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Reseachers focus on whale migration patterns


28 November 2005
Southern Cross University researchers have started the complex task of analysing DNA samples, photographs and sightings information of close to 3000 humpback whales, collected during a five-month land and sea survey of the annual whale migration.

The survey, the most extensive carried out by the SCU Whale Research Centre, will provide detailed information on the size of the humpback whale population and migration patterns.

The final stage of the SCU Whale Research Centre survey, a 12-week study of the southern migration near Ballina, ended earlier this month.

Co-ordinator of that stage, PhD candidate Dan Burns, said from August 16 to November 4, 1258 whales were sighted from land. He also identified about 225 whales by photographing their flukes and obtained 69 sloughed skin samples.

Mr Burns said there were also other species of whales sighted during the survey including a dwarf minke whale, bryde's whales and a mum and calf southern right whale.

"Historically the southern right whales weren't seen any further north than Sydney, but now we are seeing them once or twice a season."

The data will be added to information collected during the northern migration in studies off Cape Byron, co-ordinated by Dave Paton, and in Hervey Bay, co-ordinated by Trish and Wally Franklin.

Mr Burns said over the entire 22-week survey there were more than 3000 whale sightings and nearly 1000 photographic identifications.

"It will take us until early next year to analyse the data, but it will give use an accurate abundance estimate for the humpback population in the southern hemisphere," Mr Burns said.

"We have been seeing a general trend of more whales each year."

The information will also provide detailed information on the migration and association patterns of the whales, including how long they spend in each location during their journey along Australia's east coast.

Mr Burns will be presenting preliminary results of the survey at the 16th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in San Diego in December. He will be among a number of researchers from the SCU Whale Research Centre attending the conference, which brings together the world's leading marine mammal researchers.

Photo caption: A piece of skin from a humpback whale collected from the water by Southern Cross University researchers.

Media contact: Brigid Veale 02 66593006 or 0439 680 748.