Tag Archives: whale watching

I’ve been mugged by a humpback

Coming home after a great day out

Since we’re now in the middle of the annual whale migration, I’ve been communing with the whales on one of the half dozen boats that take eager tourists out to view these majestic mammals. This trip was a little bit different for me because I went out with a small group of other keen photographers, escorted by a professional. I was there to learn how to get the best shots I could with my equipment. I brought along both my cameras – one fitted with a wide-angle lens, and the other with a 70-300mm zoom. The long lens was to take shots of whales further out, breaching and the like. As it happened, the long lens just got in the way.

Scones and profiteroles

I went out on a new-to-me boat, Freedom III. Each of the whale boats sets itself up for a niche – because everybody basically wants to see whales. Freedom has two niches – only 45 passengers on a lower-to-the-water boat so you get a more personal experience with the whales, and excellent food.

Home-made scones with jam and cream, and profiteroles for morning tea, an excellent lunch with chicken, ham, and various salads and dinner rolls, and afternoon tea was fruit and cheese. All very nice. Guests could purchase wine, beer, and water, and coffee and tea (Dilmah) was free.

Back to the whales.

I wasn’t the only one surprised to encounter our first whale no more than 5km from the boat harbour. Platypus Bay, where the whales congregate, is about 40km from port, so this whale was very close to shore. I also wasn’t the only one concerned about that. The water is shallow and two whales had recently become stranded in the Great Sandy Strait, where they died. I wrote about that the other week. Still, with so many thousands of whales making the migration these days, I suppose it’s inevitable that there will be unpleasant occurrences.

Humpback whales do an annual migration along both sides of Australia from Antarctica, swimming up to the warmer tropical waters to have their calves, mate, and do some sight-seeing before they make the journey South to the rich krill grounds in Antarctica. (As an aside, I object to the idea of selling krill oil in chemist shops. Krill is whale food. Why save the whales if you deprive them of food?) In most parts of Australia offering whale watch trips the whales are on the move, going from here to there with purpose. But they divert into Hervey Bay, where they’ll stay for a day or a week to mooch around, fatten their calves, fool around with their fellows, and interact with humans.

There are very strict rules around boats and whales. You’ll find the details here, but in summary, skippers must not harass them. A boat can’t come closer than 300m. This translates to the whales having to decide to come and say hello. If they come within 150m, the skipper has to turn off the engine. So if you have a close encounter with a whale, be assured that it is the whale’s choice, which is a wonderful privilege. If whales come very close and hang around, it’s known as being ‘mugged’. The boat cannot leave until the whale decides to go away. We were ‘mugged’ three times in our day on the water.

This gives an idea of how close they are

Spyhopping. This whale’s eyes are just below the water, but they can see through that

The first case was a few sub-adults who hung around for a while and did a fair bit of spyhopping. This is where the whale hangs vertically in the water with its head above the surface. They have excellent eyesight, so what they’re really doing is looking at the boats. When they got bored, they left and we went on our way.

The boat couldn’t leave because the whales had it trapped

The second time we had to ‘rescue’ another boat, which was on a timetable and needed to head back to port. Freedom kind of took over their muggers, an adult female with a would-be suitor, and a mother and calf with escort. The courting couple put on quite a show. She acted as a seductress, rolling around in the water and showing off her white belly. The male tried a few moves, draping a pectoral across her body, but she was still playing hard to get.

The lady and her boyfriend

And the third time a solitary female hung around for over an hour, swimming back and forth on both sides of the boat, inspecting the hull from bow to stern. She was a joy. She sprayed us all with water by blowing air out of her blowholes. She snorted, causing us to wipe whale snot off lenses more than once. She blew bubbles. She rolled around in the water, staring up at us with clearly-visible, open eyes.

It’s actually pretty funny being on one of these boats when the whales are circling. People run from side to side, jockeying for position to get the best shot. It’s easier when there’s more than one whale – if they don’t decide to be on the same side. In this case, a bit of whale-fatigue set in (which frankly astonished all of us in the photography group). People sat down inside and got stuck into a drink or three, oblivious to the wonderful show outside. Still, that meant more room for us.

She deliberately snorted water all over us

She blew bubbles

She cruised past us on her back, and went like that under the hull, as if inspecting

She was looking at us. Her open eye is one the forward edge of that white spot

How did we know she’s a girl? All whales have a genital slit. The boys keep their bits hidden until required. But only the girls have that hemispherical bump towards the tail.

