Researchers are hoping to keep track of this season’s Southern Right Whale calves, after using drones to identify whales around Warrnambool.

A Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) study of the critically endangered species involved research drones being operated from locations around the Warrnambool area last month.

DELWP Senior Biodiversity Officer Mandy Watson said: “This research is part of a long-term study looking at the size of the Southern Right Whale population in Australia’s south-east, and what factors may be affecting its growth.”

“By using drone technology, we’ve been able to include calves in the study for the first time.”

“In the past, we haven’t been able to identify and track calves born at Logans Beach, as they were too small to be photographed clearly from aircraft, which is the traditional way of collecting identification images.”

“Last month we used drone photography to very quickly identify 17 individual whales, including seven calves, through high-resolution images of their callosity patterns.

“The callosity patterns are thickened skin growths on their heads. Each whale is born with a unique pattern which can be used to identify individuals.”

“Images of the calves will be analysed to determine if their callosity patterns are mature enough for us to be able to follow them in future years as we do with the adults.”

“A total of 14 flights were conducted in the Warrnambool area, with the majority of those taking place over the whale nursery area at Logans Beach.”

“While drones are not normally allowed within 500 metres of whales, DELWP was granted a research permit to operate drones closer to whales.”

“As such, the research was carried out under strict conditions around the proximity and amount of time that the drones were allowed near the whales.”

“Researchers closely monitored the behaviour of the whales throughout the research work, and we didn’t detect any behavioural responses to the drones.”

This research, funded by the Victorian Government, is a partnership between DELWP’s Barwon South West Region and Arthur Rylah Institute. By using images collected in this study, researchers will be able to add each whale to the South East Australian Southern Right Whale Photo Identification Catalogue (curated by DELWP), and track their movements over the years.

Southern Right Whales are critically endangered on the Victorian Threatened Species Advisory

List, and their population in Australia’s south-east is estimated to be approximately 250.

Mother and calf