Despite being some of the biggest animals ever to have graced the planet, the lives of many whales still remain an enigma. None more so than those cetaceans that live in the remote southern oceans. Now, for the first time ever, researchers have attached cameras to Antarctic minke whales in a bid to get a peek into their mysterious lives.
When it comes to baleen whales – those which filter out small crustaceans from the water – the minke whale is a tiddler. Measuring in at just 8 to 9 meters (26 to30 feet) long, they are the second smallest, but also one of the least understood.
A team of scientists on an expedition with WWF Australia managed to attach a camera to a minke whale with suction cups, and recorded some awesome footage of the whale’s lunge feeding, revealing at the same time that they can move surprisingly quickly through the frigid waters.
“The video showed the tagged minke moving at up to 24 kilometres per hour as it accelerates to feed,” explained Dr Ari Friedlaender, of the University of California Santa Cruz and who led the tagging, in a statement. “We could see individual feeding lunges and the expansion of the throat pleats as they filled with prey-laden water.”
“What was remarkable was the frequency of the lunges and how quickly they could process water and feed again, repeating the task about every 10 seconds on a feeding dive. He was like a Pac-Man continuously feeding.”
The research conducted in these waters, and the data collected on the feeding behavior of the whales will help in the expansion of marine protected areas in Antarctica. There is currently serious concern that the feeding grounds of baleen whales, along with those of penguins, seals, and seabirds, overlap with the prominent krill fisheries that also operate in the southern oceans.
It's thought that the fishing boats that patrol these waters are catching too many of the tiny crustaceans that underpin the food chains in Antarctica and they can't replenish fast enough. Combine this with the impact that climate change is likely to have on the population of krill, and the situation for much of the top predators at the bottom of the world is not looking great.
This is why many environmental organizations are calling on governments to ramp up the protection of these regions. Last month, Greenpeace launched a campaign to persuade the Antarctic nations to create the world’s largest wildlife reserve over a patch of water around the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula five times the size of Germany.