Research

Background

The Minke Whale Project conducts multi-disciplinary research into dwarf minke whale biology and behaviour, the social and economic values of the whales and the sustainable management of swim-with-whales tourism.

The first field studies of dwarf minke whales in the Great Barrier Reef began in 1996, involving the late Dr Peter Arnold from the Museum of Tropical Queensland and Dr Alastair Birtles from James Cook University, in collaboration with John Rumney and Andy Dunstan from the adventure diving and research vessel Undersea Explorer. At this time, very little was known about dwarf minke whales, which had only been recognised as a different form of minke since the mid-1980s.

Research by members of the MWP team has included long-term studies on dwarf minke whale population biology (primarily through photo-identification), functional morphology, interacting population parameters (e.g. demography), whale behaviour and acoustics, as well as management of the swim-with activity and social (i.e. human) aspects of the swimming-with-whales experience. The underlying basis for much of this research has been to evaluate potential impacts of human interactions with the whales, and assist with the sustainable management of swim-with-whales tourism. A strong focus of the MWP has therefore been the development of education and interpretation materials for tourism operators, with the aim of improving industry and visitor compliance with the Code of Practice whilst enhancing the swim-with experience and people’s knowledge of the whales and the marine environment.

For more information on our research findings and outputs, please see our publications page.

Collaborators

The Minke Whale Project research team works closely with swim-with-whales (SWW) endorsed tourism operators, Reef managers (from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ) and with wildlife conservation NGOs (including the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare ). Regular Stakeholder Workshops (usually both Pre- and Post-Season) are held in Cairns for the presentation of research findings and the discussion of management issues.

The management discussions in these Stakeholder Workshops have led to numerous refinements to the industry Code of Practice, and this collaboration has been praised by natural resource managers and representatives of international wildlife NGOs as a world-leading approach to the sustainable management of a whale watching industry.

John Rumney presents an award

John Rumney presents an award for appreciation (on behalf of the Minke Whale Project) to GBRMPA staff at a SWW Stakeholder Workshop (Post-Season 2008).

A model approach to sustainable management

In 2011 the collaboration between the SWW tourism operators, MWP researchers and Reef managers was recognised and the collaborating organisations were presented with a Tropical Innovations Award (Eco-Innovation Award Winner) by representatives of the Cairns Regional Council, for achieving a “World’s Best Practice Swim-with-Whales Ecotourism Management Model”. Our Model also won the “People’s Choice Award” via an online poll. Prize money from these awards has been used as seed funding for grant applications to address key knowledge gaps and develop new tools to assist with the sustainable management of the SWW activity.

Tropical Innovation Awards night

Tropical Innovation Awards night (August 2011), with (L-R) Dr Alastair Birtles, Susan Sobtzick, John Rumney and Matt Curnock.

Our research would not be possible without the support of the SWW-endorsed tourism operators, who provide in-kind places on their vessels, allowing researchers access to the field to collect important data. These tourism operators and their guests also contribute valuable data towards our research and monitoring, through sightings reports (e.g. the Whale Sighting Sheets completed by vessel crew), donations of underwater photos (for our long-term photo-ID study), reports of interesting or unusual whale behaviours, and by completing post-trip questionnaires. We are very grateful to of the wonderfully supportive vessel crew and passengers who have contributed immensely to our ongoing research!

Funding

Many of our research objectives have not received dedicated funding from external agencies, however in recent years we have received considerable assistance from donations by passengers on swim-with-whales trips (see our page on the MWP Fund for more info).

We are particularly grateful to our institutions (James Cook University and the Museum of Tropical Queensland ) for their long-term in-kind support and occasional grants awarded to postgraduate students.

We have previously been funded by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (2003-2009; “Dwarf Minke Whale Tourism Monitoring Program”), the Natural Heritage Trust (1999-2001; “Developing Ecologically Sustainable Dwarf Minke Whale Tourism in the Great Barrier Reef”) and we have been partially funded by the CRC Reef Research Centre (2001-2003) and the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility (2007-2010). Support for postgraduate student research has also come from the Sustainable Tourism CRC, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and from James Cook University.

This website and many new interpretive materials for the SWW industry were developed with funding from the Commonwealth Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism, under the T-QUAL Grants program (Oct 2011 to March 2013; “Implementing Sustainable Swim-with-Whales Tourism in Tropical North Queensland”).

Research permits and approvals

All research activities by the MWP are conducted under permit from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, with additional approvals from James Cook University Animal Research Ethics and Human Research Ethics Committees.

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