Minke whales tagged and tracked in world first

First published August 14, 2013

Four dwarf minke whales have been tagged and tracked in a world first pilot study by a collaboration of Australian and international scientists.

The whales were tagged in the northern Great Barrier Reef last month and are now being tracked as they race down the east coast of Australia.

James Cook University’s Dr Alastair Birtles, who has been studying the dwarf minke whales for 18 years as they gather each winter off Lizard Island in northern Queensland, said that the pilot study was an attempt to solve one of the great mysteries of the oceans: Where do dwarf minkes go after wintering in the Great Barrier Reef?

“Although they occur all around the Southern Hemisphere, the GBR hosts the world’s only known predictable aggregation of these exquisitely beautiful little whales,” Dr Birtles said.

A multi-million dollar swim-with-whales ecotourism industry has emerged over the past 20 years that for a few weeks each year provides a thousand or so fortunate people with extraordinary, often life-changing wildlife encounters.

The whales, mostly five to seven metres in length, are an as yet undescribed subspecies that visit the GBR for a few weeks in the depths of winter when the seas are at their coldest and roughest. They went un-noticed in the GBR by both scientists and Reef managers until the 1980s.

The successful tagging was achieved at the end of the 18th consecutive Minke field research season for the JCU-based Minke Whale Project, lead by Dr Birtles and the CSIRO’s Dr Matt Curnock, working in conjunction with John Rumney of Eye to Eye Marine Encounters of Port Douglas and Secretary of the Cod Hole and Ribbon Reef Operators Association.

“We were joined this year by Dr Russ Andrews of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska SeaLife Center, a world renowned telemetry expert who has previously been involved in tagging over 20 species of marine mammals,” Dr Birtles said.

The pilot study was conducted from the state-of-the-art Research Vessel Whale Song on the invitation of its operators Curt and Micheline Jenner of the Western Australian Centre for Whale Research.

The Whale Song is a sonically and infra-sonically quiet ship used by the Australian Defence Department for such things as acoustic signature measurements, and was made available to the project by the Jenners while the ship was transiting between listening exercises.

The transmitters were attached to the four whales on July 13 and 14 during two long days in the water with a large group of whales at the top of Ribbon Reef #10 east of Lizard Island onthe outer barrier of the northern GBR.

On Monday (August 12), the first whale to be tagged (MWsat1) a young male called ‘Spot’, had left the GBR far behind and was speeding south along the edge of the continental shelf off Sydney, having covered an amazing journey - so far - of almost 3,000 km in less than 30 days. Not far behind him was a female known as ‘Deep Scars’ (MWsat3) and a third whale called ‘High White’ (MWsat2) was circling in the GBR lagoon east of Shoalwater Bay.

The last whale, a female called ‘Grey Waves’ (MWsat 4), initially appeared reluctant to leave the northern reefs but had started to travel faster along the shelf margin and was north east of Townsville.

“Tracking them via the ARGOS website is proving one of the most exciting experiences of my research career,” Dr Birtles said. “Their tracks have transformed our understanding of the movements of these animals which up to this point we had only documented by divers re-sighting them and taking underwater photographs of their unique colour patterns, which we use to identify individual animals”.

Jimmy White, a postgraduate just completing his PhD at JCU, applied all four of the tags to the dorsal fins of the whales and said that it was the most challenging but satisfying wildlife tagging experience he had ever been involved in.

The small LIMPET tags, about the size of a matchbox, are designed to be minimally-invasive and are attached to the dorsal fin with two medical-grade titanium darts 4mm in diameter.

Dr Andrews said that the darts eventually fall out and their fins heal over completely afterwards.

“They have now been on for a month, which is about the average duration of attachment for the 20 species of cetaceans that Dr Andrews has been involved in tagging,” Dr Birtles said. “But we are hoping that they stay on long enough to see where the the whales go when they leave Australian waters.”

Dr Curnock said that the North Queensland dive tourism industry had collaborated very closely with researchers from the Minke Whale Project.

“My PhD studied the life-changing experiences that swimmers have with these wonderful little whales – and the sustainable management of this industry that has grown up based on them,” he said.

“Encounters with these whales are one of the finest wildlife experiences on Earth and they were recently voted the ‘Most profound wildlife secret’ in Australia and ‘Queensland’s top travel secret’ in the Australian Traveller’s 100 Best Travel Secrets of Australia – so they are economically very important to the North Queensland community as well as to the tourists who travel from all over the world to swim with them.

“This new research will help to establish some of the risks and threats that the whales face when they leave the Great Barrier Reef.”

One of the unexpected immediate outcomes of the research was a close collaboration between the research team tracking the whales, the Australian Defence Force and GBRMPA as the first two animals headed straight for Talisman Saber 2013, the massive joint exercise between Australia and the USA.

The Royal Australian Navy and the TS2013 environmental management teams worked closely with the research team, sending regular updates to the fleet and ensuring that any activities that might have harmed the migrating whales were conducted many hundreds of kilometres away in international waters.

“These tags are providing vital information already,” said Mr Jenner, who helped to relay information to colleagues in Defence.

The team will work closely with Defence in the planning for the next Talisman Saber exercise in 2015.

The research has been conducted under Animal Ethics Approval from James Cook University and a Marine Parks permit from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Contacts : Dr Alastair Birtles (JCU; Minke Whale Project research team leader) +61 7 478 14736 or 0409 814736

Dr Matt Curnock (CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences) + 61 7 4753 8607 or matt.curnock@csiro.au

Mr Jimmy White (JCU PhD Candidate) 0407 002 430 or jimmy.white@my.jcu.edu.au

Mr John Rumney, Eye to Eye Marine Encounters, founding member of the Minke Whale Project info@marineencounters.com.au mob: 0417 726 622 tel: 07 4098 5417

Dr Russ Andrews (University of Alaska Fairbanks' Institute of Marine Science and Alaska SeaLife Center). (907) 224-6344 russ_andrews@alaskasealife.org

Curt and Micheline Jenner (Co-Principal Investigators for the Centre for Whale Research, WA) information@cwr.org.au

JCU Media: Caroline Kaurila 07 4781 4586 or 0437 028 175