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Whale research identifies Hervey Bay as globally unique


Brigid Veale
10 September 2015
Hervey Bay is globally unique as a stop-over point for migrating humpback whales, providing an ideal nurturing ground that may be contributing to the high survival rates of calves and younger humpback whales.

That is one of the findings of research conducted by Wally Franklin for his Doctor of Philosophy, which will be conferred at Southern Cross University’s graduation ceremonies on Saturday (September 12). The graduation ceremonies, to be held at 11am and 2pm at the Lismore campus, will be preceded by a street procession through the Lismore city centre, starting at 9.45am.

Wally and his wife Trish have been studying the behaviour and migratory movements of humpback whales in Hervey Bay for the past 25 years. The couple are co-directors of The Oceania Project and Trish was awarded her PhD from Southern Cross University last year.

“What we have done with the research is look at some fundamental questions relating to the eastern Australian humpback whale population. One of the key features of this research is that it has unlocked some of the mysteries surrounding the population. I have clearly identified that the whales utilising Hervey Bay are a sub-group of the eastern Australian population and that this sub-group appears to be growing at a slightly greater rate than the rest of the eastern Australian population. This is the first study that has provided evidence of that,” Wally said.

“The research has also clearly established that Hervey Bay is globally unique as a geographic stop-over in the migration.

“If you look at Hawaii and the Caribbean, once those whales leave the breeding grounds there is no landfall between the breeding area and the feeding area. In Australia, the land pushes out to the east, south of the breeding grounds.

“Hervey Bay just happens to be a very safe location and is highly suited to the needs of the mothers and the new calves and young whales, providing them the very best opportunity to survive.”

The whales spend on average 1.4 to two weeks in Hervey Bay, which may contribute to the social development and high survival rates of calves and younger humpback whales.

One of the whales Wally has recorded during his research is Nala, a mature female humpback he and Trish first observed in 1992.

“We have observed her on more than 50 occasions in 11 different years. In all but one of those years she has had a calf. She has been an incredibly prolific breeding whale, reinforcing just how valuable Hervey Bay is.”

Wally’s study, titled ‘Abundance, population dynamics, reproduction, rates of population increase and migration linkages of eastern Australian humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) utilising Hervey Bay, Queensland’, has shown that the population of whales in Hervey Bay has increased from 791 in 1997 to 4406 in 2009.

“At the end of whaling this group of whales was taken to the brink of extinction, down to only about 150 individuals. It has taken 50 years for them to recover,” Wally said.

The study also identified low levels of intermingling between eastern Australian and New Caledonia whale populations, and that some eastern Australian humpbacks are travelling through southern New Zealand while migrating to and from the Antarctic feeding areas.

Wally said the completion of the PhD was an important part of the work, which would now focus on investigating more specific behaviours of these whales.

“We certainly have to continue to monitor the recovery of the humpback whales and the potential of new impacts such as entanglement, habitat degradation and vessel strikes. More fundamentally there is the potential risk from climate change and the impacts this will have on the Great Barrier Reef and food production in the Antarctic,” Wally said.

“My years of research experience at SCU has provided an incredible set of skills that I will be able to apply to future research and to our continuing work as advocates for the long-term care and conservation of humpback whales and other species.”

He said he was extremely grateful to Professor Peter Harrison and Dr Lyndon Brooks from SCU’s Marine Ecology Research Centre for their support and supervision throughout his PhD.

“The research conducted by SCU has stamped its imprint on whale and dolphin research on a global basis and focused the attention of the world on the fact there is a lot of work that needs to be done for the conservation and care of whales.”

Wally will be among more than 230 graduands who will attend two ceremonies on Saturday, September 12, at the Whitebrook Theatre, Lismore campus.

The first ceremony at 11am, will be preceded by a street procession through central Lismore. The street procession will commence at 9.45 am, and proceed along Woodlark and Keen streets before finishing on the corner of Magellan and Keen streets. Family, friends and members of the general public are encouraged to line the procession route in support of all graduands.

Ceremony details

School of Business and Tourism; School of Law and Justice; SCU College

The occasional address by Steven Layt, a leader in the global restaurant industry and alumnus of SCU. Steven has most recently held the positions of President and Senior Vice President Operations at Applebee’s Restaurants. Prior to this he was Chief Operating Officer at Buffets, Inc. and held senior management positions at Yum! Brands, Inc. Steven grew up in Grafton.

School of Arts and Social Sciences; School of Education; School of Environment, Science and Engineering; Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples; School of Health and Human Sciences

The occasional address will be given by Byron Shire Mayor Cr Simon Richardson. Simon Richardson was elected Mayor of Byron Shire in 2012, and has been a Councillor since 2008. A member of the Greens, he previously worked as a high school history teacher.