Great Barrier Reef
Whale & Dolphin
Research Programme

Work alongside world-class scientists and get up close and personal with humpback whales in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on Earth.


A once in a lifetime experience

Spectrogram showing humpback whale song recorded during our research programme on the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Dana Cusano

Welcome to the Great Barrier Reef Whale and Dolphin Research Programme, led by Blue Planet Marine in collaboration with the Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratory (CEAL) at The University of Queensland, Australia.

We're excited about you joining us as a Research Assistant on this important, challenging and valuable research. The work you'll be doing and the data you'll be collecting on east Australian humpback whales has been identified by the International Whaling Commission as highest priority research for this population of whales.

This season, we’re hoping to add to the Programme an exciting collaboration with researchers from SOPOPP at Griffith University, Australia. We’re aiming to use genetic data collected from east Australian humpback whales to investigate the variability of the Antarctic sea-ice ecosystem related to climate driven environmental change. We’re also planning to use drones to record body condition (fatness) of whales and relate that to reproductive fitness of individual animals.


About Blue Planet Marine & CEAL

This was perhaps the coolest of our encounters (so far!) with humpback whales on the Great Barrier Reef during our 2018 research programme. Amazing what you can do with a GoPro camera! Some humpback whale populations are doing great, others not so much.

Blue Planet Marine is a leading environmental research and consulting organisation providing expert scientific service in the Australian, New Zealand, Asian, South Pacific and Antarctic marine environments. Founded in 2002, Blue Planet Marine specialises in marine megafauna (whales, dolphins, dugongs, seals, sea lions and turtles) research and monitoring activities. 

CEAL was formed in 2005 and is based at The University of Queensland. A multi-disciplinary lab, CEAL has expertise in whale behaviour, biological acoustics, animal communication and social learning, population ecology, and physiology.


The site

Our primary study site is in the Whitsunday Island/Mackay/Swains Reef region, out to the outer reefs of the Great Barrier Reef (off the Central Queensland coast of Australia) and within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

These waters are sheltered from open ocean swells by the Great Barrier Reef. There are a number of spectacular anchorages within the region, which we will use during each research trip.


Research vessels

RV Escape, a 24-metre research vessel, will be your home and work platform for the duration of the Programme. The support vessels (RV Koopa and RV Coda) will be working from Escape on a daily basis.

Research Assistant and humpback - © Blue Planet Marine.jpg

What will you do?

Research Assistants will be actively involved in all aspects of research activities, including: whale fluke photo identification; video recordings; collection of genetic samples; recording behavioural observations; and recording whale song and social sounds. You will also assist with vessel operations, including all day-to-day activities such as cooking, cleaning and vessel maintenance.

At the end of your time with us you will be presented with a participation certificate and a detailed description of your research activities with us.

The Programme

The Programme runs from mid-July to mid-September each year. Its overarching aims are to:

  • Identify areas of the Great Barrier Reef that are most important for humpback whale breeding activities;

  • Gather information regarding the structure of the east Australian humpback whale sub-stock;

  • Gain a better understanding of whale communications and potential anthropogenic impacts within the breeding grounds of the Great Barrier Reef; and

  • Investigate Antarctic sea-ice ecosystem variability related to climate driven environmental change via samples collected from east Australian humpback whales.

To do this we will use a variety of proven scientific techniques, including: photo-identification; acoustic recording of whale sounds and underwater noise; genetic sampling; and recording of whale behaviour using visual observations and digital methods.

Want more details?

For more information about the Research Programme, including the research team you’ll be working with, and the conditions of participation,

Download The Programme Brochure

The Programme will be run from 12 July to 18 September 2020. This time is divided into ten research trips. You will spend six days and nights on the research vessel. Each research trip will include the full range of planned research activities. There are only 10 places for Research Assistants on each trip. Each trip starts and ends at Airlie Beach, Queensland.

The dates for research trips in 2020 are:


Research Trip 1:   12-17 July 2020

Research Trip 2:   19-24 July 2020

Research Trip 3:   26-31 July 2020

Research Trip 4:   2-7 August 2020

Research Trip 5:   9-14 August 2020

Research Trip 6:   16-21 August 2020

Research Trip 7:   23-28 August 2020

Research Trip 8:   30 August - 4 September 2020

Research Trip 9:   6-11 September 2020

Research Trip 10:   13-18 September 2020



Here’s some of what our Research Assistants have had to say about the Programme:

“The experience this year was great, as hoped. I have now been twice and will probably go again next year. It's a unique experience and as a Research Assistant I felt valued and respected. I felt part of the family. The crew and scientists are very professional and are great ambassadors for Blue Planet Marine. A wonderful experience all around.” Peter, Australia

Brilliant, awesome, breath-taking experience with a friendly and extremely knowledgeable group of scientists. Well done to Blue Planet Marine!” Maggie, Australia

“I've been trying to come up with some constructive criticism, but there was really nothing to criticise. It was a fabulous, unforgettable experience, shared with a great team.” Ian, Australia

I loved every minute of this trip despite having some not ideal weather conditions. Everyone on board was consistently friendly and willing to offer assistance at any time and were all incredibly knowledgeable about not only whales but other marine mammals and environmental issues.“ Kaye, Australia

“An incredible, most wonderful and valuable experience beyond my wildest expectations. The fellowship of likeminded people whom share the same passion for conservation and research leaves indelible memory slides, which cannot be erased. I will return!” Andrew, Australia

“Beautiful weather, great people and lots of whales! A truly memorable and insightful experience to marine biology in a gorgeous part of the world. Can highly recommend this research trip to anyone considering going into marine biology or whale conservation - it's a very fun week away!” Louise, Australia

“A worthwhile and interesting experience. Learned a lot in a short time from working and discussing whales with the researchers.” Mark, UK

“I could not speak more highly of the entire experience. The professional yet relaxed crew encouraged participation by the Research Assistants at all times. There was ample time for relaxation and the social interaction was always very enjoyable. I have taken fond memories and significant new knowledge with me. I would like to come back again. Thanks team.” Pete, Australia

“I went for a winter break and came back passionate about whales and ocean conservation. For me the trip was exhilarating! The BPM crew and researchers were an absolute joy to live with! Waiting for next year’s trip already!!”. Sally, New Zealand

“A very hands-on and wonderful experience!” Michelle, USA

“It was magnificent to be afforded the chance to be alongside of, as my son described you, pioneers of whale research. This was certainly not a tourist trip but a research trip at its best that is accessible to everyday interested people like ourselves. You are not helping with research which has already been done before but helping with research to continue to further understand an animal, a being, which we still know so little about. It was great to be with the BPM team of researchers that want to share with others their passion of whales and dolphins.” Daryn, Australia