ASSESSING Killer Whale Health in a rapidly warming marine ecosystem

Aerial       photograph of a Type A killer whale carrying an elephant seal in her mouth in the Antarctic Peninsula. This image was collected from >30m (100ft) above the whales using a small unmanned hexacopter. Research conducted under NMFS Permit No. 19091 and Antarctic Conservation Act Permit ACA 2017-029. Photo credit: John Durban and Holly Fearnbach.

Aerial photograph of a Type A killer whale carrying an elephant seal in her mouth in the Antarctic Peninsula. This image was collected from >30m (100ft) above the whales using a small unmanned hexacopter. Research conducted under NMFS Permit No. 19091 and Antarctic Conservation Act Permit ACA 2017-029. Photo credit: John Durban and Holly Fearnbach.

SR3’s Dr. Holly Fearnbach and her colleagues from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and the Center for Whale Research just published a paper in Polar Biology on the movements and abundance of Type A killer whales around the Antarctic Peninsula. This is an important step in learning how these top predators are faring in this rapidly warming marine ecosystem. An increase in abundance of Type A killer whales was documented during the study, likely a response to changing ice conditions that increased access to new feeding areas, and also perhaps a result of increasing local abundance of their primary prey species, minke whales and elephant seals (see photo). The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet and studying the health and status of whale populations allows us to understand the health of the ecosystem that supports them. An understanding of these changes is required to manage human activities sustainably and conserve this relatively pristine environment. Much of this research was conducted from Lindblad Expeditions’ eco-tourism ships, with support from the Lindblad Expeditions – National Geographic Conservation Fund. Analysis of the photographic dataset was supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The manuscript can be read at https://rdcu.be/bKw9l