2010 05 07- the 2010 whale tagging season- the first two satellite tracks from Dr Phil Clapham, NOAA Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Stevenson   



Message from Dr. Phil Clapham, NOAA




Another winter, another tagging season for humpback whales...


As most of you know, humpback whales from all areas of the North Atlantic migrate in winter to the West Indies to mate and calve. Although there is at least one other breeding area in the North Atlantic, the West Indies are host to the bulk of the population. Considerable work has been conducted by scientists in the northwestern Antilles, notably in the waters of the Dominican Republic. However, very little is known of the occurrence, distribution and status of this species in the eastern Caribbean.  Despite being the major whaling ground in the 19th century, this region today appears to host much lower densities of humpback whales than the northern West Indies.  Whether this reflects a delayed recovery, a separate population or a shift in distribution from historical times is unclear. 




Further surveys of the eastern Caribbean area are essential to assess distribution and status as well as any anthropogenic threats to the population.  Preliminary studies by French scientists in Guadeloupe have laid a strong foundation for this work.  A satellite tagging, photo-identification and biopsy sampling project was begun in April 2010; this is a collaboration between scientists from Guadeloupe (Nadege Gandilhon and colleagues), the Dominican Republic (Oswaldo Vasquez) and the U.S. National Marine Mammal Laboratory (Amy Kennedy, Alex Zerbini and myself). 


The satellite tagging will potentially provide data on the local and long-range movements of the whales from Guadeloupe to assess how they use this region and whether they also travel through the western Antilles.  Genetic analysis of biopsy samples will provide critical information regarding the population identity of whales from Guadeloupe and whether they constitute a discrete population; this is unlikely, but must be examined.  Similarly, photographs taken for individual identification in Guadeloupe will be compared to large catalogues of animals from all over the North Atlantic, and thus provide information on movements of whales and connections with both feeding grounds as well as other portions of the breeding range.


To date, the team in Guadeloupe has deployed five satellite tags.  One is giving intermittent positions, while we believe from photographs that the salt water switches of the others are probably not exposed yet and thus will hopefully be activated when the tags start to work their way out of the whale.  Some of you will recall that this is what happened to a whale we tagged off the Dominican Republic last year - the whale went all the way and past Iceland.


Our one transmitting tag has apparently already begun to migrate back to the feeding grounds.  The whale left the tagging site off Guadeloupe, headed up to a location between Barbuda and St Martin (near the island of St Barth's)and then headed NNE offshore into deep water.  We don't have high hopes for this tag given its placement on the whale, but we'll send updates if and when we receive additional positions.


Guadeloupe is an interesting and very new area for study, and we are very appreciative of the help and hospitality that Nadege, Olivier and their colleagues have given to Oswaldo and Amy.  Let's hope we see some good results!

Dr. Phil Clapham

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