Work & study
Gold Coast community science organisation Humpbacks and Highrise triggers global whale research project
Sam Cleveland | October 29, 2020
A Gold Coast-based citizen-scientist initiative studying humpback whales has gone global.
Founded in 2011 by Griffith University’s Dr Olaf Meynecke, Humpbacks and Highrises monitors the health and movement of thousands of migrating whales travelling past the Gold Coast.
Griffith students and community volunteers collaborate on the project, with the top commercial whale watching boats offering space on board for teams to work.
“When we’re out on the water, we study the behaviour of the animals, their feeding and habitat use, as well as human impact on the water,” says Dr Meynecke.
“From that we derive better conservation strategies for marine mammals in urbanised coastal waters.”
After years of successful data-gathering and analysis, the local program has helped spawn a global research project – Whales and Climate – comprising almost 25 researchers from South America, South Africa and Western Australia.
“With Whales and Climate we’re building the largest humpback-sighting database in the world,” says Dr Meynecke.
Humpbacks and Highrise data now feeds into the larger project, proof, Dr Meynecke says, of the “act locally, think globally” adage.
“We have logged more than 120,000 sightings in Australia alone, with more to come,” he says of the Griffith University-led Whales and Climate program.
“It really shows that what you’re doing locally may sometimes feel small, but when the data you’re contributing is put with data from other places it’s building a much bigger picture.”
Whale data gathered by Humpbacks and Highrise volunteers has also featured in numerous academic papers and conference presentations authored by Dr Meynecke.
Whales and Climate, he says, is providing the most complete indication yet of what whale populations may look like in 50-100 years, with climate change already impacting their Antarctic food supplies.
“When we see large numbers of whales washing up on the shoreline unhealthy, a lot of questions will be asked.”
A decade of partnership and growth
When Dr Meynecke founded Humpbacks and Highrise, his first hurdle was getting commercial whalewatching operators on board.
He needed seats on their boats – “Research on the water is expensive!” he laughs – and gained operators’ trust by illustrating how his work could build sustainability in their industry.
“Whalewatching is a multimillion-dollar industry for the Gold Coast – not just with cruise tickets sold, but tourist accommodation and spending,” he says.
“The operators saw it as a way to support their industry and to support the animals they all love.”
Humpbacks and Highrise volunteers are now offered spots with Spirit Whalewatching, Sea World Cruises, Whales in Paradise and Boattime Yacht Charters, with Sunshine Coast Afloat and Wild Byron also contributing.
Today, he says, whalewatch operators see the benefits and actually approach Humpbacks and Highrise about becoming involved.
“This is maybe what I’m most proud of – the way the program has got the industry, researchers and environmental managers working together for change.”
HHR volunteers Jo McGrory and Angel Pesut
Dr Olaf Meynecke in a Griffith University lab
Dr Olaf lines up a whale shot
On the water
More than 400 Griffith University students and Gold Coast residents have now been trained as Humpbacks and Highrise volunteers, taking direct instruction from Dr Meynecke on whale identification and monitoring protocols.
Locals can also report their own whale sightings (hence the “Highrise” in the name) and upload photos to help the group identify individual animals.
And best of all, Dr Meynecke runs five private ocean expeditions during the annual Winter-Spring migration season, where volunteers can get as close as legally possible to the whales.
“The expeditions are exciting, but we’re doing real science out there – flying the drone to catch mucus, collecting skin, tagging,” he says.
“We’ve had some incredible encounters, and it strikes me in those moments just how inquisitive these animals are.
“They seek attention, they’re trying to communicate – looking into the GoPro, looking into our eyes.”
For more information, visit: whalesandclimate.org and humpbacksandhighrises.org
Ways to support Humpbacks and Highrise:
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