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Humpback Whales

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers launch new study in Australia

eTN Staff Writer  Jul 25, 2009

A team of Pacific Whale Foundation researchers are in Port Douglas, Australia to launch a study that they hope will better define mating and breeding areas of humpback whales along Australia's northeastern coast.

Port Douglas is located in the tropical far north region of Queensland, Australia about an hour's drive north of Cairns. It's at about the same latitude as Tahiti. The Great Barrier Reef is located offshore to the east.

In this region, Pacific Whale Foundation president Greg Kaufman and researcher Annie Macie are hoping to locate previously unidentified areas where humpback whales are mating, giving birth, and caring for their young.

"We believe that this research may locate new areas where the whales are breeding," said Kaufman. "This is very important from the perspective of managing and protecting the population of Southern Ocean humpback whales."

Humpback whales in Australia follow a seasonal migratory pattern of feeding in cold polar waters near Antarctica from November through March and then traveling to warmer waters near the equator from June through August. "It's the peak of the breeding season right now," said Kaufman. "If the whales are breeding off the coast of Port Douglas, this is the time to find them."

Since 1984, Pacific Whale Foundation has studied the migratory pathways of humpback whales along Australia's east coast. Data gathered by Pacific Whale Foundation in this region has indicated that a subset of humpback whales appear to be going to one or more breeding areas that have not yet been formally identified by researchers.

A recent Pacific Whale Foundation research paper detailed how the movements and population structure of humpback whales off Australia's eastern coast may be much more complex than has been previously described. The paper, written by Pacific Whale Foundation research director Quincy Gibson, PhD; president and founder Gregory D. Kaufman; and vice president Paul Forestell, PhD, was delivered to a meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) on June 6. It summarizes the continuing work of Pacific Whale Foundation to examine migratory patterns of east Australian humpback whales through its photo-identification studies over the past 25 years. To read more about this paper, go to:

Using noninvasive photo-identification, Pacific Whale Foundation has individually identified more than 4,200 humpback whales around Australia. This fluke identification data is being contributed to the world’s largest database of photo-identified South Pacific humpback whales. Data and findings from Pacific Whale Foundation's studies in Australia are also provided to the International Whaling Commission, Australian Commonwealth, and EPA Queensland to enable effective management of Southern Pacific Ocean humpback whale populations.

Additional Upcoming Research Projects

In August, Pacific Whale Foundation's researchers will be traveling south to Hervey Bay, Australia where they will be gathering photoidentification data on humpback whales. Hervey Bay is a critical habitat for humpback whale mothers and calves during their annual migration from their mating and calving areas to their feeding areas.

Following that, Pacific Whale Foundation's researchers will be working in Eden, located near the southeastern tip of Australia. They will be photoidentifying humpback whales in an area where they feed.

"We choose these three locations to let us gather data from three points along the migratory route - a possible breeding area, a feeding area, and a bay where whales stop during their migration," said Kaufman. "Gathering data from these areas will help our research team form a clear picture of the migratory patterns of the humpback whales along Australia's eastern coast."

Studies in Ecuador, Tonga, and Hawaii

Pacific Whale Foundation is conducting two other research operations this summer. In Ecuador, Pacific Whale Foundation researchers are currently working near the small coastal town of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. The focus of their research is in the ocean around Ecuador's Machalilla National Park (PNM), an area known for the large number of humpback whales that migrate there from the cool waters of Antarctica to mate and give birth. The team will be gathering data to document the distribution and abundance of humpback whales found in this region. They will be photoidentifying individual whales, recording whale songs, monitoring for beached or stranded animals, and compiling data of whales sighted by ships.

The humpback whales found off Ecuador are technically from the southern hemisphere, however they are unique because they migrate past the equator and into the northern hemisphere to the nearshore waters of Columbia, Panama, and even as far north as Costa Rica, off Central America.

"Through Pacific Whale Foundation's collaborative efforts with researchers in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Antarctica, we have been able to create the first comprehensive fluke identification catalog for Latin and Central America," said Kaufman. "This landmark effort has led to recent discoveries on migration patterns, population estimates, reproductive rates, and life histories of humpback whales in this region."

Researcher Libby Eyre, supported by Pacific Whale Foundation, will also be opportunistically collecting data about humpback whales in Tonga in September. She will be collecting identification photos, whale songs, and data on whale behaviors.

Closer to Pacific Whale Foundation's headquarters in Hawaii, research director Quincy Gibson, PhD, will be leading a study in August of the wild dolphin population located off the coast of Maui. She will be identifying the location and distributions of pods of wild spinner, spotted, and bottlenose dolphins, as well as other toothed whales, in the area between Maui and Lanai. Local high school classes will be assisting with this research. Findings will be provided to National Marine Fisheries Service and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary to aid in creating effective management policies for these marine mammals.

All of Pacific Whale Foundation's research studies, as well as its education and conservation programs, are made possible by funds raised through Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures and Pacific Whale Foundation's Ocean Stores, and through the generous support of Pacific Whale Foundation's friends, members, and supporters.

Pacific Whale Foundation's mission is to promote appreciation, understanding and protection of whales, dolphins, coral reefs, and our planet's oceans. This is accomplished by educating the public - from a scientific perspective - about the marine environment. Pacific Whale Foundation supports and conducts responsible marine research and addresses marine conservation issues in Hawaii and the Pacific. Through educational ecotours, Pacific Whale Foundation models and promotes sound ecotourism practices and responsible wildlife watching. To learn more, visit

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers launch new study in Australia
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