Environment Minister Tony Burke has announced a new international collaboration to share information on the rare Antarctic blue and killer whales.

Mr Burke said the Australian Marine Mammal Centre at the Australian Antarctic Division has created a database that allows Southern Ocean seafarers to snap and share their photographs of these rarely sighted whales and the more common humpback whales to help obtain more information on these majestic creatures.

Mr Burke said the database aims to capture images of the whales to help scientists better understand whale abundance, distribution and behaviour.

“This is a chance for people in the Southern Ocean to make a valuable contribution to Australia’s non-lethal whale science and conservation research,” Mr Burke said.

“Antarctic blue and killer whales are not regularly encountered in the Southern Ocean so we’re appealing to tourist vessels, commercial fishers, or merchant seamen in the region to take as many pictures of the whales as possible and upload them to the new database.”

The pictures will then be used, along with satellite tagging and acoustic research, to provide a clearer picture of the overall status and health of whales in the region,” he said.

Photographers need to observe minimum approach distances, take high-resolution photographs, record the date and location of the whale and capture the whales’ tails, sides and fins to help with individual identification.

“Whale markings, such as different colouration on the fins and flukes, are like fingerprints in humans and can be used to identify individuals,” Mr Burke said.

“The scientists will then be able to track where the whales were sighted and their movement around the Southern Ocean over time.

“This project contrasts with so-called ‘scientific whaling’ where the alleged research begins with a harpoon. These innovative projects again show you don’t have to kill a whale to study it.”

The images collected will be sent to existing photo identification catalogues in Chile and the United States. This information will then be fed into the International Whaling Commission.

The database project is part of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership a collaboration of 10 International Whaling Commission countries dedicated to undertaking non-lethal whale research.

Southern Ocean Research Partnership aims to improve understanding of the status, health, dynamics and environmental linkages of whale populations, and the threats they face.

Tips for whale identification photos:

  • record the date, time, and location (latitude/longitude) for the cetaceans that are photographed
  • always try to take photographs when the sun is behind you (and not behind the whale)
  • when using a camera that has adjustable settings, use shutter speeds of 1000 to 2000 or the ‘sports/action’ mode which allows for a stop action effect when photographing a moving whale
  • keep the aperture at 11 or higher as a greater depth of field is often needed with a large animal
  • ISO settings of 400 or 800 are best
  • record how many whales were present and how many of those were photographed
  • remember to clearly mark which sightings report each photograph relates to.

The whale database can be accessed through the Southern Ocean Research Partnership.