RESEARCH

MAKING WHALE WATCHING COUNT FOR CONSERVATION

Naturaliste Charters aims to ensure our amazing experiences make a positive contribution to conservation of the wildlife and pristine marine environment that underpins everything we do.  We are an innovator in the industry in facilitating research opportunities on board our vessels, and in providing award winning education experiences. 

We thrive on involving our guests in activities on board that contribute to research and support longer term conservations efforts, and in helping our guests realise their own importance in protecting our oceans.  

We provide in-kind and financial support to a variety of research projects,  hosting research personnel on board at all locations where they collect valuable information enhance the experience of our guests. We record and collect data ourselves too, including recording sightings, photographic identification and water quality information which contributes to understanding of  species encountered and the broader marine environment. All sightings data are collated and submitted to research projects or databases.

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PHOTOGRAPHIC IDENTIFICATION

 

One of the most valuable and non invasive tools to learn about whale and dolphin populations is to use photographic identification. All species are highly mobile, and may only be in an area for a short period of time.  Others are found far from shore and some  whales undertake migrations of epic proportions, all factors that make them difficult to study. 

 

Fortunately, individual whales and dolphins (cetaceans) differ in their physical appearance just like humans. The differences are easy to spot once you know what to look for.  Markings such as colouration, scars, nicks and notches in fins and flukes and variations in body markings can be used like fingerprints in humans to identify individuals.  Below we look at the characteristics researchers use to identify the cetaceans we encounter.

KILLER WHALE (ORCA)

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Killer whales (orca) are identified by variations in nicks and notches in the dorsal fin, variations in dorsal fin shape and size and variations in the shape of the white eyepatch and the grey marking behind the dorsal fin called the saddle patch. 

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HUMPBACK WHALES

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Humpback whales are identified by variations in colour patterns of the ventral side of the fluke (tail) and/or of dorsal fin and flank. 

SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALES

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 Southern Right Whales are identified by the patches of callosities on the head. These are specialised, roughened patches of skin. About 5% of the right whale population in Western Australia has an unusual, mottled pale skin coloration.  Blue whales have distinctive dorsal fin shapes, fluke markings and mottling on their flanks that allow individuals to be identified. 

SPERM WHALES

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Sperm whales can be identified by the variations in nicks and notches on the trailing edge of their flukes (tail). Adult males are much larger than females, and can also be distinguished by the presence or absence of calluses on the dorsal hump. A large percentage of females (about 85%) have calluses, whereas males almost never have them.

FALSE KILLER WHALES AND OTHER DOLPHINS

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Over time, information from photographic identification studies provides a wealth of information about whales and dolphins including:

  • population size

  • survival rates

  • reproduction

  • social organisation

We have a photographer on board all Bremer Canyon expeditions and we supply photographs of all cetacean species to research institutions and national and international databases to contribute to building an understanding of some of the southern oceans most iconic species. Our guests are also invited to contribute to this important citizen science initiative by donating their photos taken on board from all of our operating locations.  You can view the catalog of the Killer Whales of the Bremer Canyon and learn more about the research here.

PASSIVE ACOUSTIC MONITORING

 

Killer Whales (orca) live in family pods, each having their own unique dialect or range of sounds. In other parts of the world, researchers have been listening to killer whales for generations and are able to recognise family pods by their vocalisations. 

 Naturaliste Charters has hosted researchers on board our expeditions recording the vocalisations of the Bremer Canyon killer whales. This has already provided some very interesting information about this little studied population, and is an important tool to learn more about individuals, populations and movement patters,  providing  the basis for future management and conservation. You can read more about the research here.

 

We eavesdrop on sperm whale conversations too. It helps us locate them and more importantly will help us learn more about them. The last sperm whale was hunted from the whaling station at Albany in 1978. Since that time there has been no assessment or monitoring of the recovery of this iconic species. Sperm whales vocalise to communicate with sequences of clicks and creaks called codas and have different dialects in different geographical locations just like orca. Researchers in some locations are able to identify individual sperm whales by their vocalisations. 

