Erin, who is based at the National Marine Science Centre in Coffs Harbour, is completing a Bachelor of Applied Science Honours degree and has recently returned from five weeks in Tuvalu and Fiji.
"The project, funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), is designed to highlight the cultural significance of whales and dolphins in the Pacific Region and to assist in the future management of these animals," Ms Watson said.
Tuvalu is made up of three low lying reef islands and six small coral atolls and is situated about 1000km north of Fiji. The nation is densely populated with approximately 10,000 people spread over an area of close to 26 square kilometres.
The Indigenous population has a close affinity with humpback whales, which head to the warmer waters during winter to breed, and a resident pod of Bottlenose dolphins.
"In the Tuvaluan culture whales and dolphins are seen as human, only they do not take on the human form. They believe them to be as intelligent as humans.
"In earlier times the 'chiefs of the sea' would call in the whales and the legend says that whales were used as transport between the islands."
Ms Watson said there was little research on the cultural significance of the whales and dolphins, or biological research into population size in that area of the Pacific. While the Tuvaluans rely heavily on fishing for food, they no longer hunt whales.
"They don't hunt whales but will eat them if a whale has been beached or washed ashore. They also believed, in earlier times, that if someone was sick that the 'chiefs of the sea' could call in a whale to beach itself and that would take the sickness away.
"By protecting whales and dolphins, we are not only conserving these species, but we are also helping to preserve a big part of island culture."
Tuvalu is one of a number of countries which has joined the International Whaling Commission, which will vote in June at the next meeting in the West Indies, on a further expansion of whaling activities.
"The International Fund for Animal Welfare is delighted to have been able to support this groundbreaking research that reveals the importance of whales and dolphins to the peoples of Tuvalu," said Darren Kindleysides, IFAW Asia Pacific Marine Campaigner.
Photo: Erin Watson interviews one of the older members of the Tuvalu community about the significance of whales and dolphins.
Media contact: Brigid Veale SCU Communications Manager, 66593006 or 0439 680748.