Marine biologists are pretty badass. Just ask Ari Friedlaender about his job hanging off the side of a boat over Antarctic waters with a 25-foot pole trying to tag a whale. He spends most of his life on a boat off countless coasts following families of Humpback and Minke whales in an attempt to understand just a little bit about the biggest animals on the planet. Friedlaender chatted with us about what it’s like when an animal the size of a truck flicks its tail at you.
Why study whales?
First off, they're the biggest animals that have ever lived on the planet. In order to get big you have to be successful at what you do. In my mind they’re the ultimate ocean predators. They represent the health of ocean ecosystems. Where you find whales you also find healthy ecosystems that can support a lot of life.
At the same time, we as humans are doing all sorts of the things to affect whales and the ocean’s ability to thrive. Humans and whales have a checkered past. They’ve been the subject of commercial harvest for hundreds of years. To see that they can respond and rebound from that negative activity is pretty cool. We’re trying to understand which ones are doing that better and why.
Have you always been interested in the ocean?
My parents tell me I was the youngest member of the Cousteau Society ever when I was 3-years-old. I grew up on the water and spent every waking moment on a stream or a river or the ocean as a kid cataloging things. I went on my first whale watch when I was 9 or 10 and I was amazed by the size and their grace in the water. Academically I started studying them as an undergrad. I was really hooked by how well these animals are adapted to function in an ocean environment that’s completely foreign to us. I did my Masters work understanding the morphology and physiology of them. From there it led to more interest in how the ecosystems affects whales and the behavior that’s the most urgent in my mind is feeding.
I was really hooked by how well these animals are adapted in an ocean environment that’s completely foreign to us.
The tech that we use was developed around the same time I was coming up academically. It was designed to study acoustic behavior, but my colleagues and I found ways to take the tech and develop new tools that allow us to estimate what the whales are doing other than making sounds.
It has fantastic applications all over the world. Now I’ve got field projects from Cape Cod to Alaska. The Antarctic is my main field site, but we also work in Sri Lanka, California, Australia, Hawaii. There’s no end to where we do our research. It’s a matter of finding a population and a question we’re most interested in.
How do you go about deciding what you’re going to study and where?
Some of the research money we get from the NSF. We write research proposals to study very specific questions, like humpback whale feeding in Antarctica and how that responds to changing sea ice.
Or, say, we want to study naval activity and its effect on whale behavior in California. How do they change behavior based on different sounds?
We’re either looking at situations that already exist or, because we literally know so little about these animals, a lot of this is basic research to understand what they do.
Why is it that whales are so much of an unknown to us?
First off, these guys spend more than 90 percent of their time underwater. When they’re at the surface for the most part it’s just to breathe. Most whales, like sperm whales, feed over a mile under water. We only see a small fraction of what they do on the surface.
Sure, but lots of animals spend 100 percent of time underwater and we know a lot more about them.
If you’re talking about an animal that lives on a reef or is tied to one place it’s easy to go down and observe them. But whales range over huge areas and can stay underwater for a long time. If you get underwater there’s no way you can keep up with them.
What’s their average range?
It depends on the species. In a 24-hour period a whale can cover 40 or 50 miles if it’s travelling. When they’re feeding they stay in a smaller area. We’ve made photographic evidence of whales in Antarctica that have also been seen in american samoa 10,000 KM away--over 6,000 miles from where that animal is giving birth to where it’s feeding.
How fast can they travel that kind of distance?
It’s very species dependent. Blue whales can travel 10- or 12 miles-per-hour humpbacks are around 4 MPH. You have to be in a boat to catch up with them, but they also don’t go in a straight line. The ocean’s pretty big you can lose track of a whale quickly.
And that’s why you have to use sensors to monitor them?
The tags measure the depth, temperature, pitch, roll, heading, and the acceleration of the animal 50 times per second.
They’re amazing piece of engineering. Engineers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution developed these tags about 15 years ago. They measure the depth, temperature, pitch, roll, heading, and the acceleration of the animal 50 times per second. They’re collecting information really quick. They also have underwater microphones, so they’re recording all the sounds the animals make as well as all the sounds they hear. The sensors store all the data on the tag in flash memory. So after we deploy the tag we have to retrieve it once it’s off the animal to collect the data.
They have a little flotation in them and a little radio transmitter. So we can use a handheld radio to hear when a tag is up and figure out where it is on the surface.
How does it attach to the whale?
It’s a very slick little system. It’s got four silicon suction cups. That’s all that’s required for about 24 hours. It’s just suction. whale skin is sort of like a wet car tire, it’s rubbery and slick.
It’s kind of hard to believe that works.
I wouldn’t have believed it either until I went out and did it 500 times.
Somewhere in that ballpark.
Wow! So, how do you know when the tag has finally fallen off the whale and it’s time to retrieve it?
When it’s on the whale we are following the whale. It has a small GPS that logs the data, but any time the whale is at the surface it sends out a signal. When it falls off the whale and floats to the surface we get continuous beeping.
How do you get the tags on to the whale?
