Tag Archives: whale

Hervey Bay is the world’s first whale heritage area

WHOOPEE!!!

Every year I write about the whale migration up (and down) Australia’s east coast, and visit the whales when they stop for a bit of R&R in the calm waters of Platypus Bay between Fraser Island and the mainland. Every year more and more whales participate in the long swim from Antarctica to the tropical waters around the Whitsundays where the females give birth to their calves. They drop in on the way back down, pausing in Hervey Bay to fatten up their calves for the polar cold. The pre-adult youngsters do a bit of socialising with each other and with the funny little air-breathers on the boats. The adult males are more interested in fighting and sex. (That seems to be fairly common in males of many species.) The adult females look after their calves, which a male will brush aside in his hurry to get to a female, even if she’s not necessarily interested in his advances. (Understandable. She’s just squeezed out a six-metre baby that’s been in her womb for a year and she’s feeding her bub fifty litres of milk a day. She’s probably not feeling very sexy.)

A mother humpback whale and her calf approach the boat in Platypus Bay. They’re so comfortble with the boats they bring their calves up to say hi.

This very young baby whale rolled around on the surface while her mum had a nap under the water. Mum eventually took baby back down to the bottom for more feeding.

The point is the whales hang around for as much as a week or more before they continue on back to the feeding grounds in Antarctica. About anywhere else on the coast they’re moving. They might put on a short performance but in Hervey Bay you’re sure to see a show.

The whale has lifed its snout above the surface to get a better look at the visitors. Its eyes are underwater but it can see just as well through water as air.

She’s looking at the people as she cruises around the boat. She hung around for nearly an hour so the boat couldn’t move.

A closer shot. Her eye is just near that white splotch

In short, our bay is a wonderful place to meet the big cetaceans. The days when whales were hunted are fading but it’s as well to remember that as recently as the nineteen seventies the whales were at the brink of extinction, with only a few hundred remaining. These days somewhere around ten thousand whales make the big swim from the South – and that’s just on the East coast. Others swim up the west coast, and up the coasts of Africa.  Most of our visitors are humpbacks but as the years go by, we’re seeing the occasional Minke and Southern right whales.

She’s deliberately spraying water everywhere and some of us got wet.

Blowing rainbows

Hervey Bay takes the whales very seriously. For the months from late July to late October the whale- watching boats are busy taking visitors out to see the whales. We have a week-long whale festival in late July to welcome the whales back to our bay. You’ll see statues of whales in three different places in what’s a fairly small town. There’s one at the cultural centre, named after Nala, a female who comes into the Bay every year. There’s one at the water park, and there’s a fairly simple one at the harbour, greeting visitors as they step off buses to get to the boats.

And now the Bay’s claim to be one of THE great spots to meet the ocean’s giants has been officially recognised. Hervey Bay is the world’s FIRST whale heritage area.

May there be many more.

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 🙂

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