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.

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.

Whale 1 Resize

Since commercial whaling was ended in the 1960s, we have seen the East Australian humpback whale population rise from an estimated 200 – 1,200 humpback whales to over 14,500 whales. Not only that, but they are continuing to increase at a rate of 11% each year. However, the effort to protect these creatures is not over. In Queensland alone, entanglement in shark control gear and fishing gear, as well as other marine debris, accounts for one-third of humpback whale strandings.

This was the first time our passengers and many of the crew had seen an entangled whale. Though government regulations do not allow us to assist with entanglement response, local authorities assessed the situation. They searched for the whale the following day to attempt to help it but, unfortunately, were not able to relocate the animal. The situation created a dynamic disequilibrium; an internal conflict that catches people’s attention and moves them to reassess things. It opened their eyes to the reality that marine conservation is necessary, and that human activities make a very real impact on marine life.

Whale 2 Resize

Not everyone can collect marine debris or disentangle a whale, but a significant positive impact can be made by us working together. Small actions like picking up trash on the beach and choosing to recycle, or larger actions like commiting to a plastic free lifestyle or becoming an active part of a local conservation group all add up. Just look at the history of these whales – due to conservation efforts we have already seen enormous recovery in their populations. Our potential impact is limitless.

If you have any questions, or want to learn more about how to become involved in our mission, leave a comment below!

Please note: if you do come across an entangled whale, do not attempt to assist or free the animal as it is unsafe and illegal unless properly authorized and permitted. Training is highly specialized and requires proper equipment and personnel.

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.

Humpback whale flukes are uniquely patterned and can provide valuable information for scientists in a way that is similar to our human fingerprints. Using photo-ID, our researchers have created a catalog that allows us to better study and understand the habitats and life history traits of these marine mammals without using more invasive methods such as tagging. PWF currently has a Southern Hemisphere catalog of over 6,000 whales. As we are better able to study these animals, our researchers can identify better means of protecting them.

This year, we invite the public to come on board with us on our new state of the art vessel, Ocean Defender, as we embark on daily Ultimate Whalewatches from the Great Sandy Straits Marina that are unlike anything many have experienced. Not only will we have a Researcher On Board collecting photo-ID data, we also have a university educated certified Marine Naturalist interpreting the whale behavior in order to allow passengers to appreciate these animals and have a life-changing encounter. By coming out with us, our passengers are the backbone of what we do at Pacific Whale Foundation, with all of the proceeds supporting the research and education taking place in Australia.

Join us as we continue to pursue research, education, and conservation, and become a part of what we are doing at Pacific Whale Foundation. Visit PacificWhale.com.au for more information on our Hervey Bay Ultimate Whalewatches. We look forward to showing you the majestic humpback whales that have inspired so many of us to dedicate our lives to helping them.

Exciting matches in South Pacific catalog

We have been busy in the research department adding humpback whales from the 2016 Hervey Bay field season into our South Pacific humpback whale catalog. Along with adding some new animals, we have already made two matches, which is quite a feat considering that each new photo has to be checked against over 6000 others.

The two matched whales were each sighted with a calf during this field season, meaning we can confidently know that they are females. Both females have a long sighting history going back to 1993. Although we don’t know their exact ages, this sighting span means that both animals are at least 23 years old. As we continue to process the 2016 field data, we’re looking forward to making additional matches like these two in order to help us learn more about the South Pacific humpback whales.

Pod types in Hervey Bay

In an earlier post, we mentioned the recent appearance of mothers with calves in Hervey Bay. Humpback whales do not all migrate at the same time; rather, multiple group types will be predominantly seen at different points throughout the migration.

The earliest pulse of whales to arrive in Hervey Bay is sub-adult whales; meaning whales that are sexually mature but have not yet reached their full size. Sub-adults in this area seem particularly curious about the vessels, and the early portion of the season is well known for “mugging” events where the whales approach the vessel. Later in the season, mothers and calves begin to migrate through the area, and the sub-adults continue their migration toward their Antarctic feeding grounds. Mothers with calves tend to stay in the tropical breeding areas longer than the sub-adults, likely to allow the calf more time to build up its muscles and blubber layer before beginning the migration southward. The protected waters on the westward side of Fraser Island provide a safe, sheltered stopover for these mothers to rest and nurse their calves.

Nursing is commonly observed here in Hervey Bay, and occasionally the mothers exhibit an interesting “fluke up” posture while feeding their calves. This behavior is characterized by the mother sticking her tail flukes out of the water and pointing her head downwards. While the mother is stationary in this posture, the calf will dive down to nurse and then pop up to the surface repeatedly for quick breaths of air. Eventually, as with the sub-adults, the mothers and calves will leave the area to continue their migration. It is important for the mother to return to the feeding grounds to replenish her energy stores lost from nursing as well as to properly wean her calf and teach it to feed on its own.

After the bulk of the mothers and calves have left the bay, mature whales will make up the majority of the latest pods in the season. These are whales that remained in the breeding areas the longest, for example, adult males trying to ensure the best chances of mating.

There are interesting trade-offs to consider in such a large scale migration where whales travel away from their feeding grounds, and these trade-offs affect whales differently depending on their sex, age, and reproductive status.

Are the whales jumping for joy in Hervey Bay?

Breaching, or jumping out of the water, is a behavior that the PWF researchers in Hervey Bay and in Maui observe frequently. A commonly asked question is “Why do whales breach”? The short answer is that no one knows a single cause for this behavior; however, there are a number of theories about what drives such impressive whale acrobatics.

One possibility is that the whales breach just for fun, similar to humans and other terrestrial mammals when they are excited or playing. Another option is that they use breaching and other surface activity as a way of communicating to other whales. If you’ve ever been close to a breaching whale, you know that the sound is astonishing. The sound is also quite loud underwater and may be used to communicate the whale’s location or activity level to other whales in the distance. It has also been suggested that whales breach to deter predators or other perceived threats.

Young calves may have a completely separate motivation for breaching. As more mother and calf pairs enter Hervey Bay, researchers and whalewatch passengers alike can’t help but to notice the awkward jumps of young calves. These calves are trying to imitate what the larger whales are doing with mixed success. Breaching calves are entertaining to watch, but there has been recent research suggesting that through repeated breaching, humpback whale calves increase the amount of myoglobin in their muscles. Myoglobin is a protein that binds iron and oxygen, and high concentrations of myoglobin can improve the diving ability of marine mammals.

There are a variety of possible explanations for why whales breach, but it is most likely that whales do not breach for any single reason, but rather do this behavior for a number of reasons that serve different functions throughout the seasons and over the course of their lives.

Written by Eilidh Milligan

Paddle Out For The Whales makes a splash in Australia

As part of the Hervey Bay Oceans Festival, our researchers had the opportunity to be involved in Paddle Out for the Whales–an event to help raise awareness of the threats whales face today. 

The event involved paddling out on a craft of your choice (SUP, kayak, inflatable raft, or handmade) to observe a minute of silence acknowledging the importance of whales and the ocean to Hervey Bay. Before the paddle out began, a live Zumba session got the paddlers loose and limber. One of our research volunteers, Jaimi, paddled out by kayak to participate in the event while Research Assistant Jessica remained on land to give an informative talk about PWF’s research in Hervey Bay. A PWF booth was present at the event to sell items from our Australia-based gift shop, as well as engage with community members about the research in Australia.  The event also featured live music, sandcastle building, and construction of a 6-foot papier mache whale.

Written by Eilidh Milligan