Humpback whales

Article: The New York Times on tagging humpback whales

The New York Times reports on efforts to tag and study humpback whales and change policy in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, located off Massachusetts in the United States. The sanctuary is heavily trafficked by fishing boats, whale watching vessels, and – to a lesser extent since the location of shipping lanes between Boston and New York was adjusted – other commercial marine traffic.

The researchers use DTAGs, or digital acoustic recording tags, which are able to record the movements of the whales (recording their orientation in the water), as well as the sounds they make and hear. A crittercam records visuals. The tags also contain a digital compass and a pressure sensor, which records the depths the whales dive to. The tags weigh about 150 grams (one and a half slabs of chocolate), and their components are sealed and pressure tested. A radio beacon broadcasts when the tag pops off and floats to the surface, enabling researchers to retrieve it like a PAT, and download the data. The tag is attached temporarily to the whale’s body with a suction cup made of medical grade silicone.

The data gathered enables researchers to create three dimensional paths made by the whales through their environment (about half way through the video at the top of the article, which YOU MUST WATCH). I cannot believe how small-scale electronic components must have revolutionised how scientists gather data.

Among other things, the information gathered enables better protection measures to be put in place for these enormous creatures, which spend 60 percent of their time within 20 metres of the surface. This makes them vulnerable to shipping traffic. The photographic record of each whale, obtained when applying the tags, is also used to enhance the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue, which is a marine photo-ID project with images of over 6,000 whales.

Via FlowingData.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.