A Whale of a Journey: Studying Whales in the Savu Sea

Beautiful coral reefs. Deep ocean passages near white, sandy beaches. Abundant and colorful fish. With all this to explore, Indonesia’s Savu Sea Marine National Park is a must-see for ocean lovers

And these visitors aren’t just of the human variety: the park is a major migratory route for whales. Fourteen of the world’s 27 whale species — more than 50 percent — pass through the park’s waters as they travel along the Indonesian Throughflow, a massive current that flows from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. 

Text from the Field
Our survey team took a quick break from tracking whales in the Savu Sea to text us this report:

 “Big day in Northeast Savu. Saw over 300 dolphins: Spinners, Spotted, Frazers and more. Very active groups. Then at 1:38 pm… HUMPBACK WHALES – MOTHER AND NEWBORN CALF. Both stayed very close, passing under and alongside our drifting boat for more than two hours. Totally amazing. Savu rocks!”

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The park’s unique geography makes it a paradise for sea creatures and humans alike. The seafloor plunges from shallow coral reefs to depths of more than two miles, and the combination of strong currents and underwater cliffs creates “upwelling zones” where cold, nutrient-rich water fuels a whale-friendly buffet of plankton. With deep underwater passages in such close proximity to the coastline, whales can swim unusually near the shore. 

All of these factors weighed into the Indonesian government’s decision to designate the 8.6-million-acre park — the largest protected area in the Coral Triangle — as a whale sanctuary

Unfortunately, the same features that make the park’s deep-sea channels so appealing to whales also make it a major route for marine transportation, including oil and gas tankers, as well as commercial fishers whose activities could harm the migrating marine mammals. Indeed, one of the international Sea Lanes passes through the Savu Sea. 

Amazingly, little is known about the behavior and migratory routes of whales in the Savu Sea, so we don’t have reliable information about how these threats affect them. 

To find these answers, The Nature Conservancy and our partners are leading the first large-scale study of whales in the Savu Sea. Our team is hoping to answer major questions about where whales travel, what they eat and what human activities affect them. We are also gathering information on dolphins, sea turtles, seabirds and other marine life. 

The results of this study will help park managers in the future to refine the current park zone, inform sailors on sensitive areas for marine mammals (especially whales that might travel close to Sea Lanes), and look at how fishing practices (for example, the presence of ghost nets) might affect whales. 

All of this information will help make Savu Sea Marine National Park a friendlier and safer place for all of its visitors — both whales and humans.