When most people think of whales, they immediately imagine the docile, slow moving, giants of the oceans. There are nearly 90 different species of whales that currently inhabit the waters of Earth, and only 10 of these species make up the large whales that most people think of. The largest of these whales is the Blue whale is also the largest animal on the planet. Coming in 4th place for the largest whale is the Right whale which can grow to 60ft long and weigh up to 80 tons. Of all the large baleen whales, the Right whale is the rarest, though not listed as endangered on any conservation lists.
At one time in Australia, Southern Right whales were so populous that people would jokingly complain that the whale songs would keep them awake at night. Loss of habitat, hunting, and fishing practices saw Southern Right whale populations decline, but past conservation efforts have aided in species rehabilitation. Still, it is an uncommon sight to see one of the gentle giants near shore. So when a Southern Right whale ventured into the estuary of Wallis Lake in Forster Tuncurry, New South Wales, at 7:30 in the morning on June 29, 2021, people were shocked.
The following day, professional local drone photographer Shane Chalker headed out to the Forster Tuncurry bridge to see if the whale would return. Sending his drone above the water, Shane was able to capture video and images of the whale calmly swimming through the lake. The whale put on quite a show for the hundreds of commuters and tourists who joined Shane on the bridge. “‘It’s been backwards and forwards, it’s done about 10 circuits down to the bridge and back to the oyster leases,” Shane said of the whale. “But, it looks very calm and relaxed. It seems to be able to navigate the sandbank.”
The National Parks and Wildlife Services, Maritime Services, and Mid Coast Council swiftly placed a protection order of Wallis Lake, not sure if the whale that had been identified as a female, was looking for a safe place to give birth. The drone footage shows that the whale dwarfs the other boats that were already in the water, which is why all boats and swimmers were ordered to give the whale a 500 meter berth. But the drone footage captured by Shane did more than share this phenomenon with the world, it helps conservation better track Southern Right whales.
All Right whales are born with distinctive hardened skin formations on their heads called callosities. Unique to each animal, like a human’s fingerprint, callosities are used to identify and catalog Right whales. It is estimated that there are less than 70 Southern Right breeding females left in the Australian region. To better understand and protect Southern Right whales, a new conservation project has begun. Called the Right Whale ID Project, it relies on a network of volunteer drone pilots to search for and document whales.
The images collected by the drones are uploaded to a database, using callosities to identify and count populations. The project has already identified 5 adults and 2 calves. Susan Crocetti, marine wildlife leader for Right Whale ID, is hoping that footage like that taken by Shane will inspire other drone operators to join the program. “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,” she said. “We want to help Southern Right whales recover because they’re an important part of the whole system.”