Minke whales tagged and tracked - a world first!

July 14, 2013


Four dwarf minke whales have been tagged and tracked through a unique collaboration between marine scientists and Eye to Eye Marine Encounters, an adventure ecotourism company.


The whales were tagged in the northern Great Barrier Reef last month and are now being tracked as they race down the east coast of Australia.


James Cook University’s Dr Alastair Birtles, who has been studying the dwarf minke whales for 18 years as they gather each winter off Lizard Island in northern Queensland, said that the pilot study was an attempt to solve one of the great mysteries of the oceans: Where do dwarf minkes go after wintering in the Great Barrier Reef?


 “Although they occur all around the Southern Hemisphere, the GBR hosts the world’s only known predictable aggregation of these exquisitely beautiful little whales,” Dr Birtles said.


A multi-million dollar swim-with-whales ecotourism industry has emerged over the past 20 years that for a few weeks each year provides a thousand or so fortunate people with extraordinary, often life-changing wildlife encounters. Eye to Eye Marine Encounters pioneered this industry in 1996 and continues to offer 4-6 day expeditions to swim with the ‘world’s friendliest whale’ each June/July.


The successful tagging was achieved at the end of the 18th consecutive Minke field research season for the JCU-based Minke Whale Project, lead by Dr Birtles and the CSIRO’s Dr Matt Curnock, working in conjunction with John Rumney of Eye to Eye Marine Encounters.


“We were joined this year by Dr Russ Andrews of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska SeaLife Center, a world renowned telemetry expert who has previously been involved in tagging over 20 species of marine mammals,” Dr Birtles said.


The pilot study was conducted from the state-of-the-art Research VesselWhale Song on the invitation of its operators Curt and Micheline Jenner of the Western Australian Centre for Whale Research. The small LIMPET tags, about the size of a matchbox, are designed to be minimally-invasive and are attached to the dorsal fin with two medical-grade titanium darts 4mm in diameter. Dr Andrews said that the darts eventually fall out and their fins heal over completely afterwards.


The transmitters were attached to the four whales on July 13 and 14 during two long days in the water with a large group of whales at the top of Ribbon Reef #10 east of Lizard Island onthe outer barrier of the northern GBR.


On Monday (August 12), the first whale to be tagged (MWsat1) a young male called ‘Spot’, had left the GBR far behind and was speeding south along the edge of the continental shelf off Sydney, having covered an amazing journey - so far - of almost 3,000 km in less than 30 days.  Not far behind him was a female known as ‘Deep Scars’ (MWsat3) and a third whale called ‘High White’ (MWsat2) was circling in the GBR lagoon east of Shoalwater Bay.


The last whale, a female called ‘Grey Waves’ (MWsat 4), initially appeared reluctant to leave the northern reefs but had started to travel faster along the shelf margin and was north east of Townsville.


“Tracking them via the ARGOS website is proving one of the most exciting experiences of my research career,” Dr Birtles said.  “Their tracks have transformed our understanding of the movements of these animals which up to this point we had only documented by divers re-sighting them and taking underwater photographs of their unique colour patterns, which we use to identify individual animals”.  


“They have now been on for a month, which is about the average duration of attachment for the 20 species of cetaceans that Dr Andrews has been involved in tagging,” Dr Birtles said. “But we are hoping that they stay on long enough to see where the the whales go when they leave Australian waters.”




Locations visited

Lizard Island


Whales, Dolphins & Seals 1 species
Northern Minke Whale, Dwarf Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) 1



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