The largest animal ever known to have existed is strangely difficult to see, especially in the frigid waters off Antarctica, but one Murdoch University researcher has found a novel solution.
Antarctic blue whales grow up to 30 metres in length and can weigh more than 170 tonnes, about the same as four fully laden semi-trailers.
But as anyone who’s ever been whale watching will know, catching sight of one is surprisingly tricky.
For marine biologists, observing them feed is even trickier, partly because, ironically, their prey is tiny.
Blue whales feed on krill, small crustaceans no more than 1-2cm long that drift through the ocean in great swarms.
Whale researcher Joshua Smith wanted to understand how whale populations are recovering from near extinction due to commercial whaling.
And he discovered the best way to find out was from above, using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or drone.
Dr Smith was part of an expedition aboard CSIRO research vessel RV Investigator during its recent Australian Antarctic Program voyage to the Southern Ocean.
“Through the use of drones, we were able to determine the size and distribution of krill aggregations that blue whales are feeding on through krill trawling and we could observe the behaviour of whales while they were feeding,” Dr Smith says.
“This was a very exciting voyage that has produced rare Antarctic blue whale behaviour footage, the first non-invasive size measurements of the whales and an assessment of their health.”
The team covered almost 200,000 square kilometres and flew more than 130 drone missions, obtaining the first size measurements of blue whale “blow” in the Southern Ocean among other data.
The extra knowledge of blue whales and their feeding habits will contribute to improved eco-system management of the Southern Ocean.
Research to understand blue whales is only possible if we support our universities. To keep Australia clever, please sign the petition below.