When the drone footage of the southern right whales first popped up on the screens of a handful of marine biologists this week they cheered. Susan Crocetti confesses to fighting back tears.
They were watching footage of a mother and a newborn calf basking and breaching in the warm safe shallow of Jervis Bay. Moments later the drone operator pans up and a second mother and calf appeared on the screen.
It was this moment that prompted the outbursts from the scientists.
Once populous enough to cause colonials to complain of their sleep being disturbed by their nighttime groans in Tasmania’s Derwent River, the south eastern southern right was hunted to the brink of extinction. It was named the right because it was the ‘right’ whale to hunt as it had three times the mass of a humpback but the same length and a dangerous habit of loitering inshore.
While other whale populations have rebounded, only around 300 of this species survives.
Of this number, only 68 are known to be mothers, and only around 20 are expected to give birth in NSW or Victorian waters this winter.
While over 40,000 humpbacks now make the migration north from Antarctica each year to breed, southern rights do so in coastal waters further south.
In recent years they have been seen exploring the bays and estuaries of NSW.
While their behaviour is not fully understood, Ms Crocetti believes that they may be expectant mothers looking for other whales to join for safety in calving, which is common in the healthier west coast population.
This is why the scientists were so delighted to see not one, but two mothers with calves in Jervis Bay on Wednesday this week.
The images were captured by a drone operator who is part of a new network of volunteers trained in both animal protection and civil aviation regulations who are helping to identify each whale that visits NSW in a program managed by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Right whales are born with distinctive hardened skin patterns known as callosities on their heads by which they can be individually identified.
“What we need, to know which is which, are perfect head shots taken from above,” explains Ms Crocetti.
The 20 volunteers up and down the NSW coast can now be dispatched whenever a right whale is seen close to shore.
One of the two whales spotted in Jervis Bay had visited the central coast for some days earlier this month. The other was new to the scientists.
When the species’ numbers were healthy, it is thought that mothers returned to specific sites to calve every three or four years. It is hoped that the so-called Right Whale ID Program might help identify such sites in NSW so that the mothers can be better protected.
Ms Crocetti said the footage was not only evidence that the ID program, which is being piloted this year, can work, but moving in its own right.
“To see two mothers and two calves together, completely undisturbed, doing what they were born to do, it was just breathtaking.”
NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said the footage showed the program was a success. “The more we learn about these precious, majestic and endangered animals the better we can plan to protect them,” he said.
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