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A whale chat with cetacean researcher, Vanessa Pirotta

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Wild About Whales
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Marine mammals
Vanessa Pirotta with a whale alarm at Chowder Bay. Photo: Chris Stacey/Macquarie University

Vanessa Pirotta with a whale alarm at Chowder Bay. Photo: Chris Stacey/Macquarie University.

We talk to NSW whale researcher and PhD student Vanessa Pirotta about threats to whales, the great annual count and the best whale watching vantage points in NSW national parks.

Passionate about whales from a young age, despite growing up surrounded by farmland rather than the ocean, Vanessa Pirotta’s study of whales has taken her to fascinating places and areas of research. Currently, she is investigating drones as a possible whale monitoring tool and getting ready to travel to Antarctica on a whale-monitoring mission with CSIRO.

When and how did you come to be interested in whales originally?

As early as I can remember – I always had a fascination with whales and dolphins. My Year Two teacher told my mum that I was always drawing them. I remember sitting in my bedroom looking at whale pictures while my pet cow stood in the paddock outside my window.

Tell us about your current research?

Monitoring southern right whales using drones. Photo: Vanessa Pirotta.

Southern right whales. Photo: Vanessa Pirotta

My PhD research is focused on spatial conservation issues for cetaceans within Australian waters. There are a number of threats whales face in Australian waters, which include ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. I’ve also been exploring current and new monitoring tools, such as the use of drones.

You’re heading to Antarctica next January as a marine mammal observer on the CSIRO Investigator. Tell us about that.

It is an exciting opportunity! I will be assisting a research team during their investigations of the Totten Shelf. I will be looking out for whales in the area during the voyage and while research is being conducted.

What other exciting places has your research taken you?

Vanessa conducting whale research in Tonga. Photo: Tyler Hoecker.

Vanessa Pirotta conducting whale research in Tonga

I was sent to Tonga to assess the whale watching and swimming regulations enacted in 2013. It was a wonderful opportunity to observe whales in another part of the world. It is such an interesting perspective to observe whales in a breeding/calving area compared to the migrating behaviour we see here in Sydney.

How many whales do you think you have seen?

Lots and lots! One of my most memorable whale moments was seeing a blue whale less than 1km from shore in Sydney. I remember this huge, tall whale spray. The whale remained in the area for a few hours.

Favourite? Humpback or southern right?

Southern right whale (left) and humpback whale (right). Photos: Cat Balou Cruises and Jodie Lowe.

Southern right whale (left) and humpback whale (right). Photos: Cat Balou Cruises and Jodie Lowe

Hard to pick! I really like humpback whales because they are so conspicuous and acrobatic, plus they are the first whale I ever studied. I also like southern right whales because they are so unique and unpredictable. They turn up in places when we least expect it. Like the whale last year that hung around in the harbor for two weeks!

Tell us about the annual whale count at Cape Solander?

The annual Cape Solander whale count is very unique! A group of dedicated people that annually migrate to the cliffs to see whales each year. It takes a special kind of person to be there first thing in the morning to last light. Such as the main whale watch volunteer, Wayne Reynolds, who has been there since day dot. His assistance, along with that of the other volunteers, has provided very important, observable count information from the same position for nearly 20 years. Geoff Ross from NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service oversees the Cape Solander team’s whale count. Geoff has been processing the whale data over the years and has been able to tell us about the rise in numbers we see each year.

What are some of your favourite national park whale watching vantage points?

When in Sydney, Cape Solander in Kamay Botany Bay National Park is my favourite. A couple of others are Cape Byron State Conservation Area – Australia’s most easterly point – and Mutton Bird Island Nature Reserve on the Coffs Coast.

What do you love most about whale watching in NSW?

NSW is a unique place to whale watch. The ability to watch thousands of humpback whales migrate so close to shore is amazing! Humpback whales undertake an incredible journey each year from Antarctica to the warm Queensland waters and we get to see part of that journey each year in our backyard! NSW national parks provide the perfect viewing option for observing these magnificent animals each year.

Ready for your own wild about whales adventure?

Find the perfect vantage point with these top whale watching tips and immerse yourself in an amazing experience.

Vanessa’s Top 3 Whale Watching Tips

  1. Use your naked eye to scan the horizon – you will increase your likelihood of picking up a whale blow (water spout) by sweeping the area first without binoculars.

  2. If you see something, then use the binoculars to narrow into what you may have seen. I once saw something at a distance and then used my binoculars to confirm it was a jumping shark coming out of the water multiple times!

  3. Once you have spotted whales, work out their downtime (time spent under water) in minutes by starting the clock from their last dive until they return to the surface. This gives you an idea of when you can next expect the whale or whales to resurface.

Don’t forget to download the free Wild About Whales app now to find where you can track the whales and submit your own sightings!

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