“SATELLITE TELEMETRY APPLIED TO FIN WHALES IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA: satellite tagging and tracking of Fin Whales specimens during winter season in the Strait of Sicily



Fin whales that live in the oceans are known to undergo seasonal migrations between the tropics and high-latitude waters, spanning thousands of  nautical miles. By contrast, movements of the population of fin whales residing in the Mediterranean remain still mostly unknown. 

During summer, Mediterranean fin whales congregate in large numbers to feed in the Pelagos Sanctuary in the northwestern Mediterranean, the region’s largest marine protected area designated by France, Italy and Monaco to protect marine mammals. However, their destination during the rest of the year is still a matter of debate. Whales are also known to appear in other parts of the Mediterranean, including in the waters near Gibraltar as well as in the eastern basin, but their relationship to the whales found in the Pelagos Sanctuary remains unclear.

To shed light on the migration pattern of Mediterranean fin whales, the General Direction for Land and Sea Protection of the Italian Ministry of the Environment, in the framework of the implementation of the ACCOBAMS Agreement ( has funded a specific project to the International Whaling Commission. The project aimed at deploying satellite tags on fin whales known to briefly appear in the waters surrounding the small Italian island of Lampedusa, in the Strait of Sicily, towards the end of winter (February-March).

The project was commissioned in order to obtain specific data and information on movements and possible migration routes of fin whales and on their habitats in the waters surrounding the island of Lampedusa, and to verify and confirm the previous limited sighting data, allowing  to correlate this information with those from the north-western Mediterranean within ​​the Pelagos Sanctuary.

The project is aimed in particular to the acquisition of information in the Strait of Sicily, an area characterized by the presence of B. physalus and other cetacean species, in order to assess areas of the Mediterranean Sea that could require targeted protection and conservation measures, as well as for the identification of potential threats and the implementation of mitigation measures. In particular, the waters of the island of Lampedusa are considered as a ​​winter feeding area for fin whales, which feed on the surface thanks to the abundance of Euphausiids  belonging to the species Nyctiphanes couchii, different from that of the Ligurian Sea ( Meganyctiphanes norvegica). 

The project also aims to provide support to the implementation by Italy of Directive 2008/56/EC (Marine Strategy Framework Directive, MSFD) for monitoring activities addressed to the achievement of Good Environmental Status of the Italian seas. The project has the collaboration of researchers from the Tethys Research Institute, the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) , the Siena University, the Marine Protected Area Isole Pelagie and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US (NOAA). The research programme, authorized by the competent national offices, is conducted in compliance with legal and ethical principles of animal welfare. 

Back in March 2013, as part of this project, three satellite transmitters were deployed on fin whales in these waters, which had provided satellite data for a shorter period (about 2 weeks) , underlining how these specimens remained near the southern coast of Lampedusa island, at a distance between 30-50 nautical miles from the coast, engaging for 75-80% of their time in feeding activities, confirming that the study area plays an important role in terms of food for the fin whales present.

In March 2014 it was not possible to tag any specimen of fin whale, given the particular adverse weather conditions encountered in the area, who had strongly affected the time spent at sea, the possibility of sighting whales: it is known that the Strait of Sicily in the winter months is characterized by adverse sea conditions.

In March  2015, finally, two satellite transmitters were deployed on two fin whales; Dr. Greg Donovan (Head of Science of the International Whaling Commission -IWC- and Scientific Coordinator of the project) and Dr. Simone Panigada (co-project manager for the Tethys Research Institute) report that:

On the 14th of March we managed to equip two fin whales with tiny satellite transmitters. The whales remained around Lampedusa for a couple of weeks, swimming back and forth along the shelf break between the islet of Lampione, the Levante seamount and the Tunisian coast, gorging on the abundant zooplankton found during winter in the surface waters of the Strait. On the 1st of April the two whales separated: one of them started swimming north, hugging the south-western coast of Sicily and then moving into the Tyrrhenian Sea off the east coast of Sardinia, while the other kept foraging for a few more days over the Tunisian Plateau. Then also the second whale moved into the Tyrrhenian, rapidly swimming northwards, and is now just off Cape Corse, in Corsica, well into the Pelagos Sanctuary.”

This unpublished information shows that some of the whales sighted in winter in the Strait of Sicily can be the same ones that concentrate in late spring in the Pelagos Sanctuary, in the north-western Mediterranean: the connection between whale seen off Lampedusa and those that spend the summer in the waters of the Pelagos Sanctuary scientificallydemonstrates the existence of very large and defined seasonal movements of these marine mammals through the Mediterranean, outside of the Pelagos Sanctuary and in correlation with it.

The project fulfillment reaffirms, in the forefront between 23 ACCOBAMS Agreement Parties, the yet reached Italian leadership in implementing of that analytical methodologyit stressed the importance of IWC as Scientific manager of this research activity, being the recognized highest international Body concerning cetaceans research and conservation. 

Photo credits: Tethys Research Institute