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Byron Shire
March 3, 2021

Great Australian Bight important habitat for cetaceans

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GAB Southern Right Whales. Photo Kerstin Bilgmann.

Here on the far north coast whales and dolphins are part of our lives – there’s nothing better than heading to Cape Byron, the best land based watching platform in the southern hemisphere, to look for these beautiful cetaceans.

In the south watchers have taken to the air to conduct one of the first large-scale aerial surveys of the eastern Great Australian Bight, finding significant populations of dolphins and whales and underlining the importance of the region for marine biodiversity.

As part of the Great Australian Bight Research Program, Flinders University researchers covered 2236 km of transects extending to a maximum of 252 km from shore in mid-winter (July and August 2013).

The expansive aerial line-transect survey of the eastern Great Australian Bight (GAB) gives key insights into the occurrence, distribution and abundance of cetaceans in shelf and coastal waters in this region, where tourism, fishing and other commercial industries are active.

The GAB is one of Australia’s most valuable marine ecosystems supporting globally significant populations of marine mammals, seabirds, and diverse and highly endemic benthic assemblages, as well as important fishing, aquaculture and ecotourism resources. The region is also considered a significant frontier for potential offshore petroleum resources and is actively being explored for oil and gas.

GAB coastline. Photo Kerstin Bilgmann.

The aerial survey, undertaken by Flinders University researcher Dr Kerstin Bilgmann, Dr Guido J Parra and Associate Professor Luciana Möller from the Cetacean Ecology, Behaviour and Evolution Lab and Molecular Ecology Lab at Flinders, found that the waters off the western Eyre Peninsula in the South Australia are an important habitat for dolphins and whales. Dr Bilgmann says dolphins were the most sighted cetacean species in the area.

‘In the two weeks of flying, we sighted five cetacean species in coastal and offshore waters, including 71 schools of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) and 14 schools of coastal bottlenose dolphins (Burrunan dolphin, Tursiops australis) as well as seven southern right whales (Eubalaena australis), three humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), one minke whale (unknown species),’ says  Dr Kerstin Bilgmann, who now lectures in biological sciences at Macquarie University in Sydney.  She says the particular abundance  of common dolphins in continental shelf waters ‘shows that these waters represent an important habitat for this species’.

The second most sighted species was the coastal bottlenose dolphin, restricted to coastal waters within 12 km of the shoreline.

Sightings of endangered southern right whales included a female with a calf, indicated that this endangered species uses the region for transiting from southern feeding grounds to coastal aggregation sites at Head of the Bight and Fowlers Bay, where they calve during winter.

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