D.J. "Pin" Needham1
Southern Right Whales (SRW) were hunted to near extinction in the mid-19th century in southern Australia. The last whale taken commercially in South Australia was in 1872. No live Right Whales were reported for over 80 years (until 1955), in spite of a worldwide moratorium on taking Right Whales from 1935. The first report was a cow & calf off Fremantle, Western Australia, then another cow/calf pair in Davenport Creek, Ceduna, South Australia in 1965.
The current project began in 1984 with a survey flight from Perth to Sydney and return. On this survey, between Eucla and Ceduna, 19 adults and 7 calves were seen mostly in the region of the Great Australian Bight. From Ceduna to Sydney only 3 adults were sighted. The return flight yielded one cow & calf in Eastern Victoria. With the South Australian Museum we then conducted periodic coastal aerial surveys from Port Lincoln to Eucla and beyond. The aim was to count the whales and to photo ID as many individual SRWs as possible. This part of the project continued until the funding finished in 1991 when more than 20 cows calved at the Head of the Bight (HOB). Thereafter, the project has continued, funded by the author using whale-watching tours and veterinary work.
Now the focus has shifted to a more detailed study in the area of the HOB with the local study area being surveyed from land and air. There appears to be a 3-year pattern to the SRW breeding cycle with a different cohort of cows calving in each of the three years. The number of SRWs has increased to the stage where we feel that the HOB calving ground has nearly reached its capacity (with over 55 cows & calves in 2013) and SRW cows are moving to other calving grounds (e.g., Fowlers Bay).
The process of individual photo IDs has now reached the stage where we are working towards a National Photo ID catalogue subscribed by all SRW researchers.