Shooting Killer Whales for Science in Antarctica

By taking biopsies researchers can study what killer whales have been eating

During the summer of 2014/15 I provided field safety support to a small group of scientists studying killer whales on the edge of sea ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. I felt like I was in the middle of a national geographic channel documentary because the wildlife was astounding. The video below has footage I took of penguins, skuas and whales:

The Antarctic ice edge

Antarctic sea ice or pack ice forms during the winter and breaks away during the summer. The ice edge is simply the line to where the ice has currently broken to. This is an extremely dynamic place that can change by small or large amounts daily due to temperature, wind and ocean currents. My main job as field safety was to find safe landing locations for the helicopter, and to minimize risk for the people working directly on the ice edge.

The scientists had 3 main projects: To collect biopsies, to photograph and identify breaching whales, and to record killer whale sounds using a hydrophone. They also successfully got some underwater footage of killer whales using a GoPro on a pole:

filming killer whale (orca) underwater with gopro pole

Collecting whale biopsies

A biopsy is the examination of tissue removed from a living body. The rifles used to do this are gas powered and shoot a small biopsy dart at the skin of the whale. The dart takes a small skin sample and bounces of the body, allowing the researchers to retrieve the dart with a tether attached to the gun. The disturbance for the killer whale is very minimal and perhaps feels like having an insect bite. Collecting whale biopsies is not particularly easy and requires patience. First you need to wait until some whales come along and swim close enough (within about 30m), and then you have to actually hit your target during the few seconds that it is breaching out of the water. There were plenty of missed shots for sure!

killer whale (orca) breaching beside the sea ice in antarctica

Recording killer whale sounds with a hydrophone

The Antarctic ocean is a noisy place! My video below shows whales breaching between the pack ice with sound recorded onsite with the hydrophone. You will notice there are lots of different and unusual sounds. The background clicking noises are the killer whales echo-locating. Some of the chirping noises may be weddell seals, and there is a distinctive "fog-horn" sounding call that I believe comes from a different type of whale.