Unlocking whale secrets: Recovered satellite tag a lucky find for pygmy blue whale researchers

An aerial shot of a Pygmy Blue Whale (Grace Russell)

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A lucky find

Driving her quad bike along 12 Mile Beach off Hopetoun, Bernice McLean stumbled upon a strange device, little did she know it was a unique whale tag that had travelled a great distance.

“I just came across it,” she said.

“Well first I drove over the top of it and thought ‘oh what’s that back there?’ and I went back and found it but I had no idea what it was of course.”

What she had found was a MiniPAT tag, a device that is usually intended for use on sharks or whale sharks, but this particular tag was placed on a Pygmy Blue Whale in the Perth Canyon, a 1000m deep-water canyon 35 nautical miles from Fremantle.   

After contacting the manufacturer of the tag, Ms McLean handed it over to the researchers who were already on their way using satellite tracking.

Bernice McLean on her quadbike in Hopetoun (Bernice McLean)

By recovering the tag, whale researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Centre for Whale Research are one step closer to protecting these large mammals.

“If we can identify using these tags, where their important feeding grounds are, then we can help to advise the government where they need protection,” Managing Director at CWR Curt Jenner said.

“If we don’t collect that data then it’s just a mystery and you don’t find out where the whales important feeding areas are until all of a sudden there are a whole bunch of dead whales on the bows of ships that are going through the middle of a feeding area and by then it’s too late.

“It’s really an important role for each one of these tags that we put on the whales for our understanding of where the important migration paths are, where the feeding areas are.

“It’s literally in the end, life and death for those whales.”

The tag collects a dive profile which records how long a whale spends at a certain depth and collects data about their feeding patterns. 

Researchers can use the data collected from the tags to suggest marine park locations in order to protect the whales from human activities such as boating, shipping and oil and gas operations.

The dive profile data from the black tow tag seen on the right side of this pygmy blue whale, collected over 30 days, brings invaluable information on the foraging and migratory behaviour of this pygmy blue whale. (Micheline Jenner/Centre for Whale Research)

Mission to save the Pygmy Blue Whale

AIMS Research Scientist Michele Thums said it was great to get the tag back, being the first time these types of devices have been used on Pygmy Blue Whales.

“They [the tag] get attached to the animal and log the data, they then come loose at a pre-programmed time of 30 days… then make a connection with the satellite to start transmitting all the data that’s been collected,” she said. 

“For the most part we don’t expect to get them back. “

What baffled the researchers the most was that the tag gave satellite locations of the whale travelling south to Bremer Bay, instead of the usual migratory route north to Indonesia via Ningaloo.

“We are guessing that this is an immature whale in that it’s not going to be breeding this year,” Mr Jenner said.

“It’s not sexually mature, if it was going to swim all the way to Indonesia to breed it would swim up there for no reason because it has no potential for actually reproducing.

“That’s our best guess.”

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