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14 Jun 2022 • 3 minute read

Whale-sized detective job seeks to uncover potential calving ground in WA's South West

How an archive of photos spanning 30 years is helping researchers revive a whale birthing ground rocked by the whaling industry.

An immense detective effort is being embarked on by researchers to identify individual whales from thousands of historical photos.

Researchers from Edith Cowan University (188bet金宝搏官网登录) and Western Whale Research are working through a 30-year archive of photos taken by scientists and volunteers.

They are comparing the distinctive white callosity markings on the heads of the whales to help determine how many visit the area to calve, and whether extra protection is needed.

By identifying individual Southern Right Whales, the team hope to demonstrate that Geographe Bay, near the popular tourist town of Busselton, is emerging as an area in need of extra protection to ensure it is a safe environment for whale calves.

Southern Right Whales were decimated by commercial whaling until the practice was banned in the 1970s. The species is listed as Endangered in Australia. They were estimated to number around 3,400 in 2018.

Whale revival

Researchers believe increased activity in Geographe Bay is a result of whales returning to traditional calving grounds along Western Australia’s south coast as the population slowly recovers.

Lead researcher from 188bet金宝搏官网登录’s School of Science, Associate Professor Chandra Salgado Kent, said it was likely Geographe Bay and Flinders Bay had been important calving grounds before commercial whaling began.

Pod of Southern Right Whales.
It's thought Geographe Bay was a popular calving ground prior to the whaling industry.

“As the population of Southern Right Whales continues to recover, we’re seeing individuals return to bays along the Western Australian coast,” she said.

“We can identify these individuals as they show up in the photos. It can take up to a couple of hours to determine whether the whales in each photo are a match with earlier records, or whether they are a new individual.

“Preliminary results from the identification work done so far shows the South West bays are important calving grounds with as many as 229 individuals visiting in the past 30 years.

“This research is important to better understand how whales are using these locations, which are now extremely popular for recreational boating and other marine activities.”

A long time between visits

Chris Burton from Western Whale Research contributed many of the images to the photo archive and said the research team were already aware of a female whale photographed in Geographe Bay nine years apart and both times with a small calf.

Mr Burton said the project demonstrated the strong interest in preserving whales visiting the region from the local community. He also acknowledged the contribution of local businesses including, Naturaliste Charters Whale Watching, to creating the massive photo archive.

The research project is a partnership between Edith Cowan University, Western Whale Research, and Eco Gecko Environment & Design.

This project is supported with funding from the Australian Government under the National Environmental Science Program.