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Endangered Species Research

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ESR 42:67-82 (2020)  -  DOI:

Searching for humpback whales in a historical whaling hotspot of the Coral Sea, South Pacific

Claire Garrigue1,2,*, Solène Derville1,2, Claire Bonneville2, C. Scott Baker3, Ted Cheeseman4, Laurent Millet1, Dave Paton5, Debbie Steel3

1UMR ENTROPIE (IRD, Université de La Réunion, CNRS, Laboratoire d’excellence-CORAIL, Université de la Nouvelle-Calédonie, IFREMER), 98848 Nouméa Cedex, Nouvelle-Calédonie, France
2Opération Cétacés, Nouméa, 98802 Nouvelle-Calédonie, France
3Marine Mammal Institute, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University, Newport, OR 97365, USA
4Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia
5Blue Planet Marine, Kingston, ACT 2604, Australia
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae were severely depleted by commercial whaling. Understanding key factors in their recovery is a crucial step for their conservation worldwide. In Oceania, the Chesterfield-Bellona archipelago was a primary whaling site in the 19th century, yet has been left almost unaffected by anthropogenic activities since. We present the results of the first multidisciplinary dedicated surveys in the archipelago assessing humpback whale populations 2 centuries post-whaling. We encountered 57 groups during 24 survey days (2016-2017), among which 35 whales were identified using photographs of natural markings (photo-ID), 38 using genotyping and 22 using both. Humpback whales were sparsely distributed (0.041 whales km-1): most sightings concentrated in shallow inner-reef waters and neighbouring offshore shallow banks. The recently created marine protected area covers most of the areas of high predicted habitat suitability and high residence time from satellite-tracked whales. Surprisingly for a breeding area, sex ratios skewed towards females (1:2.4), and 45% of females were with calf. Connectivity was established with the New Caledonia breeding area to the east (mtDNA FST = 0.001, p > 0.05, 12 photo-ID and 10 genotype matches) and with the Australian Great Barrier Reef breeding area to the west (mtDNA FST = 0.006, p > 0.05). Movement of satellite-tracked whales and photo-ID matches also suggest connections with the east Australian migratory corridor. This study confirms that humpback whales still inhabit the Chesterfield-Bellona archipelago 2 centuries post whaling, and that this pristine area potentially plays a role in facilitating migratory interchange among breeding grounds of the western South Pacific.

KEY WORDS: Chesterfield-Bellona archipelago · Connectivity · Coral Sea · Habitat use · Humpback whale · Satellite tracking · Sex ratio · Whaling

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Cite this article as: Garrigue C, Derville S, Bonneville C, Baker CS and others (2020) Searching for humpback whales in a historical whaling hotspot of the Coral Sea, South Pacific. Endang Species Res 42:67-82.

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