 

Acoustic monitoring is proving to be a useful tool to learn about the lives of the Bremer Canyon sperm whale population, as it can be difficult to  identify and keep track of who is who, and who is where with just a camera. This is because they are out of sight more often than not, spending roughly 83% of their time underwater. They are one of the deepest diving whales, descending thousands of meters in a single dive, and staying submerged for as long as two hours at a time. Being able to hear where they are helps to locate them, and anticipate surfacing, allowing us to be int eh right place at the right time when they surface, which also allows more reliable collection of other information such as photographs for identification.

Underwater Killer Whales -
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Killer Whales -
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PELAGIC SEABIRD SURVEYS

 

Each season, pelagic seabird surveys are conducted on board our tours and expeditions. Surveys record the distribution and abundance of seabird species encountered. Specific research into the seabird/cetacean ecology is also carried out on Bremer Canyon expeditions to investigate the contribution of predation by cetaceans to the pelagic seabird diet and their role in the ecosystem dynamics. Rare seabird species are sighted throughout the season including Black Bellied Storm Petrels, Barau’s Petrel. On 17 April 2016 the only official sighting of the critically endangered Amsterdam Albatross in Australian waters was recorded, another sighting was recorded in 2017. 

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WATER QUALITY

 

We record routine water quality measurements which include temperature, oxygen concentrations, salinity and pH in order to obtain a seasonal profile of changing conditions and quality of our coastal waters and the offshore marine environment. Water samples and also collected for analysis of the plankton, the microscopic community of plants and animals that are the foundation of the oceanic food chain, supporting that apex predators that include killer whales (orca), sperm whales and sharks.

 

We also contribute to Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS), a  national research initiative supported by the Australian Government that is observing and collecting information at ocean-basin and regional scales, and covering physical, chemical and biological variables.

It is operated by a consortium of institutions in partnership with the CSIRO, Australian Institute of Marine Science, Bureau of Meteorology. 

IMOS partners deploy equipment that collects and delivers data streams for use by the entire Australian marine and climate science community and its international collaborators. We deploy and manage monitoring equipment from our vessels in partnership with the University of Western Australia such as ocean gliders as part of this initiative.

 

Ocean gliders are autonomous underwater ocean instruments that look rather like a torpedo. These  undertake measurements from shelf and boundary currents in Australian waters.  As traditional ship-based oceanographic observations are expensive and time consuming, the development of autonomous ocean gliders to sample the marine environment represents a technological revolution for oceanography.  The gliders are relatively cheap, reusable and can be remotely controlled, making them a relatively cost-effective method for collecting repeat subsurface ocean observations.  They also allow for the acquisition of data under inclement weather conditions. Equipped with a variety of sensors, the gliders are designed to deliver ocean profile data.  Furthermore, the unique design of the gliders enables them to move horizontally through the water while collecting vertical profiles.  The use of these gliders provides a unique opportunity to effectively measure the boundary currents off Australia, which are the main link between open-ocean and coastal processes.  The Ocean Gliders facility operates a number of gliders with target regions including the Coral Sea, East Australian Current off New South Wales and Tasmania, Southern Ocean southwest of Tasmania, the Leeuwin and Capes Currents off South Western Australia and the Pilbara and Kimberly regions off North Western Australia.

You can read more here http://imos.org.au/facilities/oceangliders/

CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

 

We are privileged to have an amazing array of whales and dolphins that live in or migrate through our waters. Such an abundance of species provides a fabulous opportunity for people to have high quality whale and dolphin watching experiences, and to have the opportunity to promote a sustainable industry that allows the public to view and learn about these animals in their natural habitat.

 

Associated with this is the responsibility to ensure that potential impacts from watching whales and dolphins are managed appropriately. We operate our vessels around all marine wildlife with a care born of long experience, and with respect to the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching. In addition, we also collect data that will help us to continually measure the environmental sustainability of whale watching from boats off the south-west of Western Australia. 

 

We have initiated and support independent research that is carried out on board our vessels, and also gather information that will specifically help us determine what impact whale watching from boats has on the animals we view. Some of the parameters we examine include surfacing frequency, surfacing behaviour, spatial movements in relation to the vessel and time taken during the surfacing sequence. Our ultimate goal is to ensure our activities provide an experience that does not impact negatively on the whales and dolphins we assist our gusts to view, enjoy, understand and conserve.