In Search of The Lost Whales

In the whaling heyday of east Australia there were whaling stations at Eden and Byron Bay in New South Wales and Moreton Island (off Brisbane) in Queensland.  The whalers wanted to hunt humpbacks on their northern migration to ensure the highest fat content.  Little was known of humpbacks after they passed north Moreton Island (28˚S) and headed towards the Great Barrier Reef.

Yankee whaling records show humpbacks were killed in the Coral Sea, but the whalers rarely ventured inside the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).  Those that did ran aground.

In 1984 (some 22 years after whaling ended on humpbacks in the Southern Hemisphere) Pacific Whale Foundation began a landmark study off east Australia using benign research techniques. For the first time scientists were able to collect data on living whales, instead of relying upon information gleaned from the carcasses of dead whales.

From 1991-1999 we focused our research on humpbacks found in the epicenter of the GBR – the Whitsunday Islands.  During our research, however, we noted animals were continuing to migrate northward and surmised we had still not found the final ‘northern’ calving grounds.

In 1999 we co-authored a paper that summarized sightings of humpbacks in the GBR from data collected during an aerial survey program called “Coast Watch”. The Coast Watch program was a government-funded surveillance scheme aimed at detecting use and violations occurring in the GBR.  Lucky for us, they also recorded every whale they sighted.

We discovered that about 80% of the humpbacks found in the GBR were south of 17˚S and primarily around the Whitsunday’s, with a small, sparse population of whales spread northward all the way to the tip of Cape York (12˚S). Further we detected some whales spotted in January and February, months after the mainstream had migrated south.

For tens years the results of this study gnawed at me.  Who were these ‘lost’ whales?  Why would they swim so far north and remain so late in the season?  Were they part of a poorly understood Northern Hemisphere population that crossed the equator and swam south past Papua New Guinea (like the whales of Costa Rica)?  Or were they part of an Oceania stock swimming west from the Samoas or Vanuatu?

Or perhaps they were just new pioneers of the east Australia stock. Swimming further north to what could have been traditional breeding/calving grounds before they were decimated?

Last year Annie Macie and I undertook a large-scale research project aimed at answering these questions.  We began our research off Port Douglas (16˚S) and surveyed over 4,500 nm of ocean southward to Eden, NSW (37˚S, some 550km south of Sydney).

Seven of the whales we identified off Port Douglas were identified as matches to known whales in our east Australia photo-ID catalog (comprised of some 5600 whales). Of interest were two whales sighted off Port Douglas in late-July and early-August, and then resighted 62 and 75 days later off Eden, giving us the first direct, within season connection between the ‘lost’ whales of the GBR and main migratory parade.  One of the whales was a female with a calf, giving further credence to Port Douglas as an important, and perhaps re-merging, calving/nursery area.

Our work this year hopes to build on our initial discoveries.  We will replicate our efforts from last year, and have added a member to our team, Amanda Hutsel (our fluke ID curator) to ensure more days in the field and broader survey effort.

Our goal with our blogs is to keep you informed of our progress and let you ride along as a virtual team member.  A bit of housekeeping -- our research is conducted under Commonwealth and State permits (don’t try this at home), issued from the Great Barrier Marine Reef Park Authority, the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management, Queensland Department of Primary Industries, the New South Wales Parks and Wildlife Service and the Australian Department of Environment, Heritage, Water, and the Arts.

How about today’s research?  Wind 25-30 knots, seas to 2 meters, and a very rough and blustery day.  The forecast for the next few days looks ok.  So rest up and get ready for some long days on the water.

Have a look at Four Mile Beach this morning at sunrise.  The wind was just starting to blow.  Looks good now, but two hours later is blowing a near gale.



Greg Kaufman


Anonymous says:

Reading these entries from Chicago--am a regular visitor to Maui. These entries are very interesting and informative. Keep up the great work!