View all news

Humpback whales begin their journey south


2 September 2004
Southern Cross University researchers have started a 10-week survey of humpback whales, including mothers and calves, as they pass Ballina on their journey south to the Antarctic.

Dan Burns, a PhD student with SCUs Whale Research Centre, is leading the survey which will focus on photographic identification of the whales, genetic skin sampling and behavioural patterns.

The survey follows on from the Cape Byron Whale Research Project in July and an intensive research project being conducted by Trish and Wally Franklin in Hervey Bay.

Mr Burns said this 10-week survey, involving up to 35 volunteers, would be conducted from land at Lennox Head and at sea four days each week throughout the survey period.

During the southern migration we are more focussed on the photographic identification and skin samples. We will be looking more at the individual whales and trying to match them with previous sightings off Ballina, Cape Byron and at Hervey Bay, Mr Burns said.

We will also be looking closely at the behavioural patterns of the whales, particularly the mothers and calves. Last year out of 408 sightings during the southern migration study, there were 52 pairs of mums and calves.

Mr Burns said during last years survey he also gathered photographs of 208 individual whales which had been entered into a database and matched to previous sightings.

Trish Franklin and I have done a comparison for the 2003 season and we have got a number of whales that were photographed in both locations.

The survey follows on from the Cape Byron Whale Research Project conducted each year during the northern migration. During this years project, conducted over 16 days in July, a total of 855 whales were spotted, up from 505 in the previous year.

Mr Burns said while there was evidence the whale numbers were increasing there was still a long way to go before the population returned to pre-whaling numbers. SCU estimates the humpback whale population is now around 5000, but that is still well below the pre-whaling population of 15,000 to 30,000.

The southern migration research is supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a global organisation that has a strong presence in whale conservation in the South Pacific region.

IFAW helps to fund numerous SCU Whale Research Centre projects, including the southern migration project, Trish and Wally Franklin in Hervey Bay and work being done by Simon Walsh in Samoa.

Funds for SCUs Whale Research Centre are also raised through the sale of A Whales Song, which traces the history of humpback whales and the Eastern Australia whaling industry. For information about the book visit the website

Caption: An adult whale breaching off the coast at Ballina. Photo by Dan Burns, SCU Whale Research Centre.

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