Humpback whales off the Coffs Coast. Photo by Rachel Vercoe
Humpback whales off the Coffs Coast. Photo by Rachel Vercoe

Whale ‘snot’ tells a story of poor health on journey home

WHALES are currently on their migration north with record numbers spotted along our coastlines.

Popular whale watch locations like Look at Me Now Headland at Emerald Beach and the Woolgoolga Headland draw locals and tourists alike to catch a glimpse of them frolicking along their way.

Numbers are going up every year with currently around 30,000 migrating up to Queensland and back.

But while it's a boon for the tourism industry, for the majestic humpback whale, it's potentially a time of less optimal health.

UNSW Sydney researchers have collected and analysed samples of whale blow - similar to mucus from a human nose - and found "significantly less" microbial diversity and richness on the return leg of the whales' migration, indicating they're likely to be in poorer health than when their journey began.

Microbial diversity accounts for the wide array of microorganisms - the smallest forms of life.

Lead author Dr Catharina Vendl, UNSW science researcher, said the study, published in Scientific Reports this week, provided the first evidence whales' airway microbiota was a potential indicator of a whale's overall health.

East Australian humpback whales complete, on average, an arduous 8000-kilometre round trip between Antarctica and Queensland from May to November each year, fasting for most of their journey.

"The physical strains of the humpback's migration likely affected the microbial communities in the whales' airways - so, our findings are key to further developing the analysis of airway microbiota as a non-invasive method for monitoring the immune function and overall health of whales and dolphins," Dr Vendl said.

Humpback whales off the Coffs Coast. Photo by Rachel Vercoe
Humpback whales off the Coffs Coast. Photo by Rachel Vercoe

Locals and visitors to the region enjoy whale-watching season, but with it comes reports of whales becoming stranded.

Although humpback whale stranding events occur naturally and regularly to injured and young whales, researchers say it is crucial to monitor the population health of this iconic species to ensure its long-term survival.

"Humpback whales do not only play an essential role in their marine ecosystem but also represent an important economic resource, because whale watching is a booming industry in many Australian cities and around the world," Dr Vendl said.

Almost hunted to extinction

HUMPBACK whales were almost hunted to extinction. The last whaling station in NSW, at Byron Bay, closed in 1962 because so few whales could be found.

Humpback whales are now protected throughout Australia, and in NSW are listed as a vulnerable species under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.

Dr Vendl, who has a background in veterinary science, said it was amazing the east and West Australian humpback whale populations had recovered well in the years since whaling stopped.

"So, these whale populations are not endangered, but that doesn't necessarily mean things will stay that way," she said.


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