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Following The Pods: The Whale Satellite Tagging Project

February 2, 2014

Photo by Kim on Flickr

Despite all that we already know about them, orca whales still hold many mysteries. For one, we’re not quite sure where resident pods go during the winter. Scientists know that they can have quite a range, but have never been able to really know just how big it is.

Last year, the Northwest Fisheries Science Centre, based in Seattle, decided to go ahead with a satellite tagging program that would tell scientists where orcas go during the course of a year, but especially during the winter.

Why tag whales?

The main objective, according to the NFSC website, is to help determine winter habitat for resident killer whale pods, and to help provide Critical Habitat designation to any habitat of importance. In order to gain Critical Habitat status, however, there needs to be proof that the killer whales require the space for feeding and reproducing and that the habitat needs to be free from human disturbance.

The satellite tagging project will help scientists figure out if any winter habitat space requires Critical Habitat status, thus further protecting this endangered species. Moreover, satellite tags are more practical and less expensive, in the long-term, than other non-invasive methods like aerial surveys and marine expeditions.

Will tagging whales hurt them?

According to the NFSC scientists, the satellite tags incur little risk for the whales. It usually results in a small raised area with some skin discoloration, but nothing too different from, for example, a shark bite.

The tags do not affect survival, feeding or reproduction. To further reduce the risk to the animals, only males and post-reproductive females are tagged. There is also no evidence that the tags leak any contaminants into the whale’s system. Although the risks are not zero, they are very minimal.

The tags are implanted using a dart shot from a pneumatic dart projector into the whale’s fin tissue.

How do the tags work?

It’s a bit complicated, but basically the tags send a signal to a weather satellite that passes over the Pacific Northwest region every 90 minutes. The tag is turned on only during daytime hours, and they only transmit when the whale comes to the surface.

The location data is then transmitted to scientists who analyze and interpret it.

What have they discovered?

Scientists don’t like to make hasty conclusions, but the research has already yielded fascinating data. If you follow this link, you’ll find a great Quicktime map of the movements of J-pod over a month. See how much they travel in only a few days!

We hope to see positive outcomes from this project as we discover more about the killer whales' wintering habits.

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