Whales divided: how adults and calves use Hervey Bay differently

If you go whalewatching in Hervey Bay after mid-September, you may notice that there is a calf in nearly every pod you see. Mothers with calves are typically the last to arrive in the bay, and they may be the group that benefits most from the shallow, protected waters near Fraser Island.

Our research on the East Australia population of humpback whales allows us to ask questions about long-term trends in behavior and habitat use within the area. Using sighting data collected by our research team from 2004 – 2016, we looked at whether pods with a calf preferred different areas of the bay compared to pods without a calf. As it turns out, mothers with calves do show a preference for an place just inside the U-shaped coastline of Fraser Island, known colloquially by whalewatch operators as “the pocket”. Pods without a calf show an opposite preference for waters a bit farther offshore.

Although depth and distance to shore do not vary much throughout the bay due to the overall shallow waters and the U-shape of the coastline, mothers may prefer that area because it might be the most protected from rougher weather conditions. They may also use it as a place to avoid pursuing males and competition pods. Pods that do not have a calf may prefer the area slightly farther out of the pocket if they are seeking mating or socializing opportunities from other adults or subadults.

The study provides a baseline to compare future observations of whale distribution within the Hervey Bay area, particularly as this population continues to coexist with human activities in the bay including recreational boating, commercial whalewatching, and swim-with-whales tourism.

How can you tell a male and female humpback whale apart?

In many animals, different sexes have different appearances, with males often being larger, showier, or both: think of brightly colored male songbirds or male lions with their luscious manes. For humpback whales, however, this is not the case. Apart from females being slightly larger than males on average, humpback whale males and females look very similar to each other, making it very difficult to visually determine sex. Adding to this, all reproductive organs in both females and males are neatly tucked away behind a genital slit to help them be more hydrodynamic and sleek in the water.

Luckily for us researchers, though, we have a few tricks up our sleeves to tell the difference between the sexes, allowing us to collect additional data for our photo-identification catalog.

The easiest way to determine a female humpback whale is a close association with a calf. Mothers and calves maintain a strong bond throughout the first year of the calf’s life, so when we see an adult whale closely accompanied by a calf, we can safely assume that she is the mother of that calf.

In the absence of a calf, though, things become trickier. If the whales roll over onto their backs, often we can see the genital slit on their abdomen. The relative location of the genital slit offers some clues: For males, the genital slit is located closer to the whale’s belly, while the females’ genital slit is closer to their tail flukes. Immediately towards the tail from the genital slit, females have a grapefruit-sized lump known as a hemispherical lobe. No one knows what exactly this structure does, but we do know that it is only present on females. Females also have two mammary slits, one on either side of the genital slit, which they will use when nursing their calves.

Click through the photos in this gallery and our researchers will explain how we were able to identify the sex of these humpback whales

When we are able to determine the sex of a whale, this information is included along with the animal’s fluke photo when it is added to the catalog. Knowing the sex of different individuals enables us to more accurately determine calving rate and sex ratios of different habitat areas.

Still Australia’s Best Kept Secret

Hervey Bay, Australia’s best keep secret, is a coastal city in southern Queensland approximately 180 miles north of Brisbane. From June to October this otherwise quaint fishing community has ostentatious visitors that create quite the excitement; south pacific humpback whales come to the Platypus Bay to rest and build up energy for their migration back to Antarctica.

Known as the “humpback highway,” there are definitely few places in the world that compare to the awe-inspiring, soul-evoking, up-close whale watching encounters that you will find in Hervey Bay. I am always amazed by how incredible each whalewatch is; the whales are so inquisitive and there is no lack of “best ever” experiences. Young sub adults are the first passing through this remarkable landscape, followed by mom and calf pairs. The bay is rich with wildlife including other species of odontocetes, dugongs, turtles and more.

The best vessel for photographers is Ocean Defender, not only because of the remarkable foundation it supports (Pacific Whale Foundation) but also because of its small capacity and “whale-eye” view; there are no bad seats. You are also able to plan more trips because of its capable speed to get up to the northern part of the bay where the whales are found. Most vessels can take up to two hours to reach the first pod. It’s also recommend you dress in layers, as it can get cold out at sea but the sun can heat things up pretty quickly.

  • Tip: bring an assortment of lenses, I find I use my wide-angle lens more often than my big telephoto. Ocean Defender is the best vessel in the bay to use Go Pros for that underwater footage. Getting the perfect shot of a whale can prove to be very difficult for even the most experienced photographers, when in doubt shoot video!

 

The best month to go is in August; the weather tends to be warmer, the Ocean Festival takes place and the community comes together to celebrate these magnificent creatures with an array of events including the Hervey Bay Seafood Festival, Fraser Coast Kite Karnival, Paddle Out for the Whales and Whale Parade.

