SYDNEY, June 14 (Xinhua/APP): Researchers in Western Australia (WA) have embarked on what they describe as an “immense detective effort” to identify individual whales from thousands of historical photographs with the long-term aim of helping protect vital breeding regions for the endangered marine mammals.
Marine biologists and ecologists from Edith Cowan University (ECU) and Western Whale Research are working their way through the numerous archived images of southern right whales taken by scientists and volunteers dating back about 30 years.
The photos were taken shortly after the end of an era when the whales, which gained their unusual name because they were deemed the “right” kind of whale to hunt being slow-moving and floating after being harpooned, were pushed to the brink of extinction having long been slaughtered for their oil, blubber and cartilage.
Left alone, the gentle and playful creatures can live for up to 80 years which means that some photographed long ago could still be taking part in the annual migration along the WA coastline; the researchers can distinguish individual members of the whale pods from the distinctive white markings on the animals’ massive heads.
Describing the project in the online journal Scimex on Tuesday, Associate Professor for ECU Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research in the School of Science Chandra Salgado Kent said it could take several hours to determine whether recently-sighted whales could be traced to the earlier records, or whether they were a “new individual.”
“As the population of southern right whales continues to recover, we’re seeing individuals return to bays along the Western Australian coast,” Salgado Kent said.
Among the areas the researchers are concentrating on are traditional breeding regions such as Geographe Bay and Flinders Bay in the state’s southwest.
“Preliminary results from the identification work done so far shows those bays are important calving grounds with as many as 229 individuals visiting in the past 30 years,” Salgardo Kent said.
Over the preceding decades, the bays had become “extremely popular for recreational boating and other marine activities,” which Salgardo Kent warns could greatly disrupt the essential stage in the whales’ life cycle.
By having accurate southern right whale figures, the researchers believe ecologists will be in a solid position to justify the need to further protect the vulnerable calving grounds.