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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 447:259-272 (2012)  -  DOI:

Identification of humpback whale breeding and calving habitat in the Great Barrier Reef

Joshua N. Smith1,5,*, Hedley S. Grantham2, Nick Gales3, Michael C. Double3, Michael J. Noad1, David Paton4

1Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratory, School of Veterinary Science, University of Queensland, Gatton, Queensland 4343, Australia
2School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia
3Australian Marine Mammal Centre, Australian Antarctic Division, Kingston, Tasmania 7050, Australia
4Blue Planet Marine, PO Box 919, Jamison Centre, Australian Capital Territory 2614, Australia
5Present address: Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia 6150, Australia

ABSTRACT: During the winter months, from June to September, humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae breed and calve in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) after migrating north from Antarctic waters. Clearly defined wintering areas for breeding and calving comparable to those identified in other parts of the world have not yet been identified for humpback whales in the GBR Marine Park (GBRMP), mainly because of its large size, which prohibits broad-scale surveys. To identify important wintering areas in the GBRMP, we developed a predictive spatial habitat model using the Maxent modelling method and presence-only sighting data from ­non-dedicated aerial surveys. The model was further validated using a small independent satellite tag data set of 12 whales migrating north into the GBR. The model identified restricted ranges in water depth (30 to 58 m, highest probability 49 m) and sea surface temperature (21 to 23°C, highest probability 21.8°C) and identified 2 core areas of higher probability of whale occurrence in the GBRMP, which correspond well with the movements of satellite tagged whales. We propose that one of the identified core areas is a potentially important wintering area for humpback whales and the other a migration route. With an estimated increase in port and coastal development and shipping activity in the GBRMP and a rapidly increasing population of whales recovering from whaling off the east Australian coast, the rate of human interactions with whales is likely to increase. Identifying important areas for breeding and calving is essential for the future management of human interactions with breeding humpback whales.

KEY WORDS: Humpback whale · Megaptera novaeangliae · Spatial habitat modelling · Great ­Barrier Reef

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Cite this article as: Smith JN, Grantham HS, Gales N, Double MC, Noad MJ, Paton D (2012) Identification of humpback whale breeding and calving habitat in the Great Barrier Reef. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 447:259-272.

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