  • Tip: take time to enjoy each event by taking a walkabout; avoid driving – you will meet more people walking around. Also plan an afternoon to walk down Urangan Pier, built in 1913 that has since been a historical icon, restored not entirely in it’s original formality, it still reaches over nine football fields in length.

Other things to do is to visit Fraser Island, also known as the largest sand island in the world, this diverse eco system is home to the purest bread of dingoes, it has rainforests, eucalyptus woodland, mangrove forests and the most stunning lakes. You can plan a day trip or plan a camping trip but make sure to rent a 4×4 vehicle otherwise you will not be granted access.

Another must do is to visit Lady Elliot Island, the southernmost coral cay of the Great Barrier Reef. The snorkeling is unbelievable; you can literally spend all day in the lagoon exploring and observing wildlife. A short 30 minute flight from Hervey Bay on a very small prop plane, the carrier Seabird Aviation offers day trips, but I recommend staying the night at their low-key and eco-friendly resort. Be sure to book in advance as it’s the only resort.

  • Tip: Although the cost of your ticket includes everything including snorkel gear, I recommend bringing your own for the sake of time.

This is a well worth destination and links below can help you plan your trip.

 

The Making of a Marine Naturalist: Meet Erin Hord

Our Marine Naturalists at Pacific Whale Foundation are so much more than boat crew. Each member of our marine education team has a unique background and brings a variety of knowledge and experiences. We love highlighting the uniqueness that each of our Naturalists brings to the boat, and diving deeper into their passion for the ocean. We’ll be highlighting a new crew member each month. As our whalewatching season continues in full swing here in Hervey Bay, we’re thrilled to introduce Erin Hord.


Hi Erin! Whereabouts are you from? 

I was born in Miami, Florida, but I have lived the majority of my life thus far in Madison, Ohio.

What is your first memory of the ocean?

I think my first vivid memory of the ocean was when I was 8 years old and the ocean was flooding the street outside my family’s apartment building because of a tropical storm. That obviously didn’t deter me from ending up in a Marine Biology career though!

What drew you to work for Pacific Whale Foundation?

I was drawn to work for Pacific Whale Foundation because I absolutely love watching
whales in their natural habitat and working to protect the oceans they dwell in.

What experiences and education prepared you for your journey to becoming a Marine Naturalist?

I went to a small liberal arts college where the opportunities to get involved in my future career were endless. I received my Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Marine Science, and I was able to study at the Duke University Marine Lab and have immersive marine science courses in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix. I think the experience that helped most with my journey to becoming a Marine Naturalist was my summer internship with the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, based in New Hampshire. I was an education and research intern aboard whale watch vessels, which really helped ignite my passion for marine mammal conservation.

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The Results Are In: The 2017 Australia Research Recap

Another exciting whalewatch season is drawing to an end here in Hervey Bay, Australia. It has been a productive time for our Researchers-on-Board as we have continued to collect photo-identification data and educate our guests on the importance of the research upon which Pacific Whale Foundation has built its legacy.

From the beginning of the whalewatch season on July 15 through September 30, Ocean Defender has embarked on 96 whalewatches, which have served as platforms for our researchers to collect photos and observational data from the humpback whales.  Those trips have taken us a total of 3,767 nautical miles to encounter 402 pods of humpback whales. The researchers double as Marine Naturalists on these trips, engaging the public as part of our internationally recognized model of responsible whalewatching.

After photographs and data are collected in the field by our team in Australia, the dedicated research staff at our Maui headquarters analyzes and catalogs it, adding to our ever-expanding knowledge of these humpback whales. This season has yielded over 1,300 photos and some interesting additions to our South Pacific humpback whale catalog.

Our Research Department has added 18 new individual humpback whales from this whalewatching season to our catalog, which currently contains approximately 6,000 individual whales from several habitat areas.

Three humpback whales seen during the 2017 season were matched to our catalog: #3586, #2177,  and #0680. Whale #3586 was first sighted in 2006 before being sighted again in 2008 and 2017. Whale #2177, a female, was first sighted in 1999, seen with her calf in 2007, and seen without a calf in 2008, 2010, and 2017. Whale #0680, named “Uluru”, is one of our adoption animals, and she has had a calf for all of her sightings: 1989, 1993, 1995, 2006, and 2017.

Each individual added to the catalog or re-sighted provides us with more information that we can use to learn about these whales’ migrations, breeding characteristics, and life histories. Hervey Bay represents a unique habitat as a migratory stopover, and our researchers are interested in determining how humpback whales, especially mothers with calves, use this area. Pacific Whale Foundation additionally invites you to participate in our research as a citizen scientist. Whether you would like to submit your own fluke photos or assist in analyzing humpback whale photo-ID images with Match My Whale, we invite you to help with this exciting and important research project.

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.

Whale 1 Resize

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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