Humpback whale

Investigating humpback whales in Antarctica and engaging expedition cruise passengers

Researchers from the Universidad de Los Andes joined Hurtigruten’s state-of-the-art ship, MS Fram, to inspire passengers to actively participate in scientific observations that deepen our knowledge of these elusive cetaceans.

Humpback whales have one of the longest seasonal migrations of any mammal, which can reach up to 5,000 miles each way. Some overwinter and breed in the tropical waters off Colombia’s Pacific Coast before swimming south to their Antarctic feeding grounds in the Antarctic Peninsula to forage on krill. Despite being able to track their migration over these vast distances, we have limited knowledge about the behavior and population structure of the whales found in Antarctica.

Just as scientists are striving to understand the status of these magnificent cetaceans, climate change is changing their marine environment around the western Antarctic Peninsula. This could change the distribution and amount of krill (the whales’ primary food), which could affect their foraging strategies and even their migratory patterns. We’re in a race against time to understand their behavior now, before it changes forever.

Identifying cetaceans with the help of Hurtigruten’s passengers

To learn more, scientists from Colombia’s Universidad de Los Andes needed a way to get close to these mighty mammals. By joining the Hurtigruten Expedition cruise ship, they were able to travel to the Antarctic feeding grounds and remain there for extended periods of time. They were also able to put the keen eyes of the passengers to work in order to observe and document their sightings.

Alongside visual observations and photo identification, the scientists use a special ‘remote biopsy’ rifle that shoots a shallow dart into the skin of humpback whales and other cetaceans like dolphins. These harmless darts take a tiny sample of skin before falling out and floating to the surface where the scientists can recover them. By then profiling each animal’s DNA, the scientists can build a better picture of their family relations and where they roam.

A perfect fit for Hurtigruten

Scientists also use eDNA samples to track marine mammals. This eDNA (short for ‘environmental DNA’) works by gathering water samples where whales were recently present in order to capture microscopic traces from their bodies, such as skin cells. This is an ideal activity for Hurtigruten’s guests, who can actively participate while watching for whales from a small boat (RIB). Later, scientists can analyze the samples in the Science Center aboard MS Fram to find DNA from the whales and other creatures. They then share their findings, which enriches the experience of everyone involved.

With multiple techniques, passengers and scientists alike can make useful contributions. The passengers also gained ‘hands-on experience’ on how to extract DNA from the skin biopsies they helped collect, just like scientists in the laboratory. These DNA extractions are then used for subsequent analyses. What’s more, when the weather is unsuitable to conduct surveys and take water samples from a small boat (RIB), observers can still gather data on cetacean distribution, make photo identifications, and record environmental data—all from the safety of the ship’s deck.

Hurtigruten Foundation has supported the scientists’ work by providing them with cabins and all the amenities aboard MS Fram, as well as the valuable help of the crew on two expedition cruises. It also provided an additional NOK 75,000 (approx. $8,500) to purchase the necessary equipment and materials.

Findings that keep on giving

By comparing photographs and DNA profiles of individual humpback whales taken in the Antarctic to photographs taken at the tropical breeding grounds, scientists gain knowledge about the behavior of these majestic cetaceans. They understand more about the complex connections between the whales found at these places.

They have already learned that humpback whales found off the western Antarctic Peninsula are very diverse genetically. They are now focusing on specific population groups and their genetic diversity. This is part of a concerted effort to sample humpback whales around both the western Antarctic Peninsula and the tropical breeding grounds over the next decade. This will shed light on patterns that can link climate change, oceanographic conditions, and the whales’ movements.

How can I learn more?

You can read more about how non-scientists can help track whales at Happywhale.

You can find more information here about Hurtigruten’s expedition cruises to Antarctica.

You can follow the scientists’ experience on their blog.