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Citizen science in action during Victorian whale watching season

Date: 15-Jul-20
Author: Liam Taylor

Southern right whales are easily identifiable by the unique skin growths called callosities that grow on their heads.

Southern right whales are easily identifiable by the unique skin growths called callosities that grow on their heads.

Volunteers are making critical contributions to our understanding of a fascinating and critically endangered sub-species of the southern right whale. 

The majority of Australia’s population of southern right whales now live on the southwestern coast, but a separate genetically distinct group on the southeastern coast once numbered almost 20,000. In the years leading up to an international ban on the species’ whaling, numbers fell to lower than 300 animals.

For many years little was known about the mammals’ recovery following the ban, but now volunteers at Warrnambool and Portland are making important contributions to our understanding of the species. Dozens of volunteers have been meticulously documenting the whales with photographs and recordings to identify how the population is faring.

The species’ migrating route brings it from Antarctic waters to the coastline of south-eastern Australia between autumn and spring each year, where they stop to nurse their young. The whales are comfortable in shallow waters, allowing easy viewing from the coast.

For the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) natural environment program, which first established a photo identification catalogue for the southern right whale population twenty-five years ago, this is significant. The department used to largely rely on aircraft to photograph the whales to check on numbers, but now the notes and photographs provided by volunteers serve as a crucial resource.

"The last three years of data collection by these citizen scientists, we've had about 40 identifications contributed each year," DELWP program officer Mandy Watson told ABC News.

"It's a pretty significant increase on what we'd be able to do through monthly flights capturing whatever's in the area."

Some volunteers have been photographing whales for years in the area and they want to see the population of these whales grow to its former levels. In a positive sign for the species’ recovery, the whale watching community in Portland recently sighted a whale calf with its mother off the coast.


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Liam                                              Taylor
Author: Liam Taylor

Prior to joining Planet Ark Liam spent his time studying global environmental issues, travelling Southeast Asia on the cheap and working for a sustainable property management company in Bali, Indonesia. Joining the communications team at Planet Ark, he hopes to inspire positive environmental behaviour through effective and positive messaging.

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