Citizen scientists assist whale migration research

Friday, 10 October, 2014

The East Coast Whale Watch Catalogue has collated hundreds of photographs of humpback whales along Australia’s east coast - many of which have been taken by citizen scientists.

The project, which has been running since 2008, aims to engage locals, tourists and tourism operators in the collection of whale fluke photographs. It is run by Peta Beeman, a Southern Cross University Masters student, and Professor Peter Harrison, director of the university’s Marine Ecology Research Centre.

The project uses the unique pattern of pigmentation on the underside of a whale’s tail fluke to identify individual whales. Beeman analyses the pattern using Fluke Matcher software developed by researchers from the Marine Ecology Research Centre and the University of Newcastle.

“So far in this study, more than 800 whales have been identified with photos - and more than 450 of those were contributed by citizen scientists - from the Whitsunday Islands to Southern Tasmania,” said Beeman. Repeated sightings of individual whales from year to year or along a migration path can reveal valuable information about life histories, population size, migration timing, travel speeds, movement and association patterns.

Humpback whale displaying its fluke at Byron Bay’s Julian Rocks. Image credit: Peta Beeman.

Twelve whales were seen on more than one occasion, while another three were photographed at different points along the migration path in the one season. Beeman made note of one whale that was photographed as it travelled south through Byron Bay, then again three days later off Ballina, only 30 kilometres away.

“The explanation for its very slow travel speed may be found in a recent paper by Dr Daniel Burns and colleagues from the Marine Ecology Research Centre, where it is thought that some southbound whales, probably males, circle back north at different points as they search for increased mating opportunities,” she said.

Professor Harrison was pleased to say that the east coast humpback whale population is now growing as a result of protection from commercial whaling.

“Now this population has reached about 20,000 whales, it’s a perfect opportunity for more people to see and photograph these whales, and images submitted to the website can help our research to better understand the ecology of these spectacular whales so we can continue to improve management in future,” he said.

For more information on the project and to contribute photos, visit

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