How to Tag a Whale

by AMNH on

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A display table holds three whale tags of various shapes and sizes.
Tags, like those on view in the special exhibition Unseen Oceans, are equipped with a camera, sensors, and a transmitter to allow researchers to collect data about whales’ daily behaviors.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

First things first: before a whale tag can do its job, researchers have to get the electronic device applied—and make sure it stays put. It’s a demanding task that’s made possible by careful seamanship, dedication, and patience. (A long stick doesn’t hurt, either.)

Use Suction

Applying a piece of electronics that has staying power underwater and doesn’t bother the tracked whale is typically a job for a heavy-duty suction cup. Scientists will place these suction cups, which support a kit that holds a camera and a small suite of sensors and transmitters, on the end of a pole more than 20 feet in length, allowing them to get close enough to tap a whale on the back.

Illustration of the underside of a whale tag, on which four suction cups are mounted.
Whale tags can be attached for 24-hour periods with suction cups.
Alex Boersma,

Time It Right

To apply a tag, researchers wait for a whale to surface to breathe. An ideal encounter is with a whale that’s either busy with a meal or catching a short nap at the surface.

Man stand on a small platform and holds a long pole with a tag attached to the end as a whale surfaces nearby.
Ari Friedlaender of University of California, Santa Cruz tagging a whale.
U.S. Navy/Photo Courtesy National Marine Fisheries Service

Retrieve, Repeat

After the tag falls off, it floats to the surface and emits a radio signal that researchers track so they can scoop up the sensor and upload that data to a computer for analysis. Tags can be reused multiple times, on different animals. 

Find out more about how researchers are using technology to learn about marine animals in the exhibition Unseen Oceans, which opens on March 12. Member Previews begin March 9.

 A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.