Scientists at James Cook University in Queensland state are taking part in the project, also involving researchers from Alaska, which tagged four of the whales last month and is now tracking their southerly progress down the east coast of Australia. (Agencies)
"Although they occur all around the southern hemisphere, the Great Barrier Reef hosts the world's only known predictable aggregation of these exquisitely beautiful little whales," Alastair Birtles, James Cook University, said.
Birtles, who has been studying the dwarf minkes for 18 years, said that while the animals were known to gather each winter off Lizard Island in northern Queensland, it was a mystery where they spent the summer months.
Little is known about the dwarf minkes, which are usually between five to seven metres (16 to 23 feet) long. Although there are several hundred on the Great Barrier Reef, they went unnoticed there until the 1980s.
Whales such as the humpback and southern right are known to migrate down Australia's east coast in the warmer months to spend the summer in the cooler waters off Antarctica, but whether the smaller dwarf minkes join them is unknown.
"The question is: do they make that long migration down to the Antarctic waters or do they go out into the South Pacific?” Birtles said.
Because they are open ocean whales, the dwarf minkes are near impossible to study outside the small time frame they spend on the Great Barrier Reef in mid-winter when courtship behaviour is seen.
"They are an un-described sub species of whale, nobody knew that they existed until 20 years ago. It's one of the great mysteries of the Southern Ocean to think that there is an animal here, which first of all doesn't have a proper (scientific) name, and then you don't know where it goes for nine months. It is pretty extraordinary," Birtles said.
The four whales had matchbox-sized tags placed on their dorsal fins in mid-July by researchers working from a sonically and infra-sonically quiet ship used by the Australian Defence Department.
Scientists at James Cook University in Queensland state are taking part in the project, also involving researchers from Alaska, which tagged four of the whales last month and is now tracking their southerly progress down the east coast of Australia.