VIDEO: Catching whale ‘blows’

By AG Staff Writer February 29, 2016
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A team of Queensland scientists is using innovative methods to investigate the success of Australia’s humpback whale populations.

AUSTRALIA’S HUMPBACK WHALE population is increasing by more than 10 per cent a year, and a team of Queensland scientists is going to extreme lengths to figure out why.

Fletcher Mingramm, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland Cetacean Evology and Acoustics Laboratory, is part of the team using a number of methods to study humpback whales near North Stradbroke Island and Noosa in south east Queensland, as well as near Geraldton in Western Australia.

The scientists hope that by understanding the success of these whale populations, they may be able to help neighbouring populations in the South Pacific, where humpbacks haven’t fared as well since commercial whaling ceased in the 1960s.

“The fact [neighbouring populations] are not recovering well suggests something else is going on with regards to key processes, such as feeding or breeding, and this is something we need to better understand,” said Fletcher.

“Using this information as a point of comparison, we may then be able to look at populations not recovering as rapidly,” he said.

This underwater footage was captured during the researchers’ behavioural assessment stage, before taking ‘blow’ and tissue samples. (Video courtesy Fletcher Mingramm / UQ)

There she blows

A day in the field for the scientists involves launching their research vessel at dawn to search for whales. Once a pod of humpbacks is encountered, the scientists first follow the whales at a distance, recording information such as dive times, swim speed and the composition of the group. 

That’s when one of the whales is selected for approach during surfacing. Approaching close to the rear of the surfacing whale, a 6m carbon-fibre pole holding a sterile sampling dish is positiond into “the respiratory plume exhaled by the animal” – that is, the whale’s ‘blow’, a mix of mucous, breath and water.

At the same time, a floating biopsy dart is fired at the whale’s flank. The dart bounces off the whale without harm; a method recommended by the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee as the most effective and least invasive method of obtaining tissue samples.

Both the whale blow sample and the skin and blubber biopsy are frozen for further research back at the lab.

“The study is about providing baseline fundamental information – currently we don’t have good measures for the health or reproductive qualities of Australian humpback whales,” said Fletcher, who is on track to acquire 250 tissue samples and 100 to 120 blow samples by the end of 2017.