An exciting discovery made last week by the South Australian Whale Centre’s senior whale spotter Elizabeth Steele-Collins has revealed an interesting story about a rare whale.
The grey endangered southern right whale, now known as Murphy, was attracted to some of the state’s best coastal locations spanning over 1000 kilometres in the past two years before it was sighted in Encounter Bay in 2017.
Before that, he was spotted at Sleaford Bay and Port Lincoln in 2016 and at Head of Bight (HOB) in 2015.
It was a photo of the grey morph whale, posted on social media by a photographer at Sleaford Bay near Port Lincoln in 2016, that allowed Ms Steele-Collins to connect the dots.
“I thought the whale looked familiar so I checked through all the grey morph images I have on file and sure enough it was a match with a grey morph seen and photographed at the Bluff and Petrel Cove in August 2017,” Ms Steele-Collins said.
“It is exciting to confirm this cross-match between Encounter Bay and Sleaford Bay.”
Further investigation also revealed the same whale had previously been photographed and catalogued at the Head of Bight by the Curtin University Centre for Marine Science and Technology Research Team, during the annual southern right whale monitoring in 2015.
It was then that the whale was named ‘Murphy’ meaning ‘sea-warrior’ or ‘sea-battler’.
Curtin University researcher Dr Claire Charlton said the whale was named in recognition of the sponsorship provided to the long-term research program from 2014 to 2019 by Murphy Australia Oil Pty. Ltd.
The sightings of Murphy in three locations along the SA coast across three years highlighted the importance of understanding coastal movement patterns to promote conservation management of the endangered species.
“The ability of citizen scientists and members of the public to photo identify and cross match whales in different coastal areas in Australia provides a valuable contribution to research,” Dr Claire Charlton said.
Photo Identification provides a non-invasive and cost-effective tool for marking and resighting an individual over time.
It also reveals important information for conservation management including movement patterns, connectivity of coastal areas, life histories such as calving rates, age of sexual maturity, migration rates, survival and mortality.
As a seasoned whale spotter living at Waitpinga, Ms Steele-Collins said it appeared ‘Murphy’ had been spending time with other grey whales as he was photographed socializing with a second grey morph amongst a mating group at Sleaford Bay in 2016.
Murphy was also seen travelling with another grey in a group of four whales in Encounter Bay waters in 2017.
“Another exciting discovery was finding out that in 2015 Murphy was seen at Head of Bight with another grey morph named ‘Latte’ who was first sighted in Encounter Bay in 2013,” she said.
“A special interest whale named ‘Milky Way’ was also at Head of Bight with Latte and Murphy that same year. Maybe Murphy really does have grey morph ‘attraction powers’,” she said.
Most southern right whales are born black and may have some grey markings or patches on their skin. They often have white patches on their belly or under their chin.
Another exciting discovery was finding out that in 2015 Murphy was seen at HOB with another grey morph named ‘Latte’ who was first sighted in Encounter Bay in 2013Elizabeth Steele-Collins
Grey morph whales are a rare colour variation; they are mostly grey with some black markings/patches.
Grey morph whales are born white but gradually darken as they mature, accounting for only approximately five per cent of the southern right whale population.
Thanks to the hard work of a number of volunteer whale spotters, five grey morph whales were recorded in Encounter Bay in 2017, which created a great deal of excitement amongst whale watchers.
Ms Steele-Collins said it was amazing to see such a high number of special grey morphs in one season.
South Australian Whale Centre Coordinator Amelia Graham said it was exciting to be able to identify individual whales and to note when they return to Encounter Bay or appear in other areas.
“It’s the discovery of this connectivity with other areas that reveals much about their movements and behaviour,” she said.
“Hopefully 2018 brings another great whale watching season.”