5 Jan 2010

NZ, Australia join forces for Antarctic whale study

6:20 pm on 5 January 2010

Scientists from New Zealand and Australia are seeking to reveal the secret lives of whales in Antarctica and disprove Japan's claims the mammals have to be killed to be studied.

For the first time, the New Zealand and Australian governments are to jointly fund the six-week voyage from 1 February to conduct non-lethal research on whales.

Japan's whalers are in the Southern Ocean at present, where each year they kill up to 1000 whales under a so-called scientific whaling programme.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research's ship Tangaroa will carry 18 scientists to study the effects of climate change on humpback and minke whales and their place in the food chain.

It is the first time the New Zealand vessel has been used for whale research in international waters.

Scientist Mike Donoghue told Radio New Zealand's Summer Report on Tuesday that the crew will use DNA darts, satellite tags, acoustics and photographs of tail markings to study the whales.

Mr Donoghue says the scientists have several non-lethal tools to use to study the whales, including collecting skin and dung samples and listening to their calls.

NIWA research manager Rob Murdoch says one aim of the study is to show it is not necessary to kill whales to conduct research on their population and movements.

Mr Murdoch says he does not expect the voyage to meet the Japanese whaling fleet because the boats should be in different parts of Antarctica.

However, Paul Watson from conservation group Sea Shepherd says Japan conducts whaling for commercial and cultural reasons, and this initiative will not stop that.

Ice samples

Meanwhile, an international team of 30 scientists, including one New Zealander, is preparing to leave Wellington for the Antarctic for a three-month research expedition.

Their state-of-the-art ship, [JOIDES Resolution], will be drilling under the sea floor for core samples in an area known as Wilkes Land.

Expedition co-chief scientist Carlota Escutia says the expedition will unveil the past growth and decay of the Antarctic ice sheet.