To see the world through the eyes of a 40-ton polar whale it helps to use a little bug. At least that’s what this satellite tracking tag resembles.
We’re crammed into an inflatable black rubber zodiac on a blustery day in Antarctica’s Gerlache Strait, puttering toward a motionless humpback whale. A fist-sized camera with gangly grasshopper-like antennae and suction cup feet sits on a pole resting on scientist Ari Friedlaender’s shoulders. Towering icebergs and glacier-draped mountains rise around us. Penguins arc in and out of the frigid sea. Every few moments the humpback lets loose a loud exhalation that sounds like a wet snore.
As we inch to within 15 feet of the whale, Friedlaender drops the pole. He uses it to gently slap the harmless satellite tag’s suction cups onto whale flesh. The startled animal shudders and dives. And it begins recording a whale’s-eye view of a changing undersea universe, helping reshape our knowledge of whale life in the Southern Ocean.
This temporary satellite tag and video camera is one of only six or eight a year that scientists like Friedlaender are able to attach to humpbacks in the waters along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The devices track cetacean movements and take video images of everything in front of the whale for 24 to 48 hours before falling off and floating free. Researchers then use GPS tracking to recover the tag before offloading its video.