Three people were injured last month in separate humpback whale encounters off the Western Australia coast.
The incidents happened during snorkelling tours on Ningaloo Reef when swimmers came too close to a mother and her calf.
Swim encounters with humpback whales are relatively new in the Australian wildlife tourism portfolio. The WA tours are part of a trial that ends in 2023. A few tour options have also been available in Queensland since 2014.
But last month’s injuries have raised concerns about the safety of swimming with such giant creatures in the wild.
Until recently, you had to travel to Tonga, Niue or French Polynesia for similar humpback whale encounters in Oceania. Or you could swim with other species, such as dwarf minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef.
But when we interact with wild animals there is always a risk to safety, especially in challenging environments such as open water.
Whales, like other wildlife, may behave unpredictably. Active surface behaviours such as breaching, tail and fin slaps present a significant risk for swimmers and whale watchers.
In one of the WA encounters, the nursing female was reported to display pectoral fin and tail slaps. These are potentially threatening due to the size (up to 16 metres long) and power of humpback whales.
These behaviours are frequently observed in social interactions between humpback whales and can present a severe risk of injury to anyone close by, with potentially life-threatening results.
A recent study of the impacts of swimmer presence on humpback whales off Réunion Island (on Madagascar’s east coast in the Indian Ocean) confirmed a high occurrence of aggressive and/or defensive whale behaviour.
The researchers observed flipper and tail fluke swipes and thrashes – sudden movements of a whale’s extremities – especially in mother-and-calf pairs.
While the reasons for the Australian incidents are still unclear, a possible explanation could be that the swimming groups approached the whales too closely and ignored the signs the whales did not welcome visitors.
Maintaining a safe distance should be required of any tourists interested in seeing or getting close to unpredictable wildlife, especially in unfamiliar environments.
We cannot expect tourists, who are often first-time whale swim participants, to be able to read and interpret whale behaviour. So it is vital that crew members are skilled and experienced and can end an encounter if it needs to be.
Knowledgeable in-water guides are indispensable in commercial swim-with-whales programs. Yet this is often not a requirement by organisations issuing licenses for such activities.
For example, permits in New Zealand require “knowledgeable operators and staff”, but there is no requirement to have guides in the water during the encounter. People interested in swim-with-whale encounters should choose tour companies that provide in-water guides who join them in their adventure.
We should also question whether interactions with female whales caring for newborn calves should be allowed. Best-practice guidelines advise against interactions where calves are present.
Recent research in the popular whale-swim destination Tonga showed mother-and-calf pairs avoid about one-third of tour vessel approaches by diving for longer periods.
Yet surface resting times are critical for calves. Any decrease in time spent resting for mother-and-calf pairs can affect a calf’s growth rate, overall fitness and chances of survival.
Similar observations were made in Réunion. Three out of four (74%) mother-calf-pairs changed their behaviour to avoid swimmers.
The Pacific Whale Foundation is undertaking a study to assess the impact of swimming with humpback whales in Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia.
This research is to monitor the behaviour of humpback whales, providing critical insights into whether tourism activities add stress to this recovering population.
But research into the suitability of wildlife species used for commercial tourism operations and their health and safety provisions still lacks fundamental depth.
In highly interactive tourism activities such as swim-with-wildlife programmes, tourists should receive education about the risks involved in these “bucket list” experiences. This should include information on animal behaviour and the potential consequences for swimmers.
Furthermore, training tour operators to identify behaviours that may indicate disturbance or have the potential to be harmful to clients is an important additional step towards safer interactions.
Chantal Denise Pagel, Doctoral student | Marine Wildlife Tourism Professional, Auckland University of Technology; Mark Orams, Acting Dean, Health and Environmental Sciences, Auckland University of Technology, and Michael Lueck, Professor of Tourism, Auckland University of Technology
Scientific research doesn’t usually mean being strapped in a harness by the open paratroop doors of a Vietnam-war-era Hercules plane. But that’s the situation I found myself in several years ago, the result of which has just been published in the journal Marine Biodiversity.
As part of the Ocean Cleanup’s Aerial Expedition, I was coordinating a visual survey team assessing the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
When the aircraft’s doors opened in front of me over the Pacific Ocean for the first time, my heart jumped into my throat. Not because I was looking 400m straight down to the wild sea below as it passed at 260km per hour, but because of what I saw.
