Attention whale watchers: scientists want your snaps

Whale watcher’s photographs of unique humpback tail patterns can help researchers learn more about migration patterns. Flickr, Marj K

Whale watchers lucky enough to snap a photograph of a humpback whale this season are being asked to send their shots to researchers on the far north coast, who will use the data to better understand migration patterns.

More than 14,000 humpbacks are expected to journey along Australia’s east coast over the next few months, a process that researchers at Southern Cross University (SCU) in Lismore want to learn more about to help inform whale protection strategies.

The researchers have launched a new website at www.scu.edu.au/eastcoastwhales where amateur photographers can directly upload shots that show the uniquely patterned underside of a humpback whale tail.

Using a computer program developed by SCU and the University of Newcastle, the researchers can match the whales in the amateur photographs to those individuals already recorded.

“Every whale has its own pattern of pigmentation and scarring that’s unique to each whale,” said Peta Beeman, who is completing a Master of Marine Science and Management and is part of the University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre.

“By matching the photos, we can then see if the whales have been seen in previous years or in other locations or in the same season along the same migration path.”

Ms Beeman has already collected around 150 shots through a pilot project conducted last year but hopes that the new website will encourage more whale watchers to upload their pics, no matter how old.

“In fact, the older the photo, the more interesting because we can estimate a minimum age of that whale and can build up life histories about the whales.”

Understanding more about migration paths and the threats whales face along those journeys will help researchers understand what should be done to manage and conserve the species, she said.