Southern Right Whales Breaking Records

Steve Hart has recently become Woodside's Senior Development Engineer. Steve writes about his participation in the long term Southern Right Whale Study in the Great Australian Bight in early September. During the study, he was Woodside's Chief Environmental Engineering Officer.

What is the Study?

The Study is in its 26th year and is a long term research study monitoring the recovery and population biology of southern right whales. The whales are observed in Australia's largest breeding aggregation ground at Head of Bight in the Great Australian Bight Commonwealth Marine Reserve, in South Australia. Southern right whales are listed as endangered species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and at one stage were reduced to less than 300 individuals globally due to commercial whaling.

The Study utilises cliff based observation, photo identification and underwater acoustics. For the first time this year, we collaborated with a Murdoch University team using drones to collect photo identification data to assess the health of the whales. The drones proved to be a great tool. The team are looking at how they can use this technology to create efficiencies for data collection and automated processing in the future.

The collected data is used by government, scientists and industry to manage and monitor the health of the southern right whale population. The Study works with the Western Australian Museum, South Australian Museum and South Australian and Victorian governments to build on a multi-state comparison of southern right whale photo ID's and to map the life histories of individuals. Spanning almost three decades, the long term project has been funded by Federal and State Governments and industry. Current sponsors are oil and gas operators Santos and Murphy, exploration lease holders in the GAB that have an interest in the Study to inform baseline data and impact assessment. The Study is completed on Yalata Aboriginal Lands with support from the local community and the Aboriginal Lands Trust.


Whales spotted along the Great Australian Bight.

What was your role while you were on the Study?

During the working week I am Woodside's chief environmental engineer looking after a diverse skill pool that works across exploration through to decommissioning. My role is to manage the environmental impacts and risk through the design and technical performance of our oil and gas facilities. This year, like last, I was lucky enough to be invited to work as a volunteer intern for a fortnight on the long term Great Australian Bight Southern Right Whale Study. The Study was organised through Curtin University's Centre for Marine Science and Technology. My passion and energy for my work comes from a strong connection with the environment. The experience motivated me to work towards better environmental outcomes through engineering design.


Close-up of two whales enjoying eachother's company.


What is a day in the life of a whale researcher? 

Our days starts a little after sunrise. The study base, a collection of ramshackle 1970s dongas perched between the edge of the Nullarbor Plain and the spectacular Bunda Cliffs, slowly comes to life. The study teams emerge from their dongas and prepare for the day's study on the cliffs packing their cars with binoculars, theodolites, drones and cameras.

We head out to the Bunda Cliffs via a bumpy dirt track through low Nullarbor scrub. We drive for twenty minutes up an ancient fence line, following it to where it plunges off the cliffs. Birds of prey sit on top of the hand drilled fence posts cautiously watching us pass. Adjacent to the fence line is one of the study's limestone obelisks marking a specific GPS location and known height over 50 metres above the whales below us. We literally stand above the whales taking laser range findings and bearings with some whales less than 70 metres from us. We photograph the unique markings across the top of their heads which we will painstakingly use to identify each whale against a database of 1500 individuals when we get back to the study base. We repeat this sixteen times across the 15 km study site counting each individual. On my first day we counted 172 whales, which was the highest number counted in the history of the project since commercial whaling ceased.

Our afternoons and evenings are spent collating the data recorded on the cliffs and the hundreds of photos taken that day. We identify each individual whale in the study area while the drone team process the health data by mapping the changes in the health of individual whales over the three and a half month study period. It is hard work but very satisfying when you get to recognise whales or even name one of the new white calves.



Whales resting along the coast.

What did you learn?

Participating in the Study gave me the opportunity to learn new skills, such as the deployment of underwater acoustic loggers, photo identification and aspects of population biology. It also allowed me to keep my marine fauna observation qualification current. Importantly this Study demonstrates the value in long term data collection and collaboration and is a great example of how the oil and gas industry can work in a more collaborative manner with scientific organisations. The Study mirrors some of the partnerships that Woodside has already formed with groups such as the Australian Institute of Marine Science to deliver cost effective, robust environmental monitoring and baseline scientific data to inform environmental management in the oil and gas industry.


Stephanie Goodlad Woodside 0 Replies
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