South Pacific Whale Research Consortium contact

2-6 April 2004, Byron Bay, NSW, Australia


SPWRC contact details

The South Pacific Whale Research Consortium met for its fifth annual meeting in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia, with support from the Australian Ministry of Environment and Heritage and Southern Cross University. Research groups active in French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Norfolk Island and eastern Australia were represented and presented updates on work on humpback whales and other cetacean species. Regional catalogues of humpback whale fluke photographs (representing more than 1,200 individuals from Oceania alone) were compared to describe regional return and interchange. A limited degree of migratory interchange has been established between adjacent wintering grounds of Oceania (the presumed wintering grounds of IWC management Area V and Area VI humpbacks) but not between regions separated by intervening regions (e.g, limited interchange between Tonga and Cook Islands but not between Tonga and French Polynesia). Non-systematic vessel surveys and unpublished capture-recapture estimates based on photo-identification indicate that the density of whales remains low throughout the wintering grounds of Oceania. Systematic shore-based surveys of Fiji show very low density in an area of former abundance. Analysis of mitochondrial (mt) DNA diversity based on nearly 1,000 genetic samples shows significant differentiation among surveyed wintering grounds of New Caledonia, Tonga, Cook Islands and French Polynesia, as well as for Western Australia (Group IV) and the Pacific coast of Colombia (Group I). Consortium members initiated a checklist of 24 cetacean species documented by members in one or more island groups in the region by sightings, photographs or genetic samples.

Attendees: Megan Anderson, Olive Andrews, Scott Baker, Denise Boyd, Dan Burns, Daniele Cagnazzi, Rochelle Constantine, Mike Donoghue, Trish Franklin, Wally Franklin, Christine Fury, Nick Gales, Claire Garrigue, Peter Harrison, Nan Hauser, Eric Kniest, Greg Luker, Mick McIntyre, Mike Noad, Adrian Oosterman, Marc Oremus, Dave Paton, Stephen Powell, Kirsty Russell, Josh Smith, Debbie Steel, Simon Walsh, Merv Whicker.
Apologies: Doug Cato, Phil Clapham, Robyn McCulloch, Carlos Olavarria, Michael Poole, Simon Childerhouse & Nadine Gibbs


The Fifth Annual Meeting of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium was held at the Byron Bay Beach Resort, NSW, 2-6 April 2004. Opening the meeting, Baker welcomed participants and thanked the Department of Environment and Heritage for providing funding to allow the meeting to be held in Australia, Southern Cross University for hosting the meeting and Paton for making the necessary arrangements to hold the meeting in such conducive surroundings.

Baker noted that the primary purpose of the annual meeting of the SPWRC was to update progress on research into humpback whales and other cetaceans in the South Pacific, particularly effort, sample collection, genetics, and acoustics.


Cook Islands – (reported by Hauser)

The Cook Islands consist of 15 islands covering 93 square miles of land located in two million square kilometres of ocean. This was the sixth season of humpback whale research in the Cook Islands. In six years of research, no resights have been made within the CI catalogue even though matches have been made to French Polynesia, Niue and Tonga. The 2003 season was conducted between July and October. A total of 571 hours was spent in the field resulting in a total of 221 whale sightings, including a total of 23 mother-calf pairs. This was considerably more than previous years. Long periods of song were recorded, for a total of 4.5 hours. Sixty-eight samples of sloughed skin and three sperm samples were collected. Sperm whales were observed on 4 occasions, dolphins and beaked whales were seen sporadically.

Upcoming Projects: Two projects are planned in 2004 for the humpback and beaked whales in Rarotonga. A collaborative effort with National Geographic will attempt to attach a critter-cam to a humpback whale using a suction-cup attachment. An ultrasound 116 recorder system with a 500 kHz acoustic tag will be deployed on beaked whales in the Bahamas and later used in the Cook Islands. This project is funded by the US Navy and is in collaboration with Mark McDonald (Scripps) and John Hildebrand (Scripps). Richard Sears (Mingan Island Cetacean Study) and Nick Gales (Australian Antarctic Division) will work with Nan Hauser to attach three satellite tags to humpback whales in the Cook Islands.

