Humpback Whale Conservation in the South Pacific

During July 2018, I was a research assistant on the Great Barrier Reef Whale and Dolphin Research Program. This program was run in the Whitsunday Islands of Australia, by Blue Planet Marine, a leading marine environmental consultancy in the South Pacific.

For a month, I lived onboard RV Flying Fish, a 23 meter vessel designed for extended operations in remote areas, with ten other research assistants, crew and scientists.

We collected important data regarding the population of Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the South Pacific, specifically the whales found along the Eastern coast of Australia. The data collected on this research program has been identified by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) as highest priority research for this population of whales (Blue Planet Marine).

 

Background

Humpback whales are a migratory species. Antarctica is their summer feeding grounds and tropical waters of Northern Australian and South Pacific Islands is their calving and breeding grounds (Dawbin, 1977). Humpback whales throughout this region have historically been subjected to intense exploitation from whaling operations during the nineteenth century (Baker et al, 2006).Whaling was permanently ended in Australian waters in 1978 and since then, the recovery process of humpback whale populations have been closely monitored.

Currently, the South Pacific Humpback whale population is split into three breeding stocks, based on distinct areas where whales gather to breed and calve (Mackintosh 1948, Pastene et al 2013). The eastern Australian breeding stock of whales appears to be one of the fastest growing populations of humpback whales in the South Pacific. Conversely, humpback breeding stocks of Oceania (Tonga, New Caledonia and Fiji) continue have a significantly slower recovery rate (Anderson, 2013).

 

The Problem

However, the population boundaries of Southern Hemisphere humpback whales remain largely unknown (Rosenbaum et al 2009) and there is substantial uncertainty regarding migratory corridors and the degree of mixing between humpback breeding stocks (Anderson 2013, IFAW).

This means that scientists are still unsure as to whether the strong growth rate seen in the eastern Australian humpback whale breeding stock and the struggling Oceania breeding stocks, is simply because of migration between the two areas. Consequently, it is uncertain as to whether the different breeding stocks of South Pacific humpback whales should be viewed as separate populations or one population. Identifying the humpback whale populations in the South Pacific is critical for the management and conservation of these whales. This is achieved by photo identification (each whale has unique tail patterns), genetic sampling and acoustic studies.

Photo Identification

In this picture, I was taking photos of Humpback tails or flukes. Humpback flukes are unique and can be used to easily identify whales.

Single whale fluke

Single whale fluke

Single whale fluke

 

Genetic Sampling

When whales breach (like the one above), dead skin falls off them and floats on the surface. We collect this skin using nets and later freeze the samples.

Acoustic Studies 

This photo was taken of myself when I was recording whale song. Whale song changes each season, usually from western humpback whale populations to eastern humpback whale populations. It can serve as a tool to identify migratory corridors.

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections

The knowledge I gained as a research assistant for Blue Planet Marine is invaluable. Not only did I formulate connections and friendships across the world but I also obtained a better understanding regarding the conservation status of humpback whales in the South Pacific. I was genuinely surprised how little we know of the migratory patterns of these animals and how much more information we need to collect to help protect these animals and the habitats they rely on, in the face of future anthropogenic impacts, especially climate change. My time on board the Flying Fish helped reinforce the notion that conserving biodiversity is hard work but so incredibly important to us. I look forward working with Blue Planet Marine again.

Video capturing a typical day in the life of a Blue Planet Marine research assistant on the Great Barrier Reef Whale and Dolphin Research Programme.

**All media included in this post was taken and is therefore owned by Blue Planet Marine**

Alicia Forbes

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About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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2 Responses to Humpback Whale Conservation in the South Pacific

  1. This looks like a lot of fun! I would love to do something like this – Lauren

  2. I really enjoyed the fantastic images Alicia. Phil

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