Whales' wails to guide Canberra pair on Southern Ocean voyage
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Whales' wails to guide Canberra pair on Southern Ocean voyage

The latest international voyage to learn about the planet's biggest mammals departed from New Zealand this week with a distinct Canberra flavour on board.

The 21 scientists tracking the travels and feeding habits of humpback and blue whales across the Southern Ocean for the next six weeks included Mike Double and his Australian Antarctic Division colleague Nat Schmitt.

Australian scientists Dr Nat Schmitt and Dr Mike Double in front of the research vessel in Wellington allowing them to study blue and humpback whales throughout the Southern Ocean.

Australian scientists Dr Nat Schmitt and Dr Mike Double in front of the research vessel in Wellington allowing them to study blue and humpback whales throughout the Southern Ocean. Credit:Photo by Dave Allen, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

Dr Double spent 12 years in the Australian National University's botany and zoology department before departing in 2007 for Australia's peak Antarctic body in Hobart, while Dr Schmitt graduated with a PhD from ANU in 2013.

High-tech sonobuoys deployed from the New Zealand research ship will help the diverse team track the whales through their low-frequency songs.

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Dr Double, Australian Antarctic Division's science leader, said the long-range tracking allowed the researchers to pick up whales hundreds of kilometres away and follow them as they moved.

"Once we get cross bearings, blue whales can keep calling for days and hours," he said.

"This approach has been refined during previous voyages. Now we can use it to discover why blue whales aggregate in feeding hotspots around the Antarctic."

"We see also these different body types that seem to be feeding on a common resource, Antarctic krill, so the question is why is this the case?"

It won't be the first time either scientist has been on the New Zealand ship.

Dr Schmitt has already travelled to the Balleny Islands, about 400 kilometres off Antarctica, in 2010 as part of her PhD on the genetic patterns of Australian and South Pacific humpback whales.

She is the Australian Antarctic Division's on-board geneticist and her work will include analysing small amounts of whale skin taken via a biopsy rifle.

The voyage's work, which will also include looking at prey of the Antarctic toothfish, was the broadest she had been involved in and would take her further south than ever before, she said.

"What I'm really excited about on this voyage is we're going very close to Antarctica this time. We plan to set up a mooring ... in Terra Nova Bay."

The mooring is part of the work of New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, which has combined with Antarctica New Zealand and the Australian Antarctic Division for the trip.

The whale research is being completed as part of an International Whaling Commission research partnership.

Reporter at The Canberra Times

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