The regulations regarding the protection of whales in Cook Island waters have been submitted to government to be passed as law. There are currently no issues associated with whale-watching as whales are readily observed from shore. The Whale Education Centre is operating and very popular with children on the island. The Whale Research Center website has been updated and has links to Consortium research data.

Tonga – (reported by Russell)

Research in Tonga has been conducted since 1991, with the past five years seeing a greater field effort, primarily between mid-August to mid-September. The 2004 season involved field work in both Vava’u and Eu’a (east of Tongatapu).

Vava’u: Data were collected in the Vava’u chain of islands between 27 Aug – 22 September, using a chartered 12- metre sailing yacht, with a total of 217 hours spent on the water. During that time, 73 hours were spent with whales, resulting in 81 encounters with a cumulative total of 195 whales. Seventy-five whales were individually photo-identified from photographs of their flukes and 10 were resighted from previous years, resulting in a contribution of 65 new individuals to the Vava’u catalogue that now has a total of 484 individual whales.

Skin samples were collected, primarily using a Paxarms biopsy system but sloughed skin was also collected where possible and a total of 91 skin samples were collected. A total of 1.41 hours of acoustic recordings were collected

Eu’a: A second season of data was collected between 20-24 September using a commercial whale-watch vessel as the research platform. The total catalogue size from Eu’a is 39 whales. Amongst the 65 new whales from Vava’u, 10 whales matched to previous seasons’ photographs. Two whales were matched to more than one year. One within-season match was made between Eu’a and Vava’u (almost 400km apart).

Samoa – (reported by Paton and Walsh)

The 2003 survey followed the preliminary research undertaken in 2001, when surveys were conducted in areas to the northwest of Savai’i, and to the south-east of Upolu. Data were collected between 4-10 August and 15-27 September 2003, using a variety of research vessels. A total of 62 hours were spent surveying for whales and 7 hrs 18 mins were spent interacting with cetaceans. Five humpback whales were encountered (compared to 2001 when there were three encounters with humpback whales) and five other species of cetacean (bottlenose, rough-toothed and long-beaked spinner dolphins, short-finned pilot whales and an unidentified species of beaked whale) were also sighted.

The hydrophone was deployed on 18 separate occasions and humpback whales were heard during six deployments with up to three animals heard at a time. Acoustic recordings of rough-toothed dolphins were also collected. Skin samples were collected using the Paxarms biopsy system and three spinner dolphins, five rough-toothed dolphins, one bottlenose dolphin and three short-finned pilot whales were sampled.

During the field season further meetings were held with government officials to discuss the research objectives and legislation currently under development.

New Caledonia – (reported by Garrigue)

The 2003 research season in New Caledonia was conducted between 20 July and 12 September. Boat-based research was conducted on 42 days during the research period resulting in a total of 327 hrs of observations. During this time, 83 pods of whales were sighted with a cumulative total of 116 individuals. Forty-seven individuals were photo-identified from fluke photographs, 23 of these individuals had been photographed on previous seasons and 24 were new to the New Caledonia catalogue. The total catalogue size for New Caledonia stands at 284 individuals. The pods encountered included 22 single whales, 10 singers, 13 mother-calf pairs and 10 pods where reproductive behaviour was observed. Land-based research from an elevated lookout point was conducted on 42 days resulting in a total of 228 hours in the field. A total of 60 pods of whales were sighted with a cumulative total of 93 individuals.

Skin samples were primarily collected using a biopsy crossbow system although sloughed skin was also collected. A total of 98 humpback whales, two spinner dolphins, one bottlenose dolphin, one minke whale and two dugongs were biopsied. These samples will be analysed at the University of Auckland. Acoustic recordings were made during 186 deployments of the hydrophone. Song was heard on 108 deployments and eleven long song recordings were collected. These data will be analysed by Noad.

