IN THE NEWS: On JAN 22, 2013
AUSTRALIAN researchers will brave freezing conditions in small boats to prove that researchers don't have to kill majestic whales to study them.
Environment Minister Tony Burke says an inaugural voyage next week will estimate the abundance, distribution and behaviour of the colossal Antarctic blue whale.
"This research shows, in contrast to Japan's so-called "scientific whaling" program, that you don't have to kill these majestic creatures to get valuable information about them," he said in a statement on Tuesday.
Scientists from Australia, Chile, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States left Hobart on Tuesday on a mission in which they'll use small sonar buoys to track and find the elusive mammals across hundreds of kilometres in the Southern Ocean.
They will also use satellite tags on the whales.
Australian Marine Mammals centre leader, Mike Double, said the population of the critically endangered species had dropped significantly from the early 1900s to the 1970s, when it probably went down to around 300-400 whales.
"We think the population is increasing but we don't have good information on that," Dr Double told AAP on Tuesday.
"This is the start of a collaborative international effort to try and locate as many of these animals as we can, where we take photos and biopsies so we can identify individual whales."
Dr Double said the aim was to track the whales the best they could and also understand the role of these animals and krill fish in the Antarctic eco-system.
The whale grows to more than 30-metres long, weighs up to 180 tonnes and has a heart the size of a small car.
"Despite their colossal size we know very little about the animals," Mr Burke said, "including where they breed and feed, and how many remain in our oceans today after industrial whaling slaughtered more than 340,000 of them in the early 1900s."
The researchers will target areas thought to be frequented by the blue whales along the ice edge west of the Ross Sea.
Dr Double said he "sadly" would remain at home as he could not leave his two young children for two months.
Every summer, environmental group Sea Shepherd clashes with Japanese whaling ships in the Southern Ocean.
Dr Double said there is the possibility for his team to cross paths with Japanese ships.
"Certainly we don't wish to bump into these fleets and if we did, we would simply move away from those fleets and operate elsewhere," he said.