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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More Than Just a Whalewatch

Anyone who has seen a humpback whale and witnessed one of these animals in the wild is likely to enthusiastically share their experience. Many embark on their first whalewatch with high hopes and come back with a new appreciation for these fascinating creatures. Whalewatching is a very fun recreational activity, but it also has the potential to be an important venue for raising awareness of humpback whales and getting the public involved in protecting our oceans.

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For over 35 years, Pacific Whale Foundation has been on the forefront of researching and developing an internationally recognized model of whalewatching. Our whalewatches create enjoyable educational experiences and challenge passengers to change how they relate to the ocean. People from all different backgrounds can come together and share the excitement of encountering a humpback whale in the wild, knowing that they are playing an important role in funding research and conservation efforts that are creating lasting impacts far beyond the whalewatch itself. As the demand for eco-tourism increases, so also does the potential for turning the industry into one that is constructive and sustainable.

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Seeing Some Familiar Fins

The PWF research team recently had a great encounter with a pod of bottlenose dolphins that were hunting fish. Back in the office, we used the bottlenose dolphin photo-identification catalog to reveal some interesting information about the group. As it turns out, this pod contained an adoption animal (#095, “Pa‘ani”), our oldest cataloged animal (#005), a dolphin newly confirmed as a male (#114), and a female who had a calf last summer (#006).

Dolphin #005 was sighted in the very first pod added to the PWF bottlenose dolphin catalog in 1996, and dolphin #006 was first seen in 1997, making them at least 21 and 20 years old, respectively. Our adoptable female, #095 (“Pa‘ani”), was first seen in 2010, meaning she is potentially a bit younger than #005 and #006. Since she had already reached her adult size when she was first seen, it is difficult to determine her actual age, but we know she is at least 7 years old.

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A Dynamic Disequilibrium

When we go on whalewatches, we are entering the world of humpback whales to encounter them in their natural environment. Passengers and crew are often astounded by the diverse behaviors and characteristics of these animals, but occasionally we are also presented with sobering reminders that threats to whales and other marine life are still very real. On one of our recent whalewatches out of Hervey Bay, Australia, all those aboard Ocean Defender were given a glimpse into humpback whale entanglement.

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As we entered Platypus Bay we saw our first whale sighting of the day, and the level of excitement was rising. There was a whale swimming by itself, which is not unusual for a humpback whale, but after a few minutes it seemed there may be something wrong. This particular whale was acting stressed and swimming erratically. Then we noticed something odd; as the whale surfaced we could see a laceration on its dorsal fin from dragging several lines.

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An Exciting Start to Australia’s Whalewatch Season

This whalewatch season in Hervey Bay, Australia marks an exciting continuation of Pacific Whale Foundation’s mission to protect our oceans and study the humpback whales in the East Australian population. These whales stop over in Platypus Bay every winter on their migration back to their feeding grounds in Antarctica. Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) began its long relationship with Australia’s whalewatching capital in the 1980s when our Founder and Executive Director, Greg Kaufman, discovered the beauty of the humpback whales in Platypus Bay, off of Fraser Island, and pioneered the area’s first whalewatch on a borrowed fishing boat. Since then, Greg and the PWF researchers have been important figures in Hervey Bay, conducting photo-identification studies on these amazing animals each winter.

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Whale Tales – Stories from Across the Sea by a PWF Naturalist

Maui is certainly one of the most spectacular places in the world to watch humpback whales in their breeding grounds. But when those of us in Hawaii bid these animals aloha in the spring as they journey north to their feeding grounds, a few PWF naturalists follow suit and head to other parts of the world to experience a summer whale season and the different types of wildlife, and behaviors, that entails. May through September is the prime time to watch humpbacks and other migratory whales in their feeding grounds up north – Alaska and the upper coastlines of the west and eastern U.S. are a few of our favorite options.

Many of our amazing naturalists stay in Maui year round (it is, after all, hard to find a reason to leave); there’s so much to see and do during the summer in Maui, and Pacific Whale Foundation’s snorkel and dolphin watch cruises offer visitors an exciting chance to see many beautiful marine creatures that call Maui home besides our winter whale visitors. Others of us take this time to journey abroad, or across the U.S., for different eco-tourism jobs and have ended up in Massachusetts, or Alaska, or California, or Washington. In this post, I want to highlight my summer experiences away from Maui, and in future posts I plan to talk with other naturalists who have also moved away to work in the conservation field.

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