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Researchers track whales on journey north


Brigid Veale SCU communications manager
22 June 2006
Researchers at Cape Byron will track the movements of hundreds of humpback whales during the annual Southern Cross University whale survey, which gets under way on Sunday, June 25.

The Cape Byron Whale Research Project, which started in 1995, is one of the longest-running whale counts in Australia. It is carried out each year by SCU's Whale Research Centre in collaboration with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Cape Byron Trust, the University of Newcastle and the NSW Marine Parks Authority.

The project is being co-ordinated by Dave Paton and Dan Burns, from Southern Cross University, with assistance from Eric Kniest from Newcastle University.

Dan Burns, a PhD candidate with the SCU Whale Research Centre, said this year's survey would run for 13 days from June 25 to July 7 and would involve a number of volunteer observers.

"Cape Byron is one of the best places in Australia for land-based surveys because the whales travel so close to the coast," Dan said.

Researchers use a program called Cyclopes, developed by Newcastle University in conjunction with the Cape Byron Whale Research Project, to accurately position and track whales as they migrate past the Cape.

Using a theodolite for surveying, interfaced with a laptop computer from the lighthouse at Cape Byron, the Cyclopes software package calculates the position of the pod correcting for earth curvature, refraction and a number of other variables.

The program can determine which pod was observed (if more than one pod is being monitored) and plots its position on a chart shown on the computer screen in real time. Cyclopes also has the capability to display information regarding the pod's composition, activity, speed, course, distance, direction and time of observation.

As the survey coincides with the peak of the humpback northern migration, it is expected that over 50 pods of whales can be observed per day.

"We would expect a large number of whales during that two-week period on the northern migration. On the southern migration the whales are more spread out," Dan said.

This year's survey follows an extensive five-month land and sea survey conducted last year, which provided an accurate estimate of the humpback population and migration patterns.

The combined survey, involving researchers studying the northern and southern migrations, was the first detailed mark-recapture for this humpback population using photo-identification.

"There are an estimated 7000 humpbacks travelling up the coast, and we would expect that to increase by about 700 this year," Dan said.

"We will also be on the lookout for Migaloo, and would encourage anyone who spots the white whale to contact us at the Whale Research Centre at Southern Cross University."