A voyage to save a species

Dr Natalie Schmitt, PhD '13 and former ANU post-doctoral researcher Dr Mike Double travel to the Southern Ocean to track the progress of endangered blue whales.

Deep beneath the freezing Antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean, the world's largest mammal glides gracefully through the lightless ocean depths.

Her song can be heard up to 1,000 miles away. She is one of the world's most majestic creatures, enormous and mysterious and one that humans took the brink of extinction.

As the largest creature to have ever lived on Earth, blue whales have brought wonder to humans for centuries.

But industrial whaling killed nearly 1.3 million blue, fin and humpback (large baleen) whales during the twentieth century. In 1964, with several species close to extinction, the International Whaling Commission banned their exploitation.

Despite the passing of five decades, our understanding of Antarctic blue whale ecology, behaviour and post-exploitation recovery is poor. 

So we write this on a voyage in the Southern Ocean, taking part in an international research trip to determine the factors influencing the numbers and locations of humpback whales, the habitats of blue whales and a stock assessment of demersal fish.

Through a collaboration between the Australian Antarctic Division, New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and Antarctica New Zealand and working with an international team of experts involved in the Southern Ocean Research Partnership's Antarctic Blue Whale Project, we aim to complement ground-breaking work undertaken in 2013 to determine the distribution of blue whales in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica.

We know that the highest densities of Antarctic blue whales are found near the edge of the Antarctic sea ice during summer, but studies have been limited by the remoteness and logistical challenges presented by working in the Southern Ocean.

The work will describe blue whale distribution and behaviour and the role that blue whales play in the Antarctic ecosystem.

We also hope to explain why blue whales tend to aggregate through measuring the oceanographic characteristics of their feeding habitat including the behaviour and distribution of their prey, Antarctic krill.