This was one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, and the amount of floating plastic nets, ropes, containers and who-knows-what below was mind-boggling.
However, it wasn’t just debris down there. For the first time, we found proof of whales and dolphins in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which means it’s highly likely they are eating or getting tangled in the huge amount of plastic in the area.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is said to be the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world. It is located between Hawaii and California, where huge ocean currents meet to form the North Pacific subtropical gyre. An estimated 80,000 tonnes of plastic are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Our overall project was overseen and led by The Ocean Cleanup’s founder Boyan Slat and then-chief scientist Julia Reisser. We conducted two visual survey flights, each taking an entire day to travel from San Francisco’s Moffett Airfield, survey for around two hours, and travel home. Along with our visual observations, the aircraft was fitted with a range of sensors, including a short-wave infrared imager, a Lidar system (which uses the pulse from lasers to map objects on land or at sea), and a high-resolution camera.
Both visual and technical surveys found whales and dolphins, including sperm and beaked whales and their young calves. This is the first direct evidence of whales and dolphins in the heart of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Plastics in the ocean are a growing problem for marine life. Many species can mistake plastics for food, consume them accidentally along with their prey or simply eat fish that have themselves eaten plastic.
Both beaked and sperm whales have been recently found with heavy plastic loads in their stomachs. In the Philippines, a dying beaked whale was found with 40kg of plastic in its stomach, and in Indonesia, a dead sperm whale washed ashore with 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, plastic bottles, two flip-flops, and more than 1,000 pieces of string in its stomach.
The most common debris we were able to identify by eye was discarded or lost fishing nets, often called “ghost nets”. Ghost nets can drift in the ocean for years, trapping animals and causing injuries, starvation and death.
Whales and dolphins are often found snared in debris. Earlier this year, a young sperm whale almost died after spending three years tangled in a rope from a fishing net.
During our observation we saw young calves with their mothers. Calves are especially vulnerable to becoming trapped. With the wide range of ocean plastics in the garbage patch, it is highly likely animals in the area ingest and become tangled in it.
It’s believed the amount of plastics in the ocean could triple over the next decade. It is clear the problem of plastic pollution has no political or geographic boundaries.
The most devastating effects fall on communities in poverty. New research shows the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly growing, posing a greater threat to wildlife. It reinforces the global movement to reduce, recycle and remove plastics from the environment.
But to really tackle this problem we need creative solutions at every level of society, from communities to industries to governments and international organisations.
To take one possibility, what if we invested in fast-growing, sustainably cultivated bamboo to replace millions of single-use plastics? It could be produced by the very countries most affected by this crisis: poorer and developing nations.
It is only one of many opportunities to dramatically reduce plastic waste, improve the health of our environments and people, and to help communities most susceptible to plastic pollution.
After a two-year pause in the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) hunt, Icelandic whaling company Hvalur hf. will resume whaling this summer, with a government-issued quota.
Two factors help explain why Iceland and other countries are determined to hunt whales in defiance of international disapproval. The first is demand for the product; the second is Iceland’s interpretation of international law on whaling.
Demand for whale meat appears to be stable in Iceland. Many reports suggest that Icelanders no longer eat whale meat in great numbers. Yet minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) meat is readily available in supermarkets and sells for the equivalent of A$29.80 per kilogram.
Much of this is imported from Norway, indicating that there remains a strong domestic demand that is not being met by Icelandic whaling, and suggesting that it is not just Iceland’s growing number of tourists who want to eat whale meat. The fin whale hunt, in contrast, is intended primarily for export to Japan.
The second, and far more complex, factor to understand why pro- and anti-whaling nations differ is that they have different interpretations of the basic purpose of the international regime to protect whales.
The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling has banned commercial whaling. In line with the norms of international law, only parties to the whaling convention are obliged to observe this ban.
Iceland was an original member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and accepted the temporary halt on commercial whaling, which came into effect in the mid-1980s.
However, Iceland left in 1992 after the IWC refused to authorise quotas, even when scientific evidence indicated that controlled commercial whaling would not threaten the survival of the targeted species. The zero quota on all whale species, irrespective of their conservation status, has been criticised by several other countries, including Norway and Japan, as non-scientific.
Under no circumstances will whaling for commercial purposes be authorised without a sound scientific basis and an effective management and enforcement scheme.
