Research in Australia 2018 Field Report

Our research team has finished up data collection from the 2018 field season, and what a season it was! Pacific Whale Foundation has been studying humpback whales in Hervey Bay for over 30 years, providing us with long-term sightings data in the form of our South Pacific Humpback Whale Catalogue. In 2018, we took over 10,000 research photos onboard Ocean Defender, including flukes, dorsal fins, injuries or skin lesions, and photos of the genital area to determine sex. We are still processing the data, but several of the whales from the early part of the season have been new to our catalog. Since subadults comprise the majority of pods in the beginning of the season, and the population is estimated to be steadily increasing, this result is somewhat expected, and we look forward to finding out how many additional new animals we may have as well as how many repeat visitors we have seen this season.

Along with our ongoing photo-identification work, this year was the first in our Swim-With-Whales Impact Study. We completed 19 trips towards this research study with 134 total swimmers who helped to make this study possible. This study allows our researchers to assess whether commercial swim-with-whales operations in Queensland are affecting the behavior of humpback whales. Using detailed behavioral observations before, during, and after swimmers are in the water with whales, we can look for patterns and changes in the whales’ behaviors; any such patterns can help determine best practices for this new, immersive form of tourism.

Another highlight of the season was the number of different species seen on our trips. Along with our familiar humpback whales, we saw southern right whales, bottlenose dolphins, Australian humpback dolphins, dwarf minke whales, dugongs, green sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, a hammerhead shark, a tiger shark, dingoes, and several species of seabirds. Although we don’t specifically study these species, it is always exciting to see the other inhabitants of this very special ecosystem.

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.

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.

 

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 Results Are In: The 2017 Australia Research Recap

Another exciting whalewatch season is drawing to an end here in Hervey Bay, Australia. It has been a productive time for our Researchers-on-Board as we have continued to collect photo-identification data and educate our guests on the importance of the research upon which Pacific Whale Foundation has built its legacy.

From the beginning of the whalewatch season on July 15 through September 30, Ocean Defender has embarked on 96 whalewatches, which have served as platforms for our researchers to collect photos and observational data from the humpback whales.  Those trips have taken us a total of 3,767 nautical miles to encounter 402 pods of humpback whales. The researchers double as Marine Naturalists on these trips, engaging the public as part of our internationally recognized model of responsible whalewatching.

After photographs and data are collected in the field by our team in Australia, the dedicated research staff at our Maui headquarters analyzes and catalogs it, adding to our ever-expanding knowledge of these humpback whales. This season has yielded over 1,300 photos and some interesting additions to our South Pacific humpback whale catalog.

Our Research Department has added 18 new individual humpback whales from this whalewatching season to our catalog, which currently contains approximately 6,000 individual whales from several habitat areas.

Three humpback whales seen during the 2017 season were matched to our catalog: #3586, #2177,  and #0680. Whale #3586 was first sighted in 2006 before being sighted again in 2008 and 2017. Whale #2177, a female, was first sighted in 1999, seen with her calf in 2007, and seen without a calf in 2008, 2010, and 2017. Whale #0680, named “Uluru”, is one of our adoption animals, and she has had a calf for all of her sightings: 1989, 1993, 1995, 2006, and 2017.

Each individual added to the catalog or re-sighted provides us with more information that we can use to learn about these whales’ migrations, breeding characteristics, and life histories. Hervey Bay represents a unique habitat as a migratory stopover, and our researchers are interested in determining how humpback whales, especially mothers with calves, use this area. Pacific Whale Foundation additionally invites you to participate in our research as a citizen scientist. Whether you would like to submit your own fluke photos or assist in analyzing humpback whale photo-ID images with Match My Whale, we invite you to help with this exciting and important research project.

Nala the Famous Humpback Whale

One very special humpback whale and her calf made the news this whalewatch season, and it isn’t the first time. Not only is Nala a celebrity in the Hervey Bay whalewatching community and a frequent visitor to the area, she is also a long-time mother and a real-life example of how our research at Pacific Whale Foundation is making a difference.

Ask anyone in the Hervey Bay whalewatching community who Nala is, and almost anyone will have  heard of the famous whale. Her name was given to her in 1996 by a group of students at Hervey Bay High school who, going along with a Lion King theme, named her calf that year Simba. She has since been dubbed the “icon” whale of Hervey Bay and over the years, Nala has earned the respect and admiration of many.

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