Cetacean monitoring program.

The Southern Ocean Cetacean Ecosystem Program (SOCEP) is designed for long-term monitoring of cetaceans on marine science voyages in Antarctica. The data from these voyages are used as part of a unified, multidisciplinary program to better understand the linkages between oceanographic processes and the ecology of the Southern Ocean.


The cetacean research program was developed through collaboration with CCAMLR, the International Whaling Commission, and Southern Ocean GLOBEC with the long-term aim to: "define how spatial and temporal variability in the physical and biological environment influence cetacean species in order to determine those processes in the marine ecosystem which best predict long-term changes in cetacean distribution, abundance, stock structure, extent and timing of migrations and fitness."


An example of this type of collaborative, ecosystem level work is the BROKE voyage of 95/96. Nicol et al. (2000) describe how ocean circulation off east Antarctica affects ecosystem structure and sea-ice extent. Specifically, the results of the cetacean component of the BROKE voyage are summarized by Thiele et al. (2000). The authors indicate that baleen whale distribution could be explained by the long-term seasonal pattern of interactions between sea-ice processes, oceanographic features and processes that determine the conditions for high primary productivity and the distribution of prey at a large scale, i.e. large-scale ecosystem processes can explain the distribution and relative abundance of baleen whales.  Subsequently, the KACTAS voyage (V6-2000/1) attempted to record cetacean distribution and abundance in relation to krill swarms in a first attempt to understand fine-scale predator/prey dynamics in the sea off Mawson.  Unfortunately, this research was interrupted; however, preliminary data analysis indicated that whale abundance increased along the shelf edge and the gyre found in the eastern portion of the experimental ‘box’. This coincides with areas of increased krill abundance.  These preliminary results of the 2000/1 study have led to the adoption of a stronger experimental approach for V4 2002/3.  



The current voyage will offer an opportunity to collect more data on cetacean distribution, abundance, and behaviour relative to their prey (krill) during dedicated fine-scale surveying. Additionally, the whale observation team will be collecting fine-scale sea-ice data in a pilot study to develop standardised collection of environmental data for future studies investigating the role of the environment (habitat) in determining whale abundance and distribution.  This voyage will also offer an opportunity to collect biopsy samples from whales.   These samples will be used in genetic analyses to help elucidate the stock structure of the species that inhabit the waters around Antarctica.


Additionally, expendable sonobuoys will be deployed simultaneously with the visual survey.  An acoustic recording package will be deployed in the research ‘box’ to record baleen whale calls year round (see whale acoustics page).


Routine observations of cetaceans are made throughout the voyage. Normally three observers are on the bridge at any time, one each on the port and starboard sides of the bridge conducting a 45° arc search from ship to the horizon, plus another person entering all sighting and environmental data. Subject to the krill program and available space on the workboat, cetacean personnel will use the workboat to gain biopsy samples. The cetacean team comprises 4 people:


Vic Peddemors

Vic Peddemors, is an Associate Professor in Zoology at the University of Durban-Westville, South Africa. He has been researching cetaceans for 21 years, including captive-based studies and investigations into the ecology and management of free-ranging cetaceans in southern Africa.  He is the African co-ordinator for the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group and has participated in several International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee Meetings.  This is his third research trip on the Aurora Australis as part of the SOCEP Research Team.  Vic will act as whale research team leader during V4 2003.



Paul Hodda

Paul Hodda's interest in cetaceans began in the late 1970's, when Australia still operated a whaling station in Western Australia.  He became active in the cetacean conservation issues, and for the past decade has been president of the Australian Whale Conservation Society.  He represents cetacean conservation interests on a number of government committees and working groups.
In 1979 he was part of a small team of volunteers who began monitoring the recovery of the east coast humpback population, and coordinated an annual survey from Cape Byron in New South Wales for 19 years. This is his sixth voyage to the Southern Ocean as a whale researcher.



Catherine Bell

Catherine Bell recently completed her B,Sc. (Hons) at Adelaide University working on common dolphin taxonomy in southern Australian waters.  Additional marine mammal experience includes:

~Assisting with a New Zealand fur seal mark-recapture population estimation study on Kangaroo Island and Australian Sea Lion counts off Streaky Bay, South Australia; 

~A review of marine mammal-long liner interactions in Australian waters;

~participation in a study investigating humpback whale behaviour, acoustics and abundance off Peregian Beach, Qld.

~Participation in blue whale aerial surveys over the Bonney Coast, off west Victoria. This is Catherine’s first trip to Antarctica.


