Join in SCU whale research

Published 30 June 2004

For whale enthusiasts, university students or anyone with an interest in the ocean environment, Southern Cross University (SCU) whale researchers are offering the ultimate experience.

Trish and Wally Franklin, who are both PhD students with SCU, run the The Oceania Project out of Hervey Bay and are looking for paying eco-volunteers to get involved in this year’s 2004 Whale Research Expedition, which starts in August.

Each year during August, September and October, the researchers head out into Hervey Bay for a week at a time - photographing, recording and filming the humpback whales during their annual migration back south to the Antarctic.

“Globally there’s no location like Hervey Bay to observe humpback whales. Because of the migratory cycle the whales flow into and through the bay in large numbers and they are in a contained area. They also tend to pause in their migration,” Wally said.

“Some individual whales keep returning to Hervey Bay which is the key to our ability to study their social behaviour.”

The researchers encourage public involvement in the expeditions, offering the chance for university students and eco-volunteers to come on board and take part in the study.

“For the students it’s quite practical, hands-on experience in marine mammal science and for the eco-volunteers it provides a chance to develop a deeper understanding of whales and the ocean environment.”

The criteria for each group differs but the couple have hosted people aged from eight years to 80, with many coming back year after year.

“There’s a keen eco-volunteer from Byron Bay who has been coming for eight years and two guys from England who are coming out for their sixth year. People come from all around the world.

“It’s very unique because they get to spend an extended period out on the water. It really takes people back to the natural environment. It is a total experience. They are absorbed for a week not only in the whales but in the natural environment. They are also presented with enormous amounts of information.”

Trish said the people who took part in the expedition were involved in all aspects of the research.

“We can work with up to 14 individual humpbacks each day. You may find yourself rostered on sloughed skin collection, assisting with pod observation notes, recording GIS spatial data, water quality sampling, environmental readings or on the 'chef 'or galley roster. Rosters are rotated so everyone gets to participate in all tasks and activities involved with a successful expedition.”

The Oceania Project involves a number of research projects including photo-identification, DNA analysis and water sampling. Wally, a SCU PhD candidate, is looking at the genetic relationships between the whales in Hervey Bay and the implications for social organisation, reproductive success and the extent to which social behaviour is determined by kinship.

Trish Franklin, who is also completing her PhD, is studying the social and ecological significance of Hervey Bay for the humpback whales. She has created a long-term photographic identification data set, with extensive individual resighting histories.

The 2004 Whale Research Expedition starts on Saturday, August 7, and runs until October 9. For information on prices and bookings visit The Oceania Project website

Photo caption: 'Birrichino', a male calf, was born in 2001. His mother is a well known female 'Yolanda'. 'Yolanda's' 1996 calf 'Floppy' is also a male. DNA analysis from 'sloughed skin' samples can confirm that 'Birrichino' and 'Floppy' are brothers and may show whether or not they have the same or a different father. Photo by Trish Franklin.

Media contact: Brigid Veale, SCU Media Liaison, 66593006 or m. 0439 680 748.