That’s the fun part, the hard part, the frustrating part, and the most exciting adrenaline filled part. It’s easy to go on the water and see whale from a distance. It’s difficult to get up close. But to get the tag on the whale we need to be within 20-feet and sometimes less. It takes patience, weather conditions, whales in the right mood to allow you get that close, a great boat driver, and steely nerves. You have to be pretty focused. A blue whale is 80 feet long and you have a lot of area to put the tag.
It takes patience, weather conditions, whales in the right mood to allow you get that close...and steely nerves.
The tag is about the size of a remote control. It’s at the end of a 25 foot pole. You have to be pretty quick when you deploy it and make sure you put it in the right place.
So, the first thing that happens is myself and the driver will get in the boat, it’s about an 18- to 20-foot inflatable rubber boat. We have built a little pulpit, a metal platform at the front of the boat, so i’m a little higher in the water and a couple feet in front of the boat. We find the animal we want to tag and then take some time to allow them to get used to having us around them, because they respond to the engine noise. We work our way in and have them get used to us being there. Sometimes that takes several minutes, sometimes it takes hours. If a blue whale is staying in the same area, after a 10 minutes dive it surfaces and takes seven or eight breaths. I’m in communication with the driver saying: “The whale’s up, it’s heading from left to right after the bow.” The driver will say: “Ok, next time the whale surfaces I’m going to approach it.” I can see the whale underwater a lot better than he can and I have a spot picked out where I want to put the tag.
When it works it looks beautiful and very coordinated. Our success rate has gone up dramatically over the years as we learn about how different species behave. In the last two years we’ve put tags on five or six new species that we’ve never tagged before because we’re able to spend time with them and approach them in a way that they don’t respond to them.
About two weeks ago we deployed the first tags ever on Antarctic Minke whales. Minke whales are really important because they only live in the Antarctic, there are a lot of them, but they live in a sea ice habitat that’s very difficult to work with. Up until a few weeks ago we had no idea about their behavior under water and their acoustic behavior. It opens the door to species we know nothing about.
Have you ever fallen in the water while trying to place a tag?
Luckily I have not. When we were tagging a Risso Dolphin I was climbing on the pulpit like a jungle gym. The animals don’t typically respond to the tag being applied, but sometimes they get startled and they’re flick their tail and we get a little water on us. It’s a small price to pay for annoying a whale
We know that after ten or 15 minutes they return to doing exactly what they were doing before we put the tag on. We’re very confident that the tags don't affect their natural behavior.
So, in about 24-hours after we talk you’re off on another expedition to Antarctica. What are you going to be up to there?
Yep, we’re going back down tomorrow. When we were down in February we put the tags on Humpback and Minke whales as well as longer term satellite tags that penetrate the skin and stay on the animal for 5 months. We’re going to find the animals we tagged, see how they’re behaving, and see how the tags look on the whales and see if they’re happy and healthy.
In April we go to Alaska to put these tags on Humpback whales. Depending on the season they feed on very different things. In the fall they feed on krill and in the spring they feed on bigger fish like Herring. We’re interested in seeing how they change their behavior based on their prey’s behavior.
Where do you stay when you do research in Antarctica?
Most of the research is around the peninsula near the Palmer Station. But in order to work with the whales we have to be on a ship. The US has two large research vessels, one is an ice breaker and one is ice strengthened so we stay on those.
They’re designed specifically to work in the antarctic. One is 200 ft and the other is 300 ft. They hold between 15 and 25 scientists and lots of oceanographic equipment. We can collect water samples and all the other oceanographic measurements. They’ve each got several small inflatable boats that use when we go out and put the tags on. They’re generally comfortable. they get very small after a few weeks. We don’t suffer at all for sure.
How long do you stay out and how big is the team you take with you?
We’ll have the ship for a month. It’s almost like a race car team. There’s a driver that’s the very end of everything, but there’s also a pit crew and a support team: tag engineers, people that find the whales, measure the prey, drive the boat. Somebody has to put the tag on at the end of the day but that’s the very end of the process that involves a lot of people.
In Alaska there will be 5 of us, in the antarctic there are 10 or 12. It’s a longer project. We’ll be doing smaller scale work in Alaska. But we do more sampling of the environment in the antarctic. In the summer the days are 20 or 22 hours long so you need a couple extra people around.
Antarctica must be absolutely amazing to see.
It is far and away the best place on the planet. This will be my 21st trip down and it’s unbelievably beautiful and different every time.
I get to come up in the pulpit and see animals in ways that other people just don’t get to. To be that close to the animals, to be in among and around them is really difficult to describe. I’m blessed to be able to do that.
Not all science is done in a lab by guys in white coats staring into microscopes. Lots of discoveries require brave men and women to put their boots on the ground and get down and dirty in dangerous environments. Every month we’ll profile one of these field scientists, tell you how they do their job, and explain the science behind what they do. If there’s a scientist or field of science you’re dying to hear more about shoot us an email or a tweet: erin at erinbiba dot com, @erinbiba