Posted on: August 30, 2010

Pacific Whale Foundation Launches 27th Year of Australia Humpback Whale Research

 While it's summer in Hawaii, it's winter in the southern hemisphere. Winter is an important time of year -- it's mating and calving season for humpback whales, which is why Pacific Whale Foundation researchers are studying whales in multiple southern hemisphere locations at this time. Three Pacific Whale Foundation researchers traveled from Hawaii to Port Douglas, Australia in early August to launch Pacific Whale Foundation's 27th year of humpback whale research in Australia.

The team includes Greg Kaufman, Founder and Chief Scientist at Pacific Whale Foundation, plus researchers Annie Macie and Amanda Hutsel. The team plans to be in Australia through early November. A blog at Pacific Whale Foundation's website makes it possible for readers to follow the researchers' progress and view photos and videos.

To view the blog, go to http://pacificwhale.org/category/blogs/notes-field-australia

This year's whale research will focus on the eastern coast of Australia, an area where humpback whales are observed migrating between their feeding areas near Antarctica, and their mating and calving areas in warm water subtropical waters nearer to the equator. The northward migration to warmer waters takes place in June to August; the southward migration takes place from September through November. The researchers will be studying humpback whales at four study sites, including:

  • Port Douglas, a seacoast town that offers access to the Great Barrier Reef. Pacific Whale Foundation researchers believe that some portion of the whales that migrate along Australia's coast may be mating and calving among the thousands of tiny islands that are found here.
  • The Whitsunday Islands are right along the migratory route and offers an opportunity to observe whales as they travel through the region.
  • Hervey Bay is an expansive bay bordered by Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island. It appears that some, but not all, of the migrating humpback whales stop in this bay for a period of 2-3 day. It's a prime area for viewing mother and calf pods.
  • Eden, a town located near the southeasternmost point of Australia, is an area where humpback whales have been observed feeding. This is the only known point along the eastern Australian coast where whales are thought to feed.

Pacific Whale Foundation's studies include photo identification of individual whales, plus gathering data on the distribution and abundance of the whales. They work aboard a 6.3 meter rigid-hulled inflatable raft, typically spending 8 to 10 hours per day at sea, covering about 100 nautical miles. When whales are encountered, the researchers work together to obtain photos of the tail flukes and dorsal fins of the whales they encounter, while also noting the pod compositions, behaviors and weather conditions at the time. Because whale flukes and dorsal fins each have unique pigmentation patterns, shapes and other distinguishing factors, we can differentiate one individual from another.

During the rest of the year in Pacific Whale Foundation's research lab, the team compares photos obtained during recent field studies against photos of previously identified individual whales. To date, Pacific Whale Foundation has photoidentified more than 5,600 individual humpback whales. "The data we collect will be essential to the International Whaling Commission during the year ahead, as the IWC grapples with Japan's continued insistence on killing humpback whales in the Southern Ocean region," says Greg Kaufman. "The whales that we're studying along the coast of Australia spend the warmer months of the year feeding in the Southern Ocean." "We'll also be sharing our data with our fellow scientists who are participating in the Southern Ocean Research Partnership," he notes.

"Together, we are creating the world's largest database on the humpback whales of this region; a very useful tool for wildlife management officials interested in creating laws and policies to protect whales." The Australia research overlaps with a Pacific Whale Foundation humpback whale research study in Ecuador. The Ecaudar research studies humpback whales located off the coast of Puerto Lopez. Ecuador's whales are also part of a population of Pacific humpback whales that reside in the southern hemisphere.

This population of whales -- called ballenas jorobadas in Spanish -- spend the months of June through September in the warm, tropical waters off Ecuador's west coast, mating, giving birth and caring for their calves. Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Research Project takes place during that time. Pacific Whale Foundation has supported this whale research in Ecuador for nine years, providing funding and scientific expertise to support Ecuador Research Director Cristina Castro, PhD and her team. Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Research Team, led by Dr. Castro, is also gathering photo-identification data on individual whales, to add to the catalog of more than 1,300 humpback whales that have been identified by the research team.

The research team is also gathering data on bycatch of marine mammals in fishermen's nets and marine mammal strandings. Dr. Castro has also brought together researchers working off the west coast of Latin and Central America and now curates a photo-identification catalog (funded by Pacific Whale Foundation) with whale fluke identifications from Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Peru, Chile, the Straits of Magellan (a new feeding area in Chile) and the Antarctic Peninsula.

A number of ground breaking new publications have come from this collaboration, and have yielded new insight with regard to population size, migratory pathways, rates of interchange, and reproductive dynamics. Dr. Castro was also instrumental in helping form the Latin American Humpback Whale Research Group in 2007, a cooperative of researchers from all countries in Latin America. You can view Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Research Blog at http://www.pacificwhale.org/category/blogs/notes-field-ecuador These southern hemisphere studies are taking place as Pacific Whale Foundation's Research Team marks the completion of the 2010 field research segment of its study of the abundance and distribution of the toothed whales and wild dolphins found around the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Lana'i.

The team is now working in Pacific Whale Foundation's research lab, building upon the database of the individual marine mammals that they've photo-identified. They are also puzzling over the lesions they've observed on the backs of some of the dolphins. Similar lesions have been sighted on humpback whales in Australia, and may be a form of marine mammal sunburn.

Pacific Whale Foundation's research projects are funded through money raised through Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures, Pacific Whale Foundation's Ocean Stores and donations from Pacific Whale Foundation's members and supporters.