The tail of a humpback whale flares out of the water as the animal begins to dive. Ted Cheeseman rattles off half a dozen quick frames with his camera before it slips under the water. “I don’t think we’ve seen that whale on this trip yet,” he says.
“You think you can identify a whale just with that?” I ask, incredulous. To me it’s just a whale tail, pretty much all dark grey, with a trailing edge that’s ragged like cutoff jeans—about as distinctive as a Coca-Cola can.
“There’s a couple of scars,” he replies. Sitting beside me on the edge of our floating, bobbing Zodiac, he pulls up an image on his camera’s LCD and points out the two marks—faint, white parallel lines on the fin’s right-hand side. Then he points out the fin’s ragged trailing edge. “The trailing edge is like a bar code,” he says. “There’s a lot of information in it.” That information just needs to be distilled out through image analysis.
It’s an overcast afternoon in Dallman Bay, on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Snowflakes drift down through the still air. The water is smooth. Its glassy surface is animated by a slow, lazy swell that lifts and drops our boat by three feet from crest to trough—a distant murmur of the high waves and fierce circumpolar winds that are rampaging, right now, hundreds of miles to our west on the exposed waters of what some scientists call the Southern, or Antarctic, Ocean.
Cheeseman is lean, six feet two, with close-cropped brown hair—an avid surfer who hails from Santa Cruz, California. He has visited Antarctica more or less annually for the last 15 years and is leading this two-week tour along the Antarctic Peninsula aboard the ice-strengthened ship Ortelius. The cruise includes roughly a hundred paying guests, plus a small team of scientists studying humpback whales.
In the Zodiac with Cheeseman and I are Lars Bejder and Fredrik Christiansen, two whale scientists from Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. They periodically launch a small quadcopter drone into the air; it hovers 50 feet over the whales as they rest on the surface of the water, capturing photos that will provide information about their size, body weight, and how well fed they are. Another Zodiac a hundred yards away carries Ari Friedlaender, a whale scientist from Oregon State University who is collecting biopsies of the whales’ skin and blubber–a fancy trick using a crossbow and hollow-tipped darts. Those plugs of tissue provide information on the whales’ genetics, health, and even a hint of where they may breed, thousands of miles north, off the coast of South America.
Cheeseman doesn’t have their fancy equipment, but he hopes to contribute another dimension to the science using his camera. By capturing crisp photos of the whales’ tails, or flukes, he hopes that the same animals can be identified repeatedly over many years—perhaps revealing insights about their annual migrations over thousands of miles of ocean.
Just now, he shoots a string of photos at the fluke of another whale as it dives 50 yards from our boat. Its fluke is dark, mottled with white circles—barnacle scars, which tend to accumulate when a whale is young. “You’ll see some that appear to have gotten a bad case of acne in their youth,” he says. “The scars will stay” for the rest of the whale’s life.
It means these barnacle scars are useful for identifying the same whale repeatedly over many years … And to me, a parent of young children, it substantiates something else more trivial but also interesting: a basis of fact underlying the SpongeBob episode, “Barnacle Face,” in which an adolescent whale named Pearl is struck by a bad case of barnacle acne just before a school dance.
Researchers have used photography for decades to track the movements of individual whales. One catalogue, run by a group called Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, began in 1977 and now includes 8,000 humpback whales living in the North Atlantic. Similar catalogues cover a range of other species including fin whales, Atlantic northern right whales, and Salish Sea orcas.
Each photograph within these catalogues documents the sighting of a particular whale at a specific time and place–often, the same whale seen in places thousands of miles apart at different times of the year. Accumulate enough accurate photos, and you can discover unexpected things about the long-distance travels of whales between Antarctica and their breeding grounds thousands of miles to the north.
