Snap a whale: all in the name of science

Published 12 June 2012

Whale watch operators and tourists are providing valuable information on the migration of humpback whales along Australia’s east coast, through an innovative project run by Southern Cross University researchers.

Funding announced through the Australian Government Initiative - Inspiring Australia - will help extend the East Coast Whale Watch Catalogue project along the length of Australia’s east coast.

Run by Peta Beeman, a Southern Cross University Masters student, and Professor Peter Harrison, director of the University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre, the project aims to engage tourists and tourism operators in the collection of whale fluke photographs.

Ms Beeman has developed a website where individuals can upload individual fluke photos, which are then matched to large, existing photographic catalogues compiled by Southern Cross University whale researchers. The success of a pilot project over the last two years has prompted the researchers to extend the project.

“These photos are being used to create a fluke catalogue that will significantly expand the range of individually identified humpback whales along the Australian east coast,” Ms Beeman said.

“The photos I am particularly interested in show the unique pigmentation pattern on the ventral surface (underside) of the tail fluke that enables individual whales to be identified.”

Ms Beeman said the photographs would help shed new light on the migratory patterns of individual whales.

“One of the humpback whales was photographed off Byron Bay and it was matched with a whale sighted in New Caledonia. We have also matched whales sighted off the Gold Coast with whales photographed in the Antarctic. Over time we will be able to build up detailed information on where and when these individual whales are sighted and provide that information back to the people who contribute their photos,” she said.

“We have had a really positive response from whale watch tour operators and charter boat operators. We are now looking to involve more operators along the entire east coast from North Queensland to Tasmania.”

Professor Peter Harrison, director of Southern Cross University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre, said the project provided vital information for the ongoing protection and management of humpback whales.

“An added benefit of this project is that it enables the tourism operators and other members of the community to play an active role in whale conservation and marine research,” he said.

For information or to contribute to the project visit: www.scu.edu.au/eastcoastwhales

This Inspiring Australia initiative is supported by the Australian Government through the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.

Photo: Photographas showing the unique pigmentation pattern on the ventral surface (underside) of the tail fluke enable individual whales to be identified.

Media contact: Brigid Veale Southern Cross University, head of Communications and Publications, 02 66593006 or 0439 680 748.