Nineteenth century whaling almost wiped out all southern right whales in Australian waters. An estimated 55,000 to 70,000 cruised the Southern Hemisphere in the late 1700s. By the 1920s, fewer than 300 remained.
Now listed as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, protection measures have seen numbers increase to an estimated 3,500 individuals. But the recovery has not been consistent across the species range and some whale populations remain at considerable risk. We also know very little about their migratory and feeding habitat, and calving areas have been poorly studied.
Enter WWF and the Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit, which is using innovative technology to do some clever detective work. The research team is using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs/drones) to measure the body condition of southern right whales off the Head of the Bight in South Australia, an important nursing ground. We're keen to better understand how the health of this population relates to reproduction, calf condition and growth after long migrations from the Southern Ocean.
UAVs flying above surfacing whales are taking aerial photographs, from which we'll extract measurements to estimate an index for body condition. This will be assessed in relation to the success of raising calves. Murdoch University has also created a smart model to predict the human impacts on baleen whales such as southern right whales, and this will form a baseline for future work that monitors krill stocks using whale body conditions.
Southern right whales face a number of threats, including the risks posed by shipping traffic, naval activities, oil and gas exploration, unregulated whale watching and the depletion of fisheries.
UAVs are an exciting, emerging technology for whale research. The feeding habitat of the southern right whale is poorly known and studied in the Southern Ocean. This research will provide new insights into how right whales survive the yearly epic migration from the Southern Ocean and monitor their ongoing health over time in a changing environment.
WWF-Australia Oceans Science Manager
- With a lifespan of up to 100 years, the southern right whale is one of the longest lived whale species. The Arctic bowhead whale has the longest estimated lifespan, of 200 years.
- With a head measuring up to one-third the length of its body, the southern right whale has one of the largest heads of all whale species.
- A fully grown southern right whale can weigh as much as eight adult African elephants.
TIMELINE OF ACTION
- June 15, 2016: Start of the field work in South Australia
- July - September 2016: Field research with UAVs (drones)
- November 2016: Final report for WWF
- November 2017: Research publication