The Minke Whale Project


Minke Whale Project Progress Update #1


Dr Dean Miller, Dr Matt Curnock, Dr Russ Andrews & Dr Alastair Birtles

5 May 2015

Dwarf minke whales migrate to the northern Great Barrier Reef (GBR) each austral winter to breed, forming the only known predictable aggregation of these whales in the world. Fast, sleek, up to eight metres long and weighing several tonnes, these little whales are exceptionally inquisitive and often approach boats, divers and snorkelers closely for many hours at a time providing extraordinary and often life-changing experiences for hundreds of people each year.

Despite their interactive nature, much remains unknown about their biology, ecology, and behaviour. Dwarf minke whales are the most highly patterned of all the baleen whales, and the intricate patterns on each whale allow them to be identified individually (see picture).  Over the last 19 years, scientists from the Minke Whale Project (James Cook University and other institutions) have spent thousands of hours in the water with these animals, identifying individual whales, recording their behaviours and documenting the return of these “friendly whales” to the same GBR reefs year after year for up to eight years.  While this research revealed a great deal about the whales’ lives while they interact with us on the GBR, it still remained a great mystery where they migrated to for the 9-10 months they are not in GBR waters.


To begin to unravel this mystery we had to employ different research techniques, and with the advancement in satellite tagging technology and our trans-Pacific collaboration with the Alaska SeaLife Center, we were able to deploy four small satellite tags on dwarf minke whales in 2013. This was the first time ever that a whale had been tagged underwater – and was only made possible by their friendly and inquisitive nature. What we discovered was these animals were travelling from the northern GBR to as far south as the Subantarctic – with one (a young male we named “Spot”) swimming over 6,000 km in less than three months (see map below).

In 2014 this research was expanded with significant funding from the Australian Marine Mammal Centre, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and donations from the Cairns and Port Douglas live-aboard dive industry (CHARROA) and their passengers.  This allowed us to satellite tag ten more whales and track them along the edge of the Australian continental shelf.  For the first time, scientists could build a picture of the whales’ migration, habitat use and potential feeding grounds as they moved south along the east Australian coast, across Bass Strait, around Tasmania, and into the cold frigid waters of the Southern Ocean where it is likely they are feeding on masses of krill and small fish alongside their larger cousins the Antarctic Minke Whales and the Humpback Whales. It is hoped that ongoing work in 2015 and 2016 will reveal the full extent of their migration (including their summer feeding grounds) and the importance of different habitats along their range.

The Minke Whale Project research activities in 2015 will be partially funded by proceeds from the Tropical Journeys Great Barrier Reef Marathon via the James Cook University Great Barrier Reef Marathon Research Fund. This June and July, the Minke Whale Project team will once again meet up with these mysterious little dwarf minke whales in the northern GBR to further this important research. We would like to thank each and every marathon participant for their outstanding contribution to helping us better understand Australia’s friendliest little whale!

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Special thanks to our supporters:

Adventure for Change; Alaska SeaLife Center, Seward; Australian Government Department of the Environment; Australian Marine Mammal Centre (AMMC); Bendigo Bank North Queensland Branches; Tropical Journeys Great Barrier Reef Marathon Festival; Cairns Underwater Film Festival (CUFF); Centre for Whale Research, WA; CHARROA Live-aboard Dive Industry Members (especially Eye to Eye Marine Encounters and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions) and their passengers; Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO); Friends of the Minke Whale Project; Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA); International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW); James Cook University (JCU); Mares Dive Equipment; Maui Jim Sunglasses; Museum of Tropical Queensland (MTQ, Townsville); Queensland Department of National Parks, Sport & Racing; Tim North Marine; University of Alaska Fairbanks; Whale and Dolphin Conservation (Australasia & UK)