Whales divided: how adults and calves use Hervey Bay differently

If you go whalewatching in Hervey Bay after mid-September, you may notice that there is a calf in nearly every pod you see. Mothers with calves are typically the last to arrive in the bay, and they may be the group that benefits most from the shallow, protected waters near Fraser Island.

Our research on the East Australia population of humpback whales allows us to ask questions about long-term trends in behavior and habitat use within the area. Using sighting data collected by our research team from 2004 – 2016, we looked at whether pods with a calf preferred different areas of the bay compared to pods without a calf. As it turns out, mothers with calves do show a preference for an place just inside the U-shaped coastline of Fraser Island, known colloquially by whalewatch operators as “the pocket”. Pods without a calf show an opposite preference for waters a bit farther offshore.

Although depth and distance to shore do not vary much throughout the bay due to the overall shallow waters and the U-shape of the coastline, mothers may prefer that area because it might be the most protected from rougher weather conditions. They may also use it as a place to avoid pursuing males and competition pods. Pods that do not have a calf may prefer the area slightly farther out of the pocket if they are seeking mating or socializing opportunities from other adults or subadults.

The study provides a baseline to compare future observations of whale distribution within the Hervey Bay area, particularly as this population continues to coexist with human activities in the bay including recreational boating, commercial whalewatching, and swim-with-whales tourism.

How can you tell a male and female humpback whale apart?

In many animals, different sexes have different appearances, with males often being larger, showier, or both: think of brightly colored male songbirds or male lions with their luscious manes. For humpback whales, however, this is not the case. Apart from females being slightly larger than males on average, humpback whale males and females look very similar to each other, making it very difficult to visually determine sex. Adding to this, all reproductive organs in both females and males are neatly tucked away behind a genital slit to help them be more hydrodynamic and sleek in the water.

Luckily for us researchers, though, we have a few tricks up our sleeves to tell the difference between the sexes, allowing us to collect additional data for our photo-identification catalog.

The easiest way to determine a female humpback whale is a close association with a calf. Mothers and calves maintain a strong bond throughout the first year of the calf’s life, so when we see an adult whale closely accompanied by a calf, we can safely assume that she is the mother of that calf.

In the absence of a calf, though, things become trickier. If the whales roll over onto their backs, often we can see the genital slit on their abdomen. The relative location of the genital slit offers some clues: For males, the genital slit is located closer to the whale’s belly, while the females’ genital slit is closer to their tail flukes. Immediately towards the tail from the genital slit, females have a grapefruit-sized lump known as a hemispherical lobe. No one knows what exactly this structure does, but we do know that it is only present on females. Females also have two mammary slits, one on either side of the genital slit, which they will use when nursing their calves.

Click through the photos in this gallery and our researchers will explain how we were able to identify the sex of these humpback whales

When we are able to determine the sex of a whale, this information is included along with the animal’s fluke photo when it is added to the catalog. Knowing the sex of different individuals enables us to more accurately determine calving rate and sex ratios of different habitat areas.

Southern right whales in Hervey Bay

This season, humpback whales haven’t been the only large baleen whale sighted in Hervey Bay. We have also had several sightings of mother-calf pairs of southern right whales, a rare species for this area. The first pair was seen in July, and there have been many additional sightings over the past several weeks, much to the surprise and delight of passengers and staff onboard Ocean Defender.

All right whales have white patches of rough skin on their heads called callosities. The pattern of callosities is unique to each individual whale, and researchers use these patterns to identify right whales much in the same way that we use fluke patterns to identify humpback whales. Using the patterns of callosities, we have been able to recognize at least three different mothers that have been sighted this season.

These mothers belong to the southeast Australia population, which is more commonly seen farther south in Victoria and New South Wales. Similar to humpback whales, southern right whales prefer relatively warmer, calmer waters for their calves, but they do not typically travel all the way to tropical areas. In fact, Hervey Bay is considered the extreme northern extent of their range. Southern right whales were hunted extensively since their slow swimming speeds and thick blubber made them the “right” whale to kill, particularly before the industrial era of whaling. The populations are recovering, though, and it is encouraging to see these mothers and calves along the east coast of Australia.

Looking back through the past several years of data from Hervey Bay, Pacific Whale Foundation researchers have only seen right whales in the area in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2012 prior to this year. In those years, there were also fewer sightings: 2009 and 2012 each had sightings on two days, but our team only saw right whales a single time in 2007 and 2009. Although we can’t say for sure why these mothers and calves decided to visit Hervey Bay for such an extended time this season, it will certainly be interesting to see what future years bring for sightings of this amazing species.

Although Pacific Whale Foundation does not currently study southern right whales, our research team is collecting data and submitting all sightings and identification photos to the Australian Marine Mammal Centre which maintains a catalog of this population.

 

The Making of a Marine Naturalist: Meet Sarah Bonneson

A few weeks ago we introduced you to one of our Marine Naturalists at Pacific Whale Foundation, Erin Hord. We’re back again and excited to introduce you to another crew member, the charismatic Sarah Bonneson. Let’s dive deeper into her passion for the ocean, and find out what brought her on this journey towards working with our team in research, education, and conservation. Make sure to stay tuned for our next crew interview!


