Some Whales Staying in Antarctic Waters Later into Autumn

According to a team of scientists from the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, large numbers of humpback whales are remaining in bays along the Western Antarctic Peninsula to feast on krill late into the austral autumn, long after their annual migrations to distant breeding grounds were believed to begin.

A pair of humpback whales with a research vessel in the background (MISHAP Project / NOAA)

A study provides the first density estimates for these whales in both open and enclosed habitats along the peninsula in late autumn. It suggests that the little-studied bays are much more important late-season feeding grounds for humpback whales than scientists previously thought. It also highlights changes that are occurring in the region in response to the increasingly delayed arrival and reduced extent of annual winter sea ice cover, associated with rapid climate change.

“The old dogma is that by late autumn, the ice is heading in and the whales have headed out. But 70 percent of our surveying took place in waters with no ice, and we detected 371 groups of humpback whales over a 654-kilometer survey area, with density estimates of up to 1.75 whales per square kilometer,” said Dr David Johnston, research scientist at the Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and lead author of the paper published in the journal Endangered Species Research.

“At that density,” Dr Johnston said, “if you were to walk to the bridge of a ship and look around, you’d spot two whales within 500 meters of the boat. That’s higher than anyone expected.”

The team found the highest densities of whales in narrow, enclosed sections of Wilhelmina Bay, Andvord Bay and the Errera Channel. The scientists found the lowest densities – as low as 0.02 whales per square kilometer – in the open water of the adjacent Gerlache Strait, which separates the Palmer Archipelago from the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

Scientists have long known the waters around the Western Antarctic Peninsula are important foraging grounds for humpback whales that feed on swarms of shrimp-like krill there, but previous studies have been conducted earlier in the season or in open waters farther from land.

“Establishing the autumn density of humpback whales in the inshore regions of the Western Antarctic Peninsula is crucial for understanding the role they play in this rapidly changing ecosystem,” said co-author Dr Ari Friedlaender, a research scientist at the Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “Our results provide a new perspective on the magnitude of predator-prey relationships in the region as the Antarctic winter sets in.

Being the first to estimate densities in the peninsula’s narrow in-shore waters was a challenge, Dr Johnston said, because the line-transect techniques and distance sampling methods scientists traditionally use for this type of study weren’t well suited to the bays’ tight quarters, tricky currents and jutting shorelines.

“We had no idea that the whales were going to be packed up in these narrow channels and passages. We had to think on our feet a bit and use alternative sampling approaches and incorporate data from other portions of the project,” he said.

For instance, data collected from tagging the whales and tracking their underwater movements turned out to be inordinately useful for estimating densities, too.

“Once we knew their dive behaviors, we could establish how likely it was that we might miss them as we were traveling along the surface of the water,” Dr Johnston said. “That’s not something we would have been able to do using only the traditional methods.”

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Bibliographic information: Johnston et al. 2012. Initial density estimates of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae in the inshore waters of the western Antarctic Peninsula during the late autumn. Endang Species Res, vol. 18: 63–71; doi: 10.3354/esr00395