Tag Archives: breaching

An unforgettable experience

Black backs and dorsal fins – a moving pod

It’s whale season in the Bay, that time of year when humpback whales make their annual migration up both sides of the Australian continent to give birth to their young in the warm waters of the tropics before heading back down south to Antarctica for the summer. Many whales on the East Coast run stop into Hervey Bay on the way south to take a break, maybe see if they can get a fin over (the boys) or fatten up their calves for the southern cold (the mums). The sub-adults come along for some fun and to learn the ropes and they’ll often interact with the people on the whale watching boats. Numbers are increasing every year and a few Minke whales and some southern right whales have been spotted, too.

I love whale watching. Armed with my camera, I go out at least once a year and sometimes twice. Some experiences are better than others, depending on the whales. It’s not a circus. They don’t perform to order. Sometimes they feel like interacting with the boats, other times they don’t. But when they do, it’s simply wonderful.

The very first time I went whale watching was 2007, the first year we lived here. We’d moved north from Victoria with a removal van full of stuff and two cars carrying the fragiles, clothes and so on. After wo weeks of unpacking boxes, moving furniture around, buying shelves and sideboards, and all those other jobs associated with moving house, we needed a break. Hervey Bay touted itself as the whale watching capital of the world so we bought a couple of tickets and off we went. On that occasion, Pete came, too. He doesn’t have my passion.

The trip from the harbour to Platypus Bay off Fraser Island, where the whales congregate, takes around forty-five minutes, travelling straight across the Great Sandy Strait to Fraser Island’s Moon Point, then up the channel that runs so close to the beach you can almost reach out and grab a handful of sand. From there, the boats fan out over the wide expanse of the bay and start looking for whales.

That year the whales were in spectacular form.

I parked myself on the boat’s top deck (it has three) while Pete stayed down on the lower deck, closest to the water. I used a Canon 20D. It was my earlier photography days and I had the camera set at sports mode, which is basically shutter priority with auto everything else. You never know when a whale is going to do something so I soon learned to keep the camera up to my eye with my finger hovering on the shutter.

On any whale watching trip you’ll see whales just cruising along like those in the top picture, often in casual groups of two or three that’s known as a ‘pod’. It’s not a family – humpbacks are normally solitary. A dorsal fin will slice through the water, a column of expelled air will spout from the blowhole, then they’ll dive to rise again somewhere else. People who have never been whale watching before will take lots of pictures of backs and fins. Yes, me too, in the early days. But now I want something more to photograph.

The whales have a number of “party tricks” which are really just their natural behaviour. They’ll display their tail fins, roll around in the water, slap their tails hard in an action known as a peduncle slap, wave their long pectoral fins in the air, and perform kind of horizontal rolls in the water. Groups of randy males will get together in ‘fighting pods’ where they’re trying to prove who’s bigger and tougher, and that’s something to see with lots of grunting and churning water.

But all the skippers agree there are two behaviours that are stand-outs: breaching, where the whale flings its whole body up and out of the water, to fall down with a monumental splash. And there’s the skyhop, where the curious whale approaches a boat and hangs vertically in the water with its snout above the surface. Breaches are fairly rare and you have to count yourself lucky. So are serious skyhops.

Friends, on that wonderful trip in 2007 we saw it all. Tail-waving, pectoral-waving, tail slaps – and breach after breach after breach and the most magical skyhop I have ever seen. So… come along and see the photos I took with my pretty amateur camera back in 2007. Excuse the quality – just enjoy the moment.

A tail wave. The underside of the tail is like a fingerprint – every whale’s is different

Waving a pectoral fin. The whale is on its side, relaxed and happy, and there’s another whale cruising along beside it.

A vigorous tail-slap

A (slightly fuzzy) breach. She’s on her way down.

He’s come right out of the water and now he’s heading down for the splash

A truly spectacular back flip

Sideways, horizontal to the surface

The splash down is incredible

Face to face with a humpback. They can see clearly through water and air. The eyes are just below the surface.

So close

Many of my other trips have been marvellous in their own special way. Approaches by a mother and calf, a very young calf frolicking in the water, a pod of six males fighting, and a forty-five minutes ‘mugging’ (where whales hang around the boat, meaning the skipper can’t move until they leave) by a curious teenager. But this first time was totally memorable. I hope you enjoyed the glimpse.

 

It’s whale time in Hervey Bay

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.

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.

This baby humpback holds itself above the surface to look at the boat

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.

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.