Alien visitors

posted in: Life and things | 1

It’s unseasonably cold, wet, and miserable here in Hervey Bay.  Yes, it’s winter, but our normal winter is dry and pleasant, with day temperatures in the low twenties and nights in the low teens. And that, friends, is why I haven’t been out whale watching yet. There’s plenty of time. The season peters out around mid-October and the weather will improve.

Covid hasn’t affected the whales at all, but it sure has affected the people. It’s sad for the whale boat operators that they won’t be getting the usual stream of visitors from overseas, Sydney, and Victoria, but that gives even more reasons for we locals to get out there and support local businesses. Hervey Bay is a tourist town, relying heavily on visitors to Fraser Island all year, and the people coming to see our wonderful whales during the migration (roughly July through October). All our local businesses are having a hard year, what with several months of lock down when they couldn’t take their boats out at all, followed by the lockout of tourists. It’s good to see that the Queensland Government has seen fit to waive this year’s $6,000 parks fee for the whale boat operators. Even so, I can’t see any of them making much of a profit this year.

Whale watching in Hervey Bay IS exciting. This is a humpback, one of the flourishing community on the East coast of Australia, well and truly back from the brink of extinction.

The whale migration occurs every year, all over the world as the whales swim from their feeding grounds in the Arctic and the Antarctic up to the tropics to have their calves in warm water. Humpbacks swim up both the west and east coasts of Australia. Pregnant females have places to go, things to do but everybody else is in holiday mode.

Last year’s juveniles, not yet sexually mature, are the first arrivals in the Bay. Humpbacks (baleen whales in general) are normally solitary animals but the migration gives them a chance to meet friends and play. Often, they’ll stop for a few hours, or several days in the wide bay between the Australian mainland and Fraser Island. They’re intelligent, playful, and curious. It’s a great time to see them because they’ll approach the boats to look at the tiny creatures waving at them. Sometimes, they’ll hang around, swimming around the boat, rolling over, spy-hopping (when they poke their heads above the water to see the people better), breaching, tail-slapping and generally putting on a show. It’s all simply natural behaviour and the whales do what they feel like doing. One time I was on a boat when every whale in the bay seemed to want to breach. Other times, all you’ll see are dark grey backs that might as well have carried ‘leave me alone’ signs.

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

Towards the middle of the season, mother whales bring their calves into the bay. In fact, there have been a number of births here, although it’s believed most mums go up a little further north into the Whitsundays. Mothers bring their calves into the bay to fatten them up. It’s cold down in Antarctica and the babies need to put on weight fast to build a protective layer of blubber. This means the mothers spend a lot of time on the bottom feeding junior. Baby whales don’t suckle. Their milk is extremely high in fat (figures vary so much – somewhere between 30% to 50% seems safe.) The mother expresses milk the consistency of Greek yoghurt into the water and junior scoops it up. But in between feedings, mum teaches her baby whaley things like breaching, so visitors will often see exuberant calves throwing themselves into the air time and time again with varying degrees of success. Some mothers will actually bring their calves up to the boats to meet the visitors, a level of trust that’s quite remarkable.

A mother humpback whale and her calf approach the boat in Platypus Bay

It’s fairly obvious that following the females are the sexually mature males, all anxious to get a fin over (so to speak). Males will mate with any female they can. They’ll shove calves out of the way if they can, too, but the females are bigger than the males and will protect their calves, placing their bodies between the potential suitor and their baby. There’s no happy families in the humpback world. Once he’s had his way, the male is off to find another partner – or warn off other males. At this time of year visitors might encounter pods of up to six or seven males pushing and shoving and puffing out air in a nautical equivalent of deer in rut.

Whichever part of the season I go out on the boats, it’s always special. I’ll share this year’s collection after I’ve been. I can hardly wait.

Meanwhile, there’s been some action in the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere where people interested in that sort of thing can see Comet Neowise. Comets are basically dirty snowballs, formed in the Oort cloud in the distant outskirts of the solar system. Something, probably gravitational forces created by the many bits and pieces also in the Oort cloud, triggers them into a closer approach to the Sun, which captures them in an elliptical orbit. As a comet approaches the Sun, the solar wind blasts off fragments of its substance, creating the distinctive tail. It’s only a tail as it approaches the Sun. When the comet swings around and heads out back to where it came from, the ‘tail’ precedes it, a bit like a bridal party preceding the bride.

Comet NEOWISE captured on 6 July 2020, just before sunrise in Tucson | Credits: Vishnu Reddy | NASA

Many comets grace the night sky once and are never seen again. Some plunge into the sun, others graze past the sun and hurtle off into deep space, others disintegrate. Neowise is one comet that will actually return. Mind you, I don’t think I’ll be around to see it. Its orbit is 6,766 years.

Comet Neowise is not visible to those of us who live in the Southern Hemisphere. Still, I’ve seen a few comets in my time. The best was Comet McNaught in 2007. It was what’s known as a Great Comet – that is, a really bright, spectacular comet visible to the naked eye. We were living in the country then, well away from the bright lights of Melbourne but even so, the comet was low in the night sky, so we drove to a dark place with a distant view towards the sea and saw the comet. I took a photo with a Canon 20D using a 500mm lens and here it is.

The pros can do a better job, though. This photo is also of Comet McNaught, also taken with a 20D.

Here’s a page full of amazing photos of McNaught. My favourite is number two, taken on Australia Day 26th January, 2007. There’s a crowd on Cottesloe Beach watching the fireworks on the left, while a storm chucks down bolts of lightning on the right. Comet McNaught still shows up between them, the tail clearly visible.

I’ve also seen the most famous comet in history – Halley’s comet. The great astronomer, Edmund Halley, worked out that the comet seen in 1531, 1607 and 1682 was actually the same body, reappearing in the sky at an interval of about 75 years. The comet even appears on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Bayeux tapestry- Scene 32

However, it has done its orbit many, many times. The Chinese observed it in 239BC and it’s thought the Greeks would have watched it in 466BC. (This article will give you all the details about Comet Halley). Its most recent return to our skies was in 1986. Halley was visible to the naked eye but only just. Let’s face, it’s done the circuit many, many times and each time, a little more of its substance is vaporized. I can’t imagine what it would have looked like in 466BC, before the days of light pollution.

I was living in Perth, Western Australia, back when it last graced our skies. I drove up into the hills that border the city to the east to find an elevated location with good, dark skies away from the bright lights on the plain. I took my 73-year-old mother with me, figuring it would be the only chance either of us would have to see this celestial visitor in our lifetime. I took a pair of powerful binoculars with me. As I’ve intimated, Halley was fairly hard to spot, even if you knew where to navigate. I gave my mum the binos and pointed.

“See that bright star there? And that one? Look between them.”

Mum dutifully peered. “Oh, yes. Very nice.”

I rolled my eyes. “Try again. A bit higher.”

We messed around a few times, each time eliciting a ‘meh’ response. I knew she’d seen it when she simply said, “Ooooooh.”

Yes, I know you can see the comet on the TV. But there’s nothing quite like seeing one for yourself. There’s something truly awe-inspiring to look at something that has travelled billions of kilometres from the unknown depths of space. Small wonder that the Ancients thought they were portents of disaster or change.

  1. Linda

    Didn’t manage to see the comet, but have spent some interesting nights watching the space station whizz across the sky. Usually visible twice in one night with less than two hours between each pass. Amazing to think it’s been right round the world in that time!

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