Scientists from New Zealand and Australia will next month head to Antarctica to conduct research on the whale population.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) is providing its ship Tangaroa to take 18 scientists to the Southern Ocean.

Department of Conservation international relations adviser Mike Donoghue said the expedition, a joint initiative by the New Zealand and Australian governments, would be the first time anybody had been to the Ross Sea to do non-lethal research.

The 42-day mission departs on February 1 for the Ross Sea and will make its way to the Australian part of Antarctica, collecting data as it goes.

Mr Donoghue said the crew would be taking pictures, and using satellite tags and darts to grab genetic samples of the whales they encounter.

"Whatever they see they'll attempt to photograph and potentially biopsy," he said.

"But of course it will be very weather dependent."

The information collected will be used to study how whale populations are organised genetically and their migration habits.

The priorities are humpbacks, blue and minke whales, but the crew will also be on the lookout for orca and the southern right whale.

Another goal was to disprove Japan's claim that whales must be killed for research.

"It's hoped that this voyage, and the bigger Southern Ocean research partnership of which it's a part, will achieve a lot of information published in peer-reviewed scientific journals about large whales in the Southern Ocean," Mr Donoghue said.

"That has been conspicuous in its absence, as far as the Japanese programme goes. There's been sheaves and sheaves of papers published to the [International] Whaling Commission but hardly anything of significance in any reputable international journal."

- NZPA