The east coast of Australia becomes a migratory corridor for humpback whales during winter. It is known as the “blue corridor”.
The annual migration of the whales from Antarctica to Australia is estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000.
They travel 3,700 miles roundtrip to socialize and breed in warmer waters.
The population has grown from a mere few hundred eastern Australian Humpbacks in the 1960s to thriving today.
This is a remarkable recovery for a species that was almost exterminated by commercial whaling. It was banned in Australia during the 1970s.
Dr Wally Franklin, his wife Trish Franklin, and their late husband Dr Wally Franklin dedicated their lives studying the humpbacks of Hervey Bay in Queensland. They also founded a non-profit research organization called The Oceania Project.
He said, “It was an amazing experience to see the eastern Australian humpbacks recover and start using Hervey Bay.”
Sky News joined Dr Franklin aboard a tourist boat leaving the bay.
He said, “There is no other place where mature females use the bay to care for the young like it does here in Hervey Bay.”
The whales can be protected in this unique area by K’gari, the largest sand island on the planet (previously known as Fraser Island).
Scientists believe that the humpback population has increased by as much as 11% each year since commercial whaling ended.
They don’t know if the numbers will fall or remain the same as before the effects of global warming and climate change take effect.
Food supply is a major concern. The food supply for whales is South Ocean krill, which are small shrimp-like crustaceans. Krill availability is decreasing as ocean temperatures rise. These giant mammals won’t be able to eat enough to fuel their long northward migration without krill.
Dr Olaf Meynecke, a Griffith University marine scientist, said that he was concerned about animals starving. We don’t yet know.
Dr Meynecke anticipates “dramatic” changes to the ocean environment in the next decade. He believes that whales are a good indicator of what’s ahead.
“They are our sentinel species. Through them, we can learn what is happening in Antarctica as well as what will happen for other species that rely on it.”
Already, the whales have begun to adapt by moving their calves south. Scientists believe they lack the energy to travel to their old breeding grounds.
Two weeks earlier than normal, the mass migration is reaching Australia. It is possible that the whales could be moving north to catch other fish in Antarctica, if there isn’t enough krill.
Dr Meynecke, Griffith University Phd student Sarah McCulloch, and Dr Meynecke collect samples from whale skins off the Gold Coast. They scoop it up from the ocean after the whales breach.
They test it for bacteria and viruses in the laboratory.
Drones can also be used to monitor whales and keep track their condition.
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Dr Wally Franklin has a new generation working on humpbacks. This makes life easier.
Dr Franklin and his wife, Mary Franklin, spent half their 60-year marriage studying whales.
Trish was the principal scientist. She photographed over 3500 whales and identified them individually by their markings.
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Hervey Bay has been home to some whales for over 20 years. They are like old friends to Dr Franklin.
As the afternoon winds pick up in the bay, and tourists walk along the piers, Dr Franklin recalls the exciting days of Dr. Franklin’s pioneering research.
“Every moment I spend at Hervey Bay with the whales is time I spend with Trish. I remember those magical moments we shared for over 30 years and just get a glimpse into this incredible world.
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