Sightings provide exciting day for whale researcher off Ballina coast

By DAWN COHEN

DAN BURNS'S ambition is to be on first name terms with the East Coast's 7000 most popular visitors ? our humpback whales.

The 29-year-old PhD student is halfway there. Like many other discerning tourists, about 7000 humpback whales head for the Great Barrier Reef each winter, enjoying Ballina and Byron Bay on the way.

Nearly 3500 whales have been individually identified, Mr Burns said.

"We use a digital camera to photograph the underside of their flukes or tails which have distinctive markings.

"By identifying and keeping track of an individual we can learn more about their behaviour."

In a dramatic start to a five-month survey of the protected mammals, Mr Burns added five new photographs to the collection yesterday.

His Southern Cross University expedition had been searching fruitlessly around Ballina yesterday for the whales.

However, a call from the Ballina Coast Guard alerted an excited Mr Burns and skipper Max Egan to a sighting of a pod of whales.

Less than a kilometre from Shelly Beach smooth slabs of water ? whale 'footprints' ? heralded the slow motion eruption of first two, then five, sleek, grey backs.

"I feel the same thrill every time I see them, whether it's the first or the 500th of the season," said the former Cape Byron Whale Research Project volunteer.

What keeps the Ewingsdale scientist awake at night?

"Tracking individuals. I found a mother and a calf, back-tracking north. They don't feed until they get back home. Why aren't they rush- ing?"



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