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Researchers study whale behaviour in Byron Bay


Brigid Veale
2 October 2008
The importance of Byron Bay as a resting area for humpback whale mothers and their calves is the subject of a new research project under way by the Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre.

The study is being coordinated by Kathryn Brown, an Honours student in the Bachelor of Environmental Science and Management.

Kathryn said there was some evidence that Byron Bay was used by the female whales as a resting place during their southern migration.

“The Federal Government’s Humpback Whale Recovery Plan has recognised the possibility that Byron Bay is a resting area. We are collecting that data so we can be certain,” she said.

“The aim of the project is to survey the position of the pods as they travel past and determine which areas they travel through. We want to know if they are going on the eastern side of Julian Rocks or coming into the bay. We are also looking at how fast they are moving and whether they are adult whales or mothers and calves.

“It’s a sheltered bay. The mothers are nursing and teaching the calves survival skills. They have to feed the calves fairly regularly and they tend to travel close to the shore,” she said.

The survey is being done with tracking software, developed by Dr Eric Kniest from Newcastle University, which can pinpoint the geographic location of individual pods of whales. The pods are identified using a modified camera with a compass attached.

“From the top of the Cape Byron Lighthouse we sight the pods through the camera and then the software program calculates the exact position and feeds it into a database. We can then track the movement of the different pods,” Kathryn said.

The researchers then add additional information on the behaviour of the whales.

“When you look at the northern migration the whales tend to be moving fairly quickly, but on the southern migration there’s more backtracking. Rather than just a stream of whales there are more complex flows and turns,” she said. “The males are competing to be closer to the females.

“The information we are collecting will assist in the development of management plans for the Cape Byron Marine Park. There are a number of threats facing whales as they swim through populated areas, so it’s vital we know their behaviour patterns and what is important habitat.”

The project is being conducted from September to November, with Kathryn leading a team of volunteers - mainly fellow Southern Cross University students who spend three days a week spotting the whales from the top of Cape Byron Lighthouse.

The study is being conducted with assistance from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and NSW Marine Parks Authority, and is being supervised by Associate Professor Peter Harrison, the director of the Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre, and Daniel Burns, a PhD researcher in the Centre.

Photo opportunity: Friday, October 3, 10.30am, Cape Byron Lighthouse (weather permitting).