25 June 2007

A record number of humpback whales are passing North Stradbroke Island as UQ researchers start aerial surveys to verify their numbers.

The first whales for this year’s survey of an estimated 10,000 strong humpback population were counted from Point Lookout on North Stradbroke Island last Tuesday on their annual migration into the Great Barrier Reef.

Among them is Migaloo, the rare all-white whale.

Whale expert Dr Mike Noad, from UQ’s School of Veterinary Science, said Migaloo would probably be up in the southern Great Barrier Reef today, off Gladstone or Bundaberg.

His research crew spotted Migaloo last Thursday at 8am three kilometres off Point Lookout heading north.

“We know he’s a male because he’s been genetically sexed. But what we don’t know is whether he is an all white whale or an albino,” Dr Noad said.

“He’s more likely to be a white whale because albinism in other species is a genetic defect which usually means the animals have other problems and don’t survive.”

Dr Noad’s team of 13 international volunteers and UQ researchers are counting the whales during the next six weeks as part of regular surveys of the East Australian population of humpbacks usually done every two to three years.

He said the team would spend 10 hours a day counting the whales from Point Lookout.

A light plane was also used on Friday for the first aerial surveys of the population in more than a decade, to verify counts. Up to 20 flights will be done during the survey.

From land, the researchers are counting more than 100 whales on some days.

“This population of whales is the fastest growing whale population in the world that we know of,” Dr Noad said.

“It’s increasing like that because it’s bouncing back from over-exploitation.

“In the 50s and 60s they were hunted almost to zero and what we are seeing is a recovery from those very low numbers.

“While we’re not sure at what level the population will plateau when it’s fully recovered, we think that we’re roughly a third of the way there.”

He said the whales were growing at between 10 and 11 per cent a year with about 7000 counted in the last survey in 2004.

“The first day of the survey was last Tuesday and there was an extraordinary number of whales going past.
We’ve not seen anything like it.”

The latest whale survey, as with many of the previous Point Lookout surveys, is funded by the Federal Government’s Department of the Environment and Water Resources.

Dr Noad said it was the longest and most consistent series of whale surveys in the world with the results guiding whale conservation priorities and management plans and also going to the International Whaling Commission.

“Because the vast majority of the whales pass within a few kilometres of land there, Point Lookout is almost unique in the world in terms of being somewhere you can stand on land and get very robust estimates of whales as they migrate past,” he said.

“After they pass southeast Queensland, we have less idea of how the whales disperse through their breeding grounds inside the Great Barrier Reef.

“While we know a lot of whales seem to mill around the Whitsunday area, there’s also plenty of sightings much further north, particularly up around Townsville, Cairns and even Torres Strait.

“How far north Migaloo goes seems to vary each year.”

MEDIA: Dr Noad (0416 270 567, 3365 2088) or Miguel Holland at UQ Communications (3365 2619)