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.

Eden is a beautiful place, with a wild coastline and rich marine life, including whales, dolphins, seals, and many bird species.

It is also colder than Hervey Bay, especially when the south-easterly or south-westerly winds start to blow. A few extra layers of clothing were often required.

Overall, the research team had a very successful whale season, covering just over 5,500 miles, the equivalent of the distance between Quebec City in Canada and Santiago in Chile!

The team spent 514 hours on the water and managed to take 332 flukes photo for photo-identification purposes. Each of these photo received a within season ID. Photos that will meet the quality criteria will then be matched with the PWF Australian photo-id catalog that contains more than 6,000 individuals. When comparing the within season photo-ids between Hervey Bay and Eden, 6 matches were made, indicating that humpback whales did the journey south between 20 (adult) and 35 days (mother-calf pairs).

The team also recorded just over 150 sightings of dolphins, mainly bottlenose dolphins in Hervey Bay and common dolphins in Eden. Bottlenose dolphins were present in both locations.

The 2014 whale season was quite different from the 2013 season. While it is challenging to compare data collected in Hervey Bay as two different platforms were used to collect data (research vessel vs tour boats), it was more obvious in Eden that less whales were encountered this season, including mother-calf pairs. As a testament to this, we often had to travel further to find the whales. This observation appears to be supported by other colleagues along the humpback whale migration route. To be sure, the team will analyze the data over the next few months.

Such fluctuation in numbers could be part of a natural phenomenon. In Maui, thanks to the annual Great Whale Count organized by PWF, a 4-year cycle in the proportion of whale sighted has become apparent over the years. According to PWF founder and president, Greg Kaufman, “This is likely a result of mature females being in sync on their calving cycles coupled with the general overall rate of whale population increase.”

We are looking forward to the 2015 whale season in Australia and seeing what it would bring. In the meantime, the Maui team is getting ready for their upcoming whale season in the field (December-April).

PWF research team is very grateful to the owners and crew of Shayla, Blue Dolphin, and Amaroo in Hervey Bay and of Cat Balou in Eden for their support over the past three months, by welcoming us on their whale-watching vessel to collect opportunistic data. As we say in Hawai`i “mahalo nui loa” (thank you very much) and “a hui hou kākou” (until we meet again).

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

This whale season, the team will be collecting data from different tour boats, which were kind enough to let us join them on their whalewatch trips. Scientists refer to these boats as platforms of opportunity (POPs), because they have no influence as to where the boat is going and how long an encounter will last (those decisions are made by the tour boat captain).

The team had its first day on the water on August 1st and we could not have had a better welcome back to Hervey Bay. The first pod of humpback whales encountered were two sub-adults travelling south towards Urangan harbor. One of these subbies, as we like to call them, made a magnificent breach, with its full body out. Of course, it decided to perform this breach just as I was moving around the boat to get a better vantage point to take photos. Lucky for us, we sighted seven pods that day and I got the chance to redeem myself and get breach photos. Some individuals were also very active at the surface, including peduncle throws, head rise, upside down tail and pectoral slaps. On that trip, four pods of inshore bottlenose dolphins and several green turtles were sighted, which are also found in Maui, Hawai`i.

Active humpback whales in Hervey Bay

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

From a pure scientific point of view, it was also very exciting to get the first fluke photos of the 2014 whale season for identification purposes. Researchers can tell individual apart by looking at the ventral side of the whale tail, which are equivalent to human fingerprints.

Humpback whale tails, Hervey Bay

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

The team will also take turns to open Pacific Whale Foundation’s store at the Urangan marina, so if you are in the area, feel free to come and see us.