Voyage into sub-zero temps yields rare data capture for whale scientist

A Griffith University researcher has touched back down in Australia after the trip of a lifetime with a trove of data on humpback whale populations in one of the wildest and remotest regions on the planet.

Marine ecologist Dr Olaf Meynecke, from the Griffith-led Whales and Climate Research Program , joined more than 100 scientists and creatives on a recent voyage to Antarctica to better understand climate impacts on whale species.

Dr Meynecke with Dr Sylvia Earle.

The research and discovery expedition (the Antarctic Climate Expedition 2023/ACE23) was led and hosted by renowned marine biologist and oceanographer, Dr Sylvia Earle.

Dr Meynecke was among the 115 ambassadors selected, ranging in age from 12-88 and globally represented in terms of cultures, nationalities, talents, expertise, experience, influence, and gender.

“It was such a rare and amazing opportunity to research the humpback whales that use this part of Antarctica as a feeding ground, how they are adapting and changing their behaviour and where the hotspots of feeding are,” he said.

“I usually fly my drone to do size and behaviour measurements in subtropical and tropical regions like the Gold Coast, so one of the most interesting things I observed in the Antarctic was the different behaviours that the whales had to adjust to for the feeding conditions in this location.

“In areas with a lot of krill, they were seen doing bubble net feeding and socialised feeding, so they were working together as groups of four or five constantly feeding.

“And in areas where there was less food, it was usually just individuals and they were feeding in the mid-water, maybe to 50-100 metre depth.

“There were also signs of climate change impacts – what matters for the whales in this location is how fast the ice is melting, and this year has been the lowest ice amount for Antarctica since 1970.

“It was a significant time to be there.”

While on board the Feb 13-26 journey, Dr Meynecke:

  • undertook sampling including skin and whale faeces sampling, size measurements using drones and tagging whales;
  • undertook data collection on the main deck on more than 100 whales, and photos (for whale flukes and species ID);
  • worked with expedition ambassadors on resolutions for a climate safe future;
  • and developed new collaboration with international partners to expand his research for whale conservation.

For future research, Dr Meynecke will use the findings from this journey to look at the sizes of humpback whales and how that relates to their feeding areas and changes in behaviour.

“On the east coast of Australia, I see relatively skinny whales compared with the individuals I saw in Antarctica,” he said.

“To see these animals experience the tropics like the Great Barrier Reef, but then also swim through ice cold waters in Antarctica in the same year was really fascinating for me and such a wonderful insight.”

The Antarctic expedition outputs will also include a feature documentary, exhibitions in key cities, expedition reports, lectures, a photographic index, books, and education materials.

Aurora Expeditions Chief Marketing Officer Hayley Peacock-Gower said the company was thrilled to partner with Dr Sylvia Earle (the namesake of their expedition ship) and Ocean Geographic for the Antarctica Climate Expedition.

“Aurora Expeditions is deeply committed to sustainability in action and our ship aims to be a floating ambassador for the planet,” she said.

“We have been pioneering expeditions to Antarctica for over 32 years. The stories and outputs from this game-changing expedition aim to encourage the way people see and understand the Antarctic and make a real difference to help preserving and protecting our ocean.”

The Antarctic Climate Expedition (ACE) 2023 was organised by Ocean Geographic Society of OceanNEnvironment Ltd on board The Sylvia Earle, in partnership with Aurora Expeditions, a carbon-neutral company based in Australia. The Sylvia Earle is named for Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, Time Magazine’s first Hero of the Planet. Mission Blue serves as the principal partner to Ocean Geographic in ACE 2023.