Give me sun, give me sea, give me cetaceans

By Elizabeth Ginis 6 June 2024
Reading Time: 7 Minutes Print this page
From July to October, join Australia’s premier whale and dolphin experts on a voyage of adventure and citizen science in Queensland’s idyllic Hervey Bay.

This article is brought to you by Australian Wildlife Journeys.

It’s not every day you meet a marine biologist with fascinating insights about Migaloo, the world’s legendary all-white humpback whale.

“The first photograph of Migaloo was taken through a telescope from a distance of over 5km away on 28 June 1991 [off Byron Bay],” says Jens Currie, Chief Scientist and Research Director of Pacific Whale Foundation. “It was blurry and unclear if he was all white.

“Then in 1993, our researchers encountered Migaloo in Hervey Bay, where they confirmed the whale was all white – an exceptionally rare and remarkable individual for scientific study. In 1998, we recorded the whale singing, a trait distinct to male humpback whales.”

Step aboard the purpose-built whale-watching vessel, Ocean Defender, for a three-hour whale-watching experience with Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures Australia, and you’ll be inspired by the knowledge shared with you.

Image credit: Tourism Australia

The only organisation in Hervey Bay to have been researching humpback whales for more than 40 years, Pacific Whale Foundation Australia and its scientists are responsible for a slew of firsts in the cetacean world. Pacific Whale Foundation Eco Adventure’s guides delight in sharing this knowledge with you while you watch majestic humpbacks breach, fluke slap and spin their magic in the waters of the Great Sandy Strait, nestled between the largest sand island in the world – K’gari (meaning paradise in the local Butchulla language), formerly Fraser Island – and the Fraser Coast.

Their groundbreaking research includes one of the South Pacific’s longest-running photo identification projects and the largest curated database of humpback whales in Eastern Australia, having detailed the life histories of 8000-plus individual humpbacks.

“We gather information about the population’s biology, abundance, migratory trends, recruitment rates and age-related distribution patterns,” Jens says. “Our initial work off the East Australian coast involved the collection of both fluke IDs and whale song recordings. Although we no longer gather recordings of humpback whale songs, these initial recordings were some of the first that were compared to Hawaii’s whales in an attempt to understand the global significance of songs for humpback whales.”

The foundation has also played a key role in developing whale watch tourism – of which you become a part when you join a tour; you’ll be invited to submit any photos you take for ID purposes and log sightings using their Whale and Dolphin Tracker app.

Image credits: Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures

Why migration and movement matters

While the Foundation’s research in Australia is primarily conducted in Hervey Bay, a crucial habitat for humpback whales on their annual migration to Antarctica and the world’s first Whale Heritage Site, it also examines movement and connectivity among areas in various East Australian coastal locations.

Dedicated research surveys, along with donated photos from whale watch operators, have enabled the Foundation to analyse the movement of humpback whales along their migration route.

“We’ve collected data at different locations on the migration route, for example off North Stradbroke Island in QLD and Eden, NSW, and from within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – the presumed breeding area for the East Australian humpback whales,” says Dr Barry McGovern, Research Associate with Pacific Whale Foundation Australia.

Two whales swimming next to a boat near Hervey Bay

Image credit: Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures

“We take photographs for identification purposes and record information regarding group size and composition as well as the behaviour of the whales. Having this information from different locations allows us to document the movement of the whales and the timing of their migration but also lets us assess how the whales are using the different areas. For example, using residency patterns from repeat observations of the same individuals, Hervey Bay was recognised as a key resting area for the whales on their southerly migration, particularly the mothers and calves. One mother-calf pair we recorded in 2023 stayed in the bay for at least 20 days.”

Feeding behaviour: a moveable feast

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers were also among the first to document feeding behaviour along the migration route. Between 1995 and 2010 it reported the results of long-term observations of opportunistic humpback whale feeding behaviour off Eden.

