Friday, 9 September 2011

The get naked species.

"Which species would you get naked for?" A question that I was once asked, and too which in a moment of madness, made possible after 2 weeks of surveying in the Scotia Sea without seeing any life, I foolishly replied the blue whale. In my defence I wasn't thinking straight, my mind befuddled by 3 weeks of early starts and long days battling the elements; but somewhere along the way I had also agreed that I wouldn't just get naked for a blue whale, but I'd run naked around the ship. Believe me, I really wasn't thinking straight, because the ship in question was the James Clark Ross (100m plus), the probability of seeing a blue whale was high, and it was autumn in the southern hemisphere so the whales were not going to be the only blue mammals on show. Fortuitously for me, and more importantly for the crew of the JCR, we sailed into a blizzard just as we were approaching a series of unidentified spouts on the horizon.

That was April 2005 and I still haven't seen a blue whale, but the idea of a get naked species has stuck. It makes for an interesting topic of conversation over dinner, and each person I've asked has a different species and a different reason. Blue whale, tiger, oceanic white tipped shark, southern right whale dolphin, gorilla, snow leopard, otter ..... etc., etc. and so the list goes on.

Why the blue whale when I could have chosen the Baji, possibly still alive in 2005, or the Vaquita, which I was lucky enough to both see and record in 2008. Good question! Perhaps it is because blue whales are the largest animal on the planet, yet we know so little about them. Perhaps it is because I've made recordings of blue whale "song" in north east Atlantic and wondered about the animals that could sing at such such low frequencies. In case you were wondering some blue whale calls go down to 10Hz, if you had excellent hearing and hadn't attended too many rock concerts when you were young you might be able hear down to 20Hz. Really impressive when you think about it. Anyway for better or for worse blue whales and I have at date with destiny, but fortunately for everyone here that special day has yet to arrive.

So, which species would you get naked for? Answers on a postcard to ...........

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A whale sized breathalyser!

Why would anyone in their right mind want to breathaylse a whale? And what is about that heady cocktail of stale air and water that interests a  whale biologist?  To cut a long story short - HORMONES! That cocktail of stale air contains secrets about a whale's short term stress levels and a female's reproductive status. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress, and progesterone is a steroid hormone involved in pregnancy. Some very clever people at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) and Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS) have been developing tests to detect trace levels of cortisol and progesterone in whale breath, and hope to measure stress responses to man made sounds and to detect which females in a population are pregnant.

So how do you breathaylse a whale? Believe me it's not easy, a lot of patience is required and you do need a whale sized breathalyser. The whale sized breathalyser is essentially a very, very, very clean (triple washed) ladies nylon stocking, in a quilters ring, attached to the end of a long, carbon fibre pole which can be placed above the whale's blow hole when it breathes. We call it "blow sampling". Below is a photographic guide to blow sampling.

Step 1. Find a whale and try and get down wind of it.
Step 2.  Place the whale breathalyser in the "blow", making sure there is no cross contamination from other whales.

Some people go to extremes to ensure that we get an excellent sample!

Ramp Style "Extreme" Blow Sampling to collect a Meduse quality sample.

Once collected, the quality of each blow sample is assessed and graded on a four point scale; 1 - Poor, 2 - Medium, 3 - High and 4 - Excellent. So for example the sample collected from Meduse (see the image above - Ramp Style "Extreme" Blow Sampling) would have been graded as  excellent because the breathalyser kit was placed right above the blow holes in the direct path of the blow. Each sample is then sealed with an inhibiting agent to prevent the natural biological breakdown of the hormones we are interested in, and sent back to the lab for analysis.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

"The Inspector Gadget of the Oceans".

Meet the "Inspector Gadget of the Oceans" otherwise known as the Little Leonardo W2000-3MPD3GT data logger, a very important tool in our trade and one that is helping us to shed light on many new and interesting aspects of whale behaviour. 

The Inspector Gadget of the Oceans (W2000-3MPD3GT) ready to go in his white floatation suit and piggy backing a Sirtrack GPS data loger. The Rising Sun on the tail is in honour of our Japanese friends and collaborators at the University of Tokyo.

