An important focus of The Oceania Project's work is providing vessels in the Hervey Bay Whale-Watch Fleet with information about the individual whales we are observing in the Bay and information about humpback whales in general.

As a result the Skippers of the vessels frequently radio us if something of interest occurs. Early on the 24th of September 1997 we had such a call from Captain Mick Fuller, who presently skippers the whale-watch vessel 'Quick Cat'.

Mick told us there was a mother who had a large unusual white area on the right side of her body. Part of the white pattern looked like a mask which to his crew and passengers called to mind the musical 'The Phantom of the Opera'. Consequently Mick named the mother Phantom and later in the day we sighted her calf and named it Opera.

Familiarity amongst the whale-watch Skippers of named whales that have strong distinctive marks is a valuable aid to the Photo ID work being undertaken by Trish in Hervey Bay.

The Skippers are often able to advise us that particular whales are back in the Bay giving us a greater chance to observe them and to obtain resight photography.

Phantom's distinctive right flank. (Click photo to enlarge)
Phantom 1997 - The large distinctive white mark on Phantom's right flank gave rise to her 'mnemonic' name. A masked face with a large right eye can be seen slightly forward of the middle section of the white pattern. The mask bought to mind the association with 'The Phantom of the Opera', hence the names Phantom for the mother and Opera for her calf.
Opera's under-side fluke in 1985 Satchmo's under-side fluke Opera's left side dorsal
The markings on the under-side fluke of Opera (Left above) are distinct and may allow us to recognise Opera in later years. By contrast (Centre above) the under-side fluke of one of the escorts seen with Phantom & Opera in 1997, who was named Satchmo, has a strong black dot on the left hand side of the fluke and an arrangement of smaller dots that will enable us to easily recognise the fluke again. The left-hand dorsal of Opera (Right above)is truncated in shape and a very different shape than the dorsal of Phantom's 1998 calf named Raoul, after another character from 'The Phantom of the Opera'.
Phantom with her calf 'Raoul' in 1998
(Click photo to enlarge)
Phantom 1998 - Taken by Trish in 1998, this picture shows clearly the flank pattern that enables us to identify the whale as Phantom.

We can also see the new calf with her is not the calf she was sighted with in 1997. Another character name from 'Phantom of the Opera', Raoul was given to Phantom's 1998 calf.
Between 24th and 28th September 1997 we sighted, observed and photographed Phantom & Opera on three different occasions and on two of those occasions they were in company with other whales one of which was Satchmo mentioned above.

The scientific literature suggests that female humpbacks are unlikely to conceive another calf while lactating. It is also believed that mothers lactate, that is feed the calf milk, for 11 to 12 months. It was therefore with great surprise that one day short of 12 months later, on the 23rd September 1998, Trish recognised Phantom's distinctive pattern and realised she was back with a new calf!

We lost no time in getting on the radio to Captain Mick Fuller and the other skippers to announce Phantom's return to the bay and to ask Mick for help in naming the 1998 calf. He suggested the name Raoul, one of the other characters from 'The Phantom of the Opera', which we adopted.

Between the 23rd and 29th September 1998, curiously almost the same period as in 1997, we observed and photographed Phantom and Raoul on four occasions; twice alone, once with another mother and calf and once with escorts.

However not all whales have markings that are as distinctive as Phantom's. Trish is able to recognise individual whales from small marks which are not easily recognised in the field, but which can be pick up when closely examining the photography. Through rigorous and painstaking analysis of each years photography in conjunction with our field notes, Trish has now found and documented eight mothers who have returned to the bay a year later with a new calf. These findings have important implications when assessing the size of the population of Humpbacks passing through Hervey Bay.
Phantom's left side dorsal 99 Phantom's right side dorsal and body marks 1999 Raoul's right side dorsal 1999
Phantom's left side flank and dorsal in 1998 (Left above) can be compared with the photo of the same side in1997. The unmistakeable pattern on her left side (Centre above - Click to enlarge) enables us to identify Phantom when compared with the pattern in the 1997 pictures. Although we did not obtain a picture of Raoul's under-side fluke the dorsal shape (Right above) and the position of the black dot in the lighter area below the dorsal, may be enough to identify the young whale in the future.
However while some questions are answered many mysteries remain. Why is it that we have only seen Phantom in 1997 and 1998? Is it that she did visit the bay before and after those years and that we just didn't get to see and photograph her, or is that she only comes to Hervey Bay to conceive and nurture her new calves? Did Phantom conceive Raoul while in Hervey Bay in 1997, the timing is close, and if so who is the father? Could it be Satchmo? Are Opera and Raoul male or female and will we see them again in future years?

In 2000 we commenced a long-term collaboration with Professor Peter Baverstock of the Centre for Animal Conservation Genetics at Southern Cross University to obtain DNA information from individual humpbacks whales. This is achieved by collecting samples of the skin that naturally falls off their bodies - 'sloughed skin' - while they are in Hervey bay and extracting the DNA information from the skin. The DNA Genotype enables us obtain a unique DNA fingerprint for each individual whale, to determine the gender of the whales and to examine the genetic relationship between individual whales. The integration of the Trish's long term historical Photo ID data with the new DNA data will accelerate the knowledge we are accumulating about the Hervey Bay Humpbacks and hopefully contribute to early answers to the intriguing questions raised by the two meetings with Phantom and her calves - so stay tuned for updates!

ASSOCIATES OFPHANTOM Become a Supporting Member of The Oceania Project and add your name here......

Jamie & Maria Houston, Kevin Green,Tessa Wooldridge, Simon Wooldridge, Laura Parker, Claude Debetaz, Julie Walters, Helen Sawtell, Shelley Marshall, Michael Lane, Pam Kelly, Michael Krupika.

| Homepage | SoundNet | Expedition | Youth | Whales | Shop | Membership | Links | Help | Overview |