Whale watching is always fun! Hooray!
Well, except for that whole waiting part or the risk of not seeing one at all. But even for researchers whose job it is to stare at the aquatic behemoths all day, a recent whale sighting in Australia was a HUGE DEAL.
The Cetacean Research Unit from Murdoch University has been in the midst of a massive study on the breeding and calving behaviors of southern right whales in the Great Australian Bight. And recently, their drone-tracking cameras happened upon this magical moment:
The most obviously awesome part of it — besides the cuddles, of course — was this little white calf.
Southern right whales aren't usually white. According to the BBC, only 5% of right whales are born white, but the gray and black spotting takes over by the end of their first year. The initial white coloring isn't albinism, but there's not really any clear answer on what causes it either. And you certainly won't find any all-white adult southern right whales, which makes this rare sighting all the more amazing.
There's also the fact that southern right whale populations have been hurting for a long time.
"Save the whales!" is a pretty common refrain because humans kind of decimated these massive, mysterious marine mammals over a few hundred years. But while the sperm whales and the hump whales have been doing pretty well with recovery and repopulation, southern right whales are still having a rough go of it.
The Great Australian Bight, where these photos were taken, is the largest southern right whale nursery in the world — but even that means there's only about 3,000 estimated to be living there, about one-fifth of their pre-whaling population.
That makes it even more amazing that researchers would spot a white calf like they did.
"Last year was one of our lowest years ever recorded, so the fact this year is high is a reassuring factor. [...] To know the whales are having a high year is very important," said Claire Charlton, a researcher from Curtin University, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"This project will benefit the conservation of southern right whales by teaching us more about their health and reproduction," added Fredrik Christiansen, a researcher from Murdoch University, in an interview with BBC.
And that's why these researchers were out taggin' and trackin' in the first place: to figure out why things are looking up for these magnificent leviathans.
Even though we've stopped actively killing whales in the whaling industry, we still can't say for certain how human industrial activity has continued to affect their lives and populations.
Oil drilling in particular is a pressing concern — and it doesn't take a spill for the machinery and noise pollution to do damage to the whales. (Of course, if there is an oil spill, even BP has admitted that it won't be pretty.)
By recording the sounds and movements made by the whales, as well as their reactions to the environment around them, researchers are better able to understand the entire ecosystem now, so they're learning how to keep those whales safe.
So that's the big question: Has the southern right whale population started to recover because companies like BP haven't been working underwater?
We can't say for certain. But it's likely, and it's worth figuring out before we make things worse.
"We've been assured that the exploration would have no negative impact on the whales [and] we'd like to think that is definitely the case, but we don't know," explained Haydyn Bromley of the Aboriginal Land Trust.
"What we would hate to see is the area devastated because perhaps someone made a mistake, or someone didn't calibrate something properly and next thing you know, this pristine area could be at risk."
The Great Australian Bight is home to hordes of incredible aquatic creatures — 85% of which can't be found anywhere else in the world.
Let's keep those creatures safe.