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

Field season in Australia is underway

Pacific Whale Foundation’s Australia research program is off to a great start this year. Based out of the town of Hervey Bay, we observe the whales as they migrate along the east coast of Australia, travelling south to their Antarctic feeding grounds. We have had some amazing whale encounters, and we are already starting to see mothers arriving with their calves. Our research staff and volunteers have been going out daily since mid-July to photograph the humpback whales that migrate through the region. The whales in this population mate and have their calves in the tropical areas of northeast Australia and Oceania. The bay is relatively shallow and protected by Fraser Island, offering a nice area for the whales to stop over during their long migration south.

Working from the MV Amaroo operated by the Hervey Bay Boat Club, our researchers take opportunistic identification photos of the underside of the whales’ tail flukes. Since each fluke is unique to the individual, these photos allow us to compare the fluke of each whale we see in the field with our catalog of known whales to determine the history of sightings for each animal. Additionally, the team tries to get photos of the dorsal fins and body of the animal which helps us assess overall body condition as well as any lesions or scars that may indicate injury or poor health. To learn more about our Australian research projects, visit our website. To try your hand at matching fluke photos from our South Pacific catalog, create an account and get started at Match My Whale.

 

A long journey home

Another terrific whale season is almost complete in Hervey Bay, Australia, as Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team come to the tail end of collecting fluke identification and distribution data that will be compiled with 30 years of research in the area.

Southern hemisphere humpback mothers and calves are the last to be spotted as they complete their annual southward migration to the Antarctic feeding grounds. PWF researchers are assimilating data to take back to our research headquarters on Maui, where photographs and findings will be analyzed.

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Expedition down under

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers arrived this week in Hervey Bay, a quaint community in northern Queensland. For the next few months, I will be documenting research efforts and managing our little shop as humpback whales make their annual migration from the subtropic waters of eastern Australia to their feeding grounds of Antarctica. Stephanie Stack, M.Sc. PWF’s Senior Research Biologist and Research Assistant Laura Behm will be photographing flukes and recording data of daily sightings for ongoing research in the area.

Began in 1984, Pacific Whale Foundation’s Australia humpback whale research program is the longest running study of this population. The overarching goal of PWF’s research is to advance understanding of humpback whale biology, population status and impacts of human activities on the population. PWF’s Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale ID Catalog is a compilation of 31 seasons of research, combining detailed data on life history, behavior, spatial distribution, and human impacts.

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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.

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).