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.

 

FACT OF THE WEEK: Whale Tale

FACT OF THE WEEK: The underside of a whale’s tail, called the flukes, is not the only characteristic that can be used to photo-identify baleen whales.

MORE ON THIS: You may already know that humpback whales have individually unique tail flukes, like a human fingerprint, and can be identified by photographing these. In addition, each humpback whale also has a unique dorsal fin that allows researchers to track and study individual whales using photo-identification techniques. But did you know that other species of baleen whales are identified using other body parts?

humpback whale fluke (PWF-Hawaii 2013)

Humpback whale flukes. Photographed under NOAA permit # 16479.

Gray whales don’t actually have a dorsal fin; instead they have a series of “knuckles” along their back. Researchers can use the shape of these knuckles, as well as mottling, scarring, and barnacle patterns on the whale’s back to identify individuals.

Grey Whale dorsal ridge - front view. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Minette Layne.

Grey Whale dorsal ridge – front view. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Minette Layne.

Minke whales are identified using nicks or notches in their dorsal fins, or by unusual dorsal fin shape, similar to photo-identification in dolphins. They can also be identified on the basis of lateral body pigmentation.

Minke Whale dorsal fin with notch. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Stack.

Minke Whale dorsal fin with notch. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Stack.

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