I suppose you could say we were lucky that she got tired of us at about the time the skipper was looking anxiously at his watch. We headed for home, we photographers sharing a look at shots on our cameras. I didn’t quite fill up a 32GB SD card, but I did go through a battery. I took about six photos with the long lens because the battery had died in the camera with the wide-angle lens. Yes, I brought spares, but they were in my bag, compulsorily stashed away with everybody else’s, so I took the battery out of the one with the long lens and replaced the one that was spent. Even with a lens capable of 18mm, that wasn’t always wide enough to capture the entire whale in one image.

No, we didn’t see much of the more spectacular part of whale watching – breaching, and the like. I’ve seen that and I have some great pictures. But you know what? This kind of interaction we had today is somehow better. It’s more personal, more a sense of one intelligent creature attempting to commune with another species.

I had a wonderful day. I hope you enjoy looking at the photos almost as much as I enjoyed taking them. Here’s a few more because I can – and I love it.

I can snort a rainbow. We had to wipe whale-snot off our lenses more than once πŸ™‚

Waving a pectoral

Doing a little bit of tail-slapping

Close up of a whale snout. Those modules are very sensitive, helping the whale know where it is in the water

 

It’s that time of the year again

Raser Island gets rain something like 300 days a year - this is one of those days. We're in Platypus Bay

Fraser Island gets rain something like 300 days a year – this is one of those days. We’re in Platypus Bay

It’s that time of the year again. The whales are back! Humpbacks are on their annual migration from Antarctica to the Whitsundays to have their babies. They stop off in the shallow, calm waters of Platypus Bay off Fraser Island to fatten their calves, mate, and generally mooch around before heading back down to the rich feeding grounds around the South Pole. This break in the journey gives us humans a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with these enormous, curious, gentle giants.

I go whale watching at least once a year, every year. Each trip is different, no trip has been disappointing. Sometimes you see the spectacular breach, sometimes you’ll see mums and bubs, sometimes pods of four or five males doing that macho thing, sometimes a curious juvenile will pause and stick its head above the water to check out the little critters on the boats.

This year a couple of friends and I went out to see what was around. The weather had been poor, with wind and rain, but the bay settled down for us, with a breeze from the south – which meant Platypus Bay was protected by Fraser Island. We encountered a number of pods, most of which were pretty quiet (as in no breaching etc) but the boat was ‘mugged’ by a group of five juveniles which hung around VERY close to the boat and swum under the hull. We saw some tail stands, a bit of tail slapping, and one whale breached on the other side of the boat from where I stood with my camera.

Yes, I took photos. But (clears throat) I pretty much deleted all of them. Operator error I’m afraid. The shutter speed wasn’t high enough to stop the action – which is good sometimes – but not always. However, all is not lost. I have lots of whale pictures. So here’s this week’s photo gallery. I have whale photos on all the sites where I sell pictures. Take a look at Red Bubble or at Dreamstime or at My Profile on Can Stock Photo

A young whale spy hopping - checking out the people on the boat

A young whale spy hopping – checking out the people on the boat

Check out the size of the whales against this runabout - and they're not even bog ones

Check out the size of the whales against this runabout – and they’re not even big ones

A whale leaves a footprint made by the huge tail

A whale leaves a footprint made by the huge tail

Rainbow in the spray. It has just exhaled

Rainbow in the spray. It has just exhaled

This was so close I couldn't catch all the action

This was so close I couldn’t catch all the action

But I did with this one.

But I did with this one.

The whales are back

Whale season is a great time here at Hervey Bay. The whale migration, when the whales swim north from Antarctica up to the warm waters of the Whitsundays and beyond, then back down to the feeding grounds in the icy south, happens every year. The whales appear in late July, with the first arrivals being sub-adults which haven’t yet reached sexual maturity. They’ll motor along at about eight knots up the Queensland coast – quite a clip. But some, in fact rather a lot, drop into the calm, shallow waters of Hervey Bay for a spot of R&R. They’ll stay for a day, or a week, depending, I suppose, on what their fancy takes them. They relax, slow down, play. Do a spot of people-watching. And we people are just as pleased that they drop in to meet us.

I took my first whale watch cruise for the 2015 season on the big yellow whale-watch boat, Spirit of Hervey Bay. (That’s a link to their Facebook page, where you can see lots of lovely photos.) Unlike our usual clear, calm winter days, the weather was a bit ordinary, with a turbulent sky and choppy seas. But there’s always a plus. It seems when the weather’s a little rough, the whales tend to put on a performance. And this day was no exception. Here’s a few shots for your edification. And put it on your bucket list. Sure, you can see whales in lots of places. But there aren’t too many where they’ll hang around and play.

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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.