Humpback whales sleep by drifting slowly.

An international research collaboration has used an omnidirectional camera attached to humpback whale to reveal how these creatures rest underwater. These findings demonstrate how wide-angle lens cameras can be useful tools for illuminating the ecology of difficult-to-observe animals in detail.

The research group consisted of Assistant Professor Takashi Iwata of Kobe University’s Graduate School of Maritime Sciences, Researcher Martin Biuw of the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, Assistant Professor Kagari Aoki and Professor Katsufumi Sato of the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, the University of Tokyo, and Professor Patrick Miller of the University of St. Andrews.

These research results were published online in Behavioural Processes on February 25, 2021.


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Main Points

  • The researchers attached an omnidirectional (360°) camera to a humpback whale and discovered that these animals rest while drifting underwater. Whales can rest either on the surface or underwater, and it is believed that they choose which of these different environments to rest in depending on the situation.
  • The omnidirectional camera recorded a wide range of information on the environment surrounding the tagged whale, revealing that humpback whales rest in groups rather than on their own.
  • These results have demonstrated that animal-borne omnidirectional cameras are useful for learning more about animals that are difficult to observe.

Research Background

It is difficult to observe the ecology of marine animals directly as they spend the majority of their lives underwater. However, studies on the ecology of difficult-to-observe marine animals have been recently conducted using a method called bio-logging. This method involves attaching a camera to an animal and recording environmental information related to their behavior and surroundings. Various kinds of data can be recorded and measured, and this information can be used to understand aspects such as animal behavior and diving physiology. Such data includes depth, swimming speed, acceleration (which can be used to understand the animal’s posture and detailed movements), vocalizations, heart rate and GPS (Global Positioning System) location data.

Cameras in particular are a powerful tool as they enable researchers to view the individual animal’s surroundings, which in turn helps them to understand the animal’s behavior. However, the camera’s limited field of view has been an issue with animal-borne cameras up until now. For example, research using a camera attached to a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) revealed that the whale would quickly move away from foraging sites if a competitor was present. However, the competitor was not visible due to the limited scope of the camera, therefore its presence was merely assumed. A camera with a wide-angle lens is therefore necessary to film the animal’s entire surroundings.

This research focused on the humpback whale, a species of baleen whale that is found in oceans around the globe. Using bio-logging, researchers have learned more about humpback whales’ foraging habits, however little is known about their resting behaviors. Foraging events can be identified from the recorded depth, swimming speed and acceleration (movement) of the whale that are characteristic signs that it is chasing prey. However, researchers have not identified the characteristic signs of resting, and it is not understood what the differences are between resting and swimming slowly. Information about an animal’s resting behavior is necessary in order to understand their ecology. For example, if we consider animal behaviors in terms of their time budget, the percentage of time for other activities such as foraging decreases if their resting periods increase. Even though information about resting behaviors is essential for understanding animal ecology, hardly anything is known about baleen whales’ resting habits.

This research group used an omnidirectional camera (with a 360° field-of-view on land and a 270° field-of-view underwater) and a behavioral data logger in order to illuminate the resting behavior of humpback whales.

Research Methodology and Findings

RICOH supplied the basic THETA camera module for this research, which was made pressure-resistant and waterproofed using epoxy glue by Little Leonardo Corp., leading to the development of a new type of animal-borne omnidirectional camera. A suction cup tag was made out of buoyant materials that could be attached to the whale. The tag contained an omnidirectional camera, a behavioral data logger and a radio transmitter.

The field study was conducted in January 2016, off the Tromsø coast in Norway (Figure 1). To tag the whale, the researchers approached it in a small vessel (5-6m) and used a 6m pole to attach the tag to the animal (Figure 2 and this Youtube video). The tag was designed so that it would fall off naturally after several hours and float up to the surface. The tag was then recovered by determining its location via the signal from the transmitter.

The research team were able to tag one individual, obtaining around one hour of video data and approximately eleven hours of behavioral data. From the behavioral data, the researchers discovered that the whale was inactive during the first half of the recorded period and demonstrated active behavior in the latter half (Figure 3).

Based on past research, it was assumed that this active movement in the latter half was foraging activity. The video data was captured during the first half of the behavioral data recording period when the whale did not move much. In this videoed period, the tagged whale’s deepest dive was 11m on average and its average swimming speed (cruising speed) was 0.75m/s-1. It has been reported that humpback whales’ regular swimming speed is 1.45m/s-1, however the tagged whale was moving much more slowly during this period. Whales usually move their flukes (tails) when they swim but there were no signs that the individual whale moved its fluke in the behavioral data recorded during the videoed period. In the footage, two other whales that are drifting underwater without moving their flukes are visible. It was determined that the tagged individual was also drifting underwater from its slow swimming speed, lack of fluke movement and the continued presence in the video footage of other individuals that were drifting. Seal species, sperm whales and loggerhead turtles are known to drift underwater while they are resting. Therefore, it is believed that the tagged humpback whale in this study was also resting. Previous research has reported that baleen whale species rest on the surface but this study has revealed that they also rest while drifting underwater. It is thought that whales consider factors such as marine conditions and their own physical condition when choosing from the two different resting environments: on the surface or underwater. In addition, the footage from the omnidirectional camera shows that whales rest underwater in a group rather than on their own.


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