In August 2003, New Caledonian EEZ waters were declared a whale sanctuary. The government does not have legislative jurisdiction in the waters of the three provinces so the sanctuary does not apply in coastal waters and up to 12 NM from the edge of the coral reef. Currently the three provinces have different legislation to protect marine mammals in their waters with Province Nord having full protection since 2001; Province des Iles currently has no legislation and Province Sud establishing legislation in 2004.

Vanuatu – (reported by Garrigue & Russell)

The first systematic surveys of marine mammals in Vanuatu waters were conducted in the austral winter 2003. Historically, whaling ships were present between 1800 -1830 and a whaling station was operational in Aneityum in the 1840’s. Discovery tags were deployed in this area in the 1950’s (reported by Dawbin). Anecdotal information on the distribution and presence of marine mammals was collected from discussions with local people. Six species of cetaceans were identified either during the survey or from opportunistic records of sightings and literature searches (sperm whales, humpback whales, spinner dolphins, short-finned pilot whales and pan-tropical spotted dolphins).

For the 2003 season, visual and acoustic surveys were conducted from a sailing vessel at the southern islands of Tanna and Aneityum from 14 – 28 August 2003. There were 11 encounters with humpback whales during the survey, one mother-calf pair in Aneituym, one solitary whale near Tanna, five singers were heard close to Tanna and four pods of two whales near Tanna. Six fluke identification photographs were taken and compared to the existing Oceania catalogues. One matched to New Caledonia (sighted on three previous years in New Caledonia) and two matched to Tonga (Table 1).

Three skin samples were collected from humpback whales, two from sloughed skin and one from a biopsy sample collected using the Paxarms biopsy rifle. In addition three samples of bone from currently unidentified large cetaceans and one sample of dugong bone were collected. The hydrophone was deployed on 30 occasions and song was heard during 15 deployments. Four song sessions of 45 mins or more were recorded and eight recordings of five minutes duration were made. Song was mainly heard around Tanna, the area where the majority of whales were sighted.

Legislation was drafted in Vanuatu last year to protect marine mammals.

French Polynesia – (reported by Poole & Oremus)

At Moorea, the first humpback whale sighting was recorded on 19 July, and the last whale was recorded on 2 November 2003. Although surveys were continued until 01 December, the researchers had no further sightings of humpback whales.

Boat surveys were conducted on dedicated vessels and on platforms of opportunity (whale watching vessels). On some days at Moorea, both a dedicated vessel and a platform of opportunity were used, and both vessels may have seen the same whales. But in general the two boats operated in different parts of the island. In addition to his dolphin and whale surveys at Moorea, Oremus also conducted boat surveys at several other islands during the season. These islands included Tahiti, Mataiva, Tikehau, Rangiroa, Bora Bora, Maupiti, Tahaa and Raiatea. Effort varied at each island. No whales were observed other than at Tahiti and Moorea.

Boat surveys were conducted on 78 days from 19 July through 01 December. Whales were observed on 60 (77%) of the 78 survey days. A total of 230 whales were observed, of which 27 (12%) were calves. A total of 53 new whales were photo-identified at Moorea, and an additional 16 new whales at Rurutu, for a total of 69 new whales. Four whales, two at Moorea and two at Rurutu had been sighted in previous years. The French Polynesia catalogue contains 319 individual whales (of which approximately 20 are represented by low quality photos) with very few being sighted within season and between years. It is suggested that this is due to either a large population size or dispersal among the many islands in French Polynesian waters, and that the whales may travel more within and between seasons, and are more dispersed within a season, than they are in other areas with fewer islands.

A total of 62 skin samples of humpback whales were obtained during the 2003 season; two-thirds were collected using the Paxarms biopsy system and one-third were sloughed skin

The 2003 research showed very few mother-calf pairs in Rurutu. In past years, Rurutu has been known for its high percentage of calves, and for long residency of females with calves. It has been proposed that Rurutu may be a nursery ground for humpbacks; that is, that females give birth at or near Rurutu, and then spend long periods of time there as their calves are nursed. Local television showed footage of humpback whales at the Marquesas, 1400 kms north of Moorea, which is the first photographic proof of their presence in that archipelago. A copy of the footage and associated data has been requested. This is the first photographic proof of their presence in the Marquesas and Poole believes that only a very few whales visit this archipelago.

