With a team ready to depart today, ORCA is all set to begin the next phase of our exciting project in collaboration with the British Antarctic Survey, Hurtigruten and the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands to better understand the abundance and distribution of large whales in and around South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. A team of two ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors, plus trained members of the expedition team, will be joining four Falkland, South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula itineraries this Antarctic 2023/24 season
As experts in distance sampling, ORCA devised and created a bespoke research project for the 2022/23 Antarctic season on board Hurtigruten's Fram, and we are continuing this important research for a second year in the 2023/24 Antarctic season. Over the season, there will be four survey trips in total, providing an assessment of the population abundance and densities in this little-studied location.
Recent studies indicate that large baleen whale populations are recovering from commercial whaling and this has led to larger aggregations in Antarctica and around South Georgia. However, the exact number and the areas of high densities (hotspots) are not known.
With an increase in Antarctic tourism and evidence that the whale population is growing, there is a need to create and implement mitigation measures - and this is where ORCA comes in.
The distance sampling methodologies ORCA has painstakingly developed will be used to the full, and build on the exciting findings from the initial survey season. Though further analysis will take place, already a number of potential trends/findings have been identified that will benefit from further monitoring and research.
Findings from 22/23 were that humpback whale numbers recorded in proximity to the Antarctic Peninsula were far higher early in the season than has previously been anecdotally reported. This is important given the recent changes to the IAATO geofenced area, which has been extended both temporally and spatially. This does, however, mean that further monitoring is critical to assess whether there are changes in whale density throughout the Antarctic season and whether areas not covered by the newly defined geofenced area need to be included in the future.
The waters around Elephant Island are starting to become a hotspot for high numbers of fin whales, with pods of over 100 fin whales having been sighted here. This has implications for vessels visiting this area and understanding the way that whales are using this area is important to ensure sustainable management of activities is embedded in future planning for this region.
Further monitoring is essential to understand whether areas where high densities of whales were recorded on individual itineraries may, in fact, be important hotspots.
There is insufficient data on the distribution of large baleen whales (particularly humpback whales) in waters around South Georgia to create appropriate conservation guidance for both the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and commercial shipping operators. As such, this research will be the first comprehensive project to collect continuous distance sampling data in the area to work as baseline data for future conservation intervention. We’ll need to ensure that, as long as the environmental conditions allow, we will collect as much distance sampling data in the waters around South Georgia as possible.
One key area will be Cumberland Bay. In this area there are planned collections of other sources of data e.g. acoustic data, so we need to ensure that visual data is also collected in this area to complement other data sources.
The other area of particular focus is the Antarctic Peninsula. We need to investigate if the geofenced areas in/around the Gerlache Strait, Marta Passage, South Shetland Islands and Elephant Island are in the most appropriate areas to safeguard these magnificent creatures (e.g. if large aggregations of whales are sighted frequently outside of these areas.)
Although during our surveys we will record all cetaceans, the focal species for this particular project are the large baleen whales - blue whale, humpback whale, fin whale, sei whale, and southern right whale.
There will be a lot to update you on throughout the season and we hope you are as excited as we are about what awaits.