I still can’t believe it: I’m going to work on the South African Bryde’s Whale Project with a team of marine mammal scientists based at the Cape Town branch of the Mammal Research Institute of the University of Pretoria.
I’ve just arrived at the airport and I’m both excited and thoughtful about what will happen to me. The first person I get to know is Gwenith, who will become Gwen for us soon. She is the principal researcher. She has a PhD on the Bryde’s whale and eight years experience in the field, laboratory and analytical techniques for studying marine mammals. There’s another intern like me: Ursula, a swiss woman with a solid background in cetaceans field, especially Minke’s whales.
After checking everything, we’re ready to start our first day. Meredith, an excellent skipper and boat technician with so many years experience in marine conservation and research, is the fourth woman. It’s 7.30 a.m. and, as usual, we’re on the vessel, a RHIB named “Balaena”. We take off the nots of the rope and go off sea.
I’ve just seen so many cetacean species for the first time: common dolphins, humpback whales, southern right whales and the most elusive whale we’re looking for, the Bryde’s Whale.
This baleen whale had previously been confused with the sei whale. This new species has been named “Balaenoptera Brydei” after Johan Bryde, the norvegian consul to South Africa, who set up the first whaling station in Durban. Bryde’s whales are middle sized balaenopterids. There’re a number of unique characteristics that distinguish them from other balaenopterids; the most notable being 3 prominent rostral ridges, 1 central and 2 lateral sub-ridges, that extend from the tip of the snout to just before the blowholes. Their ventral grooves extend back from the lower jaw to the umbilicus. They have a prominent, falcate dorsal fin situated 2/3 of the way down the body. The body is dark, smoky gray dorsally, becoming gradually lighter, yellowish-white ventrally. Their length, once fully grown, is between 12 to 15 m with an apparent sexual dimorphism. Females are larger than males by about 0,5 m. The International Whaling Commission currently recognizes 11 stocks of Bryde’s whale. These whales are found in a lot of tropical and temperate waters, they’ve been recorded in the oceans between 40° N and 40° S. Off South Africa there is a bimodal distribution, with a high abundance in the coldest water between 12° C and 13° C, and a secondary peak in abundance at about 18° C to 19° C. This supports the evidence for 2 sub-populations of Bryde’s whale with different habitat requirements. It’s unlikely that water temperature affects their distribution - the the abundance of prey is probably more important.
Writing about Bryde’s whale remind me of a special day, probably the last one. I was on the sighting tower and a Bryde’s approached very close to our boat. So fascinating! The animal was so close to us and the water was so clear and shallow that I was able to see the entire body. What a breath taking moment! Bryde’s are very elusive and it was a special gift for us. Studying them is really hard, especially if researchers, like us, have to shoot the animals with a crossbow to capture biopsy samples from their blubber, the cetacean fat skin. Once we manage that, we need to process the sample, transfering, labelling and preserving the genetic material. So, it was both photo-ID and genetic study.
Another encounter will stay forever in my mind. I have been in South Africa for a few days. An unforgettable sighting: a fight between two humpback whales males to win over a female. A lot of tails and flippers lapping. A huge amount of water rising up from the surface. Before that day, I’d only ever seen scenes like this in documentaries. A tear on my face is mandatory, unavoidable. I’ve been dreaming about whale breaches since I was young. When I have the chance to see these animals I remember the reason I’m studying marine biology. An unwavering enthusiasm envelops me and everything disappears. Like by magic.
I can write hundreds of pages about many incredible sightings we had. It’s such a tough thing to do because you should be here to really understand the emotion and the satisfaction we have at the end of each day. Falling asleep after a tiring work day like these ones. And the next day, when the alarm sounds again to wake us up, ready for another adventure.
Many thanks to Gwen for giving me this meaningful opportunity of being part of this project and for giving me the possibility to meet Ken Findlay, the director of the Whale Unit at the University of Pretoria, as well as the supervisor of the project. Peter Best, advisor and extraordinary professor, who I had the chance to get to know too. A special thank goes also to Meredith, Ursula, Ian and Steve, two funny and helpful guys who have helped us on boat for many weekends. Thanks to everyone for making this experience unforgettable.
please, let me join your project I will work for food and a place to sleep.
DO HUMPBACK WHALES USE THE STARS TO NAVIGATE?
DailyMail 04:04 GMT, 21 April 2011
Humpback whales can travel thousands of miles deep underwater in an astonishingly straight line - and the sun, moon and stars may be why they never get lost.
Scientists used satellite technology to track 16 tagged whales as they migrated thousands of kilometres northwards from the South Atlantic and South Pacific - but could not work out how they manage to navigate their way through the ocean’s turbulent waters with such accuracy.
But it has now emerged the huge mammals may use a combination of the sun’s position, Earth’s magnetism and even star maps to guide their journeys, which can up 10,000 miles long.
Experts say humpbacks never deviate more than about five degrees from their migration courses.
Most of the whales in the experiment, which were tracked between 2003 and 2010, maintained an almost dead-straight course, deviating by less than one degree - despite the effects of weather and ocean currents.
Writing in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, Travis Horton from the University of Canterbury said: ‘They are orienting with something outside of themselves, not something internal.
Most long-distance travelling animals are believed to navigate using a compass based either on the Earth’s magnetic field, or the position of the sun.
But neither method can account for the extraordinary navigational ability of humpback whales, said the scientists, and they suspect the mammals use a combination of all three to find their way.
They said the earth’s magnetism varies too widely to explain the straight lines and solar navigation needs reference points not available in the water.