From Blue Whale Study’s inception to current day, the primary research interest has been the ecology of Endangered pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) in the Bonney Upwelling and surrounding waters of south-east Australia.
Pete’s Ph.D focused on the dynamic linkages between weather, oceanography, prey and blue whales in this region. Using aerial and boat surveys, satellite remote sensing and deployed oceanographic instruments he demonstrated that these waters are an important seasonal feeding aggregation area for blue whales.
Aerial surveys continue to be a core research priority, allowing us to investigate the distribution of blue and other whales over large areas, providing important insights into their behaviour and ecology. Our aerial surveys have covered a vast stretch of ocean from the west coast of Tasmania to the central Great Australian Bight.
This work later progressed into description and modelling of blue whale and other cetaceans’ feeding habitat in this region. Collaboration with the Australian Antarctic Division and the Centre for Whale Research (W.A.) in 2005, also enabled Pete to study movements of blue whales by satellite tagging using shallow implanted tags. This collaboration sought to address the dual aims of discovering patterns of movement within the summer feeding area, and where the whales migrate to during the winter breeding season. While the latter aim was not realised, this tagging gave detailed movement data of blue whales within the Bonney Upwelling, and showed that they move between the Bonney Upwelling and the Sub-Tropical Convergence, a vast alternate feeding area south of Australia.
Between 2002 and 2014, Pete’s research partner was Dr Margie Morrice. With colleagues from Cascadia Research (USA), in 2007 Margie and Pete studied fine-scale foraging behaviour of blue whales using suction-cup-attached dive loggers.
During 2009-2011 Pete and Margie were also involved in a project with Macquarie and Flinders Universities, aimed at unravelling the population genetics of Southern Hemisphere blue whales. This work confirmed that these were pygmy blue whales, belonging to the same population (the South-East Indian Ocean population) as blue whales that feed in the Perth Canyon off Western Australia.
Since our research began in 1998, one of our core research priorities has been photo-identification (photo-ID), which involves photographing unique natural markings on individual blue whales, such as pigment patterns and dorsal fin shape. Photo-ID enables us to:
- understand important aspects of whales’ lives including movements between areas (we exchange our images with other researchers elsewhere),
- unravel patterns of residency (how long whales remain in feeding areas, and whether they return over multiple seasons),
- understand associations between individual whales,
- estimate population size, and
- determine the health and condition of the whales.
The Blue Whale Study is a founding member of the Southern Hemisphere Blue Whale Catalogue, an international collaboration to share photo-ID with the aim of discovering long-range resights between regions.
In recent years, BWS has become increasingly involved in community education programs, including mentoring of local high school students.