I love Winter in Hervey Bay. The nights are cool, the days are mild, the humidity’s down – and in late July the whales start to drop by on their annual migration. They swim up the east coast (and the west coast, but that’s another population) to find calm, warm water to birth their calves, mate, and socialise. By the end of July they’re heading back down to Antarctica looking for a Very Big dinner of krill. Baleen whales can’t eat anything larger than (say) a sardine. It was commonly believed the whales didn’t eat at all during their migration but as their numbers increase and we learn more about them we’ve discovered they’re opportunistic feeders. If they find a school of tiny fish in the right spot they’ll eat.
I go whale-watching at least once a year (except for last year when I had covid). I’ve had lots of wonderful experiences, some better than others. This year I picked a day with gentle winds but looking out my window right now, I wished I’d picked today. There’s no wind and the skies are blue. That wasn’t the case yesterday. It was dry and a few clouds drifted around when we set off but further to the north storm clouds hung on the horizon. Behind the boat a magnificent rainbow had formed to frame Hervey Bay. If nothing else the weather gave me some spectacular skies to photograph. We managed to avoid most of the rain and of course, the whales don’t care.
So early in the season we could expect to find young juveniles, not yet sexually mature and as curious about us as we were about them. We came across a pod early in the day. Three young whales which came to say hello and stayed for a while to look us over.
These three effectively mugged the boat. So close to whales skippers must stop the engine and they can’t leave until the whales go away. They swam laps around the boat, blasting us with bad breath and doing some spy-hopping to checks us out. They see as well above the water as below so when they hang vertically in the water they can see us capering about on the beck.
Further up the bay we came across a solo performing who carried on tail-slapping for a good ten minutes. There’s no sound because of the wind noise. Each of those slaps is like a gunshot on the water.
We came across one of only two boats that offer ‘swim with the whales’. Our pod of juveniles had gone over to visit with them and the swimmers had eventually gone into the water, all tethered together. I do have to wonder how safe it all is – not because the whales would knowingly hurt anyone, but visiblity isn’t that wonderful and an accidental brush by an enormous pectoral fin could do some damage. Our skipper told us the boat had been damaged in just such a way. I know it’s done hear Tahiti – but the water there is crystal clear. Draw your own conclusions.
All in all, it was a pretty good day out. No breaches, but they’re not all that common. Now I have to go and process my whale tale photo for Happy Whale. It’s an organisation that tracks whales on their migrations, using photos of the whale’s tale to identify individuals. The patterns on the flukes are as individual as fingerprints are to humans. I’ve had a few results where my photos have helped to show how often a whale has been on the great migration and how long ago. And a few of my photos were of whales that haven’t been recorded before.