Scientists set off on epic voyage
28 October 2015
Pretoria – A group of scientists have embarked on a 10-day scientific research voyage to collect data on the humpback whale between Dassen Island and Groenriviermond off the west coast of South Africa.
The Department of Environmental Affairs’ RV Algoa ship and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ FRS Ellen Khuzwayo ship left for the expedition on Wednesday.
A dedicated team of researchers will be recording every whale seen along a pre-designed research path.
FRS Ellen Khuzwayo will be dedicated to biological sampling of humpback whales encountered in the region.
Biological sampling will include collecting DNA samples, taking photographs of whale tails/flukes which serve as a unique identifier similar to finger prints in humans and attaching satellite tracking instruments in order to understand their movement and behaviour, both on the west coast and on their return to Antarctic feeding grounds.
“Small cameras will be attached on selected whales using suction cups in order to have a whale’s view of the ocean,” the Department of Environmental Affairs said.
This will help in identifying the prey types on the west coast while supplementing prey sampling from the prey – or food - sampled from the RV Algoa.
“Understanding the dynamics of humpback whales occurring off South Africa is important for population identification, abundance estimation and conservation management.
“This scientific research is also part of South Africa’s continued efforts to understand our oceans,” the department said.
The research is conducted by the Department of Environmental Affairs in collaboration with the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA), Oregon State University (USA), Aqualie Institute (Brazil) and invaluable contributions from the Australian Department of Environment’s Marine Mammal Centre and BirdLifeSA.
Each year, thousands of international tourists descend on South African shores to view two types of visiting large whales - the southern right and humpback whale.
“Humpback whales that are found in South African waters have interesting behavioural characteristics. Some of these whales have suspended their migration, opting to mill around South Africa through all seasons,” the department said.
These whales gather in South Africa for a feeding frenzy that scientists believe is unique to South Africa in the southern hemisphere.
“Although an estimated 500 humpback whales are found in South African waters, no evidence of breeding has been recorded off the west coast of South Africa, raising questions around their breeding locality,” the department said.