Whale Watch: Two Decades Watching Humpback Whale Numbers Explode | Whales


He may have seen it tens of thousands of times before, but when Wayne Reynolds spots a whale emerging from the water, he reacts with the excitement of a child showing off a roller coaster at an amusement park. .

“Oh wow, there’s a little minke and his calf,” he yells with childish enthusiasm from the rocky cliff of Potter Point in Kurnell, south Sydney. “I just switched to automatic mode, I can’t help it. “

It’s a cold Wednesday morning, the sun has barely appeared, and with the wind chill the temperatures are in single digits.

Reynolds wears a military camouflage hoodie and pants, and a big smile.

Without gloves, his hands grip his binoculars, as he gazes out at the Pacific Ocean.

“Humpback! Humpback over there, he just put his tail up,” Reynolds shouts. The humpback whale is one of many species he is able to recognize by the skin pattern on its tail. – a skill he has developed over more than 20 years as a citizen scientist observing mammals.

This whale swims so close to shore that its size is coping – Reynolds estimates it to be around 15m in length and must weigh around 40 tonnes.

“She’s a big girl, that one. Girls are bigger than males, ”he says, as she bangs her cock several times.

“It could be communicating with other whales, or just slapping barnacles. Or there could be something annoying him,” Reynolds says.

Thick fog makes some whales difficult to spot that morning, but Reynolds’ trained eyes can detect their presence from a vortex of water generated by the movement of their tail, which he says “creates a circle. like an oil slick “on the surface. .

Sydney’s viewing season is several weeks, when whales migrate from Antarctica to the warmer waters of the Great Barrier Reef to feed and breed during the winter.

Wayne Reynolds, veteran whale watching volunteer, scans the ocean.

“There is awesome power”

Giving up most of the daylight hours during those months to whale watching isn’t new to Reynolds, but where he sees them has changed.

Potter Point sits at the southern end of Botany Bay National Park, a temporary lookout point where Reynolds and his fellow whale-watching volunteers have settled in while a whale-watching platform is built on their base traditional at Cape Solander, at the opposite end of the park. , where they started watching from a parking lot decades ago.

Having retired as a diesel mechanic at the age of 27 in 1992 after being diagnosed with chronic lung disease, Reynolds faced a future of “sitting at home bored without shit” on a pension. ‘disability.

He saw an ad in the newspapers to volunteer for the WIRES Wildlife Rescue, and after participating in whale rescues and seeing the mammals up close while jet skiing off Cronulla, he became fascinated.

“You are witnessing one of the largest living animals in the world. There is an awesome power of the whale, I can’t really explain what keeps me coming back.

In 1996, Reynolds began regular whale watching from Cape Solander and a year later ran a pilot program in coordination with the national park to seriously record sightings during the migration.

The study was officially launched the following year and attracted untrained citizen scientists, as well as volunteer marine researchers and the ORRCA rescue group, as the whale-watching movement grew.

For the next 24 years, study volunteers monitored the whales from 6:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. throughout the season.

Whales sighted off Sydney, Australia

In the early years, the group sought to maintain standards as high as possible. Reynolds remembers securing military-grade night vision equipment and camping with other volunteers to attempt to record the movements of the whales 24/7, non-stop.

While night-time viewing has not been maintained, interest in whale watching has flourished. At the height of the season, thousands of people flock to Cape Solander and the number of whales has skyrocketed in recent decades.

Reynolds saw about 150 whales in his first year of sighting from Cape Solander. In 2019, he saw more than 3,000, including more than 100 on certain days.

His observations were supported by scientists, who incorporated the results of the Cape Solander whale migration study into their own research.

Macquarie University marine biologist Dr Vanessa Pirotta says southern hemisphere humpback whales were hunted to extinction in the 1960s, but since then their numbers have grown steadily. , returning to their first population size observed in 2015.

With populations expected to peak at 40,000 over the next five years, there are even calls to remove the humpback whale from the endangered species list.

Pirotta cites these growing numbers as evidence of successful conservation efforts, and says the contribution of Reynolds and his fellow volunteers has helped document the whale resurgence.

Pirotta acknowledges that citizen scientists have not received any academic training and do not have access to certain measurement technologies, but says the numbers they generate correlate with systematic surveys conducted in Queensland later in the course. migration.

“We had Wayne there throughout the study period, to train people and supervise her. It gives us confidence in the effort.

Wayne Reynolds, veteran whale watching volunteer, scans the ocean.

“The number of hours of observation they’ve put in is just amazing. The cost of doing this in a funded science project would be impossible, you can’t achieve that level of observation.

Pirotta first met Reynolds while studying for her Masters, and has worked with him since obtaining her PhD, including co-writing of articles in academic journals based on his findings.

As researchers like Pirotta came up with theodolites to accurately measure distances from coastlines, Reynolds continued to use binoculars. He claims to be able to guess distances within 20m of official accuracy.

Pirotta finds Reynolds’ passion contagious.

“Wayne and I would be side by side all day, every day. This is Wayne’s whale world, ”Pirotta says.

“I love Wayne, I could sit in front of the ocean with him for hours.”

In 2019, Reynolds retired from leading the study. He turned his passion to photography and spends several days a week taking pictures of whales on commercial tourist vessels.

His trips to Kurnell may be less frequent, but during his visit last week, volunteers from Cape Solander treated him like a legend in the operation.

As thick fog deepened and completely hid the ocean, they retreated to a temporary shed set up for them and briefed Reynolds on recent events.

“There are no whales right now, but at least we can see Wayne,” one said.

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