Monitoring a migration

Whale watch

As about 14000 humpback whales make their way along the east coast of Australia - the largest number in 25 years - one couple has been watching their migration south with deep interest. Wally and Trish Franklin are the founders of the Oceania Project, a long-term study into the behaviour and social organisation of whales.

The couple's vessel has been anchored off Hervey Bay six days a week for the past six weeks, with four researchers and six interns on rotation. Paying members of the public have also been on board, helping to collect data.

"All observations are made from the vessel but in Hervey Bay about 14 per cent of the whales will come to us and spend hours, providing a great opportunity for viewing," Wally says.

The couple has accumulated the long-term histories of more than 600 whales using photo identification and DNA samples. Wally predicts most whales will have moved south by the end of November, although sightings will remain high for the month.

"The population is in recovery and growing at about 10 per cent a year; this explains the record numbers, especially of mothers with new calves," he says. "[But] to put the numbers in perspective, prior to the last period of commercial whaling in Antarctica and along the coast of eastern Australia [in the 1960s], the number of whales was approximately 45,000." He says full recovery is likely to take another 25 years. A six-day trip as an intern on the project costs $1950.

See oceania.org.au.

Boosting Australia's appeal

Ecotourism and World Heritage sites in Australia should be part of a new program to boost sluggish tourist numbers, a convener of next month's Global Eco Conference in Sydney, Tony Charters, says. Ecotourism is no longer a niche experience and accounts for about 25 per cent of the market, he says.

"Australia is such a natural fit [for this], with a diverse landscape and cultural heritage," he says. "Our traditional markets are a long way from Australia, so the appeal has to be significant for leisure travellers. But access is more affordable than ever."

Charters says visitor numbers to key Australian sites have stagnated; the Great Barrier Reef has 1.3 million visitors a year, a similar number to 20 years ago, while Kakadu receives 210,000 visitors, down from 240,000 in the early 1990s.

Charters believes that once the conservation battles of the '80s and '90s had been won, energy directed to the World Heritage sites waned. "We are still talking up the value of World Heritage sites and not investing in them," he says.

One way of achieving sustainable tourism is by bringing together groups such as local operators and regional tourism bodies. "One of the keys to Australia's appeal is the opportunity to have an authentic experience with indigenous Australians and their culture," he says.

The Global Eco Conference will be held on November 7-10.

See globaleco.com.au.

What the Dickens?

Charles Dickens's childhood, including his time working in a blacking factory while his father was in a debtor's prison, was seminal to the author's subsequent literary works. That atmosphere of Victorian London will be recreated at an exhibition celebrating the 200th anniversary of the author's birth. To be held at the Museum of London, handwritten manuscripts of Bleak House and David Copperfield will be on display. The exhibition, from December 9 to June 10, will cost £8 ($12) an adult, £6 for children and concession holders and from £18 for families.

See www.museumoflondon.org.uk/dickens.

Newlywed projects

Both love and voluntourism know no bounds, with honeymooners being encouraged to experience an increasingly popular way of travelling. A Canadian-based website, govoluntouring.com, suggests travellers who marry later in life and are looking for an alternative to the traditional beach break may find voluntourism fits the bill. Searches can be refined according to project, country, age and religious affiliation and include a rehabilitation project in Zambia and a building scheme in Uganda.

The govoluntouring.com site doesn't list projects just for honeymooners, however, although one couple who worked on a project in Guatemala during their honeymoon have gone on to set up their own volunteer tour business there.

See govoluntouring.com.

Friends in odd places

Adventure travel company Peregrine has a new Facebook app that mixes friends with a favourite destination. Facebook users - all 800 million of you - can download an image from the adventure website, such as a shot of cheetahs in Africa or a landscape of Machu Pichu, and import Facebook friends' profile pictures for a mosaic effect.

See peregrineadventures.com.

Send news items to smarttraveller@fairfax.com.au.

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