It is that time of the year again for some of Pacific Whale Foundation Research staff to head south for a few months to gather data on the humpback whales that migrate along the east coast of Australia. This year, I will be leading the research team again and will be joined by three interns: Lorenzo Fiori (Italy), Tizoc Garcia (USA), and Danielle Barbknecht (USA).
The team arrived in Hervey Bay, Queensland, where we will be based until then end of September. One thing for sure is how big Australia is. It is the largest island on the planet and is the sixth largest country after Russia, Canada, China, the USA, and Brazil. Hervey Bay is situated approximately 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Brisbane, about a 4 hour-drive. In October, we will relocate to Eden, New South Wales, as humpback whales migrate south to their feeding ground in Antarctica. This will be a 1,750 kilometers journey south or the equivalent of driving from Seattle, WA, to Los Angeles, CA.
This whale season, the team will be collecting data from different tour boats, which were kind enough to let us join them on their whalewatch trips. Scientists refer to these boats as platforms of opportunity (POPs), because they have no influence as to where the boat is going and how long an encounter will last (those decisions are made by the tour boat captain).
The team had its first day on the water on August 1st and we could not have had a better welcome back to Hervey Bay. The first pod of humpback whales encountered were two sub-adults travelling south towards Urangan harbor. One of these subbies, as we like to call them, made a magnificent breach, with its full body out. Of course, it decided to perform this breach just as I was moving around the boat to get a better vantage point to take photos. Lucky for us, we sighted seven pods that day and I got the chance to redeem myself and get breach photos. Some individuals were also very active at the surface, including peduncle throws, head rise, upside down tail and pectoral slaps. On that trip, four pods of inshore bottlenose dolphins and several green turtles were sighted, which are also found in Maui, Hawai`i.
From a pure scientific point of view, it was also very exciting to get the first fluke photos of the 2014 whale season for identification purposes. Researchers can tell individual apart by looking at the ventral side of the whale tail, which are equivalent to human fingerprints.
The team will also take turns to open Pacific Whale Foundation’s store at the Urangan marina, so if you are in the area, feel free to come and see us.