Vocal behaviour of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in eastern Fram Strait
Katharina Hiemer, Ilse van Opzeeland, Olaf Boebel, Elke Burkhardt, Stefanie Spiesecke, Karolin Thomisch
International Whaling Commission
Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) of the East Greenland-Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) population have been depleted close to the point of extinction by commercial whaling and are still considered as endangered. Due to their low abundance and the remoteness of their habitat, baseline knowledge on spatio-temporal distribution patterns and behavioural aspects are scarce, yet crucial for the conservation of this population.
Long-term passive acoustic recordings were collected at different locations in eastern Fram Strait (78-79°N, 0-7°E) as part of the Ocean Observing System FRAM (Frontiers in Arctic Marine Monitoring). Data recorded in 2012 and 2016/2017 were analysed for the acoustic occurrence of bowhead whales at an hourly resolution using an automated detector.
Bowhead whales were acoustically present from autumn throughout the winter months (October-February) and occasionally in spring (March-June), supporting hypotheses that Fram Strait is an important overwintering area. Acoustic presence peaked between mid-November and mid-December when bowhead whales were recorded almost daily, often hourly for several days in a row. The observed peak in acoustic presence coincided with the presumed mating period of bowhead whales, starting in late winter, indicating that Fram Strait may also serve as a mating area. Detailed analyses of recordings of a single year and location revealed eight distinct bowhead whale song types comprising simple songs and call sequences. No bowhead whales were recorded in summer (July-September), indicating that they either were vocally inactive or had migrated to summering areas.
Compared to previous studies in western Fram Strait, bowhead whale detections in our recordings were less frequent and less complex. The observed regional differences in bowhead whale acoustic behaviour across Fram Strait suggest that our mooring locations in eastern Fram Strait may represent the eastern distribution boundary of the bowhead whale overwintering area.