Tagging along with minkes
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.
TRACKING: Following the four minke whales