Fiji – (reported by Paton & Gibbs)

The second year of research in Fiji was conducted in Lomaiviti Island group, following the preliminary survey completed in 2002. Historically, Fiji once had an abundance of humpback whales, as reported by Dawbin who collected data throughout the South Pacific in the 1950’s and 1960’s. A greater knowledge of the Fijian humpback whale population has come through recent access to Dawbin’s data collected during his Discovery Tag work in Fiji from 1956-58 and coordinated land-based surveys primarily from the Lomavaiti group (by Paton et al.). Dawbin’s research was primarily land-based with Levuka being the main town from where surveys were conducted. The work was non-systematic so the data are not robust, but his records report the highest sighting rate of whales in Lomavaiti group. Dawbin’s surveys were conducted between May and October, with peak sightings in July and August. He reported maximum weekly counts of 238 humpback whales and a total of 1648 whales were sighted during his three-year survey period.

The 2003 survey comprised 257 hrs of primarily land-based observations conducted between late August and early September. The main focus was to replicate Dawbin’s surveys as closely as possible, so as to be able to compare data. Unfortunately the survey location Dawbin utilised at Levuka was overgrown with trees so another location was picked with similar viewpoint and height. There was only one confirmed humpback whale sighting during the 2003 survey period but there were other unconfirmed whale sightings. Other species observed include sperm whales, short-finned pilot whales, spinner dolphins, and pan-tropical spotted dolphin (a new record for this species in Fiji, confirmed by genetic analysis).

Time was also spent talking to local groups about the work, notably at the Fiji marine biodiversity workshop held in December 2003, which was hosted by WWF and was well attended by 100+ representatives from throughout Fiji. Paton attended the workshop and received many reports about sightings of whales with several reports of marine mammals received from dive operators in the area. Some interest was expressed in marine mammal based tourism.

Members discussed whether the Fijian population of humpback whales could essentially be considered extinct because recovery appears to be very slow. It was suggested that the New Zealand population may have gone to Fiji as well as New Caledonia because the recovery has been so slow in both Fiji and New Zealand. Of the 200+ Discovery tags deployed by Dawbin in Fiji, six were recovered, two from Soviet whalers in Antarctica, two from East Australia, one from New Zealand and one location was of uncertain accuracy (see Discovery Tag Data).

Norfolk Island – (reported by Oosterman & Whicker)

The whaling station on Norfolk Island began operations in 1949, and finished in 1962 when whaling collapsed with a catch of only four whales. Whaling was conducted primarily June – October with the peak in catches in October.

Approximately sixty hours of land-based observations were conducted over six days between 13-19 July 2003. Surveys were conducted from a variety of locations around Norfolk Island and comprised the first survey in this area. Humpback whales were sighted on two occasions, both sightings comprised a mother-calf pair and may have been the same individuals although this can not be confirmed as no identification photographs were taken. One group of bottlenose dolphins was also observed. Information on anecdotal sighting of cetaceans was obtained from community representatives including marine commercial operators and the National Parks & Wildlife Service. Sightings reported include a number of records of humpback, sperm and sei whales between April and September 2003.

New Zealand – (reported by Constantine)

The New Zealand catalogue comprises 13 individual fluke photographs collected since1994. Two new whales were added to the catalogue, one from 2002 and one from 2003. Skin samples were taken from a whale off Taranaki using a Paxarms biopsy system and a sample was taken from a dead whale near Kaikoura. The total number of samples from humpback whales in New Zealand waters is now three and these have been analysed at the University of Auckland.

In 2003 a humpback whale was entangled in a crayfish pot line off Kaikoura and whilst attempting to release the whale, a local fisherman was killed when the whale tail-slapped on him. Consequently, there has been discussion about the issue of entanglement of whales in cray-pot lines off Kaikoura and safety issues associated with disentangling whales. The New Zealand Department of Conservation is now consulting with experts to develop a safer disentanglement system. In January 2004, a humpback whale was found dead on the coast near Kaikoura. This whale had a large, fresh wound across its back consistent with entanglement in rope or line but whether the cause of death was related to this injury was not ascertained.

