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An update on R/V SONG OF THE WHALE projects in 2018 and 2019

August 16, 2019


Following a very quiet year for SONG OF THE WHALE in 2016-2017, the team were selected as the research platform for an exciting new British Antarctic Survey research project on Southern right whales. It would take place around South Georgia (a remote British Overseas Territory in the sub Antarctic), in early 2018.

SONG OF THE WHALE departed the UK, bound for the Falklands in early November 2017, for the passage south – the ‘North to South; 100 degrees of latitude’ expedition. The MCR team hosted six keen participants for an offshore expedition, conducting research on the passage south from Europe to the South Atlantic. Collecting acoustic and visual data on cetaceans and other marine wildlife, as well as marine debris and environmental DNA samples, as part of a collaborative project with the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Data collection was supported by a grant from some US donors, and the team visited the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands en route to the Falklands, arriving in very early January after spending Christmas at sea.


The BAS ‘WhaleSwim’ project then ran from mid-January through to mid February. Led by Dr Jen Jackson, a BAS whale researcher. Working with an international team of scientists, we undertook a ground-breaking study of Southern right whales, on the feeding grounds around South Georgia in the South Atlantic, from SONG OF THE WHALE. Decimated by whaling, the status of right whales has not been investigated since whaling ceased in South Georgia in 1965. This project aims to ascertain the ‘health’ of the population on its most important feeding ground, using acoustics, collection of skin samples, tracking and drones. See


Following successful completion of the fieldwork around the sub-Antarctic islands of South Georgia, in March 2018, the team set off northbound to head back to Europe. Two expedition participants joined the team in Uruguay, for the research passage via Brazil and the Azores. Also on board as part of the team were a Master’s degree student from Imperial College, University of London, undertaking a placement with MCR focused on marine debris, and a Brazilian student studying at the Federal University of Bahia (Brazil) – working on a thesis on sailboats as a tool for marine conservation.


We gratefully acknowledge an IFAW grant which is supported the data collection for the northbound passage, including visual and acoustic detections, marine debris sampling and eDNA sampling for this trip, adding to the body of data for the north and south Atlantic, which is a data deficient area. Of particular interest is data collected on the distribution of sperm whales, which will provide new insights into the presence and relative abundance of sperm whales (a species that was decimated by commercial whaling, up until the mid 1980’s) along a latitudinal axis covering 100 degrees of latitude. During both passages, a total of almost 27,000km of track was covered, with 425 sightings of 27 different species logged; of these, 357 sightings were of 24 species of cetacean. See maps showing large and medium sized whales sighted during the north to south, and south to north voyages.


Maps of north to south and south to north voyages, Nov-Dec 17 and March to May 18, showing large whales sighted from SONG OF THE WHALE.


In late 2017, the MCR team were invited by the secretariat of the Agreement for the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black and Mediterranean Seas and adjacent Atlantic area (ACCOBAMS) to provide scientific and operations advice in the planning and execution of the vessel survey component of a major international cetacean survey in the whole Mediterranean Basin, due to take place in summer 2018 – the Accobams Survey Initiative (ASI) This involved aerial and vessel surveys across the entire basin, and was a significant undertaking for the team in early 2018, with the field work from SONG OF THE WHALE then running from late May to end of September 2018.

SOTW was the primary platform for the vessel surveys of the western Mediterranean basin, Hellenic Trench off Greece, and the waters of Libya in the eastern Mediterranean basin. This major international conservation effort was coordinated by the Monaco-based ACCOBAMS Secretariat, and funded by the Mava Foundation, Fondacion Prince Albert II of Monaco, the Governments of Spain, France and Italy and IFAW); the grant from IFAW provided specific support to include the Hellenic Trench area in the vessel surveys, as this is a high risk location for whale – vessel collisions, and IFAW are involved in an ongoing campaign there to reduce the risk of vessel collisions with whales.


Map of the Mediterranean, showing areas surveyed, track lines and acoustic detections of beaked whales made during the SONG OF THE WHALE acoustic surveys of summer 2018. The surface area of the symbols is proportionate to group size.


Sightings/detections of sperm whales made by the SONG OF THE WHALE team during the ASI survey (blue squares/red circles respectively).


Following a hectic summer covering 22,000 km of Mediterranean survey track with port events in Malaga, Spain on World Ocean’s Day, Monaco and Monastir, Tunisia, and hosting 31 participant/trainees on board from 10 countries, the team regrouped to prepare for a Transatlantic crossing to North Carolina in early winter 2018, to take part in the Marine Mammal Passive Acoustics and Spatial Ecology project (MAPS) project. MAPS was several years in conception and planning, is a cooperative agreement between the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW) in partnership with Duke University, and aims to study the distribution and behaviour of marine mammals there; the main focus is deep diving species in the offshore waters of the US Outer Continental Shelf, along the shelf and shelf break as well as deep ocean waters.

The project brought together a diverse team of people, including scientists from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Duke University and Aarhus University, the MCR team with R/V SONG OF THE WHALE and the public – citizen science is a vital part of the project and a new app is under development to enable the public to contribute valuable data to the project. Find out more about the project on National Geographic open explorer

MAPS comprised six two-week cruises, and the field work finished in mid May. SOTW then departed bound for the Azores Archipelago, where the team will spent the last half of June supporting a film documentary with production company Red Rock films and photography team, including Brian Skerry, National Geographic Photography Fellow and Nikon Ambassador.

35,000 nautical miles covered, with over 500 cetacean encounters, in the order of a hundred plastic trawl samples analysed, several entangled turtles released… All-in-all a busy 18 months for the SONG OF THE WHALE team!

Keep in touch via Instragram @song_of_the_whale.




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