While underwater drones and robotic vessels provide scientists with handy ways to explore our world's oceans, there's another more obvious way to plumb the depths of our seas: by enlisting the help of the whales that dwell there. Thanks to a new tracker from Oregon State University, such an arrangement is now possible.

Of course, tracking devices for marine animals have existed for awhile, but the issue with those developed for whales is that they weren't able to stay active for much more than a full day, according to OSU.

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Called an "Advanced Dive Behavior" (ABU) Tag, the new tracker can function for up to seven weeks at a time and transmit data every second. When the tag reaches the end of its functionality, it detaches from the whale and floats to the surface where it emits LED lights and a GPS tracking signal to guide scientists to its location for retrieval. The tag monitors how far a whale dives, how it moves and orients its body, and can track light levels and water temperature.

With such long-lasting and detailed information being gathered, scientists say they can learn more than ever about the habits of the largest sea-dwelling creatures on Earth. One tag, for instance, was able to monitor a sperm whale as it dove to depths of 1,000 m (3,281 ft) and stayed down there for 75 minutes. The tags can reveal swimming patterns, feeding habits, temperature preferences and even what happens to whales when large boats disrupt their environment.

"By using this technology on three different species, we've seen the full range of behavior that is specific to each species," said Daniel Palacios, a co-author on a study involving the tags that has just appeared in the journal Ecology and Evolution. "Sperm whales, for instance, really like to dive deep, staying down a long time and appearing to forage along the seafloor at times. During summer the baleen whales will feed as much as possible in one area, and then they move on, probably after the prey density gets too low."

Additionally, Bruce Mate, professor and director of OSU's Marine Mammal Institute in the College of Agricultural Sciences, says that with the help of our ocean-dwelling cousins, the tracker can also help us gain a greater understanding of our oceans overall.

"This technology has even made whales our partners in acquiring data to better understand ocean conditions and climate change," he said. "It gives us vast amounts of new data about water temperatures through space and time, over large distances and in remote locations. We're learning more about whales, and the whales are helping us to learn more about our own planet."

Source: Oregon State University