The little white whale who stole a town’s heart

THE heartwarming story of how a community once notorious for its slaughter of whales opened its heart to a couple of researchers to help speed their recovery is one of four Blue Yarns at the Oceanlife Festival.

Albany was home to Australia’s last commercial whaling station and the site of bitter clashes between whalers and greenies in the years before its closure in 1978.

Southern right whale numbers were severely depleted by industrial whaling early in the 20th century, but the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company continued taking around 1000 sperm and humpbacks until its closure.

While the humpbacks’ recovery saw them taken off the federal government’s threatened species list in February this year, Southern right whales haven’t enjoyed the same success, which piqued the interest of UWA biological sciences masters students Katy Fannei and Max Fabry.

As part of their studies, they travelled to Albany in 2020 to investigate whether the growing whale watching industry was affecting the animals’ behaviour. With no funding they had to rely on gazing out from tourist lookouts, but bad storms that year meant not a single whale swam into King George Sound.

Around the same time, local amateur pilot David Ellett was taking his family for a scenic flight around the coastline when they spotted a rare white Southern right whale calf and posted the footage on a local whale watching Facebook page.

Ms Fannei spotted the post and eagerly contacted the Elletts. After earning an invitation to dinner and sharing their passion for the whales, the pair’s research suddenly took a dramatic turn.

“At dinner is where it started evolving because David had the idea to get the two amateur flying clubs in Albany involved,” Ms Fannei told the Herald.

The idea took off and in 2021 there were 14 volunteer pilots signed up.

Ms Fannei said it changed everything.

Sanctuary

“In 2020 we were only looking at Albany with one big bay and a beach nearby, to being able to cover 450 kilometres of coastline.

“Our research changed from looking at the vessel impact, to where they were aggregating and what are their numbers.”

They are now filling important gaps in our limited understanding of Southern right whales, and their data is helping shape the border of a proposed marine sanctuary stretching from Bremer Bay to the South Australian border.

“All we know from that area is just based on an annual census by the WA Museum which they’ve been doing for 32 years, and they fly by during peak season once a year,” Ms Fannei said.

“Based on that, we have the population and recovery numbers, but we don’t know anything about outside the peak season.”

While knowledge about the whales was growing, so was Albany’s love for their research, and this year a local transport company (the owner’s dad was one of the pilots) donated a 4WD and a limitless fuel card, allowing Mr Fabry to employ drones to help document the whales.

“That was really important as it helps to start putting together a photo catalogue,” Mr Fabry said.

“We want to build that over the years which will improve our understanding of their behaviour and how many whales there are.”

The research led Mr Ellett’s wife Lisa-Maree to create the not-for-profit Little White Whale Project, the name inspired by the calf that brought the community together.

Mr Fabry said it was wonderful seeing the community come together for the project, but he’s not entirely surprised.

“Albany is tightly linked to whales and they are invested in the next step of the recovery of the Southern right whale.”

Ms Fannei says they hope their research can help authorities understand more about what makes a good aggregation point for the whales and what has to be done to protect those areas.

She says coastal development could play a part, as it appears fewer whales are visiting the sound each year as Albany grows, while climate change can also play a part as a bad year in feeding grounds could mean they have less energy for their annual migration.

She says they’re not sure if they’ve spotted the little white calf, as they aren’t albinos as many suspect, but naturally start “greying out” as they grow.

But she says following the launch of the Little White Whale Project, it seemed luck was on their side, as they spotted nine white calves this year, which she says is a “very, very rare and exciting” occurrence.

For more information go to http://www.littlewhitewhaleproject.org

by STEVE GRANT

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