Citizen scientists have captured spectacular footage of southern right whales and their calves swimming off the south coast of New South Wales.
Among the animals in the footage, taken near Jervis Bay, are a mother and calf that were recently spotted frolicking in the Hawkesbury River.
The drone footage was taken for a new research project, called Right Whale ID, that the NSW government is using to identify and track southern right whales to try to better understand their movements and improve protections for the endangered mammal.
Populations of southern right whales plummeted as a result of commercial whaling.
Susan Crocetti, the marine wildlife team leader with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, said the south-eastern population had not recovered to the same extent as populations off the coast of Western Australia, which were estimated to number about 3,000 individuals.
“Our population is under 300 we and don’t fully know why,” she said. “There just isn’t a critical mass and momentum in the population for them to have recovered.”
Southern right whales migrate from Antarctica each year to breed and calve in waters off the Australian east coast from about May until September or October, with the peak around July.
Unlike humpback whales, which motor up towards Queensland, southern right whales will spend time around the coastal bays of NSW to breed and give birth.
Every southern right whale has hardened patches of skin on its head. The patches are known as callosities and form patterns that are unique – like a fingerprint – to each whale.
The government has recruited and trained volunteers to use drones to film southern right whales when they are spotted close to shore.
The citizen scientists receive a message if a southern right whale is detected and are instructed to try to capture a headshot.
The headshots are being used to build a database of individual whales seen in NSW waters to try to track them throughout their life.
The volunteers, who have to sit an exam before being recruited to the program, also answer a series of questions about the behaviour of the whales they film.
The project has so far recorded five adult whales this year and two calves.
The images include a whale spotted in Wallis Lake in Forster-Tuncurry last month, as well as the mother and calf filmed in the Hawkesbury.
Headshots of that mother and calf have helped identify them along the NSW coast, including on the Central Coast and this week near Jervis Bay.
“What we’re hoping is we might start to detect locations where southern right whales are being seen repeatedly so that we can put in place management options to protect those locations,” Crocetti said.
“We want to help southern right whales recover because they’re an important part of the whole system.”
The NSW environment minister, Matt Kean, said the early results from the first year of the project were positive.
“We can see from their behaviour they use our city bays and estuaries as a kind of preschool where they teach their calves how to breach and feed before heading off to Antarctica for the summer,” he said.
Crocetti said NSW residents who spot a southern right whale, including any animals that are stranded, sick or entangled, should call the National Parks and Wildlife Service on 1300 0 PARKS or ORRCA Whale and Dolphin Rescue on 02 9415 3333 (24-hour service).
She said the whales could be recognised by the white patches of skin on their heads, their lack of a dorsal fin, and their smaller, almost triangular, flippers.