IFAW-funded research reveals secrets of Australia’s dwarf minke whale

The intricately patterned dwarf minke whale has its only known predictable aggregation area in the whole world here in Australia. Photo: © Matt CurnockWith his commanding presence and white beard poking out from his otherwise wet-suited self, the view of Dr. Alastair Birtles floating at the surface of the sea makes me think of Santa on his holidays.  And what better place for Santa to holiday than the outer reefs of the northern Great Barrier Reef?

But that’s the last thing on my mind as I float on the same rope just a few metres away while Alastair shouts “did you see the bloody great bull shark?”

Dr Alastair Birtles, the Minke Whale Project’s lead researcher, monitoring the minke whales behaviour Photo:©EyetoEyeMarineEncounters

Yes I did, and my instinct is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Alastair’s excitement! Even though I know all the statistics about how small the risk is to me, there’s still something very unsettling about seeing a large bull shark swimming beneath you out in the open ocean.

But I’m not here to see bull sharks. In fact, I hadn’t even noticed that one for several minutes because blocking the view, almost within touching distance just a few metres under me, was a dwarf minke whale.

I’m here to see the research that IFAW has been co-funding for the last couple of years to help learn more about these fascinating little whales.

Every year, dwarf minke whales gather together at a few select spots along the outer northern Great Barrier Reef (GBR) for just a few short weeks around June and July. It’s the only predictable known aggregation of these animals anywhere in the world.

For years, these incredibly gentle and inquisitive little whales (at least by whale standards) have been surprising and fascinating divers. They’ve spawned a multi-million dollar whale-watching industry, carefully managed to allow tourists to swim with these whales, although ‘float with’ would probably be a better description, ensuring the interactions are completely on the whales’ terms.

But until very recently, nothing was known about where these whales went when they left the northern GBR.

That’s where IFAW comes in. Together with the Australian Government, we’ve funded the research team to be able to tag these whales to see where they go after they leave the GBR.

Dr Alastair Birtles, the Minke Whale Project’s lead researcher scans for whales while Dr Russ Andrews, expert in whale tagging, tracks them on his laptop. Photo: © M. Collis

And the results so far are fascinating.

It seems after spending a few weeks socialising (and checking out the humans) up in the northern GBR, the whales rapidly head south, running a gauntlet of threats down Australia’s east coast, from military training areas to major shipping lanes and fishing grounds. They then arrive in the Bass Strait, with some pausing near King Island before rounding Tasmania and heading south towards the Antarctic.

An image showing the tag tracks of some of the dwarf minke whales as they head down Australia’s east coast. Image courtesy of the Minke Whale Project.

Sadly this is where the longest of the transmitting tags have stopped, so we’re not yet clear just how far south these whales go. Disturbingly, they could be heading straight into the firing line of the harpoons, with Japan vowing to return to the Southern Ocean this year to resume ‘scientific’ whaling after Australia’s historic win at the International Court of Justice forced them to stop.

Dr Russ Andrews, expert in whale tagging, with Dr Alastair Birtles, the Minke Whale Project’s lead researcher, holding the small tag that gets attached to the whales. Photo: © Adventure for Change

The researchers are hopeful that further tags deployed this year will last a little longer, revealing more about these whales’ epic journey. But one thing is clear already, with just a camera, pen and paper, and now satellite tags, we’re learning more about these animals than we ever can do with a harpoon.


You can help us keep the Southern Ocean free from whaling by signing our petition to the Japanese Prime Minister

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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation