Whale Watching for Citizen Scientists

Whale Watching - breaching

Join the fun of whale watching and citizen science

Attention citizen scientists! Now’s your chance to join the fun of collecting data while out whale watching and helping researchers better understand our world.

Don’t know what citizen science is?

Citizen science is the new way for people to get involved in science and make their own contributions through observations with simple tools like cameras, notebooks or smartphones.

Oceania Project founder Dr Wally Franklin, who spoke at the University of Sunshine Coast’s Creating Waves session in Hervey Bay, has put the call out for everyone with a passion for our natural environment and whale watching to get involved.

You don’t need to have a science degree; just a passion for the natural environment and a willingness to help professional scientists with their research.

There’s nothing more satisfying than knowing that your efforts helped reveal some important information about wildlife behaviour.

Creating Waves was hosted by Fraser Coast Tourism & Events, Hervey Bay Whale Heritage Site Steering Committee and USC as part of the 2022 Hervey Bay Whale Festival.

Guests heard from those who were uniquely connected to Australia’s Humpback Whales, including the Butchulla people.



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Whale Watching - Humpback with baby

Humpback Whale with its baby. PHOTO: Shutterstock

Whale watching with Happy Whale

“Here in Hervey Bay, there can be up to 80,000 people a year taking digital cameras onboard whale watching tours, putting them in a prime position to help researchers study these amazing creatures,” Dr Wally said.

“There are great opportunities for citizens to become involved in the science of the whales of eastern Australia, in particular the Humpback Whale.

At Creating Waves, Dr Wally spoke about Happy Whale and its collaboration with the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium, which investigates the status of Humpback Whales.

Happy Whale is an algorithm-based photo-matching platform that engages citizen scientists to help identify marine mammals by matching their photos with actual animals.

Dr Wally said the country that surrounded Hervey Bay waters where the whales came to visit every year had, for many generations, been cared for by the Butchulla people.

“The whales’ habitat is extremely fragile, so the care of the country surrounding it is critically important,” he said.

When Dr Wally and his wife Dr Trish Franklin first came to Hervey Bay over 30 years ago, research revealed Humpback Whales were using the eastern waters of Hervey Bay against K’gari (Fraser Island).

“Although there was some interesting science being done, there was insufficient data to determine who the whales were that were using Hervey Bay and why they were using the area,” Dr Wally said.

“Trish immediately saw the opportunity to address that fundamental question of who are the ones using Hervey Bay and why are they using Hervey Bay.

“To do that, she put in place a long-term study, between 1992 and 2017, based on a search technique called photo identification.

“We did 10 weeks each year out on the Bay, staying out overnight for five nights, six days every week.

“In that period, Trish observed, photographed, and recorded information on pods and individual Humpback Whales.”

Photographing flukes

“From the outset, Trish systematically photographed the underside of whale tails, the flukes,” Dr Wally said.

Whale watching - fluke

Humpback Whale fluke. PHOTO: Shutterstock

“A good example is the fluke of a whale called Nala (known locally as the pride of Hervey Bay), who we’ve been watching for over 30 years.

“She’s a regular visitor to Hervey Bay and has been bringing her calves back here almost every other year.

“Trish also realised that when you were watching a whale, what you see more often than not was the waffle side of the whale and the tail flip.

“The fluke is a fingerprint that could be used as a means of identification.

“It was possible to identify 100% of the individuals, which makes it a very useful means of studying the whales.

“The analysis of all that photography yielded a Hervey Bay Blue catalogue comprising individual whales.

“From those observations, she extracted the life histories of individual whales. She began naming the whales as an aide to memorizing them.

“How we funded the research was to invite people to pay, come and help us with the research.

“The work she did, produced one of the largest photo ID data sets in the Southern Hemisphere.

“In 2012, when she finished the work, it represented about 10% of the population, which was a very adequate sample to begin the studies.

“That data enabled Trish and me to study pod characteristics, social organisation, biology, social behaviour, abundance, population dynamics, and movements.

“So clinical verification turned out to be quite a powerful means of study.”

