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A Whale of a tale from the CSIRO Science Ship

Vanessa answers some whale-y good questions from the students at Campbell Street Primary School. Image: Fraser Johnston.

Do whales fart?

Yes, according to wildlife biologist and author Dr Vanessa Pirotta.

As part of National Science Week celebrations, Vanessa was back onboard the CSIRO research vessel (RV) Investigator to read her children’s book, The Voyage of Whale and Calf, and tackle some whaley interesting questions from curious primary school kids.

Vanessa lived and worked onboard RV Investigator for more than 50 days during a research voyage to Antarctica in 2017. Scientists on this voyage were studying sediments from the seafloor to unlock the history of the Antarctic climate and marine life.

Vanessa was the Marine Mammal Observer. That meant she was the chief whale lookout.

Whales are inquisitive mammals. Sometimes they got too close to the ship. It was Vanessa’s job to let the other scientists know so they could pause their research and keep the whales safe.

Whale watching you watching whales

Dr Ben Arthur joined wildlife scientist, author and voyage alumni, Dr Vanessa Pirotta, to host a video tour of RV Investigator ahead of her book reading on board. Image: Fraser Johnston.

Before her book reading, Vanessa was joined by the CSIRO’s Dr Ben Arthur to give students across Australia a virtual tour of RV Investigator. And Vanessa bumped into some familiar faces from her voyage days, ranging from scientists and experts mapping the seafloor, to the ship’s Master – or Captain – who drives the ship.

Hugh Barker was one of those faces. Hugh is one of our technical officers for RV Investigator and manages all the data collected by scientists onboard. He has spent over 500 days at sea, including on Vanessa’s voyage.

One of his lasting memories was staring into the eye of a whale that was ‘spy hopping’ alongside the ship during Vanessa’s voyage!

“Spy hopping is when whales pop their heads out of the water to see what’s going on above the water,” says Vanessa.

“It’s a memorable experience to see it up close and look directly into the eye of a massive whale.”

Floating the idea for a story

Perhaps these moments at sea inspired her book, The Voyage of Whale and Calf.

“It tells the story of a newborn humpback whale migrating with his mother as they journey from Australia to Antarctica,” says Vanessa.

Merging storytelling with fascinating facts about humpback whales Vanessa invites the reader into the underwater world of these amazing ocean giants.

Thousands of whales migrate along Australia’s east and west coasts each year. They travel between the cold waters in Antarctica where they feed to warmer northern waters to breed.

“I talk about the biology of humpback whales and the important role they play in the marine environment,” says Vanessa.

“I also highlight some of the challenges whales face, like getting caught in fishing gear and marine pollution. And dealing with natural threats such as killer whales.”

A humpback whale, seen during Vanessa’s 2017 voyage, takes a look at what’s happening above the waves in a behaviour called ‘spy hopping’. Image: CSIRO-Karl Malakoff.

Deep dive into a whale’s world

Vanessa’s book reading was broadcast live to over 5000 students from primary schools across Australia. There were even a few lucky students from a local Hobart primary school who stepped aboard RV Investigator to join the reading. And question time from students online and in person surfaced some curious science minds.

In addition to whales farting, Vanessa said they are like us in other ways.

“They have hair and mother whales produce milk for their babies.”

Here’s a taste of the Q and A.

How do whales sleep in the ocean?

Whales can rest one side of their brain at a time, so that side can sleep while they continue to keep one eye on the ocean around them.

What is the biggest whale?

The Antarctic blue whale which can grow up to 30 metres in length. This is equal to the length of three school buses or a Boeing 737 aircraft!

Year 3/4 students from Campbell Street Primary School joined us onboard RV Investigator for the reading of The Voyage of Whale and Calf by Dr Vanessa Pirotta. Image: Fraser Johnston.

How deep can whales dive?

While humpback whales only dive a few hundred metres, the deepest diving whale – indeed the ocean’s deepest diving animal – is the Cuvier’s beaked whale. This obscure sausage-shaped whale has been recorded diving nearly 3000 metres into the ocean.

Campbell Street Primary School teacher, Vincent Anderson, said the visit provided a real-world connection for their classroom lessons.

“This was a fantastic opportunity to give our young students a unique and inspiring experience, and front row seats to a wonderful story and some amazing science,” said Vincent.

With our national blue-water science ship filled from top to bottom with intrepid scientists and inquisitive students, this truly was an event of whale-sized proportions!

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