Nunyara the humpback whale

The Story of Nunyara

Nunyara is a humpback whale whose name means "to be made well again" in an Australian aboriginal dialect. This whale's story is very inspirational to all of our staff and researchers at Pacific Whale Foundation, as well as to all who hear it. It has a happy ending—which includes seeing Nunyara breaching!

The story of Nunyara takes place in Hervey Bay, an expansive north-facing ocean bay along Australia's eastern coast, about 300 kilometers north of Brisbane. Captain James Cook recorded the first sighting of the bay, and named it after Augustus John Hervey, who later became the Third Earl of Bristol. The bay is bordered on its eastern side by Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island. Fraser Island is a World Heritage site and measures over 123 kilometers long. There are more than 100 fresh water lakes, plus lush rainforests and beautiful white beaches on Fraser Island.

Australians refer to Hervey Bay as "the jewel of Queensland." Humpback whales apparently like this area, too. Many humpback whales stop in Hervey Bay during their migration along Australia's eastern coast, a journey that takes them between cool water feeding areas near Antarctica and mating and calving areas in warmer waters closer to the equator. We don't know exactly why humpbacks stop in Hervey Bay, but our data has shown that at least some of the migrating whale population stops here.

The first humpback whales typically arrive in Hervey Bay in late July, which is mid-winter in Australia. Whales are seen in Hervey Bay from August to October.

Pacific Whale Foundation has been studying humpback whales in Hervey Bay and other areas along Australia's coast for 26 years. Although we've observed and identified thousands of humpback whales during that time, nothing prepared us for our first sighting of Nunyara.

This first sighting took place on August 27, 2008, at 4:47 p.m. in Hervey Bay. Although Nunyara was with another whale (a subadult), and both whales were swimming at a medium pace, something was terribly wrong with Nunyara. There was a huge gaping wound on Nunyara's back, just in front of its dorsal fin. Judging by the size and location of the wound, it appeared that Nunyara had been in a collision with the hull of a ship. As heartbreaking as it was, there was nothing that we could do to help Nunyara, other than document the whale's injuries and obtain an identification photo of Nunyara's tail flukes. It was with sad faces that we returned home to port that night, thinking of Nunyara's shocking wounds and doubting that this whale would survive.

Two years went by—and on September 5, 2010 at 3:21 p.m., our researchers saw Nunyara again in Hervey Bay. This time, Nunyara was alone. We were overjoyed to see that the wound had healed and Nunyara appeared healthy and energetic. In fact, we observed Nunyara head slapping and breaching repeatedly! Because Nunyara was engaging in such high energy behaviors, we are guessing that this whale is in good health.

Seeing Nunyara breaching was a powerful reminder of a quote by Helena Keller: "Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it."

Annie Macie, one of Pacific Whale Foundation's researchers, wrote about the sighting of Nunyara in her blog, "In our thirty years of research, there have been only a handful of occasions where our research team has witnessed and documented wounds so severe we couldn’t possibly fathom the animal’s survival. Gashes and deep wounds from ship strikes, entanglements, and impacts with propellers have left the team in complete awe as to the very existence of that animal, however nothing compares to how awestruck one can be when resighting that same animal healthy-as-can-be years down the road."

Nunyara was not the only humpback whale who reminded the research team of the problem of vessel-whale collisions. On the same day in 2010 when our team saw Nunyara breaching, we also observed another humpback whale with injuries from a small vessel propeller and yet another humpback—a mother—that was missing a portion of her lower back, the injury likely caused by a vessel collision.

Vessel collisions are a significant cause of injury and death for humpback whales. The larger and faster moving the vessel, the more likely a collision with a whale will cause serious or even fatal injuries for the whale. For that reason, Pacific Whale Foundation has fought against the introduction of super-large, high-speed ferries in the Hawaiian Islands, because these vessels will operate in areas that are critical mating and calving areas for whales.

Pacific Whale Foundation is also active in protecting whales from collisions. Each fall, as whale season begins in Hawaii, Pacific Whale Foundation conducts a "Be Whale Aware" educational program to educate Hawaii's boaters about the need to slow down, post an alert lookout and take all precautions to prevent collisions with whales.

Last but not least, Pacific Whale Foundation had also commissioned naval designers to create the world's first "Whale Protection Devices" for large scale commercial vessels. These Whale Protection Devices help guide whales away from propellers and running gear. They are installed on all of Pacific Whale Foundation's whalewatch vessels. Pacific Whale Foundation's smaller vessels, such as the research vessel, are outfitted with wire mesh "prop guards" to keep whales safely away from propellers.

Nunyara's story is one of defeating the odds and finding the way to survival and health. As Hippocrates said, "Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity." It is fortunate that this injured whale was able to evade sharks and heal itself.

We do not know how such wounds truly affect whales. Wounds may cause a loss in swimming efficiency and maneuverability, and may influence a whale's ability to reproduce. Yet, the outlook for Nunyara appears to be positive, judging on this whale's breaching and head slapping behaviors. We will certainly be watching for Nunyara during our future research studies off Australia.

Nunyara is a powerful reminder of all the changes that people need to make to protect all whales. We thank you for adopting Nunyara and helping support Pacific Whale Foundation's ongoing work to protect all whales.

Nunyara sighting map