Featured Image Credit: Matthew Grammatico via Wikimedia
By Emily Persico
In the second half of 2016, scientists at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research deployed seven recording stations beneath the sea in Cook Strait, New Zealand. Their goal was to learn more about cetaceans by listening in on their conversations.
“More than half the world’s whale and dolphin species are found in New Zealand Waters, yet very little is known about their migration paths, their behavior and where they go,” says Kim Goetz, a marine ecologist on the team.
Yet these scientists got much more than they bargained for. While they intended to merely eavesdrop on everyday whale conversations, everything changed on November 14th, 2016 when disaster hit. This was the day of the Kaikoura earthquake, a magnitude 7.8 which affected animals both at sea and on land. Scientists immediately seized the opportunity.
“There’s a decent amount known about how land mammals respond to earthquakes, but no one knows anything about marine mammals underwater,” explains Goetz.
Scientists are still sifting through what ended up being six months-worth of underwater recordings. Boats thrash forward on the surface, earthquakes rumble the surface, and whales float somewhere in between, belting their chorus into the open ocean as scientists try to decipher their message.
So far, the sounds of three different whales have been recorded: the Antarctic blue whale, the Antarctic minke whale, and the beaked whale.
“The tricky thing with vocalizations is linking the sounds with the right species—if you don’t know what an animal sounds like you can’t say what it is,” says Goetz.
With the help of the seven recording stations, scientists have recorded the beaked whale for the first time. Additionally, the Antarctic minke whale was recorded in the area for the first time.
“There is just nothing known about these animals,” admits Goetz.
The lack of a baseline has made it difficult to fully understand the effects of the earthquake on these elusive whales, but scientists are continuously dissecting this fresh data to get a better understanding.
In the meantime, let’s go rolling in the deep in some of the findings.
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