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.

 

Are Swim-With-Whale Operations Ethical? PWF Strives to Learn More

Swim-with-whales tours are becoming more and more popular around the world as travelers become increasingly interested in ecotourism and engagement with nature and wildlife. But, with more and more visitors jumping into the backyard of these vulnerable marine mammals, how can we keep track of the effects on their well being? We can’t manage an operation properly if we don’t understand its effects.

So, are swim-with-whales operations ethical? It’s not an easy question. The challenge is that, as interest and demand for these activities grows exponentially, scientific research simply cannot keep up; it takes time, patience, and careful precision to collect reliable data.

Yes, ecotourism is an alternative to the overuse of natural resources. It can also bring money into poor countries that are rich in biodiversity but have little else to offer in terms of world trade. These swim-with-humpback-whale operations are up and running in places such as Tonga, the Dominican Republic, Tahiti, Norway, Western Australia, and the Fraser Coast in Queensland, Australia. But as hard as the governments of these countries might work to ensure that the operations are ecologically viable, many projects are unaudited and not subject to stringent regulations. Pacific Whale Foundation is interested in finding out more about this tourist offering, specifically in Hervey Bay. In 2014, the Queensland government authorized commercial operators to begin immersive “swim-with-whales” tours with the vulnerable humpback whale, and we want to learn more.

Photo taken August 3, 2018 from Pacific Whale Foundation’s Swim-With-Whales Impact Study. This humpback whale approached the passengers and swam around them a few times.

Our research team has developed an impact study with three objectives:  (1) to better understand if humpback whales change their behaviour due to in-water interactions with humans, (2) to identify factors which may influence behaviour change, and (3) to provide recommendations to governing authorities, resource managers, and tour operators to ensure that Hervey Bay’s humpback whales are not negatively impacted by swim-with-whales tourism.

We believe that wherever possible, baseline research into natural behaviour patterns should be carried out before tourism activities are undertaken. This is also a very unique opportunity for the public to get involved with our research, as we allow a limited number of passengers to enter the water as part of our research. Are you interested in being in the water alongside a humpback whale, or learning more about the study? Please visit us here.

We’re excited as we embark on this new adventure, which will have significant implications for humpback whales in Hervey Bay and around the world. Come and join us!

New research study on “Swim-with-Whales” tourism

Beginning in July 2018, our “Swim-with-Whales” Impact Study invites a small number of vessel passengers to enter the water with humpback whales.

In Hervey Bay, Queensland the government has recently authorized commercial tour operators to allow passengers in the water alongside humpback whales and Pacific Whale Foundation wants to conduct scientific research to see how the presence of swimmers affects humpback whales in an important resting area. Our research will help ensure that this tourism activity is developed in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Our data collection supports the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching which state that commercial swim programs should be accompanied by ongoing research to monitor whale and dolphin response to swimmers. This will be an exciting way for the public to get directly involved in citizen science while enjoying the rare opportunity to be in the water alongside a humpback whale, and it will allow our research team to identify any potential detrimental effects of these tours and hopefully mitigate them through adaptive management protocols.

If you’re in Hervey Bay between July and September and you’d like to help our researchers with this study, please visit us at the Great Sandy Straits Marina or book a trip online.

We also encourage you to check out our website for more information on this study and our research in Australia.