About the theme


Humpback whales traverse waters off the coast of Western Australia as they migrate annually from summer feeding grounds in Antarctica to breeding grounds in the nearshore waters of the Kimberley region during winter.

In this project spatial models integrating 13 years of aerial and shipboard surveys of humpback whales with environmental covariates have been used to estimate abundance, create distribution maps and understand the drivers of distribution and abundance in the Kimberley.

Such a holistic approach was urgently required to better inform management strategies for the species in an ecosystem that faces challenges of warming environments, industrial  development and rapid growth of humpback whale populations.


  • Provide a sound understanding of the movement patterns, abundance and distribution of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) across the Kimberley region and their use of habitats, in light of the recovery of the population and potential threats from emerging anthropogenic or natural pressures using a staged approach:
    • Phase 1: Amass all existing survey data to develop a spatial model of humpback whale distribution, abundance and habitat use in the Kimberley with a key focus on better defining and describing calving areas.
    • Phase 2: Assess research gaps and conduct field research to fill research gaps (the operational Phase).
  • Monitor Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) at Pender Bay, southern Kimberley region
    • Annual count of humpback whales using Pender Bay in 2013
    • Description of whales using this area including how many mothers with calves and how long they are in the area and the peak of the calving season
    • Add another year into the long term dataset that began in 2009
    • Provide an indicator of the condition of the humpback whale population that breeds in the Kimberley region


  • Existing datasets including; satellite tracking, aerial survey, vessel survey and land based (Pender Bay) surveys were compiled to explore humpback whale density and distribution across the Kimberley during the migratory season.
  • A trial was undertaken using high resolution satellite imagery to see whether this technique could be used to identify and count whales as a monitoring strategy.
  • Whales were counted from a land-based site at Pender Bay to determine whether the standard protocol used there was suitable for long term monitoring.
  • A cost benefit analysis of available survey methods (desktop) was undertaken, including those trialed in this study. and trial of high resolution satellite imagery to survey humpback whales and boat traffic in the Kimberley.


  • Important areas and habitat features that may predict humpback whale presence, especially those for mothers and calves, were identified and mapped. This information may be used to determine potential overlap with human activities such as boating and shipping.
  • Recommendations were made regarding viable and cost effective survey methods for the future monitoring of this population.
  • Improved regional understanding, context and ecological and conservation significance of humpback whales in this area.
  • Improved knowledge base for environmental planning and management.
  • Basic protocol and design for ongoing vessel/ satellite imagery surveys of humpback whale relative abundance at specific high use sites.
  •  Protocol and training manual for cliff based surveys to monitor whale density and use of specific sites.

Project News

How scientists are learning more about whales from outer space

Satellites counting whales from space revolutionising monitoring techniques for researchers

Whales from Space

The big comeback: it’s time to declare victory for Australian humpback whale conservation

Exploring innovation to monitor the humpback whale

Research Projects

These data will enhance understanding of the important areas and habitats required by this species, providing crucial information needed for their management. This will add to other similar projects on marine fauna and combined with the range of KMRP projects will enhance understanding of the Kimberley marine ecosystem and our ability to manage it into the future.

Establish a long-term monitoring program led by the local Indigenous community of the humpback whales using Pender Bay to understand the importance of the area for whale calving, resting and use during the annual northern migration.



Modelling the spatial distribution of humpback whales in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. (2017 WAMSI Research Conference)

Modelling the spatial distribution of humpback whales in the Kimberley (Park and Wildlife Lunch and Learn seminar)

Monitoring of Humpback Whales at Pender Bay, southern Kimberley region WAMSI Presentation at Parks and Wildlife (Park and Wildlife Lunch and Learn seminar)

Modelling the spatial distribution of humpback whales in the Kimberley (2015 WAMSI Research Conference)


Program: Kimberley Marine Research

Location: Lalang-garram/Camden Sound Marine Park, Pender Bay

Theme Leader: Mark Meekan, AIMS


Final Report