Iceland argued that the ban had become a permanent one and that this was contrary to the object and purpose of the convention, which was initially about regulating whaling rather than prohibiting it.
Essentially, Iceland and other pro-whaling countries reject arguments that the object and purpose of the convention has evolved into the preservation of whales rather than their conservation for sustainable use.
Iceland also objects to the ongoing situation whereby a scientific procedure adopted by the IWC to assess stocks and the potential for sustainable whaling was not followed up by the promised adoption of a non-scientific (political) scheme that would allocate actual quotas. Because of majority voting in the IWC, this standoff has created a persistent stalemate between pro- and anti-whaling countries.
After a couple of years of heated discussions among members, Iceland was readmitted to the IWC. However, other countries (including Australia) still object to its reservation, meaning there is no universal acceptance of Iceland’s position.
If Iceland were cast out of the IWC, then it would not be bound by the convention at all. However, it would not be able to export to other IWC members, including Japan.
The whaling firm Hvalur hf. intends to resume its commercial hunt for fin whales in June. Quotas have been awarded consistently since 2006, but in 2016 and 2017 the company did not use them, citing doubts about profitability because of difficulties reaching target markets (especially Japan). A couple of shipments of whale meat were made recently (one in 2015 and one in 2016), using the Northern Sea Route to avoid customs delays and, potentially, protesters at Dutch harbours. The pause merely reflected the commercial reality of the time.
For 2018, Fiskistofa (the Directorate of Fisheries) has set a quota of 161 fin whales, with an additional 30 carried over from the unused 2017 quota. Although the IUCN listed the fin whale as endangered in 2008, there are no concerns about sustainability since the Icelandic quota represents 0.9% of the lowest estimate of fin whale numbers off the Icelandic coast.
The harvest is primarily destined for the Japanese market, which had been difficult to access for a number of reasons, including the effects of the 2011 tsunami, which disrupted processing facilities.
Minke whales are hunted by the company IP-Útgerð ehf., mostly for Icelandic consumption. In 2017, only 17 were taken. This was well within the quota of 269, although numbers were higher in previous years. The IUCN assesses the status of minke whales as “least concern”.
Iceland is making no efforts to stop whaling and never has. Unlike Japan, Iceland does not claim that its whaling is for scientific research, which is authorised under Article VIII of the whaling convention. It agreed to the temporary ban in order to gather scientific evidence that was supposed to protect the whaling industry in the medium to long term.
Iceland has never had sentimental ideas that whales should not be hunted. Nevertheless, the country has two whale sanctuaries, in Faxaflói (the bay around Reykjavík) and in the north, to support the tourism and whale-watching industry.
Whaling might not be popular in some countries – and indeed some Icelanders would like to see it end – but foreign interference is viewed with suspicion and is more likely to make the traditionalists who support the whale hunt dig in their heels (and harpoons) still further.
As unlikely as it may seem, your drive to the supermarket is responsible for a lot of noise pollution in our oceans – and a lot of stress to marine life as a result.
Of course, it’s not the specific sound of your car trundling along the street that the fish and whales hear. But many of the products that feature in your weekly shop – from the goods you buy, to the petrol you burn, to your car’s component parts – contribute to marine noise pollution.
Let’s start with the oil. Before we can drill the oil or turn it into fuel to drive our cars, oil companies have to discover it.
Companies look for oil using high-pressure airguns. These machines are towed across the surface of the ocean, firing off sounds to determine the make-up of sediment layers in the seafloor. These are some of the loudest human-created sounds – researchers working in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean have been able to record the sounds produced from coastal oil surveys.
These sounds are problematic for marine life. Whales and other animals that rely heavily on sound for communicating and finding food are most affected. Hearing is to these animals much the same as vision is to humans. Unusually loud sounds can disturb whales’ behaviour and, if they are close enough, can damage their hearing. There is even some suggestion that the airguns can cause whale strandings, although this is not yet completely certain.
Currently, one-third of all oil comes from offshore sources and this proportion is expected to increase. This can only mean more bad news for our marine life.
What about the metal box that consumes all the oil? Parts for the car are sourced from all over the world and have to be shipped across our oceans. In turn, the raw materials needed to make these parts are usually shipped in from yet more places. The commercial shipping needed for all this represents another problematic source of ocean noise.
