The largest collaborative whale research voyage ever undertaken is on its way to Antarctica.

Seventeen scientists and support personnel sailed out of Wellington today towards the Ross Sea and adjacent Southern Ocean area.

For the next six weeks, led by the Australian Antarctic Division’s Dr Nick Gales, the Australian, New Zealand and French research team will study humpback whales, Antarctic minke whales, and blue whales in the quest to better understand them.

Dr Gales, who heads the Australian Marine Mammal Centre, says that information gained from this trip will give greater insight into the little-known facts about how whales interact with sea ice and how they use their environment, providing critical information to assist in the future conservation of whales.

More than one hundred satellite tags will be deployed onto the whales to enable researchers to keep track of their movements over the coming months as they head north to their breeding grounds.

At the same time, other non-lethal methods such as biopsies, acoustics and hydrographic surveys will be employed.

The findings from this expedition, together with aerial surveys carried out this season close to the Antarctic continent will be presented in a report to the next International Whaling Commission meeting in June.

In the meantime, it has been a busy time for the scientists — each, specialists in their field — preparing for the trip south. For the tight-knit group of whale specialists the voyage is the culmination of two years’ planning.

The voyage, aboard New Zealand’s RV Tangaroa, will return in mid-March.

Update 23 February 2010

The Antarctic Whale Expedition is now almost half way through its six-week voyage. After departing Wellington on 2 February, the Tangaroa travelled for eight days towards the Antarctic ice edge. The expeditioners encountered some rough weather initially, however the last few days have provided some good opportunities to launch the small boats and conduct research near the Balleny Islands. For the full progress report, see ‘expedition updates’ below.