West Australian researchers have recently had a whale of a time: tracking the return trip of a southern right whale from the state’s south coast to Antarctica.
Marine biologists from three universities attached satellite tags to southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) before the animals left Albany on WA’s southern tip to head to their southern feeding waters.
A year later, one whale – now named Nebinyan after a 19th-century Aboriginal whaler – returned to almost the exact location where its journey began, clocking up over 20,000 km in the process.
The trans-Tasman collaboration between marine biologists from the University of Western Australia, Macquarie University and the University of Auckland Waipapa Taumata Rau also obtained tissue samples to compare the genetic profiles of southern rights across the Southern Ocean, including those that migrate along Australia’s east coast, New Zealand and South Africa.
Nebinyan’s journey from Cheyne Beach near Albany took it south towards Australia’s Antarctic territory near Casey Station. It then made its way back north where it was last recorded in the Great Australian Bight.
One of the researchers tracking the study, Dr Kate Sprogis from UWA’s Oceans Institute, says being able to track a full migratory cycle would improve conservation outcomes amid changing ocean climates, given whales are considered useful indicators of ecosystem health.
“We know that southern right whales breed and calve off the coast of Australia during the cooler winter months, however where they migrate to forage over the warmer months had been poorly understood until now,” Dr Sprogis says.
The ongoing project – named Mirnong Maat after the Menang Noongar phrase for “whale journeys” – is anticipated to continue tagging and monitoring whales. Other specimens were found to migrate closer to Australia, while some pushed further west towards islands of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands.