Getting by with a little help from our Friends

Before we dive into today’s Notes, I want to revisit our interaction with the dead “eel-like fish thing” that was found on the stern of our boat. Being the curious science types and not happy with our definition of this odd stinky creature, we decided to source some local knowledge.  As we fuel this morning we are given a lesson in local ichthyology.  The offending foul smelling fish is apparently called (locally) “a crocodile face longtom – part of the gar family,” Captain Terry cheerfully informs us.  “If you found it dead in your boat then it was likely being chased by that large ‘barra’ (barracuda) that lives near where your boat is moored.”

According to those who know (and care) there are 18 varieties of Longtom (Belonidaeundifferentiated) in Australia including the barred Longtom, blackfinned Longtom, crocodile Longtom, flat tail Longtom, freshwater Longtom, reef Longtom, slender Longtom and stout Longtom. They are all long, slender fish that can skip over the water for long distances. They belong to the same family as garfish and flying fish and some can reach 3 kilos (7 lbs) and almost two meters (6.5’) in length.   Apparently they are good sashimi fish too (provided they are not rotten).

Ok, enough of the fish lesson, on to cetaceans.

As predicted today turns out to be a ‘stunner’, flat seas, little winds (5-10 SE) and heaps of whales. Within minutes of departing port, our radio is abuzz with calls from our friends on board “Poseidon,” “Calypso,” “Aristorcat.” “Norseman,” “Silversonic,” and “Wavelength,” they all have spotted whales.  The challenge is they all are heading in different directions, which means the distances between whales varies from 10 miles to 30 miles.  We need to choose wisely.

We have whales 3 miles east of Snapper, pod of 3 headed south, another pod near Snapper moving west, a mother with a new-born calf and escort in the shallow waters of Batt Reef, another mother and calf off North Opal Reef, a pair just west of Pratt Rock, and more calls pour in.  When the day is done we have covered 120 miles of survey.

Two notable encounters occur: one off Cape Tribulation and later in the day south of Opal Reef (some 29 miles out of Port Douglas).  The first group, a pod of six sub-adults is cruising northwest some 4.5 kts. Cavorting, with whitewater and foam at every surfacing, the pod gives us a fluke-up show.  Shortly after we encounter the pod, we have all their IDs. A dream pod for any whale researcher.

We break, and Annie says “we deserved that pod as reward for our Good Samaritan efforts yesterday.”

What is more spectacular is the vista and backdrop behind the fluking whales – the Daintree Rainforest.  I have studied whales all over the world, but I must admit when it is clear, sunny and calm this region of the world can leave your tongue wagging. The Daintree Rainforest is over one hundred and thirty-five million years old – the oldest in the world, contains 30% of frog, marsupial and reptile species in Australia, and 65% of Australia's bat and butterfly species.  Also 18% of bird species in the country can be found in this area. There are also over 12000 species of insects.  Today we get a chance to see one of the ocean’s older creatures back dropped against the world’s oldest rainforest.  Amazing.

Later in the day we encounter a sub-adult and a yearling humpback swimming southeast along the inner edge of Tongue Reef.  To watch whales cruise near the Great Barrier Reef is really a thrill of a lifetime.  To see them wind their way through tiny openings and cruise near huge coral heads in less than 5 meters of water leaves you wondering anew just how they find their way through the world’s oceans.

It is after four, and we receive a call from Tim North, owner of ‘Reef Magic’ a whalewatch and snorkel boat out of Cairns. He has located Migaloo (the world’s only all-white humpback whale) some 2 miles NW of Green Island.  We are excited but 35 miles too far north.  Tim tells us Migaloo is slowly headed northwest.  Last year we found Migaloo off Snapper Island on August 13.  He re-appears south of us this year off Cairns on August 14th. 

We cross our fingers that Migaloo is headed north and we make plans to launch early tomorrow in hopes of finding our old friend again – with some help from our new friends.


Greg Kaufman

PS: the sub-adult in our pod near the GBR decided to get curious and began swimming laps around the boat.  Check out the 'mugging' we received here:

Greg Kaufman


Anonymous (visitor) says:

Thank you so much for those wonderful photos!

Sarah (visitor) says:

Looking at this blog and photographs takes me back. I sit in my Illinois home wearing my Australia PWF Research Team t-shirt. It has been five years since I had the wonderful opportunity to be a research intern for two weeks in Hervey Bay.

I am so thankful for that time and for my winter vacations in Maui.

Thank you for taking the time to keep us posted about your research this year. I know that by the time you get home, download pictures, make dinner, shower and everything else, the added time to write this blog is a big deal.

I still think that the Southern Cross is actually a humpback whale gliding upside down with her pec fins spread wide as she comes out from under the research boat.

greg says:

Thank you for the kind note Sarah and remembering how long and arduous our research days can be.  You'll have to get the 2010 research team shirt.  I love your description of the Southern Cross!

Amy Castillo (visitor) says:

I, like someone below, first fell in love with whales about 10 years ago in Maui. I am captivated by them and can't get enough information and pictures. I, too, am I photographer and I want nothing more than to return to Hawaii and have more incredible experiences photographing these amazing creatures. Thank you for updating this blog and allowing us a peek into your world.

greg says:

Aloha Amy: you'll have to return to Maui soon.  The whale population has really grown.  Also we have added a new special trip, a Photo Safari and whalewatch with Annie.  Check out our website for dates but they generally happen in February during the Great Maui Whale Festival -- they sell out fast.

greg says:

Humpbacks can also be attached by false killer whales, melon-headed whales, pilot whales and could receive some rake marks from bottlenose dolphins too. On this black fluke, based on the spacing of the teeth, it would appear it has an encounter with an orca or killer whale.  Our research shows that over 20% of the whales we observe have some form of orca scars.  We hope to see some orca later in our field season when we head south to Eden.  We have, however, seen orca in Queensland waters off North Stradbroke Island, near Brisbane.

greg says:

We refer to whales in several age class categories:

1. calf: new born, less than one year of age (8-15 feet)

2. yearling: initial season after being weaned rom mother (25-30 feet)

3. sub-adult: sexually immature whale, 2-8 years of age (30-35 feet)

4. adult: fully mature, 35+ feet

Sexual maturity occurs earlier in females than males (6-9 years of age in females vs 8-10 in males)

You can have big sub-adults and small adults.  The determining factors we look for (in addition to length) is length of rostrum and girth/overall body size. Whales tend to grow long quickly and then fill-out as they mature.

Beth Salles (visitor) says:

Mahalo Greg for the answer. Now I can impress on my whale excursions in December with you!!! lol

Heather (visitor) says:

Curious - you pointed out the rake marks on the (almost) all black fluke and said it was from orcas or another odontocete. What other toothed whale would cause this, and why?


Beth Salles (visitor) says:

If you didn't know you were in Australia those pictures kinda look like Maui in the background. Loved the mugging. That must have felt so cool. Question- I have been on several of your whale excursions and took two of your classes but forgot what a " sub-adult" meant. Can you explain the different terms of growth to adult?