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How in the World Do You Sample a Whale?

Karen B.'s avatar

Animal Updates | Mammals | Education

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Karen

How in the World Do You Sample a Whale?
Research RHIB parked near the beach.

It’s early morning onboard the small research boat Coda, and we already are a few miles offshore. Coda is a “RHIB,” a rigid-hulled inflatable boat. It looks like any other RHIB, with the addition of a giant metal Pinocchio nose- Coda’s professionally MacGyvered bowsprit (which is the bit sticking off the front of a boat) is an elevated, caged platform. This modified bowsprit design is used the world over in small-boat field research; it generally keeps researchers from falling overboard while sampling whales.

“There’s white water at 9 o’clock, a few hundred meters out.”

Coda’s skipper looks at the disturbance through polarized sunglasses, blocking the morning glare. “Let’s go check it out,” he says.

We ease in close, and, sure enough, a whale surfaces just ahead, breathing out the customary heart-shaped blow of a humpback. The situation looks good – the animal, location, and behavior fit our requirements and fall within the boundaries of the strict legal permits covering whale sampling this field season. We’re going to collect some samples from this pod, and that’s when the pace picks up.

The radio crackles, ending our communication with headquarters; it’s time to try to tag our whale. The data tag we’ll use is the about the size of a smartphone, with some surprisingly similar technology. It sits inside a waterproof case with four small suction cups on the bottom. Downloaded, the tag data gives the whale’s pattern of swimming, surfacing, and diving. But how the heck do you stick a suction cup on a whale?

First, everyone puts on a helmet. (We look very cool.) Second, the researcher in the bowsprit hefts a light-weight pole, nearly as long as the boat. A small bracket on the end of this pole holds the tag, suction cups facing down. Of course, the whales realize something is up, and they don’t make it easy to get within reach. The skippers know the boats and they know the whales, and a high-speed water chase gets underway. The tagger stands in the bowsprit, like an aquatic knight ready for the joust. Our whale dives and changes direction and we turn and follow, seeing the white of the pectoral flippers glow through crystal blue water. The whale evades us again, and the skipper makes a calculated maneuver, zipping forward and easing back on the throttle. Our whale comes up to breathe, close enough to cover the boat in blow. Leaning against the bowsprit cage the tagger twists and reaches, touching the pole down in front of the dark dorsal fin.

When a tagging attempt succeeds, every BRAHSS radio crackles to life with the calm, triumphant call, “Tag on, tag on.” The data gathered is gold, and the victorious taggers win a case of beer. For all the small boats, the attempt window ends whether or not a tag has been placed. The whales will eventually get stressed, and it’s time to start the trial. A radio call signals the start, synchronizing the boats and land stations, and we begin “focal following” our pod. To do a focal follow, we trail the whales from a distance, speaking every behavior into a headset microphone, producing hours of tedious but data-rich transcription. Later, the precise time and pattern of these behaviors will be analyzed in light of other information. For now, to keep the data collection as unbiased as possible, we observers don’t know if today’s trial is an “active” or a “control” – whether the seismic air guns are being fired or are being towed silently through our trial area.

Suddenly, our whale breaches, sending a noisy plume of water rocketing skyward.

“Get the net,” the skipper says, racing Coda toward the “footprint” of the breach, a ring of bubbles around a circle of glassy flat water. We reach the footprint and slow down, looking for pieces of floating skin. “There!” the skipper calls, pointing. A rough patch of gray skin, only a few square inches, floats on white bubbles. Netted out of the water, we put it a plastic baggie, careful not to touch it with our bare hands. Labeled and recorded, the sample is hidden from the fierce sun in a small blue lunchbox cooler. We continue to focal follow, and the hours and miles pass by. The sun is relentless, but we are well prepared with hats, industrial volumes of sunscreen, oodles of water, and snacks. Mercifully, a cooling salty breeze is blowing. Today, we’re lucky, and the wind stays down. When it decides to really blow, the chop gets tough on even the most rugged small boat crews.

It’s mid-afternoon when a radio call from headquarters ends the focal follows. Coda’s tagger gratefully switches off the recording headset and stows the microphone, resting eyes that haven’t looked away from the water in hours. Still just behind our pod, we get the go-ahead to try for biopsy and blow samples. Blow and blubber offer volumes of information, including hormone profiles and DNA. Blow collection is tricky, but simple– the tagging pole is refit with vials that collect what’s elegantly called “whale snot” when held near enough to the blowholes (blowholes: noun. the airway openings on top of a whale’s head). To collect blubber, we once again don the super-cool helmets and ready a biopsy gun. With classic wood paneling, the gun has a look that says business, belied by a chamber holding colorful, hollow plastic tubes.

Coda eases in toward our whale. In the bowsprit, our erstwhile jousting knight now stands prepared for a Texas draw, biopsy gun at the ready. The whale surfaces with a noisy tail slap, making a perfect target. The gun is leveled, and the sampling tube finds its mark. On contact, the whale gives a skin-deep shudder, like a horse bitten by a fly. The bright orange sample tube floats, and we retrieve it with the hand net. Our whale continues leisurely swimming south, we turn north, toward harbor and home. Tonight, the skin, biopsy, and blow samples will be further processed and stored to be packed back to the lab at the University of Queensland, where there are months of analysis in store. They will help resolve the big picture, and address pressing questions about how to conduct human activities in a way that’s safe for whales.

In a few hours, everyone will gather on the concrete-floored boathouse, talking over the day. The observers still offshore on the big ship will be Skyped in. The teams back early from morning surveys will turn up showered and smelling like whatever they’re cooking for dinner. The late land survey and small boat teams will drag in covered with dust and crusted with salt. Here, in the daily debrief, whiteboard markers, round-robin storytelling, and laughter recount the day. The weather forecast looks good, and tomorrow we’ll do it all over again.

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