White whale Milky Way's family secrets unite Encounter Bay and Head of Bight

There has been reason to celebrate for researchers and whale enthusiasts from Head of Bight and Encounter Bay this week.

It has been confirmed by researchers from the Curtin University, Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study, that a white Southern Right Whale named ‘Milky Way’ who has visited Encounter Bay three years in a row, was a white calf born at Head of Bight in 2010.

A ‘white’ whale, technically referred to as a grey-morph, is a rare variant of the Southern Right Whale species. 

The ‘match’ between the two locations has created quite a bit of excitement amongst researchers.

Claire Charlton, the lead researcher of the Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study at Head of Bight said it was exciting to be able to confirm this connection.

“By cross matching the photos of this whale in Encounter Bay to our catalogue we were able to see that Milky Way was in fact a calf at Head of Bight in 2010," she said.

Milky Way the white whale photographed as a calf at the Head of Bight in 2010. 
Pic:  C. Charlton Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study 2010.

Milky Way the white whale photographed as a calf at the Head of Bight in 2010. Pic: C. Charlton Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study 2010.

"It is wonderful news in regards to the journey of Milky Way.”

Population monitoring of southern right whales has been completed at Head of Bight annually between 1991 and 2014.

“We are excited to match photographs of individuals from other locations to find out more about coastal movements and connectivity of southern right whales between aggregation grounds in Australia,”  Ms Charlton said.

As well as continuing work at Head of Bight, this year the Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study team will be extending their research to include Fowlers Bay, which like Encounter Bay is also a recognised calving and breeding area for the whales. 

Besides photographic identification of the individual whales this work will involve acoustics and population studies.

Individual Southern Right Whales can be identified by unique patterns of thickened skin growths, or callosities, on the top of the head.

Collecting and comparing photographs of whale markings helps scientists identify individual whales that visit Australia's southern coast.  

All of this information is documented in a data base and this understanding helps researchers evaluate the impacts of human-induced threats such as entanglement, vessel collision, acoustic and other disturbance, and assists with future management of the species.

Although on a lot smaller scale than Head of Bight, which is the main Southern Right Whale nursery and breeding ground on Australia’s southern coast, the Fowlers Bay and Encounter Bay nurseries are significant.  Last year saw the highest number of mother and calf pairs on record in Encounter Bay.  An aerial survey conducted during the peak of the season on  September 3 counted 11 mother-calf pairs within the Basham/Middleton Beach nursery area.

Milky Way was first photographed within Encounter Bay waters at Waitpinga Cliffs in August 2011 by registered whale spotter Elizabeth Steele-Collins. The white whale was spotted at the cliffs again in September 2012.  It was also photographed by several whale watchers in the Bashams Beach area on July 24 last year. Milky Way was also sighted and photographed off the Portland coast in Victoria in July 2012.

Milky Way visiting Encounter Bay in September, 2013. Pic: Elizabeth Steele-Collins.

Milky Way visiting Encounter Bay in September, 2013. Pic: Elizabeth Steele-Collins.

Elizabeth, who has a longstanding interest in whale research and their conservation said she was very excited to hear that the photos she sent of Milky Way were matched in the catalogue and so confirmed that Milky Way was a calf from Head of Bight.

“It’s very exciting to know where Milky Way was born and thus be able to calculate how old the whale is," she said.

"Having identification photographs and documentation of this special whale for every year since birth is fantastic; we now have Milky Way’s sightings history thus far!” she said.  

“Now we even know who the mother of Milky Way is, and records from the Head of Bight database tell us that she was first seen there as an adult in 1998 and then in 2002.  

"She was recorded with a calf in 2006, with Milky Way as a calf in 2010, and she had another calf in 2013. Therefore it is quite possible that Milky Way was her second born." 

So far, the researchers have never received news of the mother being sighted in any other location than Head of Bight.  

Milky Way’s mother (catalogued as H9825) has recently been named ‘Virgo Supercluster’ after the cosmos that contains the Milky Way Galaxy.

Milky Way's mother, pictured at Head of Bight, has been named Virgo Supercluster after the cosmos that contains the Milky Way Galaxy. Pic: C. Charlton – Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study.

Milky Way's mother, pictured at Head of Bight, has been named Virgo Supercluster after the cosmos that contains the Milky Way Galaxy. Pic: C. Charlton – Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study.

Elizabeth said she was "over the moon" to have had the opportunity to be a part of this important milestone.

Last year she was also able to positively ‘match’ two other whales sighted within Encounter Bay waters, from photos of the same two whales sighted in Fowlers Bay.

“I’m just hoping Milky Way returns to Encounter Bay again this year," she said.

"We have many whale spotters dotted around the coast keeping a watch out every day for the whales, including this special white one; we sure don’t want to miss seeing Milky Way again!”

Elizabeth said Southern Right Whales exhibit a strong tendency to return to the same breeding location.

“If the whales do not find a safe haven to come to give birth and raise their young calves, to mate and to socialise, we may lose many of our whales.

"They will seek out other less disturbed breeding grounds like Head of Bight, Fowlers Bay and Warrnambool. “

“This is why it is so important for water users to watch out for whales, to slow down and to keep noise to a minimum.” 

As we approach the peak of the breeding season, Elizabeth said that waters users need to be reminded that within the Encounter Bay Restriction Area vessels must observe the guidelines and not approach a whale closer than 300 metres and if a whale is within the area must not operate the vessel at a speed exceeding 4 knots (‘no wake’).  It is prohibited to launch or operate jet skis during whale season in restricted areas.

A whale spotter recently observed two Southern Right Whales heading towards Encounter Bay.  After being disturbed by a boat, they changed direction and then left the area and were last seen heading west. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon occurrence. 

“We are privileged that the whales have chosen Encounter Bay as one of their breeding grounds. It happens in very few places in the world and is of significant tourist and economic benefit to our region," Elizabeth said.

"So let us all do everything we can to welcome, protect and enjoy these magnificent and fascinating creatures. “

For the full list of guidelines and regulations, click here

For latest whale sightings, click here

The public are also encouraged to report all whale sightings to the SA Whale Centre by phoning 8551 0759 or online via the SA Whale Centre website.

RELATED NEWS:

Whale with white calf at Tulka - July 2, 2014: From the Port Lincoln Times, about a different grey morph 'white whale'.

For information about the Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study visit the group's website.  

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