Pacific Whale Foundation presents Aussie findings
Tue 23 Feb
Pacific Whale Foundation (WHF) whale expert Greg Kaufman presented his research team’s journey along Australia’s coasts entitled “Living With the Whales Down Under”.
Greg, who has authored four books and studied humpbacks throughout the Pacific for more than 30 years, captivated an audience of over 450 attendees in the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa’s Lokelani Ballroom in Maui through video and digital images presentation of what researchers learned from their adventures in the South Pacific.
His research has taken him to Australia many times over the last two decades.
Kaufman and researcher Annie Macie spent nearly four months “Down Under” from August to October 2009, and covered 6,000 miles of road and 3,000 miles of open ocean along the east coast of Australia last summer and fall, in pursuit of new knowledge about humpback whales.
PWF has been studying humpback whales along Australia’s east coast since 1984. Kaufman and Macie covered the area between the Great Barrier Reef in Northern Australia to Eden, an old whaling town in the southeastern-most point of Australia.
Launching their small research boat from Port Douglas, the team navigated around many of the hundreds of small islands, shoals and reefs that comprise the Great Barrier Reef. They hoped to locate previously unidentified areas where humpback whales are mating, giving birth and caring for offspring.
Data gathered during prior PWF journeys along the eastern Australia coast revealed a subset of humpback whales which appeared to be going to one or more breeding areas that had not yet been formally identified by researchers.
“Our research endeavored to locate new areas where the whales are breeding,” said Kaufman. “This is very important from the perspective of managing and protecting the population of Southern Ocean humpback whales.”
One especially notable portion of their research study was an encounter with Migaloo, the world’s only known all-white humpback whale. The white whale—considered to be the most famous humpback in the world—was observed by Kaufman and Macie on two separate occasions on August 14, 2009. Macie called it the “the best day of my life.”
“Seeing Migaloo was inspirational,” said Macie. “The word that kept coming to my mind was majestic. It was like seeing the eighth wonder of the world.
“Just before it surfaced, you could see a halo effect from the white body against the blue sea,” she said. “Then its body would shine as it rose from the ocean.”
The team later moved south to Hervey Bay, a critical habitat for humpback mothers and calves during their annual migration from their mating and calving areas to their feeding areas. They gathered photo-identification data on whales in this area.
The research team eventually traveled to the cold waters off the coast of Eden, which is one of the few known places in the Southern Pacific where humpback whales can be observed feeding near land. Here, they gathered photo-identification data of these humpback whales, adding to PWF’s broad database of over 4,200 individually identified humpbacks.
“We choose these three locations to let us gather data from three points along the migratory route—a possible breeding area, a feeding area and a bay where whales stop during their migration,” said Kaufman. “Gathering data from these areas is helping us form a clearer picture of the migratory patterns of the humpback whales along Australia’s eastern coast.”
According to Kaufman, last year’s field research season was “unprecedented in scope and success.”
“This was the largest single season research effort ever undertaken on humpback whales off eastern Australia,” said Kaufman. “It was an extraordinary effort to piece together three important parts of the humpback whale’s life cycle—breeding, feeding and migrating—all in one research season.”
The data collected by PWF’s researchers is critical in efforts to protect the Southern Pacific Ocean humpback whales—a population likely to be targeted by Japanese whaling ships, if the ban on commercial whaling were to be lifted.
Japan currently exploits a loophole in the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling that allows for lethal “scientific” whaling.
“Through our work, we hope to refine our knowledge of the rate of population interchange between Australia and Oceania,” said Kaufman. “Perhaps most importantly, our data adds to the understanding of the potential ramifications of resumed whaling activity on some of the outlying populations, which are at critically low levels.”
PWF also contributes data to the world’s largest database of South Pacific humpback whales, and provides information to governing bodies to enable effective management of populations.