In 2011, researchers used photo ID to discover that some humpback whales migrate as far as 11,600 miles between breeding grounds in American Samoa and summer feeding grounds on the Antarctic Peninsula. Mapping out these long-distance connections is especially important since they are evolving as we speak. Humpback whales are still recovering from largescale whaling in the 20th century, currently expanding back into South Georgia Island—where they were exterminated 75 years ago—and also along the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, where declining sea ice is opening up new areas for humpbacks to feed, while potentially reducing the areas where ice-loving minke whales can feed.
Cheeseman is hoping to bring more open-source, citizen science to this pursuit. During our cruise in March, he collected over 1,600 whale fluke photographs from staff and passengers on the Ortelius. Through a project that he has started called HappyWhale, those photos are undergoing digital image analysis to identify unique individuals. HappyWhale is also analyzing photos from dozens of other people who visited the Antarctic Peninsula this year on other tour ships. All of this information is being fed to an existing catalog of humpback whales in the Antarctic, which Allied Whale maintains and uses to conduct scientific research.
Just a few days ago, one of the whales photographed in Antarctica during the Ortelius cruise was identified as the same one (in Allied Whale’s database) that was sighted and photographed off the coast of Ecuador nearly 28 years ago, in November 1988.
This idea of citizen science highlights a growing tension. The number of tourists visiting the Antarctic Peninsula each year has increased threefold since the early 1990s, reaching 45,000 passengers in 2007. That trend has provoked concern about damage to the region’s ecology—be it introduction of invasive species from other parts of the world, trampling of fragile moss and lichen ecosystems on land, or alterations in the behavior of whales, penguins, or other animals that encounter visitors.
Tour ship traffic on the peninsula now dwarfs that of research vessels. “We burned 140,000 pounds of fuel on our trip [in March]—9,000 pounds per day,” Cheeseman told me after our ship returned to Ushuaia, Argentina. “I don’t take it lightly.” But he hopes that this growing footprint can also provide something of value. Those tour ships are crowded with avid photographers, with a strong interest in wildlife. (Two passengers on the Ortelius actually brought their own hydrophones for recording whale songs underwater.) Harness those people to photograph whale flukes, and it could vastly increase the number of whales catalogued in Antarctica. Photos from the Ortelius cruise have so far documented a hundred individual humpback whales. Among the first 20 that were analyzed by Allied Whale, three had been sighted before in Antarctica; the others were new.
Scientists themselves are starting to take advantage of tour ships—using them to supplement what is otherwise severely limited time on government research vessels. Scientists have used tour ships to survey populations of penguins, terns, and other birds. Friedlaender began working off tour ships a few years ago. During his two weeks on the Ortelius in March, he managed to biopsy several dozen humpback whales. He also tagged two humpbacks with GPS transmitters that will track their migrations in the coming weeks, and he tagged two other whales with devices that used motion sensors and cameras to track their rests, feeding dives, and detailed underwater choreography for up to 24 hours. Bejder and Christiansen photographed most of these same whales—providing further valuable information on them.
Travel to Antarctica doesn’t come cheaply or cleanly—regardless of who’s doing the traveling. Icebreakers burn ghastly amounts of fuel—a fact of life that’s probably unavoidable for a ship designed to plow through several feet of sea ice or back and ram through eight feet of ice. When I spent six weeks with scientists on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 2007, our skeleton crew of four people consumed four to six drums of fuel—each containing 55 gallons—not to mention the poop and pee that we left buried in the ice.
Antarctica remains understudied and underexplored compared to other parts of the world—especially when you consider how quickly its climate is changing, how heavily it weighs on global issues such as sea level rise, and how counterintuitively crucial it is to the ecosystem of the entire Southern Ocean. But the conversation about human impacts on its environment is an important one—and one that needs to continue.
Writer Douglas Fox and photographer Carolyn Van Houten spent 15 days aboard the M.V.Ortelius as the ship explores glacial fjords along the Antarctic Peninsula, conducting studies of humpback and minke whales. Follow their story here, then see more about life in Antarctica on the new show Deep Freeze, on the National Geographic Channel in fall 2016.