Baker commented that the SPWRC would like to voice their concern over the number of entanglements reported for humpback whales off the Kaikoura coastline.


Matching of photo-identification catalogues

The fluke catalogues compiled by members in the various island groups of the South Pacific now included images of more than 1,200 individual humpback whales from 9 regions. Comparisons of the 2003 season catalogue resulted in several new matches, including connection between Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Tonga (see Table 1).

Population differentiation by mtDNA – (reported by Hauser with apologies from Olavarria)
In the ongoing assessment of Southern Hemisphere humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), the IWC Scientific Committee has divided the South Pacific population into three main stocks (E, F and G) based on the distribution of breeding grounds. Recent analyses of photo-identification data by the Consoritum have shown a limited degree of demographic interchange between adjacent breeding grounds of the western stocks and important segregation from the G stock (Colombia, Eastern Pacific). An analysis of population differntiation uing mitochondrial DNA sequences (n = 946, 447 bp) now shows significant differences among five regional breeding grounds in the South Pacific: New Caledonia (Eii1 sub-stock), Tonga (Eii2 sub-stock), Cook Islands (F stock), French Polynesia (F stock) and the Pacific coast of Colombia (G stock). An analysis of molecular variance (AMOVA, FST and FST) showed significant differentiation at both the haplotype and nucleotide level between all the breeding grounds considered in this study, with the exception of Tonga and the Cook Islands at the nucleotide level (FST). This confirms the current stock hypotheses, but also suggests that the F stock should be partitioned into two separated stocks, Fi - Cook Islands and Fii - French Polynesia. These analyses also indicate that New Caledonia and Tonga should be considered as two distinct stocks (Eii1 and Eii2), although recent photo-identification comparison show some interchange between these two regions. The genetic distinctiveness of French Polynesia is of particular interest given the absence of historical information on the breeding ground and probable impact of Soviet illegal whaling in the presumed feeding ground on Antarctic Area VI.

Discovery Tag Data for Southern Hemisphere – (reported by Paton)

Paton, working in collaboration with Clapham, has begun examining the logbooks completed by Dawbin during his Discovery tag research. This has shown locations for the placement of over 1200 Discovery tags. Additional Discovery tag data has been obtained from the IWC with over 30,000 records (including Dawbin’s 1200) are contained in the IWC database for the Southern Hemisphere. This data was compiled as part of the International Marking Scheme and is the largest Discovery tagging program in the Southern Hemisphere (another scheme was run independently by the Soviet Union). Paton is currently compiling Soviet records relating to Discovery tagging in the Southern Hemisphere (including both the Soviet-run Discovery tagging program and returns of tags from the International Marking Scheme). These data will be reviewed to assess the validity of this data and the value of including it in the analysis. The IWC database will be cross-checked with Soviet data to update the IWC records where appropriate.

A total of 33,385 cetaceans were tagged in the Southern Hemisphere between 1932 and 1984 under the International Marking Scheme. A total of 5164 tag attempts were made on humpback whales, including tags that were fired and missed. 185 (3.6%) of tags were recovered from humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere (excluding Soviet data). The low return rate may indicate under-reporting of tag returns, tag loss, tagging-related mortality or large population size. Tagging of humpback whales continued after the moratorium on hunting this species was in place, so recovery of these tags is not likely.

The locations of tags deployed in the South Pacific (excluding the Southern Ocean) are as follows: Australia 1172, New Caledonia 44, Vanuatu 24, Norfolk Island 135, Fiji 229, Tonga 106, Niue 1, French Polynesia 2, New Zealand 732

Paton aims to map the historical distribution of humpback whales throughout the area, and is analysing tag recoveries for a better assessment of Southern Hemisphere humpback stock structure and an indication of the timing of tagging for whales in this area. Although he may not use all the Soviet data (some of which is of dubious quality), Paton will attempt to recover data from the IMS tags to get a more complete dataset.

