Exploring the Health of Hervey Bay’s Humpback Whales: A Look into their External Parasite Load

Written by Isabel Taylor and Stephanie Stack

Hello everyone! I’m Isabel Taylor, a recent graduate in Animal Ecology with a passion for marine mammals. During my studies, I had the incredible opportunity to volunteer with PWF Australia, where I spent around 200 hours helping with long-term research on the conservation of humpback whales and dolphins in Hervey Bay. This experience inspired me to pursue further studies, and I’m thrilled to share my honours research project with you.

In collaboration with PWF, my research focuses on comparing different methods of assessing the parasite load on Hervey Bay’s humpback whales. These magnificent creatures interact with various organisms in their environment, including parasites and other hitchhikers. I’m particularly interested in epibionts—organisms that live on the outside of their hosts—such as whale lice and barnacles. The presence of these organisms can tell us a lot about the health of the ocean ecosystem and the whales themselves and, as such, this project forms part of a broader effort led by PWF to understand how a changing climate impacts humpback whale health and population dynamics.

In my project, I’m exploring whether drones can be as effective as traditional boat-based photography in assessing the coverage of epibionts on humpback whales. The load of external parasites and their associated scarring can be used as indicators of the whales’ overall well-being, as a whale in poor condition may not have the vitality to perform high-energy behaviours that shed themselves of these hitchhikers. Using digital images collected from both aerial drone surveys and boat-based photography, I will compare the abundance of epibionts within individual whales. By comparing images from different platforms, I aim to determine if drones can provide equally accurate measurements of external parasite load.

My study not only explores the effectiveness of drone surveys for health assessments but also establishes baseline information on epibionts in the Southern Hemisphere’s Breeding Stock E-1, which is vital for future comparisons amid anticipated changes in the world’s oceans. This information is crucial for expanding our understanding of these whales and can potentially contribute to broader conservation efforts. I’m excited to share the results of this research with you in 2024, so stay tuned for updates on the health of Hervey Bay’s humpback whales!

Research activities conducted under permits and following animal ethics approval. The drone operator holds a remote pilot (RePL) license certified by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Further reading:

Balbuena, J, Aznar, F, Fernández, M & Raga, J 1995, ‘Parasites as indicators of social structure and stock identity of marine mammals’, in Developments in marine biology, Elsevier, vol. 4, pp. 133-9.

Leung, TL & Poulin, R 2008, ‘Parasitism, commensalism, and mutualism: exploring the many shades of symbioses’, Vie et Milieu/Life & Environment, pp. 107-15.

Minton, G, Van Bressem, MF, Willson, A, Collins, T, Al Harthi, S, Sarrouf Willson, M, Baldwin, R, Leslie, M & Van Waerebeek, K 2022, ‘Visual Health Assessment and evaluation of Anthropogenic threats to Arabian Sea Humpback Whales in Oman’, J. Cetacean Res. Manage., vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 59-79.

Ten, S, Raga, J & Aznar, F 2022, ‘Epibiotic fauna on cetaceans worldwide: A systematic review of records and indicator potential’, Frontiers in Marine Science, vol. 9.