Mugged on the first Ultimate Whalewatch of 2015

On January 13th, the research team ran the first Ultimate Whalewatch cruise of the 2014/2015 whale season. Mother Nature was on our side that day, with perfect calm weather conditions.

Over the past week or so, the research team had been sighting more and more humpback whales in Ma’alaea Bay, including mother-calf pairs, so our 30 guests were in for a good whalewatch trip on Ocean Liberty.

As expected, a few whale pods were sighted a few minutes into the trip. At a later stage, we were even spoiled for choice, with whales left, right and center. Captain Curtis decided to follow one of the competition pods that displayed a lot of surface activity, very close to Ma’alaea Harbor and Sugar Beach. That decision paid off.

Over time, the number of escorts dwindled down from five to just two. At one point, one of the adults, presumed to be the female in the original pod, approached the vessel so close that, when it exhaled, the blow hit a few passengers. The whale then slowly swam under the vessel, giving everyone on board enough time to admire the sheer size of this animal. What a great photo opportunity that was.

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2014 Australian whale season completed

While Halloween was celebrated in the Northern America, the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) research team stationed in Australia had their last day in the field in Eden, New South Wales. The day was made even more special by the presence of the replica of the HMS Endeavour, a British Royal Navy research vessel that Lieutenant James Cook commanded on his first voyage of discovery to Australia and New Zealand from 1769 to 1771.

After spending 9 weeks in Hervey Bay, a reduced team (myself and Tizoc Garcia) drove the 1,700 km (1,055 miles) south to Eden for an additional 3 weeks to collect more data on the humpback whales as they migrate south to their Antarctic feeding grounds. It was with great pleasure that we met up again with the Cat Balou owners, Rosalind and Gordon Butt and their crew, who have been supporting the PWF research team for decades.

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Mother-calf pairs in Hervey Bay

There has been a change in the size and composition of humpback whale groups sighted within Hervey Bay as the season progresses. In the first weeks of August, yearlings (one-year old whales) and sub-adults (immature individuals of both gender) were mainly found in the bay. This is the time where you are more likely to be mugged by whales. By late August, mature females come in the area, followed by mature males and their songs can be heard throughout the bay. In mid-to-late season, i.e. September to October, the majority of groups sighted are mother-calf pairs as they tend to be the last groups to migrate south to the Antarctic feeding grounds.

Hervey Bay is a shallow and protected bay in Australia, which provides an ideal temporary stop-over for mother humpback whales to care for their offspring during the southern migration. Using photo-identification, we know that some mother-calf pairs may stay more than a week within the bay.

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Mugged by whales

Every year, from July to November, humpback whales come to Hervey Bay on their southern migration. In contrast to the open coastline, where whales are in a “migration mode” to their feeding grounds in the Antarctic, the bay is shallow, sheltered, and warm. It is the perfect place for the whales to aggregate, rest, and socialize. As a result, whales display a vast array of behaviors and interactions that make Hervey Bay a very unique whalewatching destination. Not surprisingly, some people refer to Hervey Bay as “Australia’s whalewatch capital.”

HB003-PWF

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040 and Registration #307.

In addition to the most common humpback whale behaviors that can be seen in Hervey Bay, such as breaching, tail slapping, head lunging, etc., whales in Hervey Bay will often approach a vessel and stay within close proximity, interacting with people on board for significant periods of time. This behavior is known as “mugging”.

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It’s a match!

As you probably know, the underside of a humpback whale’s tail, or flukes, is the main characteristic used by scientists to identify individuals. In addition, a whale’s dorsal fin can also be used to distinguish individuals and/or help confirm a match. This is why, whenever possible, the research team aims at taking a photo-ID of the flukes as well as the left and right dorsal fins of each individual within a pod.

Collage different fluke shapes II

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040, CA 2014/05/761, and Registration #307.

Dorsal fins vary in shape and form. Some are round, squared, pointy, even very hooked, which with a little bit of imagination, almost look like a witch’s nose. In some cases a dorsal fin might be scarred, for example from a propeller or fishing line, or even missing. Patterns and coloration of the skin on the body are also unique. So much that, occasionally, the conspicuous shape of the dorsal fin and/or the body patterns of an individual will attract your eye and stick in your memory. In those instances, you find yourself giving that particular individual a name that characterizes that special feature.

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Gidday from down-under!

It is that time of the year again for some of Pacific Whale Foundation Research staff to head south for a few months to gather data on the humpback whales that migrate along the east coast of Australia. This year, I will be leading the research team again and will be joined by three interns: Lorenzo Fiori (Italy), Tizoc Garcia (USA), and Danielle Barbknecht (USA).

The team arrived in Hervey Bay, Queensland, where we will be based until then end of September. One thing for sure is how big Australia is. It is the largest island on the planet and is the sixth largest country after Russia, Canada, China, the USA, and Brazil. Hervey Bay is situated approximately 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Brisbane, about a 4 hour-drive. In October, we will relocate to Eden, New South Wales, as humpback whales migrate south to their feeding ground in Antarctica. This will be a 1,750 kilometers journey south or the equivalent of driving from Seattle, WA, to Los Angeles, CA.

OZ-BRIS-HB

Brisbane to Hervey Bay, Queensland

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