Straddie, Paradise without the tourists

For the month of August, I will be working on a humpback whale observation project on North Stradbroke Island in Queensland, Australia. This island is awesome because it’s easy to get to, there aren’t a lot of tourists around, and it’s a sub-tropical paradise. It also happens to be winter, but the days have been pleasantly warm with no humidity. We are staying in Point Lookout, which is the only community on the eastern side of the island. Most of Straddie is uninhabited, and you have to take a ferry from Cleveland to get here; there are no bridges to the mainland.

Sunrise, Cylinder Beach  

Sunset, Frenchman’s Beach

The water is a bit cold for swimming, but a wetsuit helps. The surfing is really good here. I had my first surfing experience on Saturday and it was amazing. I think I missed a calling with that one. By the end of the day, I had successfully stood up a few times on the small waves. We plan to surf a few more times while out here so I plan to get some more practice in.

On to the project: Point Lookout is one of the premier land based whale observation areas in the world because the whales pass close to shore; and they can be seen with the naked eye. Humpback whales pass by Straddie on their northern migration from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to the breeding grounds in the Great Barrier Reef. Point Lookout is unique in that the whales pass close to shore, and thus this area has become popular with whale biologists conducting population counts and migration studies. Humpback whales are the acrobats of the sea. The first sign that a whale is in the area is the blow, and it appears at the surface like a blast of steam. The most obvious sign that there is a whale in the area is the breach. The whales launch themselves out of the water, twist, turn, and make a big splash on the way down. We have also observed a few whales spyhopping, which is when they poke their heads vertically out of the water, perhaps to orient themselves to the shoreline during migration. The pec slap is also seen, in which the whales slap their pectoral fins against the surface of the water. We have also observed tail slapping and peduncle slapping, which involves the posterior section of the whale

Platform view

Waldric, the friendly Butcherbird

This project is part of a PhD student’s research project into their migration patterns. Since it is August, many of the whales have started headed south, but there are still some stragglers headed north. We are specifically looking for whales headed north to the breeding grounds because they are easier to follow as they travel mainly in a direct line. The project is examining migration patterns on a small scale by doing playback experiments to determine if humpbacks are using active or passive acoustical cues to orient themselves in the marine environment during migration. Specifically, sounds of waves breaking over rocks were recorded last year and will be played back to the whales this year in a location without rocks. The volunteers on the hill will track northern going whales and record changes in behavioral patterns to see if whales are using sound to orient around obstacles in their environment.

At the observation station, the other volunteers and I use binoculars to spot whales headed north. Utilizing a surveyor’s theodolite we monitor the location and behavior of each surfacing of the whale group, and this information is recorded to a laptop using VADAR (Visual Detection and Ranging), the software that tracks the whales. It’s a pretty cool program that we are field testing. It works by recording location data received by the theodolite for each whale. The computer operator can then input how many animals are in the pod, the behavior that the individual was performing, which direction it’s headed, it’s speed, and other parameters. VADAR then spits out a track on a computer screen as to where your whale is headed. Ideally, we like to get four good tracks per day. However, the whales don’t always cooperate, especially if they are headed south.

Humpbacks traveling south

VADAR whale tracks

On non-playback days we start at 10 AM, which is great because it gives us the morning to explore the island or to sleep in. Then we watch whales for 3 hours, take an hour for lunch, and watch whales for another 3 hours in the afternoon. By the end of the day, you’re eyes are so tired that you can’t see the whale directly in front of you. We already have a bunch of catchphrases for the whales. My personal favorite is “This is not the whale you’re looking for. Move along, move along.” Playback experiments start next week so we’ll be outside all day in the sun watching whales. My farmer’s tan is looking good.

Moonrise, Frenchman’s Beach