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Giving Back to the Whales

Giving Back to the Whales

Whale watching is more popular as a tourist activity than anything else. The whale and dolphin watching is a huge industry in Australia. The most recent data available from the Department of Environment indicates that in 2008 whale watching tourism in Australia was worth $31 million in direct expenditure to the Australian economy, and that the number of tourists participating in whale watching has grown to over 1.6 million people per year. In 2016, data from Tourism and Events Queensland showed 164,000 domestic and 585,000 foreign visitors engaged in whale or dolphin watching in Queensland from March 2015 to March 2016.

Beyond the awesome experiences offered to visitors and locals of the east coast, there is another aspect of whale watching that is of equal significance. Scientific research conducted on the species and their behaviour, as well as their environment, creates long-term benefits to whale-watching management and conservation efforts, as well as co-existence strategies.

Humpbacks & High-Rises (HHR) is running South East Queensland’s largest whale and dolphin monitoring program. They are looking after thousands of whales and dolphins in the region. Founded in 2011 on the Gold Coast by Dr Olaf Meynecke, surveys are currently being undertaken in the Gold Coast bay, Moreton Bay, and soon the Sunshine Coast.

In this interview, Dr Meynecke shares the process involved in the HHR volunteer research program.

Objectives of the research


The main objective of HHR’s work is to provide a better understanding of whales and dolphins in the region, and help translate this knowledge into improved conservation management for these iconic species. We also aim to educate and inform the public about ocean and marine life-related topics, and create awareness and interest among our community.


Methods used to gather data and information


Our team of trained volunteers use whale-watch boats to survey and monitor whales and dolphins. With the kind support of a number of operators, we have been able to collect very useful data. Our volunteers record detailed behaviour information such as dive time, and behavioural categories such as tail slashing. We also take GPS tracks during the surveys and gather physical data. Fluke and dorsal fin photographs are taken of each surveyed whale and used for identification. HHR also supports or runs a number of other projects such as the determination of health of humpback whales through the collection of blow samples and analysing samples from deceased whales.


Relevance to the community


The work we do for our community provides detailed estimation where and when whales occur along the coast. We provide data on resting hot spots and are working on a map for self-regulated go-slow zones around South East Queensland. Over the past years we have witnessed more and more newborn calves in the Gold Coast bay. They spend additional time on the surface and travel slow, if at all. Besides being a “navigational hazard”, they are also very vulnerable. Mother and calf cannot be separated, as it would certainly mean the death of the calf. Our studies have further shown that during certain weather conditions the whales come very close to shore and might be in waters of 10m where most people do not expect them.


How communities participate


Our research is a great opportunity for the boating community to participate. We have a simple online form that people can access via their phone to enter information where they sight a whale, and what it is doing there. We have a whale app called WhaleTrails available for free on GooglePlay and iTunes.


It is always a good idea to check the rules around whales and dolphins. The bottom line is 100m distance to whales, and when there is more than three boats, it is 300m. The rules do make sense because they keep both animals and people safe.




HHR also works together with researchers from Hervey Bay and Southern Cross University as well as scientists around the country and overseas. Over the past 6 years more than 2,000 individual whales have been surveyed and 5000 fluke pictures for identification were taken.




Useful information on the “usesless” whales

Humpbacks had become ‘useless’—‘commercially extinct’—too few in numbers to make it worthwhile for the last local whaling station at Tangalooma on Moreton Island to pursue and kill them. The brief period of whaling along the east coast of Australia had proven far too efficient, killing too many whales too quickly, resulting in the inevitable population crash. It is believed that up to 95% of the east coast population was killed in the decade from 1952 to 1962. Similar exploitation of whales around the world had left many of the larger whale species verging on extinction. (


(Photo courtesy of HHR)








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