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DEA leads a group of South African and International Scientists on a 10 day humpback whale scientific research voyage

28 October 2015


The Department of Environmental Affairs’ (DEA) RV Algoa and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ (DAFF) FRS Ellen Khuzwayo,today embarked on a 10 day scientific research voyage to collect data on the humpback whale between Dassen Island and Groenriviermond off the West coast of South Africa.

RV Algoawill focus on environmental sampling for analysis of chemical make-up of the region; this will include checking the available nutrients, and available food for whales. In addition to environmental sampling, a dedicated team of researchers will be recording every whale seen along a pre-designed research path.

On the other hand FRS Ellen Khuzwayo will be dedicated to biological sampling of humpback whales encountered in the region. Biological sampling will include collecting DNA samples, taking photographs of whale tails/flukes which serve as a unique identifier similar to finger prints in humans and attaching satellite tracking instruments in order to understand their movement and behaviour, both on the West coast and on their return to Antarctic feeding grounds. Small cameras will be attached on selected whales using suction cups in order to have a whale’s view of the ocean. This will help us identify the prey types on the West coast while supplementing prey sampling from the prey (food) sampled from the RV Algoa.

Understanding the dynamics of humpback whales occurring off South Africa is important for population identification, abundance estimation and conservation management.

Humpback whales are a charismatic and acrobatic large whale species that typically visits the West coast of Africa every winter for breeding. Upon completion of breeding activities, they begin their 2500 km swimming journey to Bouvet Island, South West of Cape Town in late spring/early summer.  These whales were heavily exploited and reduced to low numbers until interventions by concerned states through the International Whaling Commission (IWC), of which South Africa is a founding member.

Each year, thousands of international tourists descend on South African shores to view two types of visiting large whales, the southern right and humpback whale. Southern Right whales have enjoyed research attention for decades and our understanding of the biology of the species is relatively better than that of the humpback whale. Humpback whales that are found in South African waters have interesting behavioural characteristics. Some of these whales have suspended their migration, opting to mill around South Africa through all seasons.

Furthermore, these whales gather in South Africa for a feeding frenzy that scientists believe is unique to South Africa in the Southern Hemisphere. It is suspected that changes driven by climate change have influenced this “unusual” behaviour. Although an estimated 500 humpback whales are found in South African waters, no evidence of breeding has been recorded off the West coast of South Africa, raising question around their breeding locality.

This scientific research is also part of South Africa’s continued efforts to understand our oceans. The research is conducted by DEA in collaboration with the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute, DAFF, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA), Oregon State University (USA), Aqualie Institute (Brazil) and invaluable contributions from Australian Department of Environment’s Marine Mammal Centre and BirdLifeSA.

For media queries, contact:

Zolile Nqayi
Cell: 082 898 6483