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Published: 14 September 2010

Pioneering study shows value of non-lethal whale research

Wendy Pyper

Living whales can provide as much, if not more, valuable scientific information to aid their conservation than dead ones. This was the message behind a report released by the Australian and New Zealand governments at the 62nd International Whaling Commission meeting in Agadir, Morocco, last June.

The report documents preliminary results from a six-week joint Australian–New Zealand Antarctic whale expedition to the Southern Ocean between February and March this year.

Seventeen researchers from Australia, New Zealand and France gathered new information about whales using non-lethal techniques – including skin biopsy, photography, satellite tagging, and acoustics – to study the population structure, distribution, movement, feeding and ecological role of Southern Ocean whales.

The expedition was the first project conducted under the banner of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership (SORP), which formed in March 2009 and involves 12 countries.

Working from two small boats supported by New Zealand’s research vessel, Tangaroa, the research team – led by Dr Nick Gales of the Australian Antarctic Division – collected 64 skin biopsy samples and 61 individual tail fluke photographs from humpback whales. The team also satellite-tagged 30 humpback whales in their Southern Ocean feeding grounds.

The expedition’s satellite-tagging team approaches a humpback whale.
Credit: Anthony Hull

By deploying 110 sonobuoys (passive ‘listening’ devices), the team recorded sounds from blue, humpback, minke, fin and sperm whales, and an unidentified beaked whale. They also tracked the movements of blue whales for 36 hours.

Humpback whales were the most commonly sighted species, particularly around the Balleny Islands. Dr Gales says the sightings data will contribute to a major SORP project investigating Southern Hemisphere humpback whale populations around Antarctica. The satellite tagging results will provide information on the medium-scale movement of humpbacks in their Antarctic feeding grounds, and links between their Antarctic feeding grounds and their tropical breeding grounds.

Photo identification will also help build a picture of humpback population distribution.

‘Matching tail fluke photos taken in the feeding grounds on this expedition with those taken on breeding grounds by others will contribute to our understanding of the mixing between breeding populations on common feeding grounds in Antarctica,’ says Dr Gales.

To complete the picture, genetic analysis of the skin biopsy samples from 64 humpback whales will give scientists an insight into the population structure in Antarctic waters and the sex composition of whales in Antarctica for comparison with whales migrating along the east Australian coast.

The team will also use genetic techniques to study age-related gene expression, which could lead to a simple, non-lethal ageing method for baleen whales.

Passive acoustic sonobuoys were deployed to identify the sounds produced by whales in the study region and compare them with sounds recorded in other regions of the Southern Ocean. Blue whales were the most commonly recorded species, and their sounds were similar to those recorded from blue whales at other Antarctic sites. In contrast, humpback whales were rarely recorded, but their limited recordings were intriguing.

‘We did record a humpback whale song with the repetition of distinct stereotypic phrases,’ Dr Gales says. ‘As far as we know, this is the first instance where structured song-like sounds have been recorded from humpback whales on their Southern Ocean feeding grounds. Previously, it was thought that humpback whales only sang during their migration to and from, and while on, their breeding grounds.’

To learn more about the diet of whales, active acoustic instruments – ship-based ‘echosounders’ that emit ‘pinging’ sounds into the water – were used to detect aggregations of krill and small fish in humpback feeding areas. Dense schools of krill, the largest of which was about one kilometre across, were usually found around whale aggregations.

Schools of what are thought to be Antarctic silverfish (Pleurogramma antarctica) were also detected around the Balleny Islands. Samples of krill, phytoplankton and small invertebrates such as salps, amphipods and squid larvae were collected. Their carbon and nitrogen signatures will be compared with those found in the whales’ skin biopsy samples to identify the whales’ prey and feeding locations.

Dr Gales says the team will complete their analysis of expedition data before presenting the International Whaling Commission with a full report next year.

Published: 2010

Empowering vision

Cynthia Karena

Educational filmmaker and sustainability advocate, John Liu, has a knack for effectively communicating the complex in ways that make people sit up and take notice. A key to his success is leveraging the power of the image to inspire hope and a commitment to action.

John Liu in Rwanda – <i>Hope in a Changing Climate</i> documents local communities and government working together to rejuvenate the land.
John Liu in Rwanda – Hope in a Changing Climate documents local communities and government working together to rejuvenate the land.
Credit: John Liu

John D Liu’s mission is to make it easy for people to understand climate change.

‘The issue is knowledge. For either the public or for policy makers, ignorance is a good excuse,’ says Mr Liu, founder of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), which produces audiovisual environmental education materials for broadcast and educational audiences.

For more than ten years, the project has been documenting best-practice methods for large-scale restoration of damaged or destroyed ecosystems.

‘If (people) don’t know what to do, they are unlikely to be able to do much,’ says Mr Liu. ‘But if we know that it is possible to rehabilitate large-scale degraded ecosystems and we don’t do it, then we have crossed a line, because our knowledge is responsibility.’

An American with a Chinese father and an American mother, Mr Liu has lived in China for more than 30 years. He trained as a journalist in the United States, and moved to China to help open the CBS News Bureau in Beijing in 1979.

After a decade of living in China, Mr Liu became concerned about the levels of pollution and the rapid pace of development.

With his ‘knowledge brings responsibility’ philosophy, he founded the Environmental Education Media Project for China (the precursor to EEMP) and has been engaged in researching, documenting and educating people about ecology ever since. As an environmental filmmaker and ecological field researcher, he has produced and directed documentaries for CBS, National Geographic and the BBC.

