The critically endangered Southern Right Whale will soon return to the coastal waters of Victoria's South West. These waters serve as nurseries for young calves, and their return marks an annual journey, and vital part of their life cycle.
Sadly, these waters could soon be impacted by the expansion of offshore gas drilling projects. The Southern Right Whale population was hunted to the brink of extinction during the peak of industrialised whaling. Now they face new, and preventable threats.
We're sharing some little known facts about these incredible and secretive creatures in the lead up to Endangered Species Day on May 15th.
There are estimated to be only 3,500 of the Australian population remaining in the wild.
The industrialised hunting of Southern Right Whales started in the 1820's in Australia, and decimated over 75% of the Southern Right Whale population in less than a decade. Since the the abolition of whaling in 1978 in Australia, the species has had a chance to recover, but still remains critically endangered.
They can often be seen close to shore in Victorian coastal waters!
Southern Right Whales, breed and birth their calves in shallower waters, and prefer coastal bays. Frequenting the 'nurseries' in Portland, Port Fairy and Warrnambool each year to give birth between May and September.
In 2018, the Andrews Government released five new oil and gas exploration blocks off the Otway coast. The proposed drilling sites in the Otway Basin gas deposits are also located all along these coastlines, with some sites less than 30km from the shore.
They have individual facial markings!
NOTES from Nikkola:
- Eat: zooplankton and krill when in colder waters → look up the possible impacts of gas drilling on these food source populations
- Just a cute fact - their little bumps are unique??? Idk this could just be a nice fact to cite to talk about how they’re all special and individual?? Could also ask someone who knows more about whales/any researchers about whether they’ve seen individual whales return again and again to the coast off Warrnambool - that way we can individualise/anthropomorphise them which can work well in this sort of comms
- Visible off the coast from May to November - good to leverage off the start of the season this month
- “Numbers have recovered slightly [since the end of 19-century whaling], thanks to protection, but the Australian population of southern right whales still stands at only 3,500 individuals. Some populations remain at greater risk than others and we still know very little about their migratory and feeding habitat or their calving areas.” → the fact that so little is known means we can’t fully know the negative impacts
- Key threat: “Loud noises or long exposure to underwater noise can not only disrupt whale communication and cause temporary or permanent hearing loss, they can also deter whales from important habitats. In Australian waters this harmful noise can include seismic surveys, industrial activities (such as drilling, pile driving, blasting and dredging), defence activities, vessel noise and aircraft operating at low altitude.”
- A draft report (unsure where to find the final version) seems to support the above point → https://cmst.curtin.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2017/06/CMST-Report-Fowlers-Bay-2013-RW-CC-SG.pdf (this is in relation to Fowlers Bay in South Australia but presumably the impacts of anthropogenic noise would be the same - see p. 11 specifically)
- Some great quotes about the HUGE efforts of reproduction for Southern Right whales in this newspaper article from the Murdoch University researchers
- The huge toll that reproduction takes on the whales means they have to consume a huge amount - threats to the food sources are particularly dangerous
- Dr Fredrik Christiansen: “Anthropogenic factors such as shipping, oil and gas development and climate change can negatively affect the body condition of whales, which in turn can cause negative effects on reproduction.” (I feel like we need something more specific than this but it’s a good start)
- This article discusses the diversity of whales off the coast of southern Australia more generally and recommends conservation as a result.
- “Study area” refers to whole of southern Aus including Victoria
- See: “This upwelling region, considered Australia’s most intense and productive (Butler et al. 2002), supports a significant diversity of cetacean species, some of them rarely sighted in Australian waters, and probably aggregates cetacean prey species to a degree not found around most of the Australian continent. The study area is at least an opportunistic feeding area for several rorqual species, a breeding area for southern right whales, and is used by migrating humpback whales. Apparently low abundances of many species implies that although cetaceans probably aggregate to forage in this productive upwelling system, it may not be a key feeding area for many, with the exception of pygmy blue whales (Gill et al. 2011, Morrice 2013). The aggregations of southern right whales are significant as population recovery in this formerly heavily occupied region is likely to be facilitated by social aggregation and site fidelity expression (Pirzl 2008). For these reasons, we suggest that maintaining the integrity of this habitat through the precautionary approach and effective, databased decision making is important for cetacean conservation in the Australasian region. The upwelling region is subject to human activities that potentially affect cetaceans (e.g., Panigada 2006, MacLeod 2009, Di Iorio and Clark 2010, Castellote et al. 2012, Christiansen et al. 2013), and this publication provides managers and operators with information for marine planning and operations to minimize interactions and impacts.” (p. 680)