Whale watch tour operators and passengers will have the chance to contribute to a Southern Cross University research project which aims to provide valuable new data on the migration of humpback whales along Australia’s east coast.

Peta Beeman, who is completing a Master of Marine Science and Management and is part of the University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre, is aiming to bring together photographs of individual whales from Victoria north to the Whitsunday Islands.

Her project aims to provide a better understanding of humpback whale migration timing, travel speed and movement patterns.

Through her project, being undertaken with the support of Whale Watching Byron Bay, she is collecting photos of humpback whales from tourists and tour operators along the Australian east coast, from the Whitsunday Islands to southern Victoria.

“These photos will be used to create a fluke catalogue that will significantly expand the range of individually identified humpback whales along the Australian east coast,” Ms Beeman said.

“Each season many encounters with humpbacks will be photographed by operators and tourists and some of these photos can provide potentially useful scientific information. These are an untapped source of valuable data.

“The photos I am particularly interested in show the unique pigmentation pattern on the ventral surface (underside) of the tail fluke that enables individual whales to be identified.

“Each of these photographs will be matched against photographs from other locations and other years. This opportunistic data can prove to be extremely valuable to build information about life histories, movement patterns and the timing of migration.

“For example, if a known individual whale is photographed at different points on its east coast migration path, the travel speed, timing of migration, association patterns and whether it has a calf is important information that can be incorporated into a long-term population-level dataset.”

Ms Beeman said anyone who contributed would receive feedback on the individual whale, such as whether it had been seen previously. A website was also being developed so people could upload their photos of tail flukes.

“Throughout the whale watching season, while working as a whale watch guide at Byron Bay, I photograph the tail flukes of humpback whales and record behavioural data,” she said.

“The number of whales heading north has been building since late May and in the last couple of weeks we have seen a lot of competitive behaviour between adult whales, such as lunging at each other, breaching and slapping the surface of the water with their tails.

“We have also been hearing whale song when we listen on the vessel’s hydrophone. The singing and competitive activity are both typical behaviour during the breeding season.”

Professor Peter Harrison, director of the Marine Ecology Research Centre, said this project was part of the ongoing work of the Centre, which was vital for the protection and management of humpback whales.

Last year the Centre prepared a major report on the Global Conservation Status of Cetaceans for the Federal Government, which listed 14 species of whales and dolphins as threatened.

“There are a range of serious threats facing cetaceans, including ongoing whaling. These issues and their impacts on the global status of cetaceans are being examined through this project and other work being done in collaboration with international research and conservation groups,” Professor Harrison said.

Ms Beeman’s project is being supported by Whale Watching Byron Bay.

Anyone interested in more information or contributing photographs can contact Peta at peta.beeman@internode.on.net

PICTURE:Humpback whales can be individually identified through photographs of their flukes (tails). Photo by Peta Beeman.