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Transit station or destination? Attendance patterns, movements and abundance estimate of humpback whales off west South Africa from photographic and genotypic matching

J Barendse
PB Best
M Thornton
SH Elwen
HC Rosenbaum
I Carvalho
C Pomilla
TJQ Collins
MA Meÿer
RH Leeney


Humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae found off west South Africa (WSA) are known to display an atypical migration that may include temporary  residency and feeding during spring and summer. At a regional scale there is uncertainty about how these whales relate to the greater West African Breeding  Stock B as a whole, with evidence both for and against its division into two  substocks. A database containing sighting information of humpback whales intercepted by boat in the WSA region from 1983 to 2008 was compiled. It included a total of 1 820 identification images of ventral tail flukes and lateral views of dorsal fins. After systematic within- and between-year matching of images of usable quality, it yielded 154 different individuals identified by tail flukes (TF), 230 by left dorsal fins (LDF), and 237 by right dorsal fins (RDF). Microsatellite (MS) matching of 216 skin biopsies yielded 156 individuals. By linking all possible sightings of the same individuals using all available identification features, the periodicity and seasonality of 281 individual whales  were examined. In all, 60 whales were resighted on different days of which 44 were between different calendar years. The most resightings for one individual was 11 times, seen in six different years, and the longest interval between first and last sightings was about 18 years. A resighting rate of 15.6% of whales at intervals of a year or more indicates long-term fidelity to the region. Shorter intervals of 1–6 months between sequential sightings in the same year may suggest temporary residency. The TF image collection from WSA was compared to TF collections from four other regions, namely Gabon, Cabinda (Angola), Namibia and the Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalogue (AHWC). Three matches  were detected between WSA (in late spring or summer) and Gabon (in winter), confirming direct movement between these regions. The capture–recapture data of four different identification features (TF, RDF, LDF and MS) from six successive subsets of data from periods with the highest collection effort (2001–2007) were used to calculate the number of whales that utilise the region, using both closed- and open-population models. Dorsal fins have never been used to estimate abundance for humpback whales, so the different identification features were evaluated for potential biases. This revealed 9–14% incidence of missed matches (false negatives) when using dorsal fins that would result in an overestimate, whereas variation in individual fluke-up behaviour may lower estimates by as much as 57–66% due to heterogeneity of individual capture probability. Taking into consideration the small dataset and low number of recaptures, the most consistent and precise results were obtained from a fully  time-dependent version of the Jolly-Seber open-population model, with annual survival fixed at 0.96, using the MS dataset. This suggests that the WSA feeding assemblage during the months of spring and summer (September–March) of the study period numbered about 500 animals. The relationship of these whales to those (perhaps strictly migratory) that may occur in other seasons of the year, and their links to possible migratory routes and other feeding or breeding areas,  remain uncertain.

Keywords: abundance, Breeding Stock B, capture heterogeneity, capture–recapture, Chapman’s modified Petersen estimate, Megaptera novaeangliae, migration, photo-identification, Program MARK, site fidelity

African Journal of Marine Science 2011, 33(3): 353–373