Scientists at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) have strapped themselves into bullet proof vests at a firearms range in a bid to develop new ways to track marine giants.

Tracking the movements of whales through the Southern Ocean can be a tricky business, requiring scientists to deploy satellite tags from air guns into the thick blubber of different species.

The data provides important information on movement, habitat use and krill consumption.

AAD researchers are now examining if the job can be done using drones, rather than from small boats in the open ocean.

“We deploy satellite tags and take biopsy samples from large whales. Both these techniques can give us data streams that are critical to the conservation and management of whales,” Marine Mammal Research Scientist Dr Virginia Andrews-Goff said.

“We anticipate drones will make a much safer working environment for both the researchers and the whales involved, simplifying the way we do our work.”

Looking at the numbers

Using drones could still be a long way off.

The team has spent hours firing specially designed tags and darts from fixed rifles at a pistol range.

The speed, flight path and force of impact have been recorded on high-speed cameras, with researchers now reviewing the extensive data.

“The next step is to look at the kind of designs that you might use for a deployment mechanism from a drone,” Dr Andrews-Goff said.

Finding a safer way

AAD Principal Research Scientist Dr Michael Double said strict rules are already in place to minimise disturbance to whales during tracking work.

But the task is to make the process safer for both the whales and scientists.

“We need to find a solution whereby we can deploy our gear but we can do it safely and in tough conditions from large ships,” Dr Double said.

Big but hard to find

The team is particularly interested in finding out more about the largest animal on the planet, the Antarctic blue whale, and how the species interacts with krill fishing fleets.

Only two satellite tags have ever been deployed on the massive marine mammals and teams must use sonobuoys to listen for their calls in the deep in order to find them.

“It's almost like finding a needle in a haystack, which is unbelievable considering how large the animals are,” Dr Andrews-Goff said.

“Satellite tagging Antarctic blue whales is very hard because they're fast animals. A lot of the time we have a lot of trouble just keeping up with them in the small boat and making sure we're in the right position to deploy a tag”.

It’s also hoped more satellite tags will shed light on how blue and minke whales are responding to changing sea ice conditions and interacting with krill populations.

“That's one of the things that we need to look at more closely, and to do that we need to get tracking data,” Dr Double said.