New research has confirmed what migrating humpback whales get up to when passing through two key stopovers on the East Australian Coast.
Dr Olaf Meynecke from Griffith University’s Whales in a Changing Climate Research Project and Coastal & Marine Research Centre led the study of the humpback behaviour documented in the Gold Coast Bay and Hervey Bay regions.
Dr Meynecke and the research team analysed long-term citizen science data collected from not-for-profit organisations Humpbacks & Highrises (Gold Coast) and the Oceania Project (Hervey Bay), studying the movements and behaviours of 5400 humpback whales during their migration through the two regions.
The research, which has been published in Marine & Freshwater Research, includes humpback whale data from Hervey Bay between 1999–2009 and the Gold Coast between 2011–2018.
“This is the first study to look at the behaviour of humpback whales in two different regions to determine how they use the areas,” Dr Meynecke said.
“It showed that the whales used the two bays for many similar activities, such as resting and socalising, but that there were distinct differences.
“We found more competitive groups and aggressive behaviours in the Gold Coast Bay, whereas the results support the findings from earlier research for Hervey Bay, showing that it is predominantly a resting area for mother-calf pairs.
“In the GC Bay we also have the mother-calf pairs resting, but the area is much easier to enter for males and doesn’t require much of a detour.
“Overall, our results suggest that the GC Bay provides habitat for a wide range of critical humpback whale activities, in particular for resting mother-calf pairs, mature whales seeking copulation and socialising immature whales.
“Hervey Bay had a higher number of mother-calf pair sightings, confirming the areas an important resting site.”
Sarah McCulloch from Griffith’s Coastal and Marine Research Centre said it was important to understand why a species was utilising a habitat.
“What behaviours are they performing there, what forms of socialisation are they engaging in, and how important are these behaviours for their fitness and survival?” she said.
“Utilising volunteers through citizen science programs, and partnerships with the whale watching industry, we are able to collect data almost every day during the humpback whale migration season. The community has a great interest in our wildlife and the conservation of species, especially humpback whales.”
Dr Meynecke said the study demonstrated that the two regions were critical for humpback whales during their annual migration, but for different essential activities, and should be considered as whale protection areas.
‘Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) behaviour determines habitat use in two Australian Bays’ has been published in Marine & Freshwater Research.