Whale researchers look for answers in Byron Bay burial pit

Published 10 October 2003

Hundreds of humpback whales killed and buried near Byron Bay almost 50 years ago may finally answer questions about the effect of decades of commercial whaling on humpback populations in the South Pacific.

A team from the Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre will soon excavate a massive burial pit near the site of the old Byron Bay Whaling Station that operated from 1954 to 1962.

It’s believed the carcasses of up to 240 whales were dumped in the pit over the eight years of whaling at Byron.

Leader of the SCU team is PhD candidate, Megan Anderson, says that the research might well influence our future management of oceans and marine populations.

“By exhuming the Byron whales, we hope to recover bone samples containing DNA. We can then look at any genetic variations in the samples and compare them with variations in today’s whales. This will give us more information on any effect that whaling had on humpback populations in the South Pacific,” Ms Anderson said.

“We are also interested in comparing the concentrations of heavy metals and pesticides in historic samples and living whales,” she said.

“We should also be able to learn more about the effect on whales of coastal farming and inhabitation.”

Ms Anderson said the site of the burial pit is to be excavated and flooded in December for a Byron Shire Council for a wetland development. So the race is on to investigate the site and complete the dig before the end of November.

Teams of volunteers are expected to help with the dig and, if necessary, large earth moving equipment will be called in to help. It will take about 18 months of work in the laboratory to complete the analysis of samples recovered from the pits.

Whaling began in Australia in 1843 and ended in 1962. The Byron Bay Whaling Company killed 1,148 whales during its eight years of operation between 1954 and 1962. Another whaling station at Tangalooma, near Brisbane, processed six times that number in the same period.

Pic caption: photo courtesy of Eric Wright from the book A Whale's Song, available through SCU at www.scu.edu.au/whales.

Further Information: Chris Stewart 02 66203039 or 0418 431484