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Passion for whales culminates in groundbreaking humpback research


Sharlene King
9 May 2014
The first comprehensive research on how important Queensland’s Hervey Bay is for humpback whales will see Trish Franklin awarded a Doctor of Philosophy at the Southern Cross University graduation ceremonies on Saturday May 10.

The two-decade long study revealed that Hervey Bay is a globally unique habitat for humpback whales and a vital stopover in the southern migration for mature females travelling in the company of immature males and females early in the season, and for mothers with calves later in the season.

“In the Hawaiian and Caribbean breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere, there are no stopover destinations between breeding and feeding areas to study humpback whales,” said Trish.

“Hervey Bay provides a natural laboratory to study the social behaviour of individuals and pods of humpback whales, after they leave the breeding grounds of the Great Barrier Reef and travel to colder waters during the long southern migration to their Antarctic feeding areas.”

Between 1992 and 2009 Trish observed and photographed 4506 humpback whale pods in Hervey Bay for 10 weeks a year and assembled a photo-identification catalogue of 3000 individual humpback whales and 600 life histories of individual humpback whales, ranging in age from two to 17 years.

Trish’s supervisor was Professor Peter Harrison, founding director of the Marine Ecology Research Centre at Southern Cross University.

“The detailed information collected over such a long period represents a globally significant data set that provides very important new information for understanding and managing these extraordinary and beautiful whales,” Professor Harrison said.

Trish said when compared with the Hawaiian and Caribbean breeding areas, the study identified that in Hervey Bay there were higher levels of group social behaviour early in the season, lower levels of competitive group behaviour, fewer male escorts and that mothers with calves spent most of their time alone, involved in maternal activity.

“Observations of the social interactions of immature males and females with mature females early in the migration revealed greater social interaction between these classes than previously reported.

“The opportunity to observe and record the daily lives of individual male and female humpback whales in Hervey Bay has been an exhilarating aspect of the work. This has created the opportunity to gain new insights into individual and group social behaviour and the social organisation of humpback whales,” she said.

Professor Harrison said Trish’s study had gained an international reputation.

“Trish’s Hervey Bay research has also led to international collaborations with leading humpback whale researchers in the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium to examine levels of migratory interchange with other South Pacific populations and Antarctic feeding grounds.

Humpback whale watching was established in Hervey Bay in 1987, with its usually sheltered waters offering some of the best whale watching in the world.

“Trish’s long-term study of the seasonal patterns and behaviours of humpback whales there now provides a scientific basis for managing them to ensure Hervey Bay’s status as a unique humpback whale watching destination,” said Professor Harrison.

Read Trish Franklin’s research, ‘The social and ecological significance of Hervey Bay Queensland for eastern Australian humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)’.

Trish will be among more than 230 graduating students to receive their awards from the Southern Cross University Chancellor The Hon John Dowd AO QC.

There will be two graduation ceremonies at the Lismore campus’ Whitebrook Theatre, with students eligible to graduate from all of the University’s Schools and Colleges. Details are:

10.00 am
School of Environment, Science and Engineering; and School of Health and Human Sciences.

Occasional Address by Adjunct Associate Professor Austin Curtin MB BS, FRACS, senior surgeon VMO (visiting medical officer) at Lismore Base Hospital, Clinical Sub-Dean (Lismore) at the University of Sydney, and an educator at the University Centre for Rural Health North Coast, Lismore.

2.00 pm
School of Arts and Social Sciences; School of Education; Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples; School of Law and Justice; School of Tourism and Hospitality Management; and Southern Cross Business School.

Occasional Address by Dr Don Markwell, BEcon(Hons)(Qld), MA, MPhil, DPhil(Oxon), Senior Adviser on Higher Education to the Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne.

Photo: Trish Franklin.