Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. X No. 1 - January 2001

Projeto Baleia Jubarte

By Cristiane C. Albuquerque, Researcher at the Brazilian Humpback Whale Project

From August 28 to September 1 of the present year the Humpback Whale Conference 2000 was carried out in Brisbane, Australia. During the meeting various specialists had the opportunity to present and discuss their research results. With the help of the Cetacean Society International, I was able to participate in the Conference, presenting a paper entitled: "Habitat use patterns of the Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, in the Abrolhos Bank (Brazil) breeding ground."

The Humpback Whale is a cosmopolitan species that generally migrates from high latitude feeding grounds to breeding grounds in tropical waters. The Abrolhos Bank, in the Southern coast of Bahia State, Brazil, is the only known breeding ground of this species in the Western South Atlantic. Since 1988 the Projeto Baleia Jubarte - PBJ (Brazilian Humpback Whale Project) develops research activities to monitor and protect the population in its breeding ground.

After spending summer in their feeding ground, Humpbacks come to these warm and calm waters to breed during austral winter and spring. The category of groups that are most frequently observed are solitary animals, pairs, competitive groups, mother-calf pairs and mother-calf accompanied by one or more adults. Competitive groups are generally composed of a female and two or more males, and the behavior of the latter suggests that they are competing for the female. A crescent number of sightings has been registered to the north of the area, near Salvador city, but the Abrolhos Archipelago is the main calving ground for this population. In our study, it has been verified that mother-calf pairs prefer shallow waters, and thus they are concentrated around the Abrolhos Archipelago, where they also find protection from the prevailing winds.

The Bank is located over an enlargement of the Brazilian continental shelf and represents the southernmost coral reef complex in the Western South Atlantic Ocean, and over 18 coral species thrive in the area, many of which are endemic, such as the brain coral Mussismilia brasiliensis.

Maria Emília Morete (another researcher of the PBJ) presented at the Conference a novel behavior, termed "tail-up," that is frequently observed in the Abrolhos area. Tail-up occurs when the whale positions herself vertically in the water column with the tail in the air. Whales can maintain the "tail-up" for approximately 15 minutes, alternating with surfacings to breathe. A single whale has been observed tailing-up during a whole day, and also on consecutive days. With the exception of calves, who try, but can't stay in this position, all different categories of groups of Humpbacks perform tail-up. Not so frequently we observe two whales tailing-up simultaneously, as shown in the picture.

Two Humpback Whales Tailing-Up

Along the years of study, the Brazilian Humpback Whale Project individually photo-identified 668 animals and re-sighted 76 of them in the area, using their ventral fluke pigmentation pattern. A catalogue of this population has been prepared to facilitate the comparison process between this population and others. No positive match between whales sighted off Abrolhos Bank and the Antartica feeding ground have been found to date. Therefore, the summer destination of this population remains unclear. In 1995 the population was estimated to be of 1600 individuals, utilizing the method of mark-recapture of photo-identified whales. Aerial surveys are part of next year's cronogram and will help to understand better the whales' habitat use patterns, and to improve the estimates of the population size.

PBJ maintains a shore based station at one of the Archipelago's islands, Santa Bárbara. We utilize a theodolite, and intend, among other things, to verify what kind of impact whale watching activity can have in the whales' normal behavior. Long term studies can show changes in the habitat use patterns of whales inside the five nautical miles of the study area, and will improve the management plan of tourism activity. Whale watching activities in the area are subject to the Brazilian Federal Edict no. 117/96. Tourism has increased a great deal, creating a level of disturbance that may harm the whales in their wintering grounds. Parallel to their activities, the researches also contribute to the conservationist work that is being carried out at the Abrolhos National Marine Park.

Humpback whale males of a particular population share a characteristic song which may change as the breeding season progresses. The song of the Abrolhos population has been recorded this year, and analysis is presently being carried out. Such an investigation will be an important contribution to the study of their vocal behavior. The bioacoustic study of the Abrolhos population has two primary goals: to characterize and describe the song of the humpback whales in the area; and to compare the aerial and vocal behavior of focal individuals in the presence and absence of motorboats associated with whale watching activity.

Studies of the genetic structure of the population have been developed since 1997, and are now giving the first results regarding the genetic variability and gene flow between this and other populations. There is a program which takes care of cetaceans stranded in the area, and which, parallel to this, also has an involvement with the development of an environmental consciousness of the local population.

The Instituto Baleia Jubarte ("Humpback Whale Institute" - IBJ) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization which was created in March 1996, and aims to provide conditions for the continuity of the research activities. In addition, it assists coastal human communities by means of Environmental Education measures which improve their living-standards and conservation consciousness.

Initially the project received funds from the Wildlife Department, which is part of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Resources (IBAMA). IBJ worked in cooperation with the American branch of the WWF and the Cetacean Society International. Partnerships between private sectors and conservationist projects have been supporting not only the continuance of the work, but also the improvement of research throughout the entire country. People from different countries, through the Ecovolunteer Program, have the chance to accompany and participate of the scientific research that is carried out during the Humpback Whale season, from July to November. Funds derived from this program have been of great importance for the institution, especially as research activities have been growing continuously.

The positive results that spring from such cooperative efforts have caused an increase in the society's interest, permitting great broadcast of these activities in the media (TV, magazines, newspapers), and leading people to recognize the importance of effective contributions from supporting institutions. The Institute is sponsored by Petrobras (Brazilian Oil Company), IBAMA, The MacArthur Foundation, Fundação O Boticário de Proteção à Natureza - FBPN (O Boticario Nature Protection Foundation), Society for Marine Mammalogy, Kodak and Pantanal Airlines.

Web page: http://www.cria-ativa.com.br/jubarte

E-mail: jubarte@tdf.com.br

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