Assessing the Marine Life of French Polynesia's Austral Islands

Research includes a focus on mammals, especially whales

Assessing the Marine Life of French Polynesia's Austral Islands

The waters around French Polynesia’s Austral Islands in the South Pacific Ocean are known for their outstanding marine biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.

To provide a more detailed look at life there, The Pew Charitable Trust’s Global Ocean Legacy project is supporting a scientific assessment of those waters as part of its conservation collaboration with the archipelago’s mayors and communities. The Insular Research Center and Environment Observatory, a field station for French and international researchers, is leading the effort, with contributions from French Polynesian and foreign experts.

The assessment will include a focus on marine mammals, particularly whales, given their local importance.  For example, Rurutu, one of the islands in the Austral group, has become an international destination for whale watching because its cliffs fall deep into the ocean—without lagoons—creating an environment that attracts humpback whales.

In September 2014, a team of French Polynesian scientists, led by marine biologist Agnes Benet, Ph.D., traveled to four of the Austral Islands—Tubuai, Rurutu, Rimatara, and Raivavae—to conduct a census of humpback whale populations and learn more about the scale of whale-watching tourism activities. The team met with island municipal councils, whale watching operators, and school officials to discuss their research. Their conclusions will be featured in the marine scientific assessment of the Austral Islands expected in 2015.

French Polynesia’s waters have been a marine mammal sanctuary since 2002.  Twenty-four species of whales and dolphins make their homes there. Hundreds of humpback whales (Megapteranovaeangliae) return every year to breed. Increasingly, locals and tourists come to watch them in the water. French Polynesia already has strict environmental regulations for whale-watching activities.

Still, given the strong interest in whale watching, scientists and government officials want to better understand the biodiversity of the mammals found in these waters. That knowledge can then be used to inform whale-watching operators and local fishermen about these animals, as well as to improve the environmental regulations to protect them.

The insights gained from these efforts will help support the long-term health of these marine mammals and the related ecotourism business. They will also inform the broader effort, initiated by the archipelago’s municipalities and the French Polynesian government, to establish a large, protected marine area in these waters.