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One of the benefits of long-term whale research in the same geographical area is that you get to know certain whales very well. Murphy is one of those humpback whales. Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team is fortunate to have known Murphy for 17 years. Just recently, Murphy was named by James and Karen Murphy of California.
Our research team first Murphy on September 4, 1993, when our research team observed this humpback whale in Hervey Bay, a town located about midway along the eastern coast of Australia. At the time, Murphy was already an adult! Humpback whales reach maturity at around 4 to 6 years of age.
At the time, Murphy did not provide any clues about gender. Unless we can get a good close look at the underside of a humpback whale, we typically rely on behaviors and pod composition to help us determine if a whale is male or female. For example, when we observe a whale singing in a breeding area, we can pretty much be sure it is a male. If we see a whale along with a calf, we can have a high degree of confidence that the whale is female. These clues are important, because it is challenging to be able to examine the undersides of a fast moving, 40-ton animal.
When Murphy did a beautiful “fluke up” dive – lifting its tail into the air in preparation to dive beneath the ocean – our researchers were able to snap a clear photo of Murphy’s tail flukes. This photo became our first identification photo of Murphy. Pigmentation, scars, marks and the overall shape of the flukes allow us to distinguish one humpback whale from another, which is why fluke photos are called “fluke i.d. photos” by researchers.
Hervey Bay, where we first sighted Murphy, is a beautiful, shallow bay that is less than 18 meters deep in many places. You can see it on the enclosed map. One side of the bay is bordered by Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. The other side of the bay is bordered by the Australian mainland.
The town of Hervey Bay is a popular shoreline vacation spot. The waters of Hervey Bay are also a popular spot for another type of traveler – the humpback whales that migrate along the east coast of Australia. These whales start to appear in Hervey Bay in mid-July. Sightings in the bay continue through early November.
But who are these whales, and why do they stop in Hervey Bay? Through many years of research, it’s been learned that the whales found in Hervey Bay are part of a population of at least 14,000 humpback whales that migrate along Australia’s eastern coast each year between their winter breeding areas nearer to the equator and their summer feeding areas that are close to Australia. Over 30% of this population is believed to stop in Hervey Bay during their migration, pausing for at least a few days in the bay. Do the math and you’ll see that about 4,200 humpback whales come to Hervey Bay each year.
Hervey Bay is only a stopping point along the migration. Later that fall, on October 10, 1993, our researchers were pleased to see Murphy off the coast of Eden, a small town in New South Wales near the southeastern tip of Australia. This sighting allowed us to say with confidence that Murphy had traveled more than 1,000 miles between Hervey Bay and Eden in 36 days or less! We believe that Murphy went on from Eden to even cooler waters near Antarctica, to spend the summer feeding in the nutrient-rich waters where prey is abundant.
After these two sightings, we did not see Murphy again for nine years. We were beginning to wonder if we’d ever see this whale again, when Murphy appeared on November 6, 2004, again off the coast of Eden. Five years later, we saw Murphy again, on November 3, 2009, also in Eden.
At that point, we still did not know if Murphy was a male or female. At last, on September 21, 2010, we got our answer, when we saw Murphy with a calf. The pair was off the coast of Eden. We saw Murphy again on September 23, 2010, also with her calf. We then knew that Murphy is female!
There is much that we’ve learned about Murphy through our 17 years of photoidentifying her along the east coast of Australia. We have an idea that she makes the migration from Hervey Bay to Eden in 32 days or less. We know that she’s female. And we know that she’s a mom! We look forward to learning more about Murphy in the years to come, and sharing updates with you about this beautiful, migratory female humpback whale.