Pygmy blue whale movement, distribution and important areas in the Eastern Indian Ocean

Michele Thums*, Luciana Ferreira, Curt Jenner, Micheline Jenner, Danielle Harris, Andrew Davenport, Virginia Andrews-Goff, Mike Double, Luciana Möller, Catherine R.M. Attard, Kerstin Bilgmann, Paul Thomson, Robert McCauley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
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Pygmy blue whales in the South-east Indian Ocean migrate from the southern coast of Australia to Indonesia, with a significant part of their migration route passing through areas subject to oil and gas production. This study aimed at improving our understanding of the spatial extent of the distribution, migration and foraging areas, to better inform impact assessment of anthropogenic activities in these regions. Using a combination of passive acoustic monitoring of the NW Australian coast (46 instruments from 2006 to 2019) and satellite telemetry data (22 tag deployments from 2009 to 2021) we quantified the pygmy blue whale distribution and important areas during their northern and southern migration. We show extensive use of slope habitat off Western Australia and only minimal use of shelf habitat, compared to southern Australia where use of the continental shelf and shelf break predominates. In addition, movement behaviour estimated by a state-space model on satellite tag data showed that in general pygmy blue whales off Western Australia were mostly engaged in migration, interspersed with mostly relatively short periods (median = 28hours, range = 2 – 1080hours) of low move persistence (slow movement with high turning angles), which is indicative of foraging. Using the spatial overlap of time and number of whales in area analysis of the satellite tracking data (top 50% of grid cells) with foraging movement behaviour, we quantified the spatial extent of pygmy blue whale high use areas for foraging and migration. We compared these areas to the previously described areas of importance to foraging and migrating whales (Biologically Important Areas; BIAs). In some cases these had good agreement with the most important areas we calculated from our data, but others had only low (5%) to moderate (13%) overlap. Month was the most important variable predicting the number of pygmy blue whale units and number of singers (acting as indices of pygmy blue whale density). Whale density was highest in the southern part of the NW Australian coast and whales were present there between April-June, and November-December, a pattern also confirmed by the satellite tracking data. Available data indicated pygmy blue whales spent up to 124 days in Indonesian waters (34% of annual cycle). Since this area may also be the calving ground for this population, inter-jurisdictional management is necessary to ensure their full protection.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere02054
Number of pages20
JournalGlobal Ecology and Conservation
Early online date15 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022


  • Migration
  • Foraging
  • Satellite telemetry
  • Passive acoustics
  • Biologically Important Areas
  • Ecologically Significant Areas


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