Pacific Whale Foundation’s research takes place in Hervey Bay, Queensland on the coast of East Australia. Hervey Bay is unique because it is a mid-migratory resting ground for humpback whales; it is neither a breeding nor feeding ground. Mother and calf pairs are of particular interest to our researchers given their use of this resting area to provide maternal care, and our research focuses on long-term monitoring and quantifying potential human and non-human threats these whales face.
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 catalogues 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.
Although humpback whales are an iconic species in Australia, there is still a lot to learn about their life history, behavior, and migration patterns. Through this catalogue, we aim to advance our understanding of humpback whale biology and population status to help further conservation and management efforts. For this project, we are using photo-ID data from multiple sources, “platforms of opportunity” such as whalewatch ecotours, as well as photo donations from the public.
In 2014, the Queensland government authorized commercial tourism companies to begin immersive swimming activities with humpback whales, currently listed as a “vulnerable” species under the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
The purpose of the Swim-With-Whales Impact Study is to assess the impact of immersive whalewatching (or swim-with-whales tourism) on humpback whales in Hervey Bay by monitoring and recording behaviours and behavioural changes before, during and after in-water encounters. Our objectives are to (1) better understand if humpback whales change their behavior due to in-water interactions with humans, (2) identify factors which may influence behaviour change, and (3) provide recommendations to governing authorities, resource managers, and tour operators to ensure that Hervey Bay’s humpback whales are not negatively impacted by swim-with-whales tourism. Findings will provide managers with insight into population parameters and habitat use as well as provide local tour operators with guidelines for best practices for this commercial activity.