Microsatellite genotyping and standardisation – (reported by Steel, Anderson and Garrigue)

More than 1,000 skin samples (primarily biopsy samples) of humpback whales are available for microstallite genotyping from the primary regions of Oceania and another 1,000 (primarily sloughed skin) are available from coast of east Australia. In anticipation of a collaborative comparison of these genotypes, funding was provided by the Department of the Environment and Heritage (Australia) in 2003 to undertake preliminary standardisation of genotyping between the University of Auckland and Southern Cross University genetic groups. The project was undertaken in 2003 and involved:
20 humpback whale tissue samples (10 from the UoA collection and 10 from the SCU collection) and 7 standard humpback whale samples were each genotyped at 17 loci , EV14*, EV21*, EV37*, EV94*, EV96, EV104*, GATA417*, EV1, 464/465, TAA31, GATA28, GATA53, GT211, GT23, GT575, GT509, GT310 (an asterisk marks loci amplified twice, once using the original published primer sets and a second time using a redesigned primer set), at both laboratories (UoA & SCU);
Differences between genotyping systems and primer sets were determined;
A double blind test was undertaken using 20 previously unidentified humpback whale samples (10 from UoA and 10 from SCU). These samples were exchanged between the two laboratories and genotyped at the 17 loci stated above;
Raw data from the blind tests were converted by each laboratory group to account for system differences and primer differences, using the known differences that were determined in the first stage of the project;
Accuracy of the converted data was assessed for the 6 loci that had both an original and a redesigned primer set;
100% accuracy was achieved at 3 of the 6 loci (EV14, EV94 and GATA417);

The preliminary results indicate that standardisation between laboratories is possible despite differences in genotyping platforms (ABI377 slab gel and ABI310, 3100 or 3700 capillary systems), tissue quality and DNA extraction methods and differences in size range due to primer design. However, such a comparison requires close coordination and exchange of samples for development of allelic ladders as well as absolute sizing.

Species identification and diversity of cetaceans in regions of the South Pacific

Donoghue reported on the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) Workshop on the Convention on Migratory Species and Marine Mammal Conservation in the South Pacific, held in March 2004, which was also attended by Hauser, Poole and Powell. Participants at the workshop had requested the Consortium to develop a checklist of cetacean species recently reported from the region, with levels of evidence for their identification and distribution. Members of the Consortium produced a table listing cetacean species that members have reported and three categories of data (photographic, acoustic and genetic) for which information is held. This is summarised in Table 2.


Baker thanked participants for their efforts and the organizers and sponsors of the meeting. He noted that from fairly simple beginnings, the Consortium was steadily expanding in its scope. The collaboration with Southern Cross University is proving to be particularly successful, thanks to the commitment brought by the staff and students connected with the Consortium.

Baker also raised the idea of convening a conference on humpback and other whales in the region, to continue the tradition of such meetings (e.g. Humpback 2000) that had been organised by the late Dr Robert Patterson. This suggestion was broadly welcomed and Baker and Paton undertook to explore the proposal further.

Table 1: Results of comparisons of photo-identification catalogues among areas, with sample sizes of identified individuals used (n) and years of effort. “New” means new matches from 2003 photo i.d. data. “Total” means total matches for all years. Photos taken in 2000 and 2001 were not compared to collections from Colombia or Ecuador; however, a previous partial comparison of Oceania flukes to these collections revealed no matches.

Table 2: Checklist of marine mammal species identified by sighting reports, photographs or genetic samples from regions of the South Pacific, by members of the South Pacific Whales Research Consortium.

Nan Hauser, The Secretariat
South Pacific Whale Research Consortium
P.O. Box 3069, Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Nan Hauser consortium@whaleresearch.org;
C. Scott Baker cs.baker@auckland.ac.nz;
Phillip Clapham phillip.clapham@noaa.gov;
Mike Donoghue donoghue@ihug.co.nz;
Claire Garrigue op.cetaces@offratel.nc;
Dave Paton d.paton@nbcnet.com.au;
Michael Poole criobe@mail.pf

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