Humpback whales, photograph by Dr Ingrid Visser, reproduced courtesy of Dr Ingrid Visser, Orca Research Trust.
Humpback whales, photograph by Dr Ingrid Visser, reproduced courtesy of Dr Ingrid Visser, Orca Research Trust.

Whales in the wild

Whales are renowned for the spectacular behaviour they exhibit at the water’s surface. Scientists study this behaviour to gain insight into how these animals live. But whales spend most of their time below the surface, hidden from view.

Nowadays, scientists use equipment like cameras, digital tags, and non-lethal sampling techniques to investigate whales’ underwater lives. They can now record whale movements and sounds and images of whale behaviour. They can also collect genetic material for information on such things as whales’ gender, sexual maturity, and birth rates.


 

Whale scientist Nadine Gibbs during the annual whale survey in the Cook Strait, 2007. She is holding a paxarm rifle which is used to collect DNA samples from whales. Photograph by Derek Flynn, reproduced courtesy of The Marlborough Express.

Darting into whale research

Whale scientist Nadine Gibbs during the annual whale survey in the Cook Strait, 2007. She is holding a paxarm rifle which is used to collect DNA samples from whales. Photograph by Derek Flynn, reproduced courtesy of The Marlborough Express. Preparing whale skin sample for DNA extraction, Molecular Biology Laboratory, University of Auckland. Reproduced courtesy of Dr Rochelle Constantine,  University of Auckland A digital tag (D-tag) used to study whales underwater and gather sound data.

Darting into whale research

Whale researchers use darts to get samples of skin from live whales for genetic analysis. The dart is fired into a whale’s skin using a modified rifle like the one here. The dart is designed to release and float to the surface with its sample of whale tissue.

Less than a gram of material is taken, but this is enough to gain important genetic information.

Individual whales can be identified through their unique genetic fingerprints. The samples become part of an archive, and can be used in thousands of experiments. What’s more, the whale isn’t harmed in the process.

Screenshots from the game "Whale ID" available in the exhibition.

 


Top: Sperm whale, courtesy of Brandon Cole. Right: Orca fluke, photograph courtesy of Dr Ingrid Visser, Orca Research Trust