What’s it like being a scientist studying whales in the Arctic? Here’s how killer whale researcher Natalie Reinhart describes it:
“Working with killer whales can be a lot of fun! Sometimes the whales play and swim under our boat; others swim upside down while slapping their tails on the water. We’ve even had some whales playing in the bubbles behind the boat! Our work on killer whales is really helping us understand where these marine mammals like to be in the Canadian Arctic, learn about changes in population size and what they are eating. Our research is also helping to protect other marine mammals that killer whales prey on, like beluga whales and narwhals.”
To find out more about killer whale research we asked Natalie three questions about how she locates whales, identifies them and finds out what they have been eating.
Question 1: How do you track a whale?
Answer: Even though whales are big animals keeping track of them can be tough. Killer whales can travel really far in short periods of time, around 160 km per day. Therefore, we work with the local Inuit people to find the whales. Together we travel by boat to areas where killer whales have been seen before, such as the locations shown on this map.
Once we find the whales we can begin monitoring them by attaching satellite transmitters (“tags”) to their dorsal fin (this area has almost no feeling so the tags do not hurt the whales). We use the tags to track where the killer whales travel to which can help us better understand what habitats they prefer and their interactions with other animals.
Question 2: How do you identify a whale?
Answer: Killer whales have a number of natural body markings that are useful for identifying individuals, such as their eye patch, dorsal fin, scars, nicks on their dorsal fin, and their saddle patch. Photography is an easy method for knowing who each whale is and estimating how many whales are in an area. For example, in 2009 researchers photographed a group of killer whales in Arctic Bay, and four years later some of the same individuals were photographed near Pond Inlet, suggesting that at least some of the same whales return to the Canadian Arctic .
Question 3: How do you find out what a whale has been eating?
Answer: To learn about the diet of killer whales and their overall health we take very small tissue samples from their saddle patch (the area that is not sensitive). We analyze these samples in a laboratory to find out what the whales have been eating and if they are getting the nutrients they need to be healthy. We are finding that Arctic killer whales feed on other marine mammals and not fish, suggesting that killer whale interactions with other whale species should be a higher conservation concern. Because killer whales prey on marine mammals like belugas and narwhals, knowing their feeding habitats can help us better understand which whale populations may be at a greater risk for population decline.