The contributions of individual ships may seem trivial in comparison to the loud noise from airguns. However, the world merchant fleet includes around 52,000 ships. Collectively, these increase the ambient noise levels in our oceans. In fact, the amount of low-frequency sound in some parts of our oceans has doubled each decade over the past 60 years.
Humans perceive only some of this sound, because of the very low pitches involved. But these sounds are well within the frequency range used by baleen whales. Recent work suggests that this constrains the communication ranges in whales, causing chronic stress and potentially interrupting mating behaviour.
Oh, and most of your groceries are shipped around the world at some point too, as are many other consumer items – including the battery in your hybrid car, if you have one. Around 90% of world trade is carried by commercial ships at some stage. Not all of this ends up in your shopping bag, but a large proportion enters the consumer market at some point.
Certain grocery items, such as fish, originate from the oceans themselves. Like cargo ships, fishing vessels produce noise from their engines and propellers, but they also have noisy fish-finding sonars and winches as well.
The good news is that noise pollution, unlike chemical pollution, dissipates quickly. This means that the future for underwater noise remains bright. If you want to give the whales a break, just drive a little less, or support higher efficiency standards for vehicles. This will not only reduce oil consumption, but also the wear and tear on your car, meaning that fewer replacement parts will need to be shipped in.
You can also buy locally produced items and support the local economy too. That way everyone wins.
No matter how connected we think everything is, the situation is generally even more complicated than we can imagine. So next time you walk to the shops and buy an apple grown in your state, you should allow yourself a moment to feel good about yourself, safe in the knowledge that you have helped to make the oceans a tiny bit quieter.
From the poles to the equator, marine mammals such as seals, dolphins and whales, play an important role in global ecosystems as apex predators, ecosystem engineers and even organic ocean fertilisers. The ocean off the coast of South Africa is home to a high diversity of these mammals and is recognised as a global marine biodiversity hotspot.
Marine mammals are often referred to as “sentinels” of ocean health. Numerous studies have explored the effects of both noise and chemical pollution, habitat degradation, changes in climate and food webs on these marine apex predators. Yet the interplay of these factors isn’t well understood.
Our research on the unfortunate dolphins incidentally caught in shark nets off South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coast has helped fill in some of the gaps. By assessing the health of these dolphins we have provided valuable baseline information on conditions affecting coastal dolphin populations in South Africa. This is the first systematic health assessment in incidentally caught dolphins in the Southern Hemisphere.
But to gain a fuller picture of the health of marine mammals in these waters I am now combining this contemporary field research with historical data, like the collection at the Port Elizabeth Museum Bayworld.
The combination of data on diet, reproduction, population structure and health helps us gain a better understanding of the pressures and changes these apex predator populations face. And it helps us understand it in relation to global change, including both climate change and pressures brought about by human behaviour.
My research sheds light on multiple factors: pollutant levels, parasites, and availability of prey, all have an impact on individuals as well as populations.
Understanding the health of these animals also gives us insight into the state of the world’s oceans. This is relevant because oceans affect the entire ecosystem including food security, climate and people’s health. This degree of connectedness is highlighted by recent discoveries about how whales act as ecosystem engineers.
The accumulation of this knowledge is important because the planet’s oceans aren’t being protected. Recent popular documentaries such as “Sonic Sea” and “Plastic Ocean” have highlighted their exploitation and pollution.
Without baseline knowledge it’s challenging to establish the potential effects that new anthropogenic developments (those caused by human behaviour) have on local whale and dolphin populations.
For example, we know that whales are sensitive to shipping noise, so what potential impact could a new deep water port have on mothers and their calves? Could it drive them away from these nursery areas, or could it lead to an increased risk of whales and ships colliding? To answer this and monitor the change that a new port brings with it, we are investigating the soundscape of two bays in the Eastern Cape (one with a new port, one without) in parallel with baleen whale mother-calf behaviour.
Another example is understanding how changes in the Sardine run over the past 15 years have affected the diets of these mammals. The Sardine run is an annual phenomenon when large shoals of Sardine migrate northwards along the coast into KwaZulu-Natal waters to spawn. Using long-term data and samples from the Port Elizabeth Museum research collection, we have been able to establish that over the the past 20 or so years the main predator in the Sardine run – the long-beaked common dolphin – has shifted its diet to mackerel. Although such changes in diet can have potential impacts on the health of the dolphins, parallel investigations on the trophic level these animals feed at (using isotope data from teeth) and the body condition of the dolphins (using long-term data on blubber thickness), indicated no adverse effects to the dolphins.
