Rare whale takes off after extended stay in Australian lagoon

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park just hosted an unusual visitor for the past two months—a Bryde’s whale—but the reason for its stopover remains unclear.

Back in June, a lone whale was spotted wandering around the network of coral that makes up the Elford Reef lagoon off the coast of Cairns, Australia. At first, authorities mistook the guest for an extremely rare-for-the-area Antarctic Minke whale, but upon closer inspection, it turned out to be another rarity, a Bryde’s whale.

Mark Read, manager of operations support with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, says staff tried to coax the great animal out of the lagoon, using lights to guide it through the maze of colourful, but super-sharp, coral, but that the whale chose not to pursue a route to open water. Whatever the reason, the massive animal wouldn’t budge.

That’s until they left the creature to its own devices. According to aerial surveillance, and then an onsite visit, the whale swam free sometime in early August and hasn’t been seen since.

‘We know through experience that more invasive coercing can endanger a whale and possibly place our staff at risk,’ writes Read, ‘so we decided to give the whale time and space to leave the area of its own accord.’

Of the 80 plus cetaceans—whales and dolphins—quite a few species are still rather mysterious. The Bryde’s whale certainly falls into this category. What is know about the species is that they’re baleen whales, related to Humpbacks and Blue whales, and often mistaken for Sei whales. Until the 1990s, there was only one subspecies of the whale recognised, that named after Johan Bryde, the man who helped bring major whaling operations to South Africa, but today there may be as many as five.  

Read explains the team had to get up close and personal with the big creature to figure out its identity. ‘There are many similarities among the smaller baleen whales, and the key feature to positively identify a Bryde’s whale is the presence of three distinct “ridges” on the top jaw,’ he writes. ‘We could only make a positive identification when we had photographs that clearly showed this feature on the whale.’

While ‘ordinary’ Brdye’s whales can be found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, reaching lengths of 14m, most of the other candidate-species are a bit smaller, and live in coastal regions. The first documented member of the group was actually found in Burma’s Sittang River in 1879. The IUCN declares the Bryde’s whale a Data Deficient species, so it’s unknown which, if any, of the group are in trouble.

Read says that they’re still not sure what caused the creature to stay in the lagoon, but images showed the whale may have been in poor shape. Yet whether the whale was using the lagoon to recoup, or simply wanted a vacation from the open sea, the story has a happy ending for now. Read says they won’t be pursuing the whale’s whereabouts any further.