The study and protection of whales: a colossal challenge (1/3)
Camille Rondeau Saint-Jean
Whales play a central ecological role in marine ecosystems. Why then are they so difficult to protect, despite the affection of the public affection and the efforts of many organizations? But first, what makes them some of the most complex animals to study, with secrets marine biologists are still far from unraveling?
As we have grown accustomed to seeing spectacular close-up images of whales in wildlife documentaries and can easily spot a few of them when booking a tourist trip, it is hard to grasp how challenging it is to investigate cetaceans scientifically. When zoologists study terrestrial species, they can adopt several techniques to observe, capture and track individuals. Some animals, such as caribou and bighorn sheep, can be tracked visually, some, such as squirrels, can be easily trapped without harming them, and others make nests or burrows where one can track the growth of juveniles without causing major disturbance. Some teams tag or ring animals to tell them apart and track their behavior over months or years, and others take blood samples to measure vital signs and study physiological phenomena. During the migration season, a handful of ornithologists equipped with cleverly placed nets (and a good dose of patience with stinging insects) can measure and band several hundred birds in a single morning.
As for whales, they spend most of their time deep underwater and travel over immense territories that are often hostile to humans. Few scientific teams have access to boats that can stay at sea for long periods to observe whales without having to return to port but are still nimble and unobtrusive enough. And then one must locate individuals of the focal species, which may be hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from where they were expected, migrations being often unpredictable and poorly known. But even once in the right place at the right time, it is surprisingly difficult to track an individual over a long period of time. Few feelings compare to the atmosphere that creeps on a scientific boat, when a team realizes that they have irretrievably lost track of an animal weighing more than 80 tons that had finally been spotted after days of searching...
But nowadays, isn’t it possible to track whales by installing satellite beacons or other such gadgets? Of course, these technologies exist and are often used to study many animal species. But whales don't have necks on which to put GPS collars, or legs to wear rings, or even fur on which to stick a device like it can be done on seals! Various types of implant tags have been developed, but they represent a risk of infection and inflammation that makes many researchers worried for the fragile health of the animals studied. Scientists often fall back on suction-cup tags, which provide fascinating information but rarely remain in place for more than a few days.
Biologists have developed unusual techniques asking for drones and acoustic surveys to study whales. Samples of feces and small pieces of skin floating on the surface are also often collected to better understand the diet and hormonal state of the whales. More impressively, some teams use crossbows with hollow arrows to collect a blubber sample of the size of a pen cap when whales come to the surface to breathe! Photo-identification, a technique used since the 1970s, consists of photographing the tail or dorsal fin of a whale and comparing the images with a catalog of known individuals. Over the years, photos taken throughout the world have allowed us to estimate the age of whales that are observed more than once and to better understand migrations.
This shows how time-consuming, complex, and unpredictable the scientific study of whales can be. There is no doubt that the advent of technologies that allow for the rapid identification of whales in aerial, satellite and infrared photos represents a valuable tool to better understand their movements and to estimate the size of populations with greater precision! Artificial intelligence is a major asset that will complement the work of biologists in the field, and its applications to the study of marine mammals will undoubtedly multiply in the coming years.
One thing is for sure, whales not giving up their secrets easily will not stop the passion and thirst for knowledge of the biologists who study them! How do these unique characteristics make them vulnerable to changes in their environment, and what can Whale Seeker do to address their conservation challenges? This is what we will discuss in the next few posts.