Southern right whale body condition on breeding grounds

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Overview

Between June and September 2016, MUCRU researchers, in collaboration with Curtin University, are carrying out research on Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) body condition at the Head of the Bight, South Australia. This area serves as an important breeding ground for Southern right whales in the southern hemisphere, and will provide valuable data towards the broader research project of assessing body condition in baleen whales.

Southern right whales resting near to the cliffs of the Head of the Bight, South Australia.

Southern right whales resting near to the cliffs of the Head of the Bight, South Australia.

Approach

From the Nullarbor cliffs, overlooking the Great Australian Bight, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) will be deployed and flown over the right whales aggregating just beneath the cliffs. The UAV will be a DJI Inspire 1 Pro equipped with a still camera. The UAV is equipped with a laser-range finder to accurately measure the altitude of the UAV above the water level, in order to scale the photographs taken by the UAV (convert pixels to cm). To facilitate operations, MUCRU is working closely together with Global Unmanned Systems, a UAV company based in Perth.

Southern right whale mum/calf pair at the Head of the Bight, South Australia.

Aerial photograph of a southern right whale mother and calf pair at the Head of the Bight, South Australia.

Southern right whales can be individually identified from the pattern of their callosities, which are keratinised skin patches colonised by cyamids. These callosities form on the dorsal surface of the rostrum, the lip of the lower jaw and posterior to the blowhole. By photographing right whales from the air, it is possible to identify individual whales and monitor their condition through the breeding season. Further, repeated measurements of specific mother and calf pairs will make it possible to investigate the growth rate of individual calves, and how their body condition changes in relation to their mother.

Flying the DJI Inspire Pro over southern right whales at the Head of the Bight.

Flying the DJI Inspire Pro over southern right whales at the Head of the Bight.

Permits

This research project is being conducted with permits from the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority and under research permits from the South Australia Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, Australian Marine Parks permit, animal ethics permits from the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources and Murdoch University Animal Ethics Committee, and with permission from the Aboriginal Lands Trust and the Yalata Land Management.

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