Pacific Whale Foundation’s research efforts in Australia primarily focus on humpback whale studies in Hervey Bay, Eden, Port Douglas, Cairns and Whitsundays.
Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale Catalog
The humpback whale photo-identification (or photo-ID) project involves photographing and cataloging flukes, which are the underside of a humpback whale’s tail. Each whale has unique features, including the overall shape of the flukes, the shape of the trailing edge, any acquired scars, and natural pigmentation patterns. The flukes thus help identify individual whales when captured in digital photos.
In addition, we record GPS data, behavioral displays, pod composition, and other observations at the time each fluke photo is taken. This information is centrally filed and used to identify and track individual whales over time. Database software is used to catalog individual whales and match them to new sightings. Photo-ID catalogs serve as a non-invasive way to gather information on the life histories of individual animals, including minimum age, site fidelity, sighting rate, and migratory movements.
Our primary study sites for the Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale Catalog are in East Australia: Hervey Bay, Eden, Port Douglas, Cairns and Whitsundays. The Catalog contains photos of over 6,000 individual whales obtained from “platforms of opportunity”, primarily whalewatch ecotours. The Catalog’s success also relies on donations of photos from the general public.
Public participation is also central to Match My Whale, which was launched with our Catalog and one from the Centre for Whale Research in West Australia as a citizen scientist project to crowd-source the photo-ID process.
LIFE HISTORY OF EAST AUSTRALIAN HUMPBACK WHALES
The Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale Catalog contains sighting data for over 6,000 individual humpback whales, including information on minimum age, site fidelity, migratory movements, and frequency of repeated sightings. Using this information, we are building statistical models to estimate parameters related to population abundance and ecology of humpback whales in East Australia. Through this project, we can begin to determine how changes in life history traits may in turn affect the overall size of the breeding stock. Our research will aid in assessing the status of the species and potentially how these animals may respond if aspects of their life history are changed by interactions with human activities.
AREA USE OF HUMPBACK WHALE PODS IN HERVEY BAY
The purpose of this project is to determine if there is a habitat preference between the different types of pods that use Hervey Bay as a stopover along their southern migration. We use whalewatching vessels as “platforms of opportunity” to collect photo-identification and location data on humpback whales in Hervey Bay. The distribution of each pod type is mapped and compared against environmental variables such as depth and slope to determine if there are patterns of use by differing pod types. This research will guide effective management of whalewatching operations in Hervey Bay.