Discovering the Majesty of Dwarf Minke Whale

Dwarf Minke, Big Questions

The known is dwarfed by the unknown when it comes to Dwarf Minke whales, a subspecies recognised only relatively recently. 

Though smaller than many of their cetacean cousins, at 8 metres and curious for close contact in groups, they have immense power to overwhelm with joy the fortunate few who have been in their presence. As one of those fortunates, Craig’s images are providing research scientists with priceless insights and inspiring wonder in the wider community.

Craig recently authored an article for Oceanographic Magazine (Issue #9) about an expedition to witness dwarf minkes at the northern most point of their migration cycle along Australia’s east coast: Ribbon Reef 10. He found himself in a unique position on the trip, bridging his talents and experience as a nature and oceanic photographer between research scientists from James Cook University’s Minke Whale Project (MWP) and whale enthusiasts keen to develop nature photography skills. This kind of collaboration is providing the MWP with the means to build knowledge, while encouraging a conservation-based approach to human interaction. 

As yet, little is known about these magnificent mysteries. Read on to find out what is being discovered and how the partnering of citizen scientists with the research community is creating a healthy symbiotic relationship for sustainable nature tourism.

Dwarf Minkes, Big Questions

A section of the Great Barrier Reef known as Ribbon Reef 10 is one of the most northerly migration destinations of dwarf minke whales, a subspecies of the northern minke whale, which typically visit on their seasonal journeys north from the Southern Ocean. It is presumed the whales complete this migration to warmer waters to breed, just as other whales do. Unlike other baleen whales, however, nobody has encountered dwarf minkes mating in the area, so the motivation for migration currently remains a theory. It is one of many mysteries regarding these little-understood cetaceans.

Earlier this year I joined an expedition to Ribbon Reef 10 in search of dwarf minkes, joining researchers from the Minke Whale Project (MWP), an organisation based out of North Queensland’s James Cook University in Australia. The MWP is working to better understand the biology and behaviour of a whale group only recognised as a subspecies as recently as the 1980s. While occurring throughout the southern hemisphere, the northern Great Barrier Reef aggregation area is the endpoint of the subspecies’ recently discovered north-south migration route to and from the Southern Ocean. Relatively new to marine science means one thing: lots of questions.

In order to start answering these questions and building a broader understanding of dwarf minke whales, the MWP relies – perhaps unusually – on the whale-watching tourism trade. Accessing remote parts of the Great Barrier Reef aboard research vessels would be expensive. Far more affordable is joining swim-with-whales operators who head to sea every year for the only known predictable aggregation of dwarf minkes in the world. There is a hidden benefit too: tourists, rather than being bystanders, play an important role in the collection of scientific and photographic data – via whale behaviour observation and image sharing – that is subsequently used by the MWP team. They become citizen scientists. This collaboration and cooperation between the MWP research team and the swim-with-minke tourism industry not only aids scientists in better understanding the subspecies, but also allows the industry to grow sustainably and for effective management strategies to develop and evolve. This helps maintain the health and safety of the whales, the quality of interactions and, ultimately, safeguarding the long-term viability of the industry – a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

I have long been fascinated by whales. It is an obsession that took hold while on assignment in Tonga, swimming with and photographing humpback whales. That first moment I came face-to-face with a curious and unthreatening 40-tonne mammal is something I will never forget, a bucket list experience that I continue to recall on a regular basis, and one that I want to experience again and again. The second time I shared the underwater world with humpback whales I noticed them mimicking my movements, even following me back to the boat. On one occasion, while I was checking images on my camera screen, a whale snuck up behind me and gave me a gentle push, as if asking for attention. That experience was a defining moment for me personally, not just as a photographer but as a human. The connection I felt was overwhelming.

My fascination with whales grew further still when meeting Australia’s highly regarded dwarf minke whale scientist, Dr Alastair Birtles, in 2018. He inspired me. I wanted to learn more about this purportedly social subspecies of the northern – or common – minke. I wanted to interact with dwarf minkes underwater. Would the connection be as impactful as those initial encounters with humpbacks?

It was because of Dr Birtles that I found myself on an expedition from Cairns to the Ribbon Reefs area of the Great Barrier Reef. Our objective was to photograph, ID and observe dwarf minke whales along their migration route. Images and data from the trip would, it was hoped, bolster the important work being done by Dr Birtles and the MWP team, some of whom were onboard alongside a number of photography students under my tuition.

Three days in, we hadn’t encountered any dwarf minkes. Approximately 50km south of Ribbon Reef 10 we stopped for a dive at a site called Steve’s Bommie, a 30m coral head famous for its abundance of healthy fish and spectacular corals. We glided through schools of curious yellowtail snapper and explored the reef’s array of colourful corals and anemones, meeting the gaze of various clownfish, angelfish and anthias. As we surfaced and started returning to the boat, I spotted a small blow on the horizon. We waited a few minutes and, just as I started to think my eyes had been playing tricks on me, a lone minke whale appeared before us. It was a hugely welcome appearance – the boat’s skipper had only seen six minkes the week before so the possibility of failing to encounter them during our 200km voyage had been a very real one.

When in groups dwarf minke whales are sociable creatures. This individual, alone, was less so, moving in large circles, at a distance, around the boat. A juvenile humpback whale subsequently approached, moving in toward the back of the boat, where it paused and assessed, before disappearing into the blue, skimming the surface of the water as it went. The minke whale disappeared too, close by the humpback’s side. The first whale interaction of the expedition was a fascinating and a rare one – none of the MWP scientists on-board had encountered humpback and minke whales interacting – socialising even – together before. Indeed, Dr Birtles had only seen this three times in his 24 years in the field. The science had started.

As the sun rose on another day, this time at a site called Lighthouse Bommie, we were greeted by perfect ocean conditions – atypical at a time of year dominated by whipping southerly winds and strong currents. Our boat was surrounded by whales. At least 20 of them. We hurriedly entered the water.

The first thing I noticed about minke whales underwater is that they are, as Dr Birtles had insisted, extremely curious and sociable when in groups. The longer I was in the water with them, the closer they approached. On some occasions the whales – which can grow up to approximately 8m in length – came within an arm’s length. It certainly felt as if the whales felt empowered being part of a group, safer perhaps. They seemed to crave attention and exuded curiosity. At one stage in the day, thinking the whales had disappeared, I casually looked below me expecting to see nothing but blue water. A metre below? A minke whale, stationary, staring back at me. The encounters are special, the sense of connection incommunicable on these pages – connection not just with the animal, but with nature and the balance of things as a whole.

I spent six hours in the water observing and photographing dwarf minke whales that day. Of course, my time in-water went beyond feelings of connection – I was there to observe and, most importantly, to photograph for MWP. Information needed to be gathered. So what is it that makes photographs of minke whales so useful? Suzanne Hillcoat, a PhD candidate working on behaviour and growth of dwarf minke whales with the MWP, explains: “A lot of dwarf minke whale research is based on the photo-identification of individual whales – individual markings on their bodies and fins. So a photograph is an extremely valuable piece of data. We have been able to estimate how many dwarf minke whales interact with tourism vessels each year (several hundred), how long individual whales spend in a particular area (10 days on average in the Ribbon Reefs area), and if the same whales come back year after year – which it seems they do.

“Furthermore, the infamous saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ rings true regarding the wider conservation message, especially in the age of social media. A beautiful image of a whale will captivate the public far better than a scientific paper ever could. Underwater photographers not only contribute to our vital research, but also help to spread a positive message.”

The unique markings on minke pectoral fins truly are beautiful – a paintbrush stroke – and an extremely delicate and exciting feature to photograph. There can of course be other defining markings, such as scarring. One individual we encountered had a shark bite scar that made her instantly distinguishable from the others – along with the fact she typically approached extremely slowly and came closer than the rest of her pod.

Behavioural traits like this are recorded by the MWP team. As more encounters are had, patterns emerge. One particular move has been dubbed the ‘minke decoy’, a manoeuvre that sees one whale distract while another, out of sight (usually below or behind you), moves in extremely close for a better look. On other occasions the whales presented their bellies to us, a move Suzanne tells me is socialising or courtship behaviour. Witnessing behaviours like these, it often felt as if the whales were as interested in us as we were in them – particularly when you consider we did nothing to entice them in the first place. We simply showed up. I like to think they were socialising with us, perhaps even trying to communicate.

Behavioural traits could offer a clue regarding the answer to the biggest question of them all – why minkes are in the area to begin with. “We suspect that dwarf minke whales aggregate in the Ribbon Reefs for mating purposes,” says Suzanne. “We don’t know for sure because mating has never actually been observed. However, we do see a lot of socialising and courtship behaviours here, which provide support for this theory. We believe dwarf minke whales are making a similar migration to humpback whales, wherein they travel down to Antarctica to feed in the summer months and travel up to the tropics to socialise and mate in the winter. A few years ago the MWP tagged some dwarf minke whales to try to answer this question, and found that they generally travel south from the Great Barrier Reef, down along the east coast of Australia, and into the Southern Ocean.”

The motivation behind migration is, of course, not the only question that remains unanswered. “There are still lots of minke mysteries waiting to be uncovered,” continues Suzanne. “We see a wide range of behaviours in these whales, and we are trying to understand what drives some of these differences. Do the males behave differently to the females? What about the adults and the juveniles? We are also measuring their growth and trying to assess their body condition, which is of increasing concern as the oceans warm and acidify due to climate change. We are also doing some genetic work to move towards a formal taxonomic description of the dwarf minke whale. To date, we have no population estimate for dwarf minke whales. At all. We have absolutely no idea how many of these whales exist in the world. Information about their distribution and migration is vital to make a useful population assessment, and baseline assessments would allow us to monitor the health of the population over time.”

With so many questions still unanswered, the continuation of MWP’s field research via commercial dive tourism vessels remains of critical importance – as does the migration information gathered from an extended sightings network of researchers, operators and interested members of the public along the east coast of Australia who report sightings of the subspecies directly to the MWP. There is little doubt citizen science has a significant role to play in the evolving dwarf minke whale story. I am pleased to have played a contributing role and certainly I hope to return to the water with minkes again in the future, to further add to the work being done by the MWP and spend more time with these magnificent creatures. In the meantime, I shall pay close attention to the developing understanding of what is a truly beautiful, curious and enigmatic subspecies.

See Craig’s article with words and images in Oceanographic Magazine Issue 09