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Whale Watching Wonders: An Interview with Marine Biologist Megan Kessler

Climate change is only one of many impacts marine mammals like whales, seals and dolphins will have to successfully adapt to, in order to survive in an oceanic world increasingly impinged upon by humans. Marine mammals frequently come into contact with big ships, oil rigs and when close to the coast, the growing number of tourist vessels. Whilst the whale watching industry is heavily regulated in Australia, with rules stipulating how close tourist vessels can approach whales and other marine mammals, it is still unknown if these regulations ensure their protection. Furthermore, other countries follow different guidelines and it’s unclear what level of protection best serves marine mammals.

Megan Kessler is a marine scientist from Macquarie University, Sydney who is currently completing her PhD on the effectiveness of whale watching guidelines in Australia and overseas. Her research explores the potential impacts from whale watching activities on humpback whale behaviour during their annual migration along the east coast of Australia and in tropical breeding grounds in Tonga. Kessler’s research aims to ensure that regulations are effective in minimising behavioural changes in humpbacks. She indicates Tonga is particularly important to study since swimming with whales occurs alongside an endangered humpback population.

“Many countries around the world have similar regulations to those used in Australia so our research will assist whale watching around the world by contributing to our knowledge of how to engage in this activity with minimal impact,” explains Kessler.

She hopes that her research will contribute to improving the management of the whale watching industry in Australia and Tonga.  Since the work is done in conjunction with commercial whale watching partners like Whale Watching Sydney in Australia and Happy Ha’apai Divers in Tonga, the partners assist in ensuring its relevancy to the industry and that the research is beneficial to the whales.

Conducting field research in the marine environment can be highly demanding but also very rewarding.  Kessler points out that the best aspect of fieldwork is receiving the opportunity to spend time on the water with fascinating wildlife and witnessing a huge range of behaviours up close, such as watching a young calf learn new skills like breaching.

One does not have to be a marine scientist to contribute to valuable research like that of Kessler’s. “Whether volunteers are spotting whales from the cliffs, surveying whale watching passengers or helping with research on the boats, their contribution is invaluable,” says Kessler “In the future, we hope our volunteers will be able to continue their contribution to whale conservation by recording the whale migration or by contributing photo ID images as a national effort to improve our understanding of when and where individual whales migrate.” Recording whale migration gives scientists an idea of changes in migration patterns due to population recovery or climate change impacts.

Marine Biologist Megan Kessler

You can get involved and contribute to marine science by joining ClimateWatch. Be on the lookout now for the annual northern humpback migration along the east and west coasts of Australia. Record your sightings and upload photos.