WHALES ON THE NET
The whale is so rare and unknown that it took two weeks and a host of experts locally
Omura whale spotted on the Great Barrier Reef - Photo: Kerryn Bell/Reef Express
Reef Express owner Kerryn Bell said she "just about fell out of the boat" when her tour group spotted the whale off Mission Beach (Queensland), an unusual sighting outside the usual whale season.
At a distance of about half a kilometre away a whale of some sort was in the area. Then, later in the day the whale was spotted again, this time just 150 metres from the tour boat.
Ms Bell said she was pretty surprised because none of the crew had actually seen a whale like that let alone one of the rarest whales in the world. Tourists that morning were told they had no hope of seeing any whales on their snorkelling trip.
It was only after video and photographs, of the whale, were sent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's Eye of the Reef program, and after GBRMPA Network Manager Chris Jones sent the images and video to various whale experts in Queensland, South Australia, Alaska and finally to an expert who had recently been in Madagascar studying Omura whales for his PhD.
"He immediately confirmed that in fact it was an Omura," he said.
The Omura whale is the rarest whale in the world. (Image: rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org)
Ms Bell's skipper estimated the whale was "at least twice" as long as their 8.5 metre boat and at least as big as a humpback whale. Mr Jones said it was "terribly exciting" to be able to verify such an unusual sighting, and he is happy their reef sighting program is working.
"It's something that we've always wanted the sightings network to be able to achieve," he said. "We knew that if we could get enough people out there participating we would eventually start finding things that were unknown to the general public and probably unknown to science."
The whale was first identified by Japanese researchers as a species in it's own right in 2003, and it was genetically confirmed as a separate species in 2006. The Omura, a baleen whale, is closely related to the Fin whale and similar, though smaller, in appearance.
Edited: 19 December, 2016
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