Our analysis highlights how marine mammals may be used as indicators of environmental change and why research is important.
Finding answers to intricate questions on environmental change is not always easy. But a better understanding and knowledge of the environment these animals live in has to be incorporated into studies contributing to their conservation and management. Such studies are becoming increasingly relevant as they highlight the fast degradation of the marine environment.
For example, a recent study identified antibiotic resistant bacteria in both sea water samples and exhaled breath samples from killer whales. This suggests that the marine environment has been contaminated with human waste which in turn has significant medical implications for humans.
Gaining such information is particularly important given the rapid changes taking place in the oceans, such as those on South Africa’s southern and eastern coastline. This includes increasing coastal development, new deep water ports being built or expanded, and parts of the deep sea being explored for oil and gas.
To assess these changes and what they mean for the environment, baseline studies need to be carried out so that potential effects can be assessed. Whales and dolphins are increasingly being recognised as indicators of ocean health in this endeavour.
And a continuation of the research we did on dolphins caught in nets will help document the cyclic changes that can be seen as normal variation in a population. This could prove important for assessing future catastrophic events, such as the Deep Horizon oil spill.
The oceans absorb over 25% of the world’s carbon pollution as well as heat generated by global warming. They also produce at least 50% of the planet’s oxygen, and are home to 80% of all life on earth. Yet only 5% of this vital component of our planet has been explored.
Research on whales and dolphins contributes important knowledge about ocean health. Historical data increasingly provides a guideline to teasing out natural variations in populations and assessing the contribution that multiple factors have on these animals. In time, this will ensure that policy makers are being given sound scientific information. It will also provide us with a good barometer of the overall health of our oceans.
Air guns used for marine oil and gas exploration are loud enough to affect humpback whales up to 3km away, potentially affecting their migration patterns, according to our new research.
Whales’ communication depends on loud sounds, which can travel very efficiently over distances of tens of kilometres in the underwater environment. But our study, published today in the Journal of Experimental Biology, shows that they are affected by other loud ocean noises produced by humans.
As part of the BRAHSS (Behavioural Response of Humpback whales to Seismic Surveys) project, we and our colleagues measured humpback whales’ behavioural responses to air guns like those used in seismic surveys carried out by the offshore mining industry.
Air guns are devices towed behind seismic survey ships that rapidly release compressed air into the ocean, producing a loud bang. The sound travels through the water and into the sea bed, bouncing off various layers of rock, oil or gas. The faint echoes are picked up by sensors towed by the same vessel.
During surveys, the air guns are fired every 10-15 seconds to develop a detailed geological picture of the ocean floor in the area. Although they are not intended to harm whales, there has been concern for many years about the potential impacts of these loud, frequent sounds.
Although it sounds like a simple experiment to expose whales to air guns and see what they do, it is logistically difficult. For one thing, the whales may respond to the presence of the ship towing the air guns, rather than the air guns themselves. Another problem is that humpback whales tend to show a lot of natural behavioural variability, making it difficult to tease out the effect of the air gun and ship.
There is also the question of whether any response by the whales is influenced more by the loudness of the air gun, or how close the air blast is to the whale (although obviously the two are linked). Previous studies have assumed that the response is driven primarily by loudness, but we also looked at the effect of proximity.
We used a small air gun and a cluster of guns, towed behind a vessel through the migratory path of more than 120 groups of humpback whales off Queensland’s sunshine coast. By having two different sources, one louder than the other, we were able to fire air blasts of different perceived loudness from the same distance.
We found that whales slowed their migratory speed and deviated around the vessel and the air guns. This response was influenced by a combination of received level and proximity; both were necessary. The whales were affected up to 3km away, at sound levels over 140 decibels, and deviated from their path by about 500 metres. Within this “zone”, whales were more likely to avoid the air guns.
Each tested group moved as one, but our analysis did not include the effects on different group types, such as a female with calf versus a group of adults, for instance.
Our results suggest that when regulating to reduce the impact of loud noise on whale behaviour, we need to take into account not just how loud the noise is, but how far away it is. More research is needed to find out how drastically the whales’ migration routes change as a result of ocean mining noise.