Drones and tourist video of pygmy blue whales helps experts better understand their behaviour

Drones and tourist video of pygmy blue whales helps experts better understand their behaviour
  • PublishedJuly 7, 2024

New research on a rare variety of blue whale has revealed previously unseen behaviours in waters north of Australia, including the first footage of a mother nursing her calf.

Research spanning more than a decade studied the presence of more than 2,000 pygmy blue whales in the Banda Sea, as they migrate north from southern Australia.

Pygmy blue whales are one of several subspecies of the world’s largest living animal, the blue whale.

Australian National University professor Karen Edyvane, who led the study, said vision and images captured of the colossal mammals was largely a result of support from tourism sector workers and citizen scientists in Timor Leste.

“The footage of a nursing mother and calf was taken by a tourist,” she said.

A blue pygmy whale surfacing above the ocean with an island in the background.
Pygmy blue whales can sometimes be seen off the coast of the Timor Leste capital, Dili. (Supplied: Karen Edyvane)

Professor Edyvane said any footage of pygmy blue whales was invaluable in understanding them.

“[They’re] one of the largest creatures on Earth and we still know very little about them, because their numbers are low and they are highly elusive,” she said.

Blue whales typically prefer to swim at deeper depths, but narrow channels in the Banda Sea have provided scientists with a rare opportunity to monitor them.

While the monitoring of pygmy blue whale populations has historically relied on boats, the advent of drones has allowed researchers to observe the creatures from above.

The technology has helped challenge conventional wisdom about their activities in the waters off Timor Leste, which was thought to be a corridor largely for foraging.

Scientists now believe the Banda Sea is also a romantic hotspot and birthing ground for the whales.

“To see these amazing animals in courtship behaviour or to see mothers and calves nursing very closely together — you wouldn’t see that in a boat,” Professor Edyvane said.

A woman with gray hair sitting at a computer in a university campus office. She's turned around in her chair and smiling.
Professor Karen Edyvane from Charles Darwin University led a study into pygmy blue whales in the Banda Sea.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Diplomatic purpose to partnership

The research, a collaboration between Australian universities and the Timorese government, has also improved diplomatic ties.

Timor’s Consul-General in Darwin, Jose Amorin Dias, said he was proud to see the two countries collaborate.

“I feel very proud that we have this marine richness in our country,” he said.

“It’s a great opportunity for Timor Leste to develop close cooperation with Australia in the field of whale tourism.”

An aerial view of a parent and calf whale in the ocean
Little is known about blue pygmy whales, because of their preference to dive deep below the sea surface.(Supplied: Tiffany Klein/Greenpeace)

With the species classified as endangered, Mr Dias said there was an important role in training more local scientists and conservationists in Timor Leste as whales contend with the threats of climate change.

“Especially to help in saving our ocean, the planet and all the creatures that we have in Timor,” he said.


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