Tag Archives: whales

Whales and dolphins, oh my

The annual whale migration from the Antarctic up both coasts of Australia is underway. Numbers are growing and though it’s early days before the main influx, there are quite a few whales in the Bay. I decided to take advantage of some wonderful cool, calm, Winter weather and go off on a whale watch to see what we could see. I went with minimal expectations – Hervey Bay holds a *lot* of water and though whales are big, they’re scattered and they spend a lot of time beneath the surface, so they can be hard to find. But I was pretty sure we wouldn’t go back to port without having seen a whale up close and personal.

I was right, of course.

Freedom III is one of Hervey Bay’s small fleet of about seven whale watch boats. I’ve been on all of them and they all offer great value for money. But each has its own niche, if you like. Some feed you, one’s a yacht, one’s large with heaps of deck space, some go out for short trips, others spend most of the day. Since I live here, I’m happy to dedicate the whole day to whale watching. It’s about a 45 minute trip from the harbour into Platypus Bay off Fraser Island where the whales are mainly seen, which means if you’re on a four-hour tour, that’s actually two and a half hours up where the whales are. That’s just fine in peak season (August-September-October) when it’s kinda sorta wall to wall whales, but not so early in the season. Freedom leaves at 9:30 and gets back at 4pm, which gives us five hours to find pods. (A ‘pod’ is a group of two or more whales. They don’t stay together for long, it’s more like meeting a buddy and saying ‘hi’, then going off on your own.) While you’re out on the boat, you get morning tea (profiteroles and warm scones with jam and cream), lunch (chicken, roast beef, potato salad, mixed salad with fetta, warm dinner rolls), and afternoon tea (cheese, biscuits, and fresh fruit). You can buy alcohol and/or fizzy drinks, and water, coffee, and tea are on the house.

Context; boat, two whales, and Fraser Island

The weather was superb – few clouds, not much wind, flat sea. Freedom carries 45 passengers, but there were certainly less than thirty, so we had plenty of room.  The vessel headed on up past Moon Point into Platypus Bay and we soon encountered a young humpback who hung about at a distance before he disappeared. Oh well. I suppose some whales are shy. Moving right along.

Curious youngsters checking us out

A couple of youngsters came over to say hello. They’re smart and they’re curious. They can see and hear underwater much better than we can, so even if their eyes are below the water, they can still see the humans waving at them. We caught a few spyhops (that’s when they put their snouts above the water).

Whales are unpredictable critters. One pod we visited splashed around and checked us out, but then the whales went quiet, so we went off to find some others. That’s when we saw our first breach – behind the boat. The two we’d been with decided to perform. Bugger. But that’s how it is with wild creatures. We were in their country and they were just doing what whales do.

I did manage to get a series of shots of another breach. It’s always amazing to see a huge creature fling itself out of the water with a couple of flips of its tail. These are not very big whales. At this time of year most of the whales are juveniles, not sexually mature. You could say they’re whale teenagers. But even so, they’re big. A whale calf is born at about four and a half metres, and they grow fast.Further out in the Bay we were treated to a supporting act from a few of the local bottle nosed dolphins, who surfed the bow. Freedom, like all the whale boats, is a catamaran. Each hull played host to a dolphin. In fact, they were VERY disappointed when we slowed down for a whale encounter. The dolphins went over to the whales to have some sort of fishy conversation. We were told the dolphins surf the whales, too. Whales can travel very fast when they want to, creating a bow wave under their bodies. The dolphins surf on that, the same way they surf the boat.

One dolphin in particular hung around, aware, I’m sure, that we would have to leave and that then we’d pick up speed. Every time the skipper moved the boat he’d be back, waiting for some action. He had a short last run before we moved out of his territory.

All in all, it was a great day, exceeding expectations.

 

 

Not every whale story is happy

The Great Sandy Strait

I’m busy editing my latest book, ‘For the Greater Good’. For anyone interested in that aspect of me, take yourself over to my spot at Spacefreighters Lounge for all the news.

