No fluke in the science of whale migration

Whales continue to be individually identified on their migration along the coast using the unique detail in their flukes.
Whales continue to be individually identified on their migration along the coast using the unique detail in their flukes.

HUNDREDS of individual humpback whales travelling along Australia's east coast have been identified using photographs of whale flukes captured mostly by citizen scientists, say Southern Cross University marine researchers.

The results are the first released from the East Coast Whale Watch Catalogue project run by Peta Beeman, a Southern Cross University Masters student, and Professor Peter Harrison, director of the University's Marine Ecology Research Centre.

"So far in this study, more than 800 whales have been identified with photos - and more than 450 of those were contributed by citizen scientists - from the Whitsunday Islands to Southern Tasmania," Peta said.

Twelve whales were seen on more than one occasion, while another three were photographed at different points along the migration path in the one season.

"One example of an interesting within-season resight was one whale photographed from a whale watch boat as it travelled south through Byron Bay. Three days later it was photographed again off Ballina, only 30 kilometres away."

The explanation for its very slow travel speed may be found in a recent paper by Dr Daniel Burns and colleagues from the Marine Ecology Research Centre, where it is thought that some southbound whales (probably males), circle back north at different points as they search for increased mating opportunities."

Dr Daniel Burns said the fluke-matching work was significant to better understand whale behaviour.

"We found some adult males travelling from pod to pod and milling around in the Byron and Ballina area for sometimes days at a time. But we need more evidence to determine how this fits into the broader migration picture. Peta's work is certainly helping to build on that," Dr Burns said.

The East Coast Whale Watch Catalogue project has been running since 2008 and aims to engage locals, tourists and tourism operators in the collection of whale fluke photographs. In the past few years it has been supported by an Inspiring Australia research grant that aims to foster public participation in science research.

Peta highlighted the importance of public support for marine research.

"Many people are going out on boats to watch the whales and are taking scientifically useful photos of the tail flukes. The aim of this project is to collate and analyse that data. These 'citizen scientists' are collecting data at many points along the whale migration path which is providing valuable information about travel speeds and migration patterns that can be incorporated into a long-term dataset."

Peta analyses the unique pigmentation pattern on the ventral surface (underside) of the tail fluke that enables individual whales to be identified (just like a fingerprint) using the Fluke Matcher software developed by researchers from the University's Marine Ecology Research Centre and the University of Newcastle.

"The ongoing increase in the east coast humpback whale population is a great outcome from protecting these whales from commercial whaling," Prof. Peter Harrison said.

"Now this population has reached about 20,000 whales it's a perfect opportunity for more people to see and photograph these whales, and images submitted to the website can help our research to better understand the ecology of these spectacular whales so we can continue to improve management in future."

To contribute photos go to

Topics:  migration southern cross university

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