When the going gets rough the whales get going

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Bright, sparkly,and lumpy. But the whales don’t care

It’s that time of year again when the annual whale migration occurs. By now, most of the whales have been as far north as they felt like going and are on their way home to Antarctica. On the way, quite a few will divert into Hervey Bay for a frolic and a play, or to feed up their new-born calves and teach them the Way of the Whale – breaching, tail-slapping and such.

As the numbers grow, we learn more and more about these wonderful creatures. For instance, on my first few trips out to Platypus Bay to see the whales, we were told they didn’t eat at all on the migration. That has proved to be false. Their favourite food, krill, teems down in the cold waters around the pole. Krill are tiny which is perfect for baleen whales. Their actual throats are about the diameter of a pineapple, so large prey is off the menu. But if a cruising humpback comes across a school of tiny fish it will certainly feed. And while the conventional wisdom was that whales gave birth around the Whitsundays or further north, some babies have been born in our bay.

I took my annual whale watching trip on Thursday, having consulted the weather gods and cast a spell designed for calm seas. Word was there were heaps of whales out there, this being near the peak of the season. I went out on Whalesong, a boat which pre-covid would have carried as many as 60 passengers per trip. Covid meant its capacity was reduced for social distancing, but the boat had just 22 guests because of the lockdowns in Brisbane and Sydney. I doubt they made a lot of profit, just another blow after last year’s disrupted season.

It was an 8am start on a cold, clear morning. We were warned the bay would be a bit choppy, with a stiffish breeze and a reasonable swell – not what I’d expected. I’ll have to have serious words with the weather gods. The run up to Platypus Bay wasn’t too bad, travelling at speed, and it took us quite a while to find some whales who were frolicking on the surface. The regulations stipulate boats may not chase whales and they must not come closer than 100 metres. If the whale wants to visit, that’s its choice. And if it does, the boat must be in neutral. Which means the vessel is at the mercy of the waves. If the boat is broadside to the waves, that means a lot of rockin’ and rollin’. Four of our 22 passengers were seasick. The rest of us did a lot of sitting down and holding on. It was quite the workout, with my arms wound around the rails, clutching my camera. I still feel stiff and sore.

However, there is a plus side. I’ve been whale watching for fourteen years and the skippers always say if it’s a bit rough, there’s a bit more action. You know the song – when the going gets rough, the tough get going. Whales are tough. We saw many, many breaches from our pod of two or three.

I had quite a few pictures like this one, what with the boat lurching around. Note the white tummy.
But I got a few goodish photos. This is a nice one with Fraser Island (K’Gari) behind.

Two points about the above pic The Butchulla people call Fraser Island K’Gari in their language. It means ‘paradise’ – and the island is, indeed, a very special place. The second is that this little whale has a LOT of black on its tummy. Most northern humpbacks are mainly black, while most southern humpbacks have mainly white tummies. It seems there are increasing numbers in the bay with more black on their tummies. Maybe there’s been some mingling between the northern and southern humpbacks, although that would have to happen around the equator. More stuff we don’t know.

Our whales put on quite the performance, and they also came over to take a look at us. This pic gives you an idea of how close – but they came much closer than that, swimming the length of the boat on both sides, and underneath. I’ve got some great photos of huge splashes right beside the hull and this one, looking straight down at the whale.

So close you could jump on its back

Here is a picture of the two of them showing off their tails.

Splashing around.
This whale is heading away from us.

At one point the whales were joined by a pod of our local dolphins, their little distant cousins. Apparently they like to play together. I did my best to get some pictures but in most of them the dolphins are grey blurs underwater. They were surfing the waves but this was the best I could do.

One of the dolphins

This whale is showing off its tail, which is a bit like its fingerprint. Every whale tail is different. I have submitted this picture and another of the same whale’s tail to HappyWhale, a whale research organisation. They can actually track whales by finding out where their tales turn up, using pictures like mine.

To my surprise I learned a few new things on this trip. The Butchulla name for the whales is Kondari, which means rainbow spirit (as opposed to rainbow serpent). Our skipper told us the name derives from the rainbow sometimes seen in their blows – like this one I prepared on a previous trip.

I can snort a rainbow

He also explained that the scientific name for our humpbacks is Megaptera novaeangliae from the Greek words megas meaning great and pteron meaning a wing, which describes the whale’s very long pectoral fins, which are unique to the species. Novae angliae refers to New England in the USA, where they were first classified. I think ‘kondari’ has been around a while longer, though.

Here’s another breach
And another one

All in all, it wasn’t a bad morning 🙂 But I suspect I’ll be wanting to go out again on a nicer day. (Shhh – don’t tell Pete)

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