Female bias is unique to Hervey Bay

Dr Wally said that from all that data, Dr Trish worked out that in Hervey Bay there were three females for every male that visited the area.

“Hervey Bay is a predominantly female area from mid-July through to early November,” he said.

“The Bay is dominated by mature pregnant and lactating females who are bringing their new calves to the Bay.

“Operators of whale-watching tours say the whales absolutely love hugging the boats, which makes Hervey Bay one of the most fantastic whale-watching locations in the world.

“Overall, only a few mature males use the Bay.

“In the northern hemisphere, nobody has recorded female biases with Humpback Whales, so it’s something unique in the southern hemisphere, and very unique to Hervey Bay.”



Whale Watching - Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale. PHOTO: Shutterstock

Why do Humpback Whales use Hervey Bay?

Hervey Bay is a suitable early stopover located just below the predominant whale breeding grounds of the Whitsundays Islands near Mackay and Rockhampton,” Dr Wally said.

“Humpback Whales are born in Australian waters, so they are Australian.

“They go to Antarctica for food and return every year to their home to carry out their ceremonies and sing their songs.

“Hervey Bay’s shallow protected waters against the shoreline of K’gari (Fraser Island) is one of the key things that provide avoidance for the mature females from some males that cause harassment.

“But (the males) are very organized in their harassment, but that’s another subject!

“Hervey Bay waters also provide an opportunity for physical and social development of young whales. The average stay is two weeks.”

Dorsal fins also provide identification

“Dorsal fins are as individual as flukes, although until now, all the work has been done using flukes,” Dr Wally said.

“However, in recent years, advances in the computer processing of images and the development of AI algorithm-matching techniques made it possible to consider incorporating not only flukes, but dorsal fins and lateral bodies as well.

“Such techniques are now web-based and cloud-based and provide means for scientists to match extremely large data sets.

“As Trish explored this system, she came across groups in North America that she started working with, including Happy Whale, which provides long-term secure storage of data.

“These algorithm platforms, which are open-access platforms, mean citizen science is possible on all the whale watch vessels, not only in Hervey Bay, but along the whole east coast of Australia.”

Photo ID extends Bluebell’s records by 11 years

Dr Trish developed an 11-year history between 2003 and 2011 of a whale called Bluebell that showed Bluebell’s dorsal shape and blue patterns hadn’t changed in that time.

“On 7 August 2022, Bluebell was again captured on camera,” Dr Wally said.

“The photo was loaded into Happy Whale that night and almost immediately an email came back matching Dr Trish’s pictures of Bluebell.

“So, one photograph being loaded onto Happy Whale extended the life history of that whale a further 11 years. That’s an amazing step in knowledge and understanding.

“If we have people on the whole of the east coast of Australia, including Hervey Bay, taking pictures of these whales and getting them onto that platform, we can end up with an absolutely incredible data set to work with.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for citizen scientists.”

Baby Humpback Whale. PHOTO: Shutterstock

Be a whale-watching citizen scientist

So, if you’re looking for a fun way to help researchers learn more about whales and their habitats, while also getting some amazing whale watching in, Happy Whale is the perfect citizen science project for you.

Visit their website today to sign up and start collecting data while out whale watching!


If you enjoyed this story, you might also like Whales Ahoy! Get Ready to Swim with Whales




TOP 9 Hervey Bay Whale-Watching Tours

  1. Whalesong Cruises
  2. Tasman Venture Whale-Watching Cruise
  3. Tasman Venture – Remote Fraser Island and Whale Experience
  4. Hervey Bay Ultimate Whale-Watching Cruise
  5. Freedom Whale Watch
  6. Spirit of Hervey Bay
  7. Hervey Bay Dive Centre
  8. Boat Club Adventure Cruises
  9. Blue Dolphin Marine Tours

*Source: Tripadvisor

Whale Watching - Humpback whales

Whale watching at Hervey Bay, Queensland. PHOTOS: Jocelyn Watts


If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy reading:

A Croquet-lover’s Guide to Exploring the Wide Bay


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