During the winter, the east coast of Australia becomes a migration route for humpback whales, a so-called “blue corridor”.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 whales make the annual journey from Antarctica to the top of Australia.
A 3,700 mile round trip where they socialize and breed in warmer waters.
Of the barely a few hundred Eastern Australian humpback whales that existed in the 1960s, the population is now thriving.
It’s an extraordinary recovery for a species nearly wiped out by commercial whaling. It was banned in Australia in the 1970s.
dr. Wally Franklin and his late wife Dr. Trish Franklin devoted their life to studying the humpback whales in Queensland’s Hervey Bay, and founded a non-profit research organization called The Oceania Project.
“Watching the Eastern Australian humpback whales recover and use Hervey Bay has been a remarkable experience,” he said.
Sky News accompanied Dr. Franklin on a tourist boat leaving the bay.
“There is no other place in the world where adult females use the bay to care for the young as they do here in Hervey Bay,” he said.
It is a unique location where the whales are protected by the largest sand island in the world – K’gari (formerly called Fraser Island).
Scientists estimate that since the end of commercial whaling, this humpback whale population has increased by as much as 11% each year.
However, they don’t know if the numbers will remain stable or begin to decline as the effects of climate change and global warming take effect.
One of the main concerns is the food supply. Whales feed on Southern Ocean krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans. As ocean temperatures rise, the availability of krill changes. Without it, these giant mammals cannot get enough food and energy for their long trek north.
The marine scientist Dr. Olaf Meynecke of Griffith University said, “We’re worried the animals are starting to starve. But we don’t know yet.”
dr. Meynecke expects “dramatic” changes in the ocean environment over the next decade and says whales are an early warning of what’s to come.
“They are our sentinel species, through them we can find out what is happening in Antarctica and what will happen to other species that depend on that region.”
The whales are already adapting by moving their calves further south. Scientists suspect they don’t have enough energy to reach their ancient breeding grounds.
The mass migration is also reaching Australia about two weeks earlier than usual. If there isn’t enough krill in Antarctica, the whales may move north sooner to feed on other fish as they make their way to Australia.
For the Gold Coast, Dr. Meynecke and Griffith University PhD student Sarah McCulloch scoop up samples of whale skin from the sea after the whales breach.
They analyze it back in the lab for viruses and bacteria.
Drones are also used to monitor the whales and monitor their condition.
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With a new generation of scientists working on humpback whales, Dr. Wally Franklin can take it easy these days.
dr. Franklin and his late wife spent half of their 60 years together studying whales.
Trish was the principal scientist and photographed more than 3,500 whales, identifying them individually by their markings.
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Some whales have visited Hervey Bay annually for over 20 years. for dr. Franklin they are old friends.
As late afternoon winds pick up in the bay and tourists stroll along the pier, Dr. Franklin remembers the heady days of the couple’s groundbreaking research.
“Every moment I spend with the whales in Hervey Bay, I spend with Trish, remembering those amazing magical moments we had over 30 years together, just to get a glimpse of the incredible world of this whales.”
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