large pygmy blue whale underwater


Understanding risks to whales in Australia's north west region

Whales are some of the planet’s most iconic marine animals and are found in all oceans. They are part of the Cetacea group of marine mammals which also includes dolphins and porpoises and the largest animal in the world; the blue whale.

While often thought of as strictly cold water animals, many whales migrate to the equator to breed. Several whale species migrate north from the Southern Ocean into the warmer waters of Australia to breed during the winter months.

Some whale populations along the Australian coast (and around the globe) were dramatically reduced during historic commercial whaling activities. As a result, several whale species are now listed as threatened in Australia under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. All cetaceans are now protected in Australian waters.

Despite current protection, whales continue to face threats in Australian waters including entanglement in marine debris and fishing gear, collisions with ships, ingestion of rubbish and environmental change (e.g. melting sea ice in polar regions) as a result of a changing climate.


Researchers prepare to tag a pygmy blue whale off the coast of Western Australia. Image: Grace Russell

Our research

AIMS research focusses on the vulnerable humpback whale and the endangered pygmy blue whale populations in Australia’s north west.

Humpback whales

Our humpback whale research is conducted as part of the Western Australian Marine Science Institute’s (WAMSI) Kimberley Marine Research program.

Our scientists study humpback whale distribution and movements in the region, identifying important areas and habitats such as calving and nursing areas. Understanding where whale activity and human activities overlap allows us to identify these areas as high risk. Such information helps focus management and conservation efforts for the region.

Despite their large size, monitoring humpback whale populations is difficult and costly given that they often occupy vast, remote areas. This is particularly true along sparsely populated coastlines such as Australia’s north west.

We are developing novel techniques such as computer recognition of whales in high resolution satellite photos of the area. This is an efficient way to help the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife monitor breeding humpback whales in the Lalang-garram/Camden Sound Marine Park.

Pygmy blue whales

Researchers are studying this elusive subspecies of the blue whale as part of the North West Shoals to Shore Research Program. Very little is known about pygmy blue whales given their low numbers and that they spend much of their life below the surface of the water, coming up only for short periods to breathe.


Dr Michele Thums explains the process of tagging pygmy blue whales

Using satellite transmitters attached to the whales and recordings of whale sounds collected from hydrophones attached to sea gliders, scientists will map their distribution and uncover the areas of importance such as feeding grounds. This data will be used to gain a better understanding of the overlap of important whale areas and human activity, particularly with industry-related activities such as seismic noise and shipping.

Our researchers are also trialling a method called eDNA (environmental DNA). This technique allows researchers look for pygmy blue whale DNA in water samples from a range of locations to help uncover the distribution of this elusive animal.