Like "Inspector Gadget", the W2000-3MPD3GT has many tricks hidden within it's tiny body. The data logger is about the size of a small hand held torch (ΓΈ28 x 168 mm ), weighs 168g and has 512mb of memory; but for it's size it packs a mighty punch, and is able to record nine different parameters during it's ride on a whale's back.
  1. 3M or Three Axis Magnetometer. The tree axis magnetometer records the strength of the earth's magnetic field every second in three different planes; X, Y and Z. This data is used to give us the whales heading with respect to magnetic north.
  2. P or propeller. The propeller at the front of the logger logs the whale's speed through the water every second.
  3. D or depth. A pressure sensor in the Logger records the whale's depth every second, enabling us to see where in the water column it is diving.  
  4. 3G or Three axis accelerometers. Inspector Gadget's 3 axis accelerometers measure the acceleration due to gravity every 1/3rd of a second in three different planes; X, Y and Z. We use the data from the accelerometers to measure how well an individual whale glides through the water, and how often it has to stroke (beat it's flukes) allowing us to assess it's overall body condition.
  5. T or temperature. A small temperature sensor at the back of the data logger measures the water temperature through the water column as the whale dives. Water temperature affects both the speed of sound, very important for species that have evolved to use sound for communication, and the structure of the water column.

Our Inspector Gadget wears a sleek, white, torpedo shaped floatation suit, and is attached to the whale using a suction cup. His floatation suit also houses a VHF radio beacon and a timer release mechanism.  The VHF beacon allows us to track the whale each time it surfaces to breathe, and also allows us to find our Inspector Gadget again once he releases from the whale. The timer release mechanism is used to break the vacuum in the suction cup so that our Inspector Gadget can return to the surface with his valuable data.

The Inspector Gadget of the Oceans hitches a ride on "Splish" (H002).

When we get back to shore we give Inspector Gadget a good bath in fresh water, dry him down and then plug him into my laptop to download his memory.  It is only now that we get a first look at the raw data he has recorded.

Raw data captured by Inspector Gadget during his five hour and forty minute ride on "Splish" (H002).

Monday, 5 September 2011

Body condition, stress and reproductive success.

Time for a little theory, but I promise to keep it simple. 

Fat, well fed whales float better than thin, stressed whales because they have a higher lipid content in their blubber. When a fat, well fed whale dives it will have to beat it's tail flukes more frequently to counteract it's inherent buoyancy; while a thin, stressed whale will sink more easily and have to beat it's flukes less frequently. Conversely when swimming back to the surface; a fat, well fed whale uses it's inherent buoyancy to help it ascend; while a thin, stressed whale has to beat it's flukes more frequently. Thin, stressed whales with a poor condition are less likely to reproduce because they don't have sufficient blubber reserves to sustain themselves or their calf.

How do you measure the body condition of an animal the size and weight of a truck? Cue the Inspector Gadget of the Oceans, a whale sized breathalyser, laser photogrammetry and a biopsy dart.

Tagged! Our very own "Wide Body!"

 Not wanting to be "size-ist" in any way, shape or form,  but yesterday we tagged our very own "wide body", and to paraphrase Queen and Freddie Mercury " Fat bottomed girls you really do make our rockin' world go round"!

"Move over, wide body coming through!".

"Wide Body"! "Fat bottomed girl"! Whoah, enough of the sexist and size-ist language.  So let me apologise profusely, but both phrases are very apt descriptions of a mature, adult female humpback whale. Yesterday we tagged the oldest female in the MICS catalog, H002 or "Splish" to her friends. Believe it or not Splish is almost as old as me, and yes I know what you are thinking ..... "that's ancient!". She was first photographed back in 1980; that was the year of the Moscow Olympics, Mount Saint Helens, the Empire Strikes Back, Pac Man ......... and also the year that the American public voted in a B-Rate actor as their 40th President. In case you were wondering, I was nine in 1980.
But why all the excitement over a "Fat bottomed girl"? Female humpbacks are integral to the Miller Lab's "Body Condition Project", which is attempting to understand the relationship between stress, body condition and behaviour; and ultimately how this links to an individual's reproductive success. More details to come in future blogs!