Hey Sarah! Where did you originally call home? 

I’m originally from a small town in Southern Maine. Growing up so close to the ocean and being immersed in Maine’s rugged beauty no doubt helped form my immense passion for the environment.

What about the ocean most captivates you?

The ocean is liquid outer-space. It is home to some of the most bizarre organisms on the planet and caters to some of the most mind-boggling adaptations of life. I love the mystery that the ocean holds and the endless questions that it prods from us.

What do you enjoy most about working for Pacific Whale Foundation?

I love the platform PWF creates to reach people and tug on their heart strings. For many of us, being able to connect a feeling with an experience can be life changing and I think that is the ultimate goal of Pacific Whale Foundation: to enact change through education and use our trips as an avenue to empower our passengers to be advocates for the ocean.

What experiences and education were most influential on your path to becoming a Marine Naturalist?

I went on my first whale watch out of Plymouth, Massachusetts and completely fell in love with humpback whales as one swam under the boat, showing its colossal size paired with an elegance and awareness that cemented my ties with the ocean indefinitely. From that moment on I was hooked.

What does the world need to know about conservation?

You do not have to be a scientist to make a difference. It can be as simple as eliminating one plastic item off of your shopping list, remembering to bring your reusable bags or forgoing that plastic straw at the bar. You will soon find that these small changes begin to bleed into your everyday decisions and now you are creating a ripple effect. Your friends, family, your children see you taking the extra time to be environmentally conscious and it will empower them to do the same. Start today, let your actions speak volumes for the ocean!

What is your favorite humpback whale behaviour to see and interpret for guests on board a whalewatch?

This is a hard one. I have to say one of my all time favorites would have to be an Inverted Pectoral Slap. A repetitive behavior thought to be used for communication. The whale looks like its “lollygagging” at the ocean’s surface and doing the backstroke. Honestly though, I really love when I see a whale doing a behavior that I have no idea how to interpret. I think it humbles my whale watches and reminds me of how little we truly know about these magnificent creatures and how much more we have to learn.

Why do you feel whalewatching is an amazing way to connect people with the marine environment?

I think connecting a powerful emotion with an experience is what brings about change and this is exactly what these gentle giants are best at. Most of the time on whale watches the whales speak for themselves, creating an intimate connection with every person onboard. Being able to view these animals for yourself and see them leap out of the water, take an interest in the boat or just enjoying their natural habitat is incredibly moving.

How do you stay motivated while working in the field of marine biology and conservation?

Most of my favorite memories are connected to the ocean in some way or form. Its taught me a lot about patience, trust and respect. From meeting eyes with a humpback whale to flying with manta rays or just bobbing with turtles, these animals have been some of the most wonderful hosts I have ever met as they share with me their world. I want everyone to have these connections as it becomes so incredibly paramount that we must protect their home and in turn our own.

And lastly…what is your oceanic spirit animal?

I think I would want to combine a few different ocean animals but I’ll go with an octopus. I am by no means as intelligent as these underwater aliens but their ability to make the best of whatever backdrop they are given and learn from their surroundings reminds me of my own nomadic lifestyle.


There you have it! Sarah brings an incredible energy to the team and to each and every one of her whalewatches; it’s a true delight to have her onboard Ocean Defender as a Marine Naturalist. Come visit us in Hervey Bay and experience the powerful message of ocean conservation and whale research that Sarah shares every day.

Stay tuned for our next interview!

Still Australia’s Best Kept Secret

Hervey Bay, Australia’s best keep secret, is a coastal city in southern Queensland approximately 180 miles north of Brisbane. From June to October this otherwise quaint fishing community has ostentatious visitors that create quite the excitement; south pacific humpback whales come to the Platypus Bay to rest and build up energy for their migration back to Antarctica.

Known as the “humpback highway,” there are definitely few places in the world that compare to the awe-inspiring, soul-evoking, up-close whale watching encounters that you will find in Hervey Bay. I am always amazed by how incredible each whalewatch is; the whales are so inquisitive and there is no lack of “best ever” experiences. Young sub adults are the first passing through this remarkable landscape, followed by mom and calf pairs. The bay is rich with wildlife including other species of odontocetes, dugongs, turtles and more.

The best vessel for photographers is Ocean Defender, not only because of the remarkable foundation it supports (Pacific Whale Foundation) but also because of its small capacity and “whale-eye” view; there are no bad seats. You are also able to plan more trips because of its capable speed to get up to the northern part of the bay where the whales are found. Most vessels can take up to two hours to reach the first pod. It’s also recommend you dress in layers, as it can get cold out at sea but the sun can heat things up pretty quickly.

  • Tip: bring an assortment of lenses, I find I use my wide-angle lens more often than my big telephoto. Ocean Defender is the best vessel in the bay to use Go Pros for that underwater footage. Getting the perfect shot of a whale can prove to be very difficult for even the most experienced photographers, when in doubt shoot video!

