The rare omura whale was spotted on the Great Barrier Reef near Mission Beach. Photo: Kerryn Bell/Reef ExpressA rare whale has been sighted on the Great Barrier Reef for the very first time, shocking passengers on a dive boat and exciting whale experts globally.
The sighting in far north Queensland is the first confirmed sighting of the elusive omura whale in Australian waters.
The whale is so rare and unknown – it was only confirmed as a separate species 10 years ago – that it took two weeks and a host of experts locally and overseas to verify the whale’s identity.
Reef Express owner Kerryn Bell said she “just about fell out of the boat” when her tour group spotted the whale off Mission Beach, an unusual sighting outside the usual whale season.
“That morning we’d seen it in the distance, about half a kilometre away, so we knew there was a whale of some sort in the area,” she said.
Later in the day the whale was spotted again, this time just 150 metres from the boat.
“We stopped the vessel and turned the motors off – we were fairly determined we were going to wait and see if it popped up somewhere else – and lo and behold it popped up 15 metres away from the boat, which was pretty surprising,” Ms Bell said.
“It was quite a shock for all of us because none of us had actually seen a whale like that.”
Ms Bell had told a Swiss tourist that morning they had no hope of seeing any whales on their snorkelling trip.
“The last thing we expected was to see any sort of whale, let alone one of the rarest whales in the word.”
Ms Bell sent vision of the whale to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Eye of the Reef program, hoping someone would be able to identify the unusual whale.
GBRMPA network manager Chris Jones said images and video of the whale was sent 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.
Mr Jones said Ms Bell’s skipper estimated the whale was “at least twice” as long as their 8.5 metre boat.
“So about 16 metres, and that’s about as big as humpback whales get so it’s 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.
“It just goes to show that it’s really a matter of having eyes on the reef.”
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.
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