SCU researchers begin annual whale survey

Published 22 June 2004

Spotters sitting at the top of Cape Bryon Lighthouse will join water-based researchers to carry out Southern Cross University’s (SCU) annual whale survey from Saturday, June 26 to July 11.

The Cape Byron Whale Research Project is carried out each year by the SCU Whale Research Centre (SCUWRC) in collaboration with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Cape Byron Reserve Trust, the University of Newcastle and the NSW Marine Parks Authority (Cape Byron Marine Park).

Daniel Burns, a SCU PhD student and one of the survey co-ordinators, said the intensive project included a land-based count of the humpback whales using sophisticated surveying equipment and software, and water-based photo identification and genetic skin testing.

“Cape Byron is quite unique because almost all the whales travel within 10 kilometres of the lighthouse. It is one of the best places in Australia, if not the world, for land-based surveys. It is quite a unique opportunity for the research because we can combine that with water-based projects,” Mr Burns said.

About 30 volunteers, mostly SCU science students, are involved in the land-based study done from the lighthouse. Using a theodolite they can pinpoint the whales and record their longitude and latitude. The two-week survey, with shifts from 7am to 5pm, coincides with a recognised peak in the migration numbers.

“A large number of whales come during that two-week period on the northern migration. On the southern migration the whales are more spread out.

“We get mostly the young immature whales and the mature males during that two-week period. The pregnant females tend to stay down in the Antarctic as long they can to feed.”

In addition to the land-based survey, researchers will also continue a photo identification project at sea which has identified and photographed 676 individual whales since it began in 1995.

“That is growing each year and we are starting to get some good results. We have had whales identified off Cape Byron which have been seen in other years off New Caledonia. We are able to get a much better idea of their movement patterns.”

Another PhD student, Megan Anderson, will also continue a project involving the genetic testing of whale skin.

“Often when the whales are quite active little bits of skin will fall off in the water. It looks like a little piece of rubber or plastic and can be anything from the size of a 50 cent piece to an A5 sheet of paper,” Ms Anderson said.

The humpback whale skin samples are collected and genetically analysed to provide information for comparison with historic samples, and also to individually identify, sex and determine the relatedness of whales.

Photo opportunity: Author Di Morrisey, patron of the SCU Whale Research Centre, will be attending the launch of the whale survey on Friday, June 25, at 9.30am at the Cape Byron Lighthouse.

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