Researchers track steady increase in humpback whale population

Published 14 July 2006

Southern Cross University researchers have again confirmed the steady growth of the humpback whale population, with close to record numbers of whales counted during the annual Cape Byron Whale Research Project.

The annual survey, held over 12 days, was conducted by Southern Cross University's Whale Research Centre in collaboration with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Cape Byron Trust, the University of Newcastle and the NSW Marine Parks Authority.

Project co-ordinator and PhD student Dan Burns said there were 792 whales counted during the 12-day period, compared to 844 whales counted in a 16-day period in 2004.

"This is continuing the trend of steady recovery of the humpback population, but we are still a long way from pre-whaling numbers," Dan said.

"We also know that this could be the last time we can do a solid count before the Japanese begin their program of 'scientific' whaling of humpbacks.

"That has the potential to seriously impact on our ability to collect information on the life histories of these whales, including the much-loved Migaloo."

This year's count got off to a spectacular start with a sighting of Migaloo, flanked by several other whales and a pod of dolphins, as he travelled north. Other highlights of this year's survey included a minke whale, and three female whales travelling with calves believed to be only around one-week-old.

Adrian Oosterman, one of the 18 volunteers counting whales in this year's project, has been taking part in whale surveys off Cape Byron since 1980 and was one of the first people to see Migaloo, when he passed Cape Byron in 1991.

"I was very fortunate to be one of the first people to spot Migaloo, which we called H2 because he was in the eighth pod we'd seen. There was one black whale and him. Now I am here in 2006 and I'm still seeing the same animal. I get very emotional about whales because they are such wonderful creatures," Adrian said.

Adrian, who spends half the year driving taxis in Brisbane and the rest of the year involved as a volunteer in whale research projects in various parts of the South Pacific, said the annual count at Cape Byron gave him a chance to recharge his batteries and follow his hobby.

"I'm dead set against commercial whaling beginning again. In the 1980s I can remember during one seven-day period we only saw eight whales. It's nice to see them coming back in the numbers we are seeing now, but we are still only around about a third or a quarter of the way back to pre-whaling numbers," Adrian said.

"There's still a long way to go. The thing that frightens me is that in places such as Norfolk Island the humpback whale populations have still not recovered from whaling days. There's so few of them and if the Japanese resume whaling there's no discrimination between the breeding stock from those areas and other humpbacks."

The results of this year's survey will go into a database, which includes photographic identifications of thousands of whales taken during their migration north and return journey south.

The database also links with extensive information and photographs collected by Trish and Wally Franklin, PhD students in Southern Cross University's Whale Research Centre who run the not-for-profit research and education organisation, The Oceania Project, in Hervey Bay.

Their study runs from August to mid-October, during which the researchers spend a week at a time in Hervey Bay. The expeditions are also open to paying eco-volunteers and interns. For information visit the website

Photo: Adrian Oosterman, a volunteer with the Cape Byron Whale Research Project, uses a theodolite to plot the movements of passing humpback whales.

Media contact: Brigid Veale SCU communications manager 02 66593006 or 0439 680 748.