John Liu on location in the 1990s, soon after establishing his environmental education media project.
John Liu on location in the 1990s, soon after establishing his environmental education media project.
Credit: John Liu

In 2006, Mr Liu was named the Rothamsted International Fellow for the Communication of Science. Rothamsted – a non-profit organisation working towards sustainable agriculture in developing and emerging countries – supports his PhD work with the Soil Sciences Department at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.

Mr Liu is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Global Forum on Media for Development, and an Associate Professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate and Society in the US.

Stories of hope

Mr Liu says most policy makers and the public assume that the human impact on climate is limited to the copious emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated by fossil fuel combustion over the past century or so.

‘The problem with this is that it is only partially true,’ he says. ‘Human impact on the climate began long before egregious emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, when human beings began to reduce biodiversity, biomass and accumulated organic matter. These impacts are exacerbated by egregious emissions.’

Re-balancing the world’s carbon equilibrium, according to Mr Liu, is not just a matter of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

‘If we restore all degraded land on the entire planet as well as reduce emissions, you can extrapolate massive carbon uptake, [as well as] re-regulated hydrological flows, increased fertility and productivity, and the ability to ensure that the highest level of genetic diversity possible survives into future generations,’ he says. ‘That seems like a much more comprehensive result.’

EEMP’s most recent documentary is Hope in a Changing Climate, filmed on location in China, Ethiopia and Rwanda.1 The film aims to demonstrate that damaged ecosystems and degraded land can be restored to health, and that such an outcome economically improves the lives of local people.

The segment on China’s Loess Plateau proves the point, with location footage showing how a barren, brown landscape covering an area the size of Belgium was transformed into a functioning, green ecosystem where rainfall infiltrates, water is retained and crops are readied for export. Importantly, this has enabled local communities to prosper.

Hope ... also interviews world leaders, bankers, students, presidents, journalists, scientists and local people. According to the film’s website, the Government of Rwanda has adopted a new national land-use policy based on EEMP’s presentations and analysis.

The film aired on BBC World last year, and screenings were held for world leaders at the Copenhagen climate change summit.

Reversing the damage

Degraded farmland in developing countries may be one of the best opportunities we have to reverse the trend toward reduced ecological function, says Mr Liu.

‘What human beings have done historically to damage the environment can be understood rather simply. We have interrupted evolutionary trends. This has resulted in reducing biodiversity, which has caused a reduction in biomass, which has in turn caused a reduction in the accumulation of organic matter. These changes have caused disruptions to fundamental systems that all life relies on.

John Liu’s documentation of the transformation of China’s Loess Plateau from barren landscape (top) to fertile oasis (bottom) has inspired communities in other ecologically damaged areas.
John Liu’s documentation of the transformation of China’s Loess Plateau from barren landscape (top) to fertile oasis (bottom) has inspired communities in other ecologically damaged areas.
Credit: John Liu

‘Through our ignorance, we have reduced gas exchange through photosynthesis, lowered nutrient recycling through the decay and transformation of each generation of life, and massively disrupted the infiltration and retention of rainfall in the biomass and in the soils.

‘If we return vegetation to degraded landscapes we can sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. This is done through photosynthesis. If we return vegetation, we also can lower temperatures because of shade, and we can increase soil moisture and relative humidity by restoring microclimates below vegetated canopies.

‘The Global Partnership for Forest Landscape Restoration has roughly estimated that one billion hectares of the Earth have been degraded and could be restored. This represents a huge potential, through understanding and positive work, to improve what is now a quite bad situation.’

Urban responsibility

The principles of conserving biodiversity and utilising biomass and accumulated organic matter are not just applicable to rural areas, says Mr Liu.

He sees the Earth as made up of five different landscape types; urban landscapes, pristine or functional landscapes, agricultural landscapes, industrial landscapes and large degraded landscapes.

‘In urban and industrial areas we have in many cases created “dead zones” without any biology. This is not true of all cities. In great cities [such as] London, Beijing, Tokyo, Paris and New York, there are lovely parks, but the buildings, the streets, the parking lots, the factories and businesses are mostly not designed to include these principles.’

Mr Liu says that if you lower biodiversity, biomass and organic matter, you get elevated temperatures. Another impact of losing biomass and organic matter to impervious ground cover such as pavement is the loss of capacity to retain and infiltrate rainfall. This results in flooding during rainy seasons. Further, water that would have been captured by living plants and roots during rains is not available to an ecosystem during the dry season.

‘If we understand these principles, and design our cities, our transportation systems and our buildings around them, then we will have a very different, a very liveable and a sustainable future,’ he says.

‘If we continue to fail to learn this, then I think we are in for very serious problems very soon.’

Not ‘them’ – just ‘us’

Australia’s pollution has little impact on the world compared with China or India, which may lead some Australians to feel complacent about the environment. However, this type of thinking suggests an ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach, says John Liu.

‘From my perspective there is just “us”. Humanity is a species. We need to have a species response now to our problems, not suggest that this is “their problem”. It is our problem because we are affecting global systems,’ he says.

Mr Liu gives the example of persistent organic pollutants. These human-made substances travel all over the world and accumulate up the food chain, but the highest concentrations can be found in Inuit peoples who are thousands of miles from any source.

‘Pollution somewhere is pollution everywhere,’ he says. ‘There is no them. Just us.’

More information

Environmental Education Media Project,


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