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Whale researchers unveil new technology

26th February 2004

New technology will help researchers get a better understanding of humpback whales when the creatures visit the Cook Islands later this year.

Researcher Nan Hauser, of the United States-based Centre for Cetacean Research, is set to test new ways of tracking the whales and glimpsing their life below the surface using satellite tags and underwater cameras attached to the whales, the Cook Islands News reports.

After last year's successful season Ms Hauser and her research team are gearing up for a winter that could provide them with some of the most important information about humpback whales ever collected.

After recent discoveries about the DNA of the whales that visit the Cook Islands, the 2004 season could produce yet more breakthroughs in the study of the cetaceans.

Last year it was established through DNA that the whales travelling through Cook Islands waters are genetically distinct from stocks of whales found in French Polynesia, although they were previously thought to be from one stock.

Now, with new technology including cameras, tags and audio equipment, Ms Hauser hopes to solve some of the many mysteries about whale populations in the Pacific.

A revolutionary device called a Critter Cam will give Ms Hauser and her team a unique insight into the behaviour of the whales under water.

The camera can be attached to the whale using a suction cap and films the animals when they dive way beyond the reach of humans.

The devices, which can cope with the pressure two kilometres below the surface, fall off the whales after a certain time and are fitted with transmitters so they can be picked up when they reach the surface.

"Although the humpback whale is well studied at the surface, we know very little about their underwater behaviour," said Ms Hauser, who explained that scuba equipment upset the whales because of the bubbles it produces.

"That's why these cameras are so exciting. Newborn calves are observed with their mothers yet no one has ever seen an actual birth. Mating has never been observed. And we think they fast for the entire six to eight months that they are on their migration, but hopefully we will see these things on camera."

The team will also be using new satellite-tracking systems that will locate the whales as they move through the oceans.

"The Cook Islands seems like more of a corridor than a stopping place," Ms Hauser said.

"They don't come here and sit, like they do in Hawaii. They are only here for a few days. So when we satellite tag them we will be able to see where they are going for the first time."