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Whale numbers up on last year


20 July 2004
A total of 855 whales were spotted during Southern Cross University’s annual 16-day whale survey off Cape Byron, providing further evidence that the humpback whale population is on the way to recovery.

The Cape Byron Whale Project is carried out each year by SCU Whale Research Centre in collaboration with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Cape Bryon Reserve Trust, the University of Newcastle and the Marine Parks Authority.

Dan Burns, a PhD student with SCU’s Whale Research Centre, said the project, which included land and water-based counts, photo identification and genetic sampling, had been very successful.

Mr Burns said there 855 whales spotted from the Cape Byron Lighthouse this year, compared to 505 last year. He said while there were variations year to year depending on factors such as weather conditions, the humpback population was generally increasing.

“From the boat we saw 259 whales and last year we had 169. There were definitely a lot more whales this year,” Mr Burns said.

“This population is definitely recovering. We are seeing a general trend of more whales, but there is still a long way to go before the population reaches the pre-whaling numbers.”

Humpback whales were almost extinct along the east coast of Australia when whaling ceased in Australia in 1963, with only about 200 to 500 whales left. 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.

Mr Burns said the Cape Byron project had been carried out since 1995, while the Australian Whale Conservation Society had been doing counts from Cape Byron since the early 1980s.

“There was one week in the early 80s when they only saw eight whales.”

In addition to this year’s whale count, which was done using sophisticated surveying equipment set up at the top of the Cape Bryon Lighthouse, researchers also took to the water to continue photo identification and genetic sampling research.

Mr Burns said he was able to obtain photographic fluke identification of about 150 to 160 whales, up from 104 last year.

All of the photographs will be added to the Whale Research Centre’s database, which includes photos of whales off Ballina during the southern migration. For the period 1999 to 2003, data collected during the Cape Byron project will be matched with photos from Hervey Bay, New Caledonia, Tonga, Tahiti, the Cook Islands and New Zealand to determine possible migration patterns amongst the whales.

Megan Anderson, whose PhD study is focussed on genetic identification of humpback whales, collected 118 skin samples during this year’s survey period, although it is not known yet how many are from different whales.

The skin samples will be genetically analysed to provide information for comparison with historic samples, collected from humpback whales during commercial whaling operations prior to 1963, and also to individually identify, sex and determine the relatedness of whales.

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