Shannon McKay

Shannon McKay completed an undergraduate degree in Marine and Freshwater Science from Deakin University, Warrnambool, Victoria in 2001. During her studies she was involved in a number of cetacean projects including:

~Regular aerial surveys of the Victorian coastline each summer tracking blue whales;

~A short theodolite tracking study of the same blue whales off Portland, Victoria,

~Two months of humpback whale research with the Centre for Whale Research in Exmouth, Western Australia;

~Brief exposure to research investigating southern right whale genetics.

Subsequently Shannon has spent 10 weeks in Hervey Bay, Queensland, with the Oceania Project.  Here she participated as a researcher involved in humpback whale genetics and photo-identification and as a trainee coxwain. Later this year she plans to start a B.Sc. (Hons) project in whale acoustics at Deakin University, Warrnambool.


The Principal Investigator is Dr. Deborah Thiele, based at Deakin University, Warnambool, Australia (shown here with Vic Peddemors).




Image 1: Three orcas, or killer whales, surfacing in pack ice.


Image 2: A surfacing Sei whale, with a distinctive dorsal fin and colouration.



Image 3: WHALOS searching for whales from the flying bridge of the Aurora Australis.


More Information

Project 2253 - Distribution and abundance of cetaceans (whales, dolphins etc.)


The Southern Ocean Cetacean Ecosystem Program (SOCEP) is the only Australian cetacean research project operating in the Antarctic. It forms one component of a long-term program within the Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program (AMLR - Australian Antarctic Division) investigating and monitoring the physical and biological processes operating in the Southern Ocean off the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT). SOCEP operates within an 'ecosystem' framework of multidisciplinary programs by conducting visual cetacean surveys on Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) marine science voyages to obtain a cetacean distribution time series. The program also uses a range of other non-lethal research tools in collaboration with local and international cetacean researchers (ie. genetics, lipid studies, passive acoustics) to contribute to specific management objectives of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the IWC Southern Ocean Sanctuary.
This work will contribute towards our understanding of the likely effects of environmental change on cetacean populations. Data, methods, reports and publications from the program are shared with other researchers and contributed to the IWC, CCAMLR and Southern Ocean GLOBEC.


The overall objective of the baleen whale ecology component of the Mawson monitoring program is: “to use a range of standard and new techniques to determine seasonal and long term changes in distribution and abundance of these species within the framework of a program that will provide concurrent data on prey and other biological and physical processes over the same temporal scales”.

The research aims to address the following long term objectives identified for baleen whale research in the Southern Ocean by the IWC, SOCEP and the AAD strategic plan:
(1) Characterise foraging behaviour and movements of individual baleen whales in relation to prey characteristics and the physical and biological environment;

(2) Relate distribution, abundance and biomass of baleen whale species to the same for krill in the same area over a number of seasons;

(3) Monitor inter-annual variability in whale distribution and abundance in relation to the physical environment and prey characteristics.


To achieve these aims, we will conduct ship-based visual studies to determine distribution and relative abundance of baleen whales. We will deploy acoustic recording packages (which remain down for one year and can then be retrieved and reset). These packages record cetacean calls continuously throughout the year and will allow us to determine relative abundance of some species of baleen whales throughout the year of deployment. The data is also useful in determining peaks in seasonal abundance for somespecies. Expendable sonobuoys will be deployed throughout the voyage to monitor whale calls and locations. Some ship time will be directed to conducting sonobuoy experiments, particularly if blue whales are sighted or if any interesting events or occurrences (such as concentrations of feeding or interacting species) are encountered.

On encountering concentrations of feeding baleen whales, the small boat will be used to conduct fine-scale ecological surveys, with concurrent krill studies (to assist in integrating data at this scale), tissue biopsy (population genetics) photo identification of individual animals (to match sex, population and call information) and passive acoustic deployments (sonobuoys). We will also be conducting small boat surveys with the krill team to look at the distribution of whales along current boundaries and gyres, and within sea ice to assist with the important issue of determining and directly measuring the links between physical processes and the patterns of distribution of whales and their prey. This information is critical to formulating models to predict the impacts of environmental change on these species.

We will also collect faecal samples for an AAD project investigating the feeding biology of whales. Our experience in working in collaboration in the Western Antarctic Peninsula has convinced us of the necessity of running passive acoustic studies in collaboration with visual and biopsy studies. Using the full range of techniques available (visual, acoustic, biopsy, photo identification) provides complementary data can be integrated to provide a comprehensive picture of baleen whale ecology.