Minke research expedition underway

By Rebecca Baker 2 December 2013
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Aussie scientists aim to show how non-lethal whale research can be done.

AN AUSTRALIAN GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY-funded whale research expedition begins today, with researchers venturing to the Great Barrier Reef to better understand the little-studied Minke whale species.

Ahead of next week’s annual International Whaling Commission meeting in Morocco, on-board scientists from James Cook University aim to show the world that scientific whaling needn’t involve killing whales.

Discovered in the 1980s, Minke whales have been hunted by Japanese scientists for a number of years, under the banner of ‘scientific whaling’.

The whales are commonly seen along the Ribbon Reefs north of Cairns between June and July as they migrate each winter to warmer waters. The current scientific expedition will allow researchers to get up close and personal with the animals, which are often curious of humans.

John Rumney from ecotourism company Eye to Eye Marine Encounters – which is hosting the scientific expedition – predicts that the whales will come within three metres of the researchers.    

He adds that he’s confident about the expedition and hopes to inspire people to do something positive about Australia’s fragile marine life. “It’s so special … there’s a new emotion here that you’ve never seen before. Every trip is quite different. For me, the goal is to give the expedition members an incredible connection with nature.”

The route will take the scientists to areas known for their high percentage of whales to maximise the chances of a sighting. The scientists also aim to interact with the whales – with a strict protocol – which will allow recording of information about population, anatomy and behaviour.

Recording instruments will be used to capture the whales’ communications system. It’s hoped this trip will be a stepping stone towards raising funds for more research, equipment and satellite tracking.

Whale management

Further data collection and work within the industry will also help ensure appropriate limits are put on whale tourism and that all related marine activities are sustainable.  

Senior lecturer from James Cook University and researcher for the expedition, Dr Alastair Birtles says, “We can’t manage the whales, so we must manage the people.”

Alastair and John have conducted research together over the last 13 years and have produced a diving and snorkelling protocol that has minimal impact on the whales.

“The whales engage us and as they build confidence they come closer and closer,” John says.

These whales are similar to the gigantic blue, fin and sei whales but because they allow humans to interact with them directly, scientists can make important connections between the playful Minke whales and the larger whale species, which are much more difficult to observe.


AG Society Minke whale expedition

Keep an eye out for some live blogging from the expedition by AG creative director, Andrew Burns.