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From 1991 – 1999 we conducted a study of humpback whales in the Whitsunday Islands region of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBR). The goals of the research (funded jointly by Pacific Whale Foundation and what was then called the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service – now DERM) were to determine the distribution, density of humpback whales in the region and the impacts, if any, of commercial and recreational water users.
Like Port Douglas, it is a vast area. The Whitsundays are unique in that the islands here are continental islands formed when changing sea levels drowned a mountain range. 74 islands in all, that lies midway between the mainland and the Great Barrier Reef. The GBR lies some 36 miles offshore, as compared to 15 miles off Port Douglas.
Our past research found the majority of the whales are found between the islands and the GBR. But the whales found within the islands tend to be mothers with small newborn calves. We concluded this region is likely one of the primary calving/nursing grounds for the east Australia humpback whales, and the creation of Whale Protection Zone (restricting vessel approach to 300 meters) within the Whitsunday Islands Planning Area was warranted.
We wake to a gorgeous sunrise and flat seas. The ocean is so calm it feels like we are in a dream compared to the seas we have endured off Port Douglas.
Within 20 minutes of leaving port, Annie raises her hand and points south, then turns to smile. That quick, we have found whales. Yesterday was Annie’s birthday, and readers of last year’s “Notes” will remember we found a breaching baby whale on her birthday near the shores of North Mole Island. Uniquely enough our first pod is almost in the same location, and it is a mother and calf.
It is 7:28 am, and the ocean is eerily quiet. We can hear birds awakening in the trees and fish jumping, and suddenly whales blowing, in three directions at once. A pod of two adults surface, a lone whale rises, and then 800 meters to the north another single subadult blows and we detect its faint song. Six whales sighted in less than a half-hour. That is the equivalent of three days (24 hours on-water) and over 300 miles of survey off Port Douglas! And it is not even 8 o’clock yet.
Just after 8 am, the human world comes alive. Ferryboats, yachties, fishers, and tour vessels break the morning quiet and converge on us from all directions. The calf launches himself skyward perhaps to see what all the commotion is about, and then heads south, and inland with its mother.
We head offshore to survey a less trafficked area beyond the confines of the Planning Area. 9.5 hours and 107 miles later we head for home. We have encountered 10 pods containing 18 whales today including three active males pursuing a mother and calf.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” exclaims Annie, who worked the Canon D-7 overtime today.
Today felt like we were living a Whitsunday-dream. If so, wake me in two weeks.
‘Please Do Not Disturb’