Our Research

Our research in Australia began in Hervey Bay in 1984 when Pacific Whale Foundation Founder, Greg Kaufman, visited the area as part of a documentary film project. Greg and his team realised the area was a critical resting place for humpback whale mothers and calves heading back to their feeding grounds in the Antarctic. They resolved then and there to learn more about this population of majestic animals.

Our initial work involved photo-identification of humpback whale flukes (or tails), as well as collecting humpback whale song recordings. These initial recordings were some of the first that were compared to Hawaii’s whales in an effort to understand the global significance of whale song. We have been doing humpback whale research in Hervey Bay ever since.

Our researchers also were among the first to study Migaloo, Australia’s famous albino humpback whale. We’ve published articles detailing his behaviours and movements along the East Australia migratory route, and we’ve catalogued his sightings over the years. Migaloo is perhaps the most famous humpback whale in the world. His distinctive absence of pigmentation due to albinism allows people to easily identify him and report sightings. He was first spotted in 1991 off Byron Bay, Queensland by a group of volunteers conducting a whale count. The first photograph of Migaloo was taken through a telescope from a distance of over 5km away. It was blurry and unclear if he was all white. In 1993 PWF researchers encountered this amazing white whale in Hervey Bay, Queensland. During our first encounter we were able confirm the whale was all white, and in 1998 PWF recorded this whale singing, a trait distinct to male humpback whales. Read our research paper on Migaloo

The focus of our research has always been Hervey Bay, but we’ve also studied humpback whale movement and connectivity among various areas of East Australia, including Eden, New South Wales and the Whitsundays/Cairns/Port Douglas region. In addition, we’ve reported on a humpback whale moving between the Pacific Ocean (east Australia) and the Indian Ocean (west Australia) the first and only example of inter-ocean humpback whale movement between these two populations, which are otherwise thought to be separate.

Swim-with-whales Impact Study Assessing

The Impacts of
Swim-with-whales Tourism

In 2014, the Queensland government authorised commercial tourism companies to begin immersive swimming activities with humpback whales, no longer listed at the time as a “vulnerable” species under the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. In July 2018, we launched a Swim-With-Whales Impact Study to collect scientific data on the impact of commercial swim with whales tourism activities on humpback whales in Hervey Bay.

The purpose of the Swim-With-Whales Impact Study is to assess the impact of immersive whalewatching (or swim-with-whales tourism) on humpback whales in Hervey Bay by monitoring and recording behaviours and behavioural changes before, during and after in-water encounters. Our objectives are to (1) better understand if humpback whales change their behaviour due to in-water interactions with humans, (2) identify factors which may influence behaviour change, and (3) provide recommendations to governing authorities, resource managers, and tour operators to ensure that Hervey Bay’s humpback whales are not negatively impacted by swim-with-whales tourism. Findings will provide managers with insight into population parameters and habitat use as well as provide local tour operators with guidelines for best practices for this commercial activity.

Photo-ID Catalogue

Life History Study
Using Photo-Identification

Pacific Whale Foundation scientists established the first and now longest-running humpback whale photo-identification project in the South Pacific. Today, our Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale Catalogue is the largest curated database of photo-identified humpback whales in East Australia, greatly adding to scientific understanding of the population’s ecology and life history traits.

Every whale has its own unique features, including the overall shape of the flukes (or tail), trailing edges, acquired scars, and natural pigmentation. These characteristics can be identified in photos and compared with other sightings to match and track individual whales. Photo-identification serves as a non-invasive way to gather information on the life histories of whales, including approximate age and migratory movements.

Our researchers have collected detailed life histories of almost 7,000 whales that visit Hervey Bay between July to October. You can contribute to our research as a citizen-scientist by donating your humpback whale fluke photos.

For more information on photo donations, click here.

Be Whale Aware & Dolphin Wise

Between July and October, thousands of humpback whales can be found in the waters of Hervey Bay. While we all enjoy the incredible experience of watching humpback whales living wild in their natural habitat, it’s easy to forget the impact our presence can have. Approaching whales too close or too fast may disrupt important socialising behaviours and may cause unnecessary stress to the animals in the short term. Continued close approaches and harassment can also have long-term effects such as the population moving to different resting areas or decreased reproduction.

Pacific Whale Foundation has developed Be Whale Aware & Dolphin Wise guidelines to help whalewatch operators, boaters, and other ocean users to navigate safely when in the vicinity of humpback whales. We recommend a safe distance of 100 metres for viewing animals, which aligns with the legal approach distance. We also recommend that vessels limit their time spent near whale pods with calves to 30 minutes. These best practices, which have been adopted by the Queensland government, will contribute to the growth of sustainable marine ecotourism in Hervey Bay.

To view or download the Be Whale Aware & Dolphin Wise guidelines for Australia, please click the image below.

Whale & Dolphin Tracker

Our Whale & Dolphin Tracker app is the latest iteration of a long-term citizen-science program for monitoring and collecting data on marine wildlife. With this free app available to the public, you can now log your humpback whale sightings in real time and upload photos from your mobile device. Your contributions will aid our researchers in their studies and contribute to informed management of the East Australia population of humpback whales.

The application also populates a Live Whale & Dolphin Sightings Map of Hervey Bay that shows all sightings recorded within the last seven days.

Click here to view This Week’s Sightings in Hervey Bay.