Since 2004 a group of dedicated volunteers have been recording the location, species, and behaviour of whales passing Pt Picquet from July to December. This has resulted in one of the longest continuous records of whale migration that has been undertaken in Australia and is a treasure trove for researchers. One of GMR’s highest priority projects is to assist the researchers analyse this data.

Volunteers try to cover as many of the daylight hours 7 days a week as they can.

A volunteer’s perspective . Some stories from the monitoring site.

on sunny days
Gannet Rock in a storm

The volunteers get to see some amazing sights. Often whales will pass within meters of the rocks. The humpbacks in particular put on amazing displays of breaching, tail slapping and other acrobatics. Visitors often ask what the purpose of these displays are. It is obvious that the whales enjoy it, but it may well be a means of long distance communication. When we see a whale breeching, we often see another whale somewhere else in the bay breaching. We have seen calves who are likely to have lost visual contact with their mothers breech continuously, perhaps until they hear their mothers respond. Southern right whales also breach, but not as often as the humpbacks.

Humpback

The volunteers become knowledgeable about the species of whales that pass and many visitors come to the monitoring site to ask questions and learn, or to find out where to look for whales.

Monitoring with public viewing

Once on a fairly quiet day the volunteers were informed by a whale watch tour boat that there was a pod of blue whales passing them around 10 kms to the east. This was about 3:30 in the afternoon, and the Estimated Time of Arrival at the monitoring station was given as 90 minutes. From that point on everyone who came and asked were there any whales was told “Not just now but some blue whales are coming at 5 o’clock”. At 5:00 a group of about 20 tourists were lined up looking towards the east. The blue whales appeared 5:03 and the tourists thought the volunteers had special “powers” to communicate with the whales!

In winter when the conditions are right a small surf break occurs on the point, and many surfers especially children enjoy the break. Occasionally we have seen a mother and calf humpback approach under water and stay still quietly watching the surfers before slowly turning away. The surfers are usually unaware they have been observed.

One year a school excursion from a Mandurah school came to visit and the senior school students went kayaking. They had rafted up when a pod of 3 humpbacks came to investigate. The whales crossed in front of them and then unexpectedly turned and swam directly under the rafted kayaks. (Although this may have been technically in breach of DBCA regulations, the students had no chance of avoiding the situation!) The students will never forget that day, and the school has this photo on permanent display in their foyer.

In one instance a SRW provided whatt appeared to be a “baby sitting” service for another mother who wanted some rest. The substitute mother looked after the calf while the mother went for a rest.

when kayak riders get close to southern right

Drones

In recent years drones have become an important part of the research. The drones operate under a permit from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), in particular from the Parks and Wildlife section. Without a permit drones are not allowed to fly within 60m of a whale. Initially drones were used to assist the volunteers monitor the passing whales by checking on species, and numbers, and providing location information. The drones have proven to be far more useful than first anticipated. They provide a means of identifying individual whales using Photo ID of Southern Right Whales. This is immeasurably more useful than land based photos because they clearly show all the callosities (which look like white patches on the head) on both sides of the animal in a single photo. The behaviour of the whales can be observed without disturbing the whales. We have film of SRWs mating, feeding their calves, and interacting with humpback whales and dolphins.

Drone operator looking for a safe takeoff point away from crowds.

More recently the drone research has started using photogrammetry to measure body characteristics and condition, and a low cost Lidar attachment has been developed to allow accurate measurements of lengths to be taken.

Lidar system in use

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