Photo credit: Espen Bergersen
WHAT WE DO
KILLER WHALE RESEARCH
Knowledge about species’ biology, ecology, life history and threats is of tremendous importance to wildlife conservation. Scientific data and literature is indeed necessary to inform full assessments of conservation status and to further design management and conservation strategies. In this matter, Norwegian Orca Survey aims at better understanding the killer whale population(s) that frequents the Norwegian Sea. Data have been collected throughout the year in Andenes (northern Norway) and in other regions along the Norwegian coast since 2013.
In collaboration with other institutions, we are working on various research projects, mainly focusing on population dynamics (size and trends), home range (site fidelity and long-range movements), feeding ecology (diet and group specific dietary habits), contamination patterns (chemical pollution), social organisation and genetics.
To complete research projects, we rely on diverse data types. First and foremost, we collect high resolution photographs on each killer whale encounter. Using pigmentation patterns and permanent scars naturally occurring on the dorsal fin and the adjacent grey 'saddle patch', individuals can be reliably identified and catalogued. Logging re-sightings of individuals overtime (accounting for date, location and companionship) constitutes the absolute foundation of the project. The resulting database provides information on what whale was seen, where, when and with whom, allowing for investigations of individuality in behaviour, social structure, demographics, population dynamics and life-history.
Because hunting and feeding occur underwater and out of sight, identifying with certitude targeted prey species can be challenging. To assess the diet of encountered groups, we collect prey remains after feeding events. Prey identification can then be conducted visually or through analysis of DNA contents. Alternatively, dietary habits can be inferred from markers in biopsy samples.
Using a lightweight dart, we collect skin and blubber samples of individual killer whales (under permit). Fatty acid composition of the blubber layer, as well as stable isotope ratios in the epidermis are useful to assess dietary preferences and foraging areas. Contaminant loads measured in the blubber layer inform about killer whales' health status. Further, molecular genetic analyses can be conducted to study the relatedness among individuals and the genetic population structure. Biopsy sampling has been used routinely in marine mammal research around the world and is known to only induces short-term behavioural reactions with no long lasting injury or disturbance.
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 sensors (accelerometer, magnetometer and pressure) log information that will be used to study dive characteristics, energetics, prey captures and interactions with conspecifics. We were the very first research group to deploy camera-tags on killer whales in Norway. The animal-borne video footage of killer whales feeding on herring was featured in the first episode of Blue Planet II.
Flying drones above whales enable us to remotely collect observations of sub-surface behaviours whilst minimising boat disturbance. Aerial still photographs are also useful to assess killer whales' body condition indicative of general health status.
THE STRANDING PROJECT
Chemical pollution (including persistent organic pollutants, POPs) may cause adverse health effects in whales, including immunosuppression and reproductive impairment. As such, 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.
This project aims at collecting tissue samples of dead stranded cetaceans along the Norwegian coast and for further 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.
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 further promote animal welfare, we put great efforts into travelling onsite and conducting situation assessments whenever possible. Our strategy typically consists in advising on possible solutions if any. 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.
Photo credit: Tor Johansen,
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.