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.

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.