or an outboard motor getting too close for comfort!
Close to home, some researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium are using drones to collect photos of our resident killer whales. By taking overhead photos of Southern Resident killer whales, Aquarium researchers can compare a whale’s length to its width to determine whether the whale is malnourished, pregnant, or just fat and happy. The team has also observed the way in which the whales divide up food, giving us some idea of their social hierarchy. Drone research has also given us our first overhead shots of killer whale moms nursing their calves – a very special moment caught on camera. All of this new technology is a huge step towards understanding animals that spend so much of their time out of our immediate reach. More importantly, it can help us get a better idea of how changes in the environment, like climate change and global shipping, are affecting these animals.
Plunging beneath the surface of the secretive lives of whales has never been easier, but none of this comes for free. New technology is getting cheaper, but funding is getting more and more scarce and competitive. You can help scientists fill their toybox – er, I mean toolbox – by donating to worthy scientific charities like the Vancouver Aquarium’s Adopt-A-Whale program, or to non-profits like the Alaska Whale Foundation, the Marine Education and Research Society, and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Until then, I’ll be here in my dinghy, waiting for whales to show up.
Kat Nikolich, MSc
Onboard Naturalist/Biologist for SpringTide Whale Watching & Eco Tours