Humpbacks Sing out for Sponsors

Published 21 June 2001

As the whale watching season on the east coast of Australia begins, Australia will celebrate the launch of a new world-class centre for whale research, the Southern Cross Centre for Whale Research (SCCWR). Based at Southern Cross University in Lismore, the Centre will employ a range of sophisticated research technologies, including DNA fingerprinting and the monitoring of whales' songs, to assist in enhancing our understanding of various whale communities in Australian waters and further afield.

Much of this data is collected during the Cape Byron Whale Research Project held during June and July each year.

An exciting new feature of the Centre's Byron Bay project this year is the placement of a hydrophone off Cape Byron, to monitor the migration of whales acoustically day and night past the Cape, alllowing visitors to hear the songs of the passing whales in real-time. A future SCCWR website will enable people all over the world to listen to the whales' songs online.

This acoustics experience is just one of the new Centre's projects for 2001. It is part of the Cape Byron Humpback Project, a research program designed to monitor humpback whale migration patterns, population size, familial relationships, as well as lifespan and breeding habits.

This research is a continuation of the long-term study of humpbacks undertaken by various organisations and community groups at Byron Bay in Northern NSW since the 1980s. The Cape Byron project is a collaboration between Southern Cross University, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services, the University of Newcastle, the University of Sydney and the Cape Byron Reserve Trust.

SCCWR director, David Paton has been involved in whale research at Cape Byron for the past eight years. "The Centre enables us to bring together over seventy years of research expertise amongst marine mammal experts and mammal geneticists. We can really enhance the traditional photographic identification techniques by obtaining DNA 'fingerprints' of the passing whales, as well as specifically correlating photographic and DNA data from singing whales", he said.

In order to obtain DNA samples of the humpbacks, SCCWR researchers, including volunteer students from Southern Cross University and the University of Newcastle, scoop up the pieces of skin shed by the whales when they breech or slap their tails.

This genetic tagging gives a far more precise profile of individuals and groups than photographic identification alone. Staff and students from the University of Newcastle are using their surveying expertise to accurately measure whale pod positions and direct the survey vessel to the best location for the photographic and DNA data collection.

The Centre is also collaborating with whale acoustics researcher, Michael Noad, from the University of Sydney, who will place the hydrophone off Cape Byron for recording the whales' continually changing songs.

David Paton pointed out that the Centre's operations are largely dependent on volunteers, and has made an appeal to companies for sponsorship, in order to sustain the 2001 activities. Sponsoring companies that decide to partner the as yet unfunded SCCWR, will be offered a range of benefits as inaugural sponsors of the Centre, including the opportunity to 'adopt' their own humpback whale.

Mr Paton urged companies to take an active part in an exciting environmental initiative that is fostering the research and preservation of humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. "Humpback whales are listed as a 'vulnerable species'. In addition to enabling us to monitor the recovery from whaling, the Byron Project also provides us with critical information about global warming in terms of impacts on the antarctic eco-system," he said.

Cape Byron is probably the best site in Australia, and among the best in the world, for conducting research on humpback whales. At Australia's most easterly point, the Continental Shelf comes very close to the Cape, encouraging whales to come very close to the headland during both their northward and southward migrations.

"This Australian research is unique, because of the close coastal access that enables us to effectively monitor the whales from land, and it means that we are one of the only countries undertaking research on humpback migration paths", Mr Paton said.

Companies interested in receiving a sponsorship application should contact SCCWR at Southern Cross University or contact Monique Lewis on (02) 6685 4645 or email: mlewis@scu.edu.au. For further information about the Southern Cross Centre for Whale Research, contact David Paton, Director SCCWR, 0415 410 347.

For further details, please contact Monique Lewis (02) 6685 4645 email: mlewis@scu.edu.au Or David Paton 0415 410 347