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Humpbacks heading home with calves in tow


Brigid Veale
30 August 2005
Southern Cross University researchers have kicked off the final stage of a five-month land and sea survey tracking the migration of humpback whales up and down the East Coast of Australia.

Dan Burns, a PhD student with Southern Cross University's Whale Research Centre, started his survey of the southern migration on August 15 and will continue his research until early November.

Using land and water-based volunteers near Ballina, he is focussing on photographic identification of the humpbacks and the collection of sloughed skin samples.

The information he gathers will be collated with records from the northern migration study, led by Dave Paton, and information from Trish and Wally Franklin who are in the middle of an annual research project in Hervey Bay. Genetic samples of skin are also being collected and analysed by another PhD researcher Megan Anderson

The information will provide the most detailed information available on the size of the humpback whale population, migration patterns, genetics, birth rates and behaviour.

Mr Paton, who completed his 10-week study of the northern migration on August 13, said a total of 1872 humpback whales, travelling in 1144 pods were observed from land and a total of 658 humpbacks were observed from the water.

"We will need to do further analysis before we can determine if the numbers observed this year are up on previous years, but the numbers do indicate that the timing of the northern migration was later this year than what is considered normal for Eastern Australia," Mr Paton said.

"This is also consistent with reports from New Zealand, Western Australian and South Africa which indicate the whales may have had a delayed migration due to conditions in Antarctica."

Mr Paton said there had also been some unusual sightings during the northern survey, including a pod of 60 to 70 false killer whales.

Mr Burns, who is conducting the southern migration study with assistance from the Marine Parks Authority and Department of Environment and Conservation, said he would be out on the water four days a week until November 6.

"We will also have a land crew based at Skenners Head (between Ballina and Lennox Head)," Mr Burns said.

"Most of the pregnant females give birth while they are up north and we tend to see the mums and calves coming back south in late September and October. They tend to travel a bit more slowly and a bit closer to the coast."

He said they were also more likely to see mother whales teaching the calves particular behaviours.

"We can get multiple breaches and unco-ordinated little calves learning how to do all the moves. The juveniles also seem to be more curious. We have already had a number of pods coming right up to the boat."

Mr Burns, who is nearing the end of his PhD study, said he would be collating data from the northern migration and from Hervey Bay to look at the movement patterns of the humpbacks and the time it takes whales to migrate.

Photographs taken throughout the five-month survey will be added to the SCU Whale Research Centre's database, which includes more than 3,500 individual humpback whales.

Caption: A whale breaches off Ballina on its journey south. Photo by: Dan Burns, Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre.