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Behavioral responses of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) to whale-watching vessels on the southeastern coast of Australia


Current address: Arthur Rylah Institute, P. O. Box 137, Heidelberg, Victoria, 3084, Australia.


This study assessed the short-term responses of humpback whales to whale-watching vessels during their southward migration along the south coast of New South Wales (NSW), Australia. The behavior of pods was recorded from commercial whale-watching vessels during tours and compared to pods observed in the absence of vessels from the shore in the same area. While some individuals showed obvious signs of horizontal avoidance, others approached vessels, initiating interactions. Calf pods were more sensitive to the presence of vessels than non-calf pods. Dive times and the overall percentage of time whales spent submerged were higher in the presence of vessels, but respiration intervals did not differ. Some surface behaviors occurred less often in the presence of vessels. Whales' responses differed according to whether vessels were operating in accordance with regulations or not. Whales were more likely to avoid a vessel moving within the permitted 100 m approach limit than vessels outside the limit. Whales showed some behavioral changes when vessels operated in accordance with whale-watching regulations, compared with whales in the absence of vessels. Pods that showed no obvious horizontal responses to vessels changed their diving and surface activity when compared with pods in the absence of vessels. Because the long-term impacts of effects of vessels are unknown, management of the humpback whale-watching industry should adopt a conservative approach. Improved knowledge of long-term impacts of multiple exposures to vessels is required to inform management of the effects of whale-watching.