 

The best month to go is in August; the weather tends to be warmer, the Ocean Festival takes place and the community comes together to celebrate these magnificent creatures with an array of events including the Hervey Bay Seafood Festival, Fraser Coast Kite Karnival, Paddle Out for the Whales and Whale Parade.

  • Tip: take time to enjoy each event by taking a walkabout; avoid driving – you will meet more people walking around. Also plan an afternoon to walk down Urangan Pier, built in 1913 that has since been a historical icon, restored not entirely in it’s original formality, it still reaches over nine football fields in length.

Other things to do is to visit Fraser Island, also known as the largest sand island in the world, this diverse eco system is home to the purest bread of dingoes, it has rainforests, eucalyptus woodland, mangrove forests and the most stunning lakes. You can plan a day trip or plan a camping trip but make sure to rent a 4×4 vehicle otherwise you will not be granted access.

Another must do is to visit Lady Elliot Island, the southernmost coral cay of the Great Barrier Reef. The snorkeling is unbelievable; you can literally spend all day in the lagoon exploring and observing wildlife. A short 30 minute flight from Hervey Bay on a very small prop plane, the carrier Seabird Aviation offers day trips, but I recommend staying the night at their low-key and eco-friendly resort. Be sure to book in advance as it’s the only resort.

  • Tip: Although the cost of your ticket includes everything including snorkel gear, I recommend bringing your own for the sake of time.

This is a well worth destination and links below can help you plan your trip.

 

The Elusive False Killer Whale

In 2013, Jens Currie came to Pacific Whale Foundation as a data analyst from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. With an ambition to explore more robust statistical methods of potential anthropogenic impacts on cetacean populations, Jens is now Senior Research Analyst. Here, he lends a helping hand for those of us that are new to understanding and appreciating the endangered false killer whale.

scroll below to watch video

What is a false killer whale, and can you dissect the name for me?
False killer whales are the fourth largest species of dolphin. They are characterized by their dark coloration, slender body, crescent-shaped dorsal fin, and small rounded head with no beak. Individuals of this species weigh between 1,000-3,000 lbs. Adult females reach lengths of 16 feet, while adult males are almost 20 feet long.

The name Pseudorca (pseudo-orca) comes from the similarly shaped skulls that false killer whales have to that of killer whales (Orcinus orca). The “crassidens” in their scientific name Pseudorca crassidens means “thick tooth.” They were first discovered and described by fossils.

What is their lifespan, what do they eat, how do they stand out?
These animals have a lifespan of 60 years or more.  False killer whales feed primarily on fish and cephalopods in open water habitats.  The prey items of this species include economically important fish, such as mahi-mahi and tuna, and occasionally other marine mammal species. It has been documented that false killer whales cooperatively hunt, and will share food between individuals in their group.

Where are they found in the world?
False killer whales are distributed throughout warm and temperate waters in the tropics and subtropics, with the highest abundance in warmer waters. They are typically found in the open ocean but can also occur closer to shore, particularly near tropical oceanic islands such as the Hawaiian Islands. Based on genetic and photographic data, there are three populations of false killer whales surrounding the Hawaiian Islands: the main Hawaiian Islands insular population, the northwestern Hawaiian Islands insular population, and an offshore/open-ocean population.

Do they migrate? Are they kama’aina?
They do not migrate and the main Hawaiian Islands insular population is kama’aina

Why are there so few remaining?
The endangered main Hawaiian Islands insular false killer whale population is estimated to be around 150 individuals. The historical population size is unknown; however, spotter planes from the 1980s report seeing large aggregations of 350-400 whales in a single area. Aerial data suggest that the population has declined at an average rate of 9% per year through the early 2000’s (NOAA Fisheries, 2018).

The reason why there are so few false killer whales is unknown; however, there are several factors that likely play a role. Given their endangered status, in 2010 a Biological Review Team (BRT) was established to conduct a status review of the species. In the Status Review report (Oleson et al. 2010) of the 29 identified threats identified, the most substantial threats to the population include: the effects of small population size (inbreeding depression and Allee effects), exposure to environmental contaminants, competition for food with commercial fisheries, and hooking, entanglement, and/or intentional harm by fishermen.

How can citizen scientists help us ID these elusive animals?
Citizen scientists can help us ID these animals by donating any photos they have of false killer whales in Hawaii. We can photo-identify individual Pseudorca through unique scars and markings, and by using their dorsal fin. Photo-identification is an important part of our research and how we can track changes in population size over time.

Another way to help is to notify PWF’s researchers when false killer whales are sighted in the Maui Nui region! We would greatly appreciate a phone call or text if any water users see false killer whales so we can initiate a rapid response (weather and time permitting).

Can you give me 3-5 reasons why they are awesome?
They share food with each other, and have been documented offering fish to humans that are diving or boating.

They are one of very few species known to enter menopause. Most animals continue to reproduce until they die; the only known exceptions to this are humans, killer whales, false killer whales, and short-finned pilot whales.

False killer whales were first discovered by their fossils and were thought to be an extinct species until a pod was observed in 1861.

 

All photos and videos were taken under NMFS Permit # 16479.