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Do Whales Need Personal Space? -

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Robyn Williams: And so from the top boffins in the world to those who will one day in the future be top, our series of PhDs. Here's this week's.

Janelle Braithwaite: Hi, my name is Janelle Braithwaite from the University of Western Australia. My research addresses the question; do whales have personal space? Everyone is familiar with personal space. When this space is encroached, like in a crowded elevator, then we can feel anxious and uncomfortable. Have you considered that other animals also need personal space? For them, it is more than a feeling, it's a requirement to function and reproduce. If this space requirement is breached, it can have serious implications on their biology.

My PhD research explores the personal space needs of humpback whales. Every year, humpbacks migrate along the West Australian coastline, travelling between their feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean and their calving grounds in the tropical waters of the northwest, and back again. Adult humpback whales don't feed during this migration, completing the 20,000-kilometre journey entirely on their energy stores. And, in the same way you and I take breaks when we go on long journeys, these whales also need to stop and rest for a few weeks before continuing on. This is particularly important for new mums who use this resting time to feed up their calves, giving them enough energy to complete the next stage in their migration.

The main area that whales use for resting is Exmouth Gulf, as this large embayment is sheltered from the open ocean. However, Exmouth Gulf is becoming more and more developed to support the growing offshore oil and gas industry found in that area. This means that there is increasing competition between humans and whales for space. But how much space do resting whales need?

In the Gulf, whales are found in small groups, mainly just mothers with their calves. By looking at the way in which these groups space themselves out, I'm finding the distance between nearest neighbours. I discovered that they stay, on average, 2 kilometres away from each other. This 2 kilometre distance is much larger than the current boating regulations, which allowed vessels to come as close as 300 metres to a whale, and seismic vessels are still able to operate from 1 kilometre away.

This invasion of personal space doesn't create the most useful environment for whales, it has the likely effect of displacing them to other areas. Whales are on a strict energy budget and need to return to the Southern Ocean before their reserves of energy run out. We don't know how large an impact disturbance to resting behaviour will have to their energy budget. This is going to be the next stage in my research. However, if whales are unable to rest and so run out of energy too soon, then there is no safety net, and they will likely become exhausted and end up dead on a beach somewhere along our coast.

Like many whale populations, the whales off the West Australian coastline are still recovering from the decimation caused by whaling activities. Since the ban to whaling in 1963, the population has been growing by at least 10% annually, which is near the maximum possible. This means that the population is going to need more resting space each year. The space in Exmouth Gulf is limited, so we need to make sure humans do not monopolise this space and allow enough room for humpback whales to rest on their journey and continue their recovery, hopefully returning to the population levels seen before they were routinely hunted and killed.

Robyn Williams: Janelle Braithwaite, at the University of Western Australia. And Janelle, I had no idea about half of that; personal space for whales, 2 kilometres.