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.

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.