Researchers confirm steady growth in humpback whale numbers

Soutwhalestoryhern Cross University researchers have again confirmed the steady growth of the humpback whale population, with close to record numbers of whales counted during the annual Cape Byron Whale Research Project.

The annual survey, held over 12 days, was conducted by Southern Cross University’s Whale Research Centre in collaboration with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Cape Byron Trust, the University of Newcastle and the NSW Marine Parks Authority.

Project co-ordinator and PhD student Dan Burns said there were 792 whales counted during the 12-day period, compared with 844 whales counted in a 16-day period in 2004.

“This is continuing the trend of steady recovery of the humpback population, but we are still a long way from pre-whaling numbers,” Dan said.

“We also know that this could be the last time we can do a solid count before the Japanese begin their program of ‘scientific’ whaling of humpbacks.

“That has the potential to seriously impact on our ability to collect information on the life histories of these whales, including the much-loved Migaloo.”

This year’s count got off to a spectacular start with a sighting of white humpback Migaloo, flanked by several other whales and a pod of dolphins, as he travelled north. Other highlights of this year’s survey included a minke whale, and three female whales travelling with calves believed to be only around one-week-old.

Adrian Oosterman, one of the 18 volunteers counting whales in this year’s project, has been taking part in whale surveys off Cape Byron since 1980 and was one of the first people to see Migaloo, when he passed Cape Byron in 1991.

“I was very fortunate to be one of the first people to spot Migaloo, which we called H2 because he was in the eighth pod we’d seen. There was one black whale and him. Now I am here in 2006 and I’m still seeing the same animal. I get very emotional about whales because they are such wonderful creatures,” Adrian said.

Adrian, who spends half the year driving taxis in Brisbane and the rest of the year involved as a volunteer in whale research projects in various parts of the South Pacific, said the annual count at Cape Byron gave him a chance to recharge his batteries and follow his hobby.

“I’m dead-set against commercial whaling beginning again. In the 1980s I can remember during one seven-day period we only saw eight whales. It’s nice to see them coming back in the numbers we are seeing now, but we are still only around about a third or a quarter of the way back to pre-whaling numbers,” Adrian said.

“There’s still a long way to go. The thing that frightens me is that in places such as Norfolk Island the humpback whale populations have still not recovered from whaling days. There’s so few of them and if the Japanese resume whaling there’s no discrimination between the breeding stock from those areas and other humpbacks.”

The results of this year’s survey will go into a database, which includes photographic identifications of thousands of whales taken during their migration north and return journey south.

The database also links with extensive information and photographs collected by Trish and Wally Franklin, PhD students in Southern Cross University’s Whale Research Centre who run the not-for-profit research and education organisation, The Oceania Project, in Hervey Bay.

Their study runs from August to mid-October, during which the researchers spend a week at a time in Hervey Bay. The expeditions are also open to paying eco-volunteers and interns. For information visit the website

PICTURE: Adrian Oosterman, a volunteer with the Cape Byron Whale Research Project, uses a theodolite to plot the movements of passing humpback whales.

One Response to “Researchers confirm steady growth in humpback whale numbers”

  1. Interesting that Adrian talks about lack of discrimination between stocks by whaling starting in summer next year.

    Contrast this with the link from the article:
    “In the Southern Hemisphere, humpback whale populations have been divided into six independent stocks or groups based on feeding aggregations observed by commercial whalers in the Southern Ocean prior to 1963. The whales that are observed migrating along the east Australian coast annually from their Antarctic feeding area, to breeding and calving grounds within the Great Barrier Reef lagoon are known as Group V whales. Prior to commercial whaling, this stock was thought to comprise of between 15,000 and 20,000 individuals.”

    This is also the recognised knowledge that the whalers are basing their plans on – they are looking to target Group V whales (as well as Group IV whales that migrate up the west coast – which are also rapidly increasing) in their research programmes.

    Until Adrian’s talk about more distinct populations of humpbacks in the South Pacific gets international recognition (say by the IWC’s Scientific Committee), I believe that these arguments aren’t likely to sway the whalers.

    Indeed, the arguments will come across to the whalers as just another excuse from the “whale-huggers” who basically oppose whaling on non-scientific grounds, but try to make up scientific grounds for their opposition (why not just say we don’t like killing whales and be done with it? I don’t know).

    It’s really important for researchers to further their efforts to confirm whether there actually are truely distinct stocks of humpbacks in the western South Pacific. The science needs to be convincing. If the hypothesis is true, then it’s important for conservation of these populations.

    At the same time, like it or not, the whalers are legitimately taking small numbers of whales in accordance with Article VIII of the ICRW to which Australia is a signatory – it is not realistic to expect them to shelve their plans based on ideas that have not been globally recognised by the IWC, which has the ICRW at it’s foundation.

    Alas, even if the researchers can convince the IWC Scientific Committee that their hypothesis is true, what argument can Australian’s make to prevent hunting of the abundant Group IV (D) stock?
    The IWC Scientific Committee notes a recent estimate of more than 17,000 humpbacks for the D stock (see page 10 of this doc):

    Incidently, an estimate for the Group V (E) stock which Adrian is talking about was more than 13,000.
    The whaling research programmes will take 25 whales from each area. For the Group V stock, that’s a mere 0.2%, whereas the stock has been recognised as growing at rates of around 10% each year. Until hypotheses about distinct breeding stocks in the south pacific are accepted, these whales are likely to be the target of research whaling with a view to eventual commercial whaling.

    Either way, it seems that whaling is going to occur. Perhaps instead of allowing Japan to set quotas via it’s scientific research programmes, Australia should be compromising to at least ensure that catches are set in line with advice directly from the IWC Scientific Committee.

    This is the best approach in whale conservation terms, although of course many Australians wish to see all whales protected, rather than just conserved through limited hunts.

    Ultimately, Australians need to start asking themselves which is more important:
    Whale conservation, or stubbornly clinging to an ideal of whale protection (which may result in negative consequences for proper whale conservation)?

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