Tag­ging along with minkes

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - Rod Kil­ner

WORLD first re­search in Far North Queens­land is un­lock­ing the se­crets of the dwarf minke whale’s mi­gra­tory pat­terns.

In June and July this year, award win­ning eco tourism op­er­a­tor Eye to Eye Ma­rine En­coun­ters, with re­searchers and bi­ol­o­gists on board, at­tached four lo­ca­tion tags to minke whales.

James Cook Univer­sity’s Dr Alas­tair Bir­tles has formed a close work­ing re­la­tion­ship with John Rum­ney’s Eye to Eye, and both have been re­search­ing the minke whale for 18 years.

The whales gather each win­ter off Lizard Is­land in north­ern Queens­land, and the re­search is an at­tempt to solve one of the great mys­ter­ies of the oceans – where do dwarf minkes go af­ter win­ter­ing on 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.

For John Rum­ney, also a found­ing mem­ber of the Minke Whale Project, his fas­ci­na­tion and love of the species is easy to ex­plain.

‘‘They are prob­a­bly the friendli­est whale on the planet,’’ Mr Rum­ney told the Gazette.

‘‘Un­like so many other whale en­coun­ters, the dwarf minke seek us out, and can come as close as three me­tres, and for guests and re­searchers alike in the wa­ter, it’s an awe­some ex­pe­ri­ence meet­ing th­ese whales eye to eye.

‘‘If we see them we sim­ply shut down the en­gines and wait for them to come up and greet us.’’

The whales, mostly five to seven me­tres in length, went un­no­ticed in the GBR by both sci­en­tists and reef man­agers un­til the 1980s.

‘‘While we’ve been ac­tively re­search­ing the minkes for 18 years, we’ve held off try­ing to tag them un­til a small non­in­va­sive tag was de­vel­oped,’’ Dr Bir­tles told the Gazette.

‘‘This year, small limpet tags, very thin and about the size of a match­box, be­came avail­able.

‘‘They’re de­signed to be min­i­mally in­va­sive and are at­tached to the dor­sal fin with two med­i­cal- grade ti­ta­nium darts 4mm in di­am­e­ter.’’

Re­searchers were helped this year by Dr Russ An­drews of the Univer­sity of Alaska Fair­banks and the Alaska SeaL­ife Center, a world renowned teleme­try ex­pert.

Dr An­drews had pre­vi­ously been in­volved in tag­ging over 20 species of ma­rine mam­mals.

At­tach­ing the four tags was not dif­fi­cult, but plenty of pa­tience was needed wait­ing for the minkes to come close enough.

For two of the tag teams, that meant be­ing in the wa­ter on suc­ces­sive days for up to 10 hours.

The prob­lem with the tags is that they have a short life, last­ing per­haps a month.

One of the tags was lost at the south­ern end of the GBR, another cou­ple in Bass Strait, while the last failed deep in the sub-Antarc­tic.

‘‘It’s early days, and we’re still analysing the data from the tags,’’ Dr Bir­tles said

‘‘But al­ready there is some ex­cit­ing new data where it’s hoped we can as­cer­tain what sort of en­vi­ron­ments are im­por­tant to the minke, and also what might present a dan­ger to them.’’

The pi­lot tag­ging pro­gram was self-funded this year, and the group is look­ing for fund­ing to ex­pand the pro­gram next year.

Pic­ture: MINKE WHALE PROJECT

TRACK­ING: Fol­low­ing the four minke whales

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