4th June 2021

Media Release 4th June 2021

WHALE RESEARCH BOOST FOR SOUTH WEST                                    4 June, 2021

A new company announced in Busselton today plans to spearhead support for professional research on the whale migration through Geographe Bay in Western Australia’s South West.

Chair Frank Eckler said Geographe Marine Research aimed to protect whales and their environment in the South West through raising more funds for targeted research and the development of new liaisons with other whale research groups in Australia and overseas.

“Research has been underway from a land base in Geographe Bay since 2004, undertaken by trained local volunteers and small organisations.  As research technology becomes more complex, it grows beyond the capability of volunteer groups to finance.  That inability to raise adequate funding has been a major barrier in benefiting from the efforts made to date,” Mr Eckler said.

“We have four baleen whale species passing through Geographe Bay every year including Blue, Southern Right, Humpback and Minke whales during their southern migration season from July through to December.

“It’s clear their numbers along our South West coast are recovering.  That’s encouraging, but it’s now vitally important we are more proactive and professional in assisting them with better support mechanisms for the research,” Mr Eckler said.

“We also must have the statistics and evidence to support more protection of their habitats as they move along our Western Australian coast,” he said.

Mr Eckler said the Company hoped to attract sponsorship support from local companies and corporations for the work ahead. “Public donations can also be made via our company website.  All donations are tax deductible.”

Company director Chris Burton said that since 2004, trained local volunteers and researchers associated with Geographe Marine Research had spent about 20,000 hours collecting and analysing observation data, together with photo and video identification. 

Mr Burton has been a Director of Western Whale Research for 18 years, taking a lead role in organising local volunteer whale watchers, data collection and analysis.   

“I’ve joined Geographe Marine Research from the beginning as I see the company as the way forward in harnessing resources to enable more studies and protection for our whales,” Mr Burton said.

“There are still many answers we need about the migratory patterns of whales, the impact of climate change on their populations, movements and food sources in the coming years.  Currently, for instance, there is an urgent need to study the implications of human interference on Southern Right whales, especially mother calf pairs, particularly in the Geographe Bay, Smiths Beach, Yallingup and Injidup areas.

“In recent years Southern Rights have been migrating further north along our coast as far as Perth, with the mothers resting with their young in small bays en route.  Unfortunately, their presence attracts recreational vessels that disturb them and they are forced to move on.  Little is known about the impact this disturbance has on the survival rate of the young calves,” he said.

Geographe Marine Research is a CSIRO Approved Research Institute and has ATO Deductible Gift Recipient status.  It is a not for profit company.

4th June, 2021

MEDIA STATEMENT FACT SHEET – Geographe Marine Research Limited (GMR)

  • Geographe Marine Research Limited (GMR) has been established with a Board of Directors and a separate Research Committee by volunteers and stakeholders to provide a professional organisational and financial basis for vital ongoing research.
  • The volunteers taking part in an annual monitoring program observing whales passing Point Picquet near Meelup Beach include people from Bunbury, Perth, Busselton, Eagle Bay, and Dunsborough, and will continue with GMR in the long term whale monitoring project in Geographe Bay.
  • As the technology used has become more complex, it has grown beyond the capability of volunteer groups to finance.

PRINCIPAL COMPANY OBJECTIVES:

  • To understand the global importance of Western Australia’s Cape Naturaliste area with respect to cetaceans (whales, dolphins), as well as pinnipeds such as fur seals.
  • Develop GMR into a structured organisation capable of growth by attracting funding support for delivering projects, attracting researchers, PhD students and more volunteers.
  • Improve and apply cutting edge technology to the identification, tracking and monitoring of whales, and the understanding of their behaviour.
  • Examine the impact of climate change and human interactions, including watercraft, on these mammals.
  • Expand current objectives beyond the Geographe/Cape Naturaliste area to other WA areas.
  • Conduct outreach and education to convey the results of this research to the community, wildlife managers and government.

WHALE DATA AND THE NEED TO FUND MORE RESEARCH

  • The data collected is growing exponentially with new research programs proposed to closely monitor numbers of each species of whale.  It is vital that historical data and ongoing research have access to appropriate analysis techniques, with the results published in peer reviewed journals.  This will provide stakeholders and managers with access to vital information for their decision making in relation to the conservation of whales and to ensure ongoing protection is in place.
  • The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) has greatly enhanced the Geographe Bay research program in recent years. A laser-based system has been developed for use with a drone by Dunsborough volunteer and GMR Director, Ian Wiese, to enable more accurate whale measurements.  (note: Ian Wiese is available for media interviews).
  • Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM).

              Acoustic data loggers were deployed in Geographe Bay between 2010-2014 to   record the          calls and songs of passing whales. Since the initial deployment, more than 12 papers using the acoustic data have been published in peer-reviewed journals or presented at             scientific conferences.

              Geographe Marine Research Ltd will undertake further work in this field. For example,   additional deployment of acoustic loggers will provide data for an assessment of any changes             in the underwater noise environment, including from boat traffic, and human impacts on whales in Geographe Bay.

  • Theodolite Tracking.

              In 2010, a 5 year theodolite tracking study began in Geographe Bay. The theodolite allows accurate tracking of whales and whale watching boats. By combining tracking and               acoustic platforms, the research allowed for a wide range of behavioural       information to be             collected.  This information included improvements in acoustic abundance estimates and    assessment of the effectiveness of pingers on craypot traps in deterring whales to         reduce entanglement risk. This work has resulted in several peer-reviewed papers and        reports, including one analysing the impact of boats on blue whale behaviour in Geographe         Bay and another by the Dept. of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones)

              Authorised drones also are now being used to compliment the monitoring research        (under permits from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions).

              These drones have become a very important tool for confirming species’ pod size and              composition, and in identifying whale behaviours and mixed-species interactions.                They also have enabled accurate identification of individual Southern Right Whales,            enabling the determination of residency time within Geographe Bay.

  • Photogrammetry

Drone images and videos were used during the 2020 whale season to provide measurements of key whale parameters such as total length and body width. These               measurements allow important analysis of body condition and the relative size between   mothers and calves.

  • WHALE STATISTICS FOR GEOGRAPHE BAY

We only see in Geographe Bay an estimated 15% of the total numbers of humpbacks that are on their southward’s migration. The rest presumably go past out to sea.

In 2018 more than 4000 humpbacks were spotted by monitors in Geographe Bay.

  • In the last few years, there have been declining humpback numbers despite increasing monitoring hours. We don’t know if this is a concern or whether they have simply decided to travel further offshore.
  • Pygmy Blue Whales in the Bay numbers are variable and range from 100 per annum to 290 . We don’t know the total population, so at present it is difficult to understand the significance of these numbers. Pygmy Blue whales are critically endangered.
  • Southern Right Whales – the species of most concern at present.  In the early 2000’s we would be lucky to see one. In the last few years, there have been up to 100 sightings a season.  However, Southern Right Whales can remain resident for some time, so many of these sightings could be of the same whale. We estimate that we see approximately 30 individuals per annum over recent years. Southern Right whales are critically endangered. The current concern centres on the impact on them by watercraft approaching closer than the DBCA regulations permit.
  • We see around 12 -20 minke whales a year. Very little is known about them in Geographe Bay to date. Any increase in sightings is possibly due to the fact that whale monitors are getting better at spotting them, rather than population growth.

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