Computer system helps match humpback whales

Published 5 December 2008

A new fully computerised photographic catalogue of 2200 individual humpback whales is being developed to enable scientists to match whales from different Australian and South Pacific populations.

Southern Cross University’s Whale Research Centre has just received new funding through the Australian Marine Mammal Centre to complete the development of the new ‘Fluke Matcher’ computer system.

The project is being done as a collaboration between Dr Eric Kniest, from the University of Newcastle, and Daniel Burns and Professor Peter Harrison, from the SCU Whale Research Centre.

Professor Peter Harrison, director of the Centre, said photo-identification was an invaluable tool in determining humpback whale population structure, migration patterns, interchange with other populations and abundance estimates.

“Through our research in photo-identification along the east coast of Australia, and particularly off Cape Byron and in Hervey Bay, we have been able to provide estimates of the humpback population and determine the rate of increase of the whales,” Professor Harrison said.

“But as these catalogues have grown it has become increasingly difficult to compare the different databases. We have been working with Dr Kniest to develop a fully computerised ‘Fluke Matcher’ system that has enabled us to effectively match humpback whale flukes (tails) in large fluke catalogues.

“This new funding will allow us to complete the development of the ‘Fluke Matcher’ system and make it more user-friendly.”

Professor Harrison said the system would provide enormous benefits in tracking the movement and linkages between and among feeding and breeding grounds in Australia and the South Pacific region.

“This is vital for the ongoing protection and management of humpback whales, particularly those populations in the South Pacific that have not increased at the same rate as the Australian humpback populations, and are now listed as endangered,” he said.

Southern Cross University’s Whale Research Centre will use this revolutionary new ‘Fluke Matcher’ system as part of a new, larger project to determine where in the Great Barrier Reef humpback whales go to mate and give birth.

“Despite many decades of research we still don’t have detailed scientific information about where our humpback whales go to breed and give birth in the tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef," he said.

"We have now analysed all of the available recent aerial survey and whale sightings data from a number of research groups and the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority to indicate the most likely breeding grounds, and we will use these maps to focus the next phase of our research to discover the breeding grounds in the Great Barrier Reef.

“This is very important information for managing humpback whales and will add considerably to our understanding of this species.”

Photo: A computerised system will make it easier to match whale flukes, such as this one photographed near Byron Bay by Dan Burns, Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre.

Media contact: Brigid Veale Southern Cross University communications manager, 02 6659 3006 or 0439 680 748.