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KILLER WHALE RESEARCH

Objectives

 

In wildlife management, scientific data and literature are necessary to inform status assessments and to further design effective conservation strategies. In this regard, Norwegian Orca Survey aims at providing the most up-to-date knowledge on the killer whales that frequent the Norwegian Sea. ​To achieve this goal, we have been in the field researching Norwegian killer whales in all seasons since 2013.   

 

In collaboration with Norwegian and international partners, we are working on various research projects that focus on population dynamics, movement patterns, diet, behavioral ecology, ecotoxicology, health status, social structure and genetics.

Photo-identification

Individual recognition, through photo-identification, is the absolute foundation of all our studies. Using the shape of the dorsal fin, along with the pigmentation and scaring patterns of the adjacent grey 'saddle patch', individuals can be reliably identified and catalogued. An extensive database (registry) have been built over the years and compiles sighting histories of the identified whales - in other words, we keep a log of who was seen, where, when and with whom. Additional data on individuals have been collected over the years (see below), which allowed us to build unprecedented knoweldge of Norwegian killer whale groups.

Biopsy Sample

Biopsy Dart

Biopsy sampling

 

Using a remote darting system, we collect skin and blubber samples of identified killer whales. In the lab, tissue samples are used for a series of analyses. For example, dietary markers are used to identify feeding preferences and foraging areas while contaminant loads are measured in the blubber layer to assess killer whales' health status. Genetic analyses are also conducted to study the patterns of relatedness among individuals and the genetic population structure. Biopsy sampling has been used routinely in marine mammal research around the world and does not induce any long lasting disturbance or injury. Sampling is conducted in compliance with Norwegian animal ethics and under permit from the Norwegian authorities.

Tags and Drones

 

To investigate killer whale behaviours, we attach data loggers with inbuilt cameras (www.cats.is) using suction cups. During the few hours (and up to a couple of days) of attachment, the multiple sensors log information that will be used to study dive characteristics, energetics, prey captures and interactions with other whales. We were the very first research team to deploy camera-tags on killer whales in Norway and the resulting animal-borne video footage was featured in the first episode of Blue Planet II. Flying drones above whales enable us to remotely collect observations of subsurface behaviours. Aerial still photographs are also useful to assess killer whales' body condition, indicative of general health status. 

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THE STRANDING PROJECT

Chemical pollution (including persistent organic pollutants, POPs) may cause adverse health effects in whales, including immunosuppression and reproductive impairment. POP-induced reproductive toxicity is the leading hypothesis for the declining whale and dolphin populations in European waters. However, research on levels and effects of marine pollution in whales in Norway has been scarce to date. Obtaining tissues from dead cetaceans offers the possibility to quantify contaminant concentrations. In addition, doing a full screening of these animals allows for identification of emerging contaminants such as unregulated pesticides, new brominated flame retardants, perfluorinated substances and chlorinated paraffins. 

 

The stranding project aims at collecting tissue samples of dead stranded cetaceans along the Norwegian coast for analyses of chemical pollution. Specific aims are to quantify contaminant concentrations and to assess the risk of contaminant exposure in Arctic whales. This project is a collaboration with the University of Oslo and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. The project will provide novel baseline knowledge available to the working groups of the Arctic Council and to be used for further international contaminant regulation work of REACH and the Stockholm Convention. 

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ANIMAL WELFARE INTERVENTIONS

We recognise the greater value of focusing conservation efforts on populations rather than individuals. Nevertheless, we believe that animal welfare should be promoted whenever possible. Challenging situations involving single or small groups of cetaceans in distress may infrequently arise in coastal waters. These include by-catch or entanglement in fishing gears, live standings, natural entrapments in shallow bays, or sick or isolated individuals. Often, there are no protocols in place to manage these risky situations and outcomes appear rather uncertain. This often leads to important controversy and lack of action taken. To assist local communities and help with animal welfare, we travel onsite, conduct situation assessments and advise on possible solutions whenever possible. We always establish contact and solicit approvals from the Norwegian authorities prior initiating any intervention. 

In May 2017, we initiated and led the rescue operation of five killer whales that entrapped in the small bay of Trælvikosen, Brønnøysund. Possibly, the long narrow and shallow inlet may have deterred the whales from returning to the open water. Because no fish schools could be detected in the bay and because the whales displayed signs of stress and malnutrition, a rescue operation involving the local community was conducted to free the whales. It took 25 boats and four hours to successfully drive the whales out. We assisted the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries in a similar rescue of two entrapped killer whales on Vannøya in November 2019. 

Perhaps the most unique case we had to deal with so far was the rescue of Hvaldimir, the beluga whale better known as the 'Russian spy-whale'. Apparently from a managed-care situation and possibly from a Russian facility, the friendly beluga whale was first spotted in Norwegian waters in April 2019. After two weeks spent in the industrial harbour of Hammerfest, Hvaldimir showed obvious signs of poor condition. To promote his welfare and survival while potential long-term solutions were reviewed and to be decided by the Norwegian authorities, we took charge of his feeding and monitoring program, under official permission. The delicate mission turned out to be successful as Hvaldimir apparently gained weight and became more energetic and active. 24/7 monitoring of his behaviour soon revealed a growing interest for live fish and prey capture attempts. Hvaldimir left Hammerfest in July 2019, and has been swimming on his own, feeding himself, ever since. His full story and our involvement in his case can be found here.