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Our battle for giants of the deep

PUBLISHED: 17:35 11 March 2009 | UPDATED: 13:30 09 March 2010

Marine biologist Oliver Boisseau

Marine biologist Oliver Boisseau

Whales have fascinated and amazed mankind for millennia.

Oliver in the labaratory on the Song of the Whale

Whales have fascinated and amazed mankind for millennia. JAMES MARSTON reports on a research vessel - currently berthed in Ipswich - which follows these amazing creatures around the world's oceans.

MOBY Dick, Jonah, Free Willy - whales are deeply embedded in the human imagination.

We admire their size, grace and power, we are distressed when they are in trouble, we go to extraordinary lengths to save them from death yet we continue to hunt them mercilessly.

Spotted - Cuvier's beaked whale

The human race remains fascinated and amazed by these remarkable animals.

Docked today at pontoon G in Ipswich's wet dock is a unique sailing vessel, currently undergoing maintenance.

Called the Song Of The Whale, it is the global ambassador for the International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW).

A purpose-built research ship, she is packed full of high-tech equipment used for unlocking the secrets of the deep.

The team taking samples at sea

It has a platform and an 11 metre-high crows nest for observation and spotting whales at sea.

Aboard Song Of The Whale research scientist Oliver Boisseau is checking equipment and working on data recorded out at sea.

The 33-year-old said: “Whales are mysterious and fascinating. They spend 90 per cent of their lives under the surface. They are chatty and vocal and in their natural habitat they can sometimes put on quite a show. There are stories of whales and dolphins rescuing fishermen, there is evidence that support these claims.

“With terrestrial animals you can see them and they are much easier to track, with whales it is much more of a challenge and there are more questions to answer.”

Crew members take pictures from the boat

It is some of those questions that Song Of The Whale hopes to answer.

Oliver said: “IFAW has been in existence for about 20 years and has 15 offices worldwide. This boat was built in 2004 and is one of a kind built to meet the specific requirements of research.

“It is a sailing boat so we can go offshore for long periods of time and it has travelled 60,000 miles in five years.”

Focusing on whale and dolphin research, a crew of ten live aboard while at sea.

Sperm Whales under water. Picture: Ifaw

Oliver said: “One of the key areas through which we are able to conduct our research is acoustics.

“When we are at sea we draw underwater microphones behind us and we use the sounds whales make to explore their behaviour and count the number of whales in the waters of the world.”

Oliver said whales and dolphins continue to face threat from man.

He added: “We need to get a handle on whale numbers, some species are down to 200-300 individuals.”

The team is currently studying beaked whales and has just completed several months of research in the mid Atlantic including the waters off the Azores and Canary Islands.

Oliver said: “Beaked whales are a group of very elusive whales. There are 80 species of whales and 20 are in this category and we know next to nothing about them.

“They avoid boats, they dive very deep, up to 2,000 metres for over an hour and they are difficult to find.

“As a sailing vessel we can get closer to the whales without disturbing the animals.”

While at sea Song Of The Whale is home to about ten people including three full-time sailors and six or seven scientists, often joined by a volunteer.

Oliver said: “We have come to Ipswich for maintenance and we'll be heading to Gosport where the boat will be taken out of the water and put into dry dock for more maintenance.

“After that we'll be going back to the mid Atlantic to continue our work with the beaked whales.”

Getting the message across is a crucial part of the IFAW conservation work.

Oliver said: “People think the battle against whaling was fought and won in the 1970s but whales and dolphins still face huge threats today that many people don't realise.

“There is growing pressure to hunt from countries like Japan, Norway and Iceland.

“On a large scale, hunting is unsustainable. We don't know how many whales there are let alone how many we should be killing.”

Tracking whales is a crucial way of learning about their behaviour.

Oliver said: “We try to automate as much as possible, we have a computer room and we have developed tracking software which makes our lives a lot easier.

“We use underwater recording equipment to listen to the whales. They make clinking noises which they use as a form of echo locator to find the squid they prey on.

“It is effectively a hunting technique.”

Oliver and the IFAW team have spotted and studied other whale species.

He said: “The blue whale is the biggest animal on the planet and they are very noisy. When they breathe there is a great explosion of sound and a great fountain of water.”

IFAW also studied the right whale in the late 1990s - it is one of the most endangered species on the planet. There are thought to be less than 300 left.

Oliver said: “The right whale was decimated by hunting in the 17th and 18th centuries. they are quite slow moving, they don't tend to get out of the way of boats and they float when they die so they were perfect for whalers.

“Now they have a genetic bottleneck and one of their big problems is ship strikes because they have not evolved to get out of the way. They also get entangled in lobster pots.

“It is highly likely they will become extinct. Last year eight females were killed by ship strikes which when the population is that small is a disaster.”

Underwater noise pollution caused by shipping is another problem facing whales and researchers and by 2030 it is estimated noise pollution will be double the 2009 levels.

Oliver said mass strandings - like a recent one in Tasmania - are thought to be caused by noise in the water which affects whale navigation.

He said: “We are not really sure why such mass stranding take place.

“There have been a number of incidents where military activity such as sonar exercises has been linked to such events.

“In Tasmania there are tectonic plates in the region that may have caused massive outputs of underwater sound which may have caused the stranding, and mass strandings have been linked to earthquakes.

“Sometimes senior females in the group might be injured and head to shallow water and bring the rest of the group with them. If a senior female is spotted and killed fairly quickly it can save the rest of the group from stranding on a beach.”

For Oliver working aboard Song Of The Whale has allowed him to see the world and indulge his passion.

He added: “Seeing a whale is a humbling experience. They are the most incredible creatures.”

Have you seen whales in the wild? What do you think of the work of IFAW? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

Length - 21m

Hull - steel constructed and able to work in sea ice in arctic regions

Weight - 60 tonnes

Beam - 5m

engine - mounted on rubber pads produces 370hp

Main sail - 102sq m

Propeller - five blades to minimise noise

Little is known about beaked whale species.

Beaked whales favour offshore and remote waters.

They are generally shy and inconspicuous.

The most recently discovered beaked whale was confirmed in 2002.

Some beaked whales produce ultra-sonic clicks above the range of human hearing.

Beaked whales are thought to feed by sucking rather than grasping their prey and most do not have visible teeth.

Most beaked whales are listed as data deficient because little is known about them

The International Fund for Animal Welfare works to improve animal welfare, prevent animal cruelty and abuse, protect wildlife and provide animal rescue around the world.

From stopping the elephant ivory trade, to ending the Canadian seal hunt and saving the whales from extinction, IFAW works to create solutions that benefit both animals and people.

IFAW undertakes non-lethal research.

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