Moby sick: The man who catches whale mucus to help save humpbacks
Feb 24, 2016 | News
Catching whale sputum using a six-foot pole and a dish may not be everyone’s idea of fun.
But one intrepid student from the University of Queensland is going to extreme lengths to collect the heady mix of mucous, breath and water that humpbacks spout into the air when diving and surfacing.
Vet science PhD student Fletcher Mingramm is collecting samples in the wild by following migrating whales - in a small boat with a big pole.
It’s not just for kicks; Australia’s humpback whale population is increasing by more than ten per cent a year and Fletcher is risking life and limb to find out why.
Understandably, he is one of only a few people in the world collecting data on humpback whales from their ‘blows’.
While he’s there, Fletcher also collects skin and blubber samples by firing darts at the whales which bounce off the skin without hurting them.
“We don’t have good measures for the health or reproductive qualities of Australian humpback whales,” he says.
“I’m on track to acquire 250 tissue samples and 100 to 120 blow samples by the end of next year.“
He concedes his job isn’t easy but Fletcher believes it is vital to determining the habits, health and sex life of humpbacks - while the blubber samples provide data for genetic and pollutant studies.
"We know that Australian Humpback Whale populations have been increasing since people stopped hunting them but we don't know why they are increasing at such an exponential rate,” he said.
“Neighbouring humpback populations in the South Pacific remain low, although records show they historically had higher numbers.
“The fact they are not recovering well suggests something else is going on with regards to key processes such as feeding or breeding, and this is something we need to better understand.
“Using this information as a point of comparison, we may then be able to look at populations not recovering as rapidly.
“We don’t know, for example, what percentage of the female population is pregnant, or how stressed the animals become during the annual migration up the Australian coastline from colder Antarctic waters during winter.”
Fletcher goes out in his boat near North Stradbroke Island and Noosa in Queensland and near Geraldton in WA, storing samples in preservative so they can undergo hormone extraction and analysis at UQ’s Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratory.