Couple on whale pilgrimage
Perth marine biologist Micheline and Curt Jenner hold the explorer’s club flag while on a trip to the Antarctic in January 2014. Picture: Centre for Whale Research.

Perth marine biologists Curt and Micheline Jenner have spent the past month surrounded by churning seas, breaching whales and icebergs that look pink at the right time of day in the eerie light of the Antarctic.

Back in Fremantle Harbour last week for a reunion with dry land, their dog Skipper and friends and family, the Centre for Whale Research scientists were counting down the days until they can leave again.

The self-funded trip to study whale feeding in the Southern Ocean was 20 years in the making. The aim is to shed light on why humpback whale numbers have recovered far more successfully than Antarctic blue whales since whaling was banned.

"We know that humpback whales are recovering very well . . and blue whales are slowly recovering but they're not doing as well as humpbacks," Mr Jenner said.

"We thought we could go down to the Antarctic and compare those two species - and try to see if humpback whales were feeding more efficiently or hanging out in areas where there's more krill or using co-operative feeding techniques that might be better for tracking krill."

A humpback whale photographed by Michelle Jenner.

What they found were plenty of humpbacks but few blue whales. The one specimen the wife and husband encountered up close was detected not by the high-tech acoustic equipment on loan from their day-job employer, the Australian Defence Force, but by chance.

Undaunted, the Jenners and their crew set about photographing and satellite-tagging as many humpbacks as they could.

If they could not learn what blue whales were doing wrong, they could learn what humpbacks were doing right.

Data from the tags will provide insight into feeding patterns and potentially explain why humpbacks that migrate along the WA coast are so much bigger than their east coast counterparts.

The research vessel Whale Song returned with "mug shots" of about 50 humpbacks to compare with those photographed on past trips to the Kimberley. The Jenners expect to track whales that have been migrating between "the kitchen" - the Antarctic, where they go to feed - and "the bedroom" - the Kimberley, where they go to breed.

For all the Jenners' passion for their complex research, some of their fondest memories of the trip are simple ones - celebrating tagging a whale, building a snowman on the deck or a penguin waving to them from an iceberg.

The West Australian

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