Feeding humpbacks, dwarf minke whales and plenty of dolphins and seals have been sighted around Eden as research scientists prepare for five weeks of fieldwork on humpback whales and their prey.
This year has some new developments for the SURFAR team (Surface and Underwater Research on Feeding Australian Humpback whales), including 3D mapping of krill and fish distribution, a new whale spotting pad at the top of Boyd’s Tower and a bigger, twin engine boat.
The scientists hope to understand how prey density affects the distribution of feeding humpback whales along the coast near Eden, which is the only known place that whales feed during migration. Last year they explored how whales fed in synchronicity and how they communicated their attack.
Representing five countries, SURFAH is led by PhD student Kylie Owen from the Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratory and the University of Queensland and Blue Planet Marine representative David Donnelly.
This year Ms Owen’s insights into humpback feeding behaviour will have a new dimension with the inclusion of an echo sounder which will record the 3D distribution of the prey the whales are targeting.
The equipment and the expertise to operate it, is the field of new team member Associate Professor Joe Warren of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences in Stony Brook University in the US.
He specialises in acoustical oceanography, zooplankton behaviour and ecology.
Ms Owen said the echo sounder will be towed behind their research boat RV Blackfish.
“It’ll mean we have a greater understanding about what prey is available to the whales,” she said.
The underwater movements and sounds made by the whales will again be gathered via suction cupped DTAGS.
This year, location by DTAG will be another new source of data for Ms Owen.
“We have a new tag this year, a GPS tag so that whenever the whales surface we can get their position,” she said.
A land based team atop Boyd’s Tower will also gather data about whales’ movements using a theodolite.
It is the first time dedicated whale observations will take place from Boyd’s Tower since the 1930s.
Ms Owen said National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) had put in a floor and trained the team to safely climb the tower.
“NPWS assisted us greatly by getting a floor put in and gave us special permission and training to be up the top,” she said.
“It’s a really great view!”
Biopsy samples will also be gathered and analysed at the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre’s wet lab where Ms Owen made a presentation on her work last night (Wednesday).
She has entered the final year of her PhD but hopes to continue her work in Eden.
“All going well this will be my last season for the PhD work, but my lab is keen to continue work in this area,” she said.
“It’s a good area with a lot going on and we’d like to continue coming here.”