“This area is on the migration route and humpback whales are typically thought not to feed while migrating,” says Barry. “However, there are reports from elsewhere on the East Australian migration route and around the world of humpback whales opportunistically feeding while migrating. What sets the information from Eden apart is that it appears to be the area where feeding behaviour while migrating is most prevalent. While these types of observations are interesting in their own right, they also have important implications for the management of species. If certain areas are recognised as being important for other reasons beyond being migration routes (e.g. Hervey Bay a resting area, Eden a feeding area) they may require different management strategies to ensure the conservation of the whales using the areas.”

Population hopping and globe trotting

Through photo identification, the Foundation has also documented migratory movements of individual animals across multiple populations.

“We reported on the inter-ocean movement of a humpback whale between the Pacific Ocean, east Australia, and the Indian Ocean, west Australia; which was confirmed by photo ID,” Barry says. “This report is the first and only paper that demonstrates a whale moving between these two populations; which are otherwise thought to be separate.

A whale swimming next to a boat off the shores of Hervey Bay

Image credit: Tourism Australia

“Further to this, our humpback whale photo identification catalogues have been used to highlight movements of whales across the globe. Our data has contributed to identifying the movement of different populations such as the East Australian humpback whales, those off South America and the whales that breed and give birth in Hawaii.

“This information has helped paint a clearer picture of humpback whale migration globally and has also contributed to the management of different populations. In Ecuador, for example, we were the first to document the movements of humpback whales between Ecuador and the South Sandwich Islands (heading south along South America’s coast towards Antarctica). This information was key in redefining what was known about the movement patterns of that population, which had major implications for its management.”

Piecing together the climate change puzzle

While aboard Ocean Defender, you’ll also learn about the Foundation’s research into the effects of warming oceans on humpback whales.

“Climate change is arguably the biggest issue facing all animal populations today,” Barry says. “While it is extremely difficult to assess its direct impacts on animals, our long-term photo identification data is an important resource to monitor changes in the population and this can help to highlight the impacts of climate change.

“As such, the continued population monitoring that we carry out coupled with our collaborative research on the health of the humpback whales can contribute to the growing knowledge of the impacts of climate change. The key is that researchers from different backgrounds and institutes must use the available information to try to piece the climate change puzzle together. The more information there is available, the clearer the picture will start to become of the impacts of climate change.”

Image credits: Tourism Australia

All aboard for education by appreciation

A sparkling day with whales is a gift in and of itself (and how!), guests are invited to join Pacific Whale Foundation Eco Adventures Australia’s Hervey Bay’s Ultimate Whale Watch, from 1 July to late October, with guaranteed sightings from 15 July to 9 October. “After a three-hour, small group tour on board the Ocean Defender, a 12m RIB vessel which was purpose-built for whale watching, guests return feeling inspired, energised and passionate about the importance of healthy oceans!” says Janelle Horrigan, Eco Tours Manager.

Guests are also invited to join the newly minted Hervey Bay Nature Cruise. Available from December to June, it’s a leisurely two-hour tour of the water wonderland that is the Great Sandy Strait, showcasing dolphins, dugongs, turtles and seabirds.

“Our aim is that when our guests disembark from our tours that they’ll have had a transformative experience – we call it education by appreciation,” explains Janelle.

“Information shared by our expert marine biologist guides inspires and empowers our guests to understand how impactful we can be and the ways that we, as individuals, can make a difference to help protect our marine life and contribute to healthy oceans.

“Being at water-level means the whales take centre stage with their incredible behaviours and exciting activity. And our guides are just as thrilled as our guests with every interaction. It’s a remarkable thing to share, and I guarantee you’ll be talking about it for years to come.”

Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures Australia is an Australian, wholly-owned social enterprise company. Proceeds from its eco tours support Pacific Whale Foundation Australia’s research, education and conservation projects.

Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures Australia is part of the Australian Wildlife Journeys collective. Find out more here.

This article is brought to you by Australian Wildlife Journeys.