I’m Natalie Kelly and I am a post-doc research fellow with CSIRO, but I work with the Australian Antarctic Division to research minke whales in Antarctica. Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales in the Southern Ocean. They're approximately seven to nine metres in length. They're the most populous as well. Estimates put them at around 500 000 individuals for the whole of the Southern Ocean.
I lead an aerial survey in Antarctica, or East Antarctica, to study minke whales in the sea ice. Over the last three decades or so, the International Whaling Commission has noticed a decline in minke whale numbers. Those numbers are derived from boat-based surveys, but those boats aren’t ice-strengthened so they just skirt around the edge. One of the theories is the minke whales are actually moving into the sea ice, away from where the boats can count them, so therefore their numbers are going down.
We're looking at an aerial survey to go over the sea ice and to see whether the whales are in fact in the sea ice. So this is the third year that we've been going down to work with this aerial survey programme. The first couple of years have been a test phase. On a day-to-day basis the aerial survey involves using the CASA 212 aircraft. Now, they're the turbo-prop fixed-wing aircraft that the Australian Antarctic Division uses, more or less as a cargo and personnel moving platform, but we stick observers on the aircraft, on each side, and we just go up and down among the sea ice looking out for whales and counting them as we see them.
This season we've got a much longer survey period. We're going for a nine week window, and we're moving our survey area further west, so hopefully we will be able to detect any pulse changes in the population over that time, and whether they're changing geographically as well. This research is important now because it allows us to be more precise about the population estimates themselves, which the International Whaling Commission needs for more appropriate management.
Australian Antarctic Division quantitative ecologist, Dr Natalie Kelly, is studying Antarctic minke whale populations from the air this summer.
There is concern minke populations are declining in Antarctic waters, but boat-based surveys are unable to enter the pack ice to get an accurate count of whale numbers.
The aerial survey will be carried out from mid December through to February, near Australia’s Casey station.