Tag Archives: breaching

I had a whale of a time

Every year, between late July and early November, the whales come into Hervey Bay on their great migration north from Antarctica, where they seek the warmer waters to have their calves and mate. Sometimes they stay for a while in the calm waters of Platypus Bay off Fraser island, and watch the humans on their floating, moving islands. And the humans on their boats watch them.

In the mid-seventies, when whaling was finally stopped, humpback numbers on Australia’s east coast were down to a few hundred. Now, it’s back to around seventeen thousand. Something like five thousand of them will stop in at Platypus Bay for a few hours, or a few days. It’s shallow and safe, a great place to fatten up the newborns before the long trek south. So over the season you’ll see mums and bubs, randy males and curious sub-adults.

Yesterday I made my first trip out to Platypus Bay for this season, camera ready, sunblock applied and warmly covered against the chilly breeze. August is a great time to meet these gentle giants. The population is mainly juveniles, young whales not yet sexually mature. They’re the humpback equivalent of teenagers; cocky, sure of themselves and very curious. So join me on a virtual visit to Platypus Bay. We’ll start with the rainbow over Fraser Island as we journeyed along the island’s coast to Platypus Bay.

This young whale is sky hopping – poking its head above the surface to look at the people on the boat. It can see perfectly well through the water. The man is holding an underwater microphone, not a pike.

The same young whale pictured above came to say hello to us

Just the nostrils above the surface. The long white pectoral fins and the whale’s white belly are obvious. As you can see, the whales come in very close, circling the boat or swimming underneath

Further along, things became a bit more active. At one stage I saw five different whales breaching – flinging themselves out of the water. Once, two whales together breached at the same time (no picture, sad to say)

They'll breach quite close to the boat - too close for this shot

They’ll breach quite close to the boat – too close for this shot

What goes up, must come down – with one helluva splash and a wave for good measure.

I go whale watching several times every year. If you’ve reached this point, you might be interested in this article. It will tell you a little bit more about the whales.

It’s whale time in Hervey Bay

A whale calf practices breaching

A whale calf practices breaching

Those who know me would be aware that I’ll take any opportunity to go out and watch the whales in my own back yard. In August, the youngsters from last year’s crop show up. They’re young, sexually immature, curious and playful, so if you’re on one of the fleet of whale boats taking tourists out to visit, you’re sure to see a show. The boats are not permitted to chase the whales, or come in too close – but the whales are quite happy to approach the boats for a close-up look at the funny little air-breathers on the decks. I’m sure they do a LOT of people watching and as times have changed and they are no longer hunted, they’re happy to share the space with us.

A whale does some people spotting, waving as it goes by the boat

A whale does some people spotting, waving as it goes by the boat

A whale exhales close to the boat

A whale exhales close to the boat

A whale lies on her back at the surface while her calf moves over body

A whale lies on her back at the surface while her calf moves over body

But this year I was elsewhere in August, so now it’s September, which is mums with bubs time. The females stop in Hervey Bay’s warm, comparatively safe waters, to feed up their calves, building their fat reserves for the cold of the Antarctic waters. Whales don’t suckle. Their milk is extremely high in fat (figures vary so much – somewhere between 30% to 50% seems safe) and has the consistency of yoghurt. The female expresses milk into the water near the ocean floor and the calf scoops up the fatty fluid in its mouth. On this rich diet it puts on as much as 80kg per day. In contrast, the adult whales rarely eat on their migration, relying on the fat reserves built up on krill during the summer months, before the annual migration.

In between feeds the mothers teach their offspring how to do whaley things, like breach to find their way around. Baleen whales, which includes humpbacks, right whales, Minki whales and others, don’t use echo location like the toothed whales – Orcas, sperm whales, dolphins etc. Breaching is thought to be an important way the whales locate where they are. (Scientists also think they do it to knock off parasites and maybe discourage predators. What that means is the only reason we KNOW they do it is for fun.)

Later in the year you’ll see mature males chasing females for the right to mate. They don’t care if she has a calf with her, they’ll shove the youngster out of the way for a chance to get at mum. If there’s more than one male, they’ll fight, using their massive size to try to dominate each other. I once watched a group of five males wrestling, blowing noisy threats through their blowholes and damaging each other with the barnacles that soon attach to every whale’s body. They completely ignored the boat in the way.

An adult humpback shows how it's done

An adult humpback shows how it’s done

Humpbacks are noted for their athleticism. Those incredibly long pectoral fins add to their ability to manoeuvre and seeing one of these massive creatures breach is a privilege. A beast the size of a locomotive launches itself into the air with a couple of flips of that powerful tail, performs some aerobatics and then crashes back down into the water. It’s a wonderful sight to see.

One last factoid – these are southern humpbacks. Their bellies are mostly white. Their cousins in the northern hemisphere are basically black all over.