A research project investigating Southern Right Whale calf survival will take flight over Warrnambool’s Logans Beach this week.
The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) will launch a drone to capture high-resolution images that will be used to identify and assess the health of individual whale calves and their mothers.
DELWP Natural Environment Programs Officer Mandy Watson said: “Every Southern Right Whale has unique patterns on top of their head and around their chin and lower jaw.”
“These thickened skin patches, known as callosities, are colonised by tiny white crustaceans called cyamids, which create the patterns we see against the whales’ black skin,” Ms Watson said.
“We’re using these patterns to identify individual Southern Right Whales and understand the survival and recruitment of calves in the south-eastern Australian population.
“As the south-eastern population is estimated to be between 250 and 300, this research is vital in building our understanding of factors affecting the population growth and distribution.
“With the death of two calves from our small south-eastern population this year, it is more important than ever to better understand the health status of these Critically Endangered whales.”
The research will be conducted between 11 and 20 September. DELWP has obtained a research permit for the project, allowing a drone to operate within 500 metres of whales.
Ms Watson said the permit comes with strict conditions about the position of the research drone and the amount of time the drone can spend near whales.
“The drone will be flown by fully qualified and experienced drone operators and spend no more than five minutes at a time near each whale,” Ms Watson said.
“Whale behaviour will be constantly monitored during drone flights. If a whale shows behavioural response, the drone will be withdrawn to at least 500 metres from the whale.
“This is the third year DELWP has used drone technology to capture high-resolution images to support its research.
“During the first two years of this study, we photographed 26 whales, including 11 calves. The photographs allowed us to identify nine calves and 15 adults.
Data captured will be added to DELWP’s South-east Australian Southern Right Whale Photo-Identification Catalogue.
The research, funded by the Victorian Government, is a partnership between DELWP Barwon South West Region, Parks Victoria and the Arthur Rylah Institute.