The event that caught my interest this week was the ‘beaching’ of two juvenile whales in the Great Sandy Strait, which separates Fraser Island from the mainland. The strait is treacherous, with shifting sandbars and narrow channels, all exacerbated by the tides. These two young whales must have taken a left at Inskip Point, and simply run out of water in that area between the two occurrences of the words ‘Great Sandy Strait’ on the map, among those islands. A few years ago, a pod of orcas made the same mistake. Most of them made it out to the Bay, with help from the whaling community up here, although two died. Reports are starting to come out that Parks and Wildlife did not want help from the whaling people here in trying to rescue this pair. If that’s true, I’m horrified. Humpbacks have recovered well after having been at the brink of extinction and as their numbers grow, incidents are bound to happen. Some calves won’t make it, some whales will become sick, and some will get stuck in shark nets along their migration route. (I abhor those things – the reasoning is the nets are there to protect swimmers, but they catch anything that hits them – sharks, dolphins, turtles, fish, whales) Surely we must offer them help when they need it, especially if they’re caught up in situations where they cannot help themselves.

And in this context I’ll mention another recent incident captured on video – a humpback encumbered with bundles of heavy rope that had cut into its dorsal fin. Here’s the story told by a young man brave enough to go into the water to help the creature. Mind you, I know I would have, too. Anyway, the story is that the experienced people at Parks and Wildlife were not around to help with that whale because they were down south attending a training session. Which leaves me speechless. Whale season is from July to November, every year, without fail. The first arrivals are always the inexperienced youngsters, the teenagers if you like, and just like human teenagers, bullet proof and willing to take risks – or make mistakes. THAT’s when the experienced rangers should be on duty, to help prevent these mistakes becoming tragedy – especially when it’s about getting entangled in human ropes.

I’ll be going whale watching as part of a mentored photography group later in the month. I’m hoping there will be some happy photos. Meanwhile, here’s some photos from seasons past.

And here’s some of my previous whale watching posts.

It’s that time of year again 2016

The whales are back 2015

It’s whale time in Hervey Bay 2013

 

A whale leaves a footprint made by the huge tail

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

This is a fairly lazy breach. Just enough energy to give the whale a good look around

Check out the size of the whales against this runabout – and they’re not even bog ones

It’s that time of the year again

Raser Island gets rain something like 300 days a year - this is one of those days. We're in Platypus Bay

Fraser Island gets rain something like 300 days a year – this is one of those days. We’re in Platypus Bay

It’s that time of the year again. The whales are back! Humpbacks are on their annual migration from Antarctica to the Whitsundays to have their babies. They stop off in the shallow, calm waters of Platypus Bay off Fraser Island to fatten their calves, mate, and generally mooch around before heading back down to the rich feeding grounds around the South Pole. This break in the journey gives us humans a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with these enormous, curious, gentle giants.

I go whale watching at least once a year, every year. Each trip is different, no trip has been disappointing. Sometimes you see the spectacular breach, sometimes you’ll see mums and bubs, sometimes pods of four or five males doing that macho thing, sometimes a curious juvenile will pause and stick its head above the water to check out the little critters on the boats.

This year a couple of friends and I went out to see what was around. The weather had been poor, with wind and rain, but the bay settled down for us, with a breeze from the south – which meant Platypus Bay was protected by Fraser Island. We encountered a number of pods, most of which were pretty quiet (as in no breaching etc) but the boat was ‘mugged’ by a group of five juveniles which hung around VERY close to the boat and swum under the hull. We saw some tail stands, a bit of tail slapping, and one whale breached on the other side of the boat from where I stood with my camera.

Yes, I took photos. But (clears throat) I pretty much deleted all of them. Operator error I’m afraid. The shutter speed wasn’t high enough to stop the action – which is good sometimes – but not always. However, all is not lost. I have lots of whale pictures. So here’s this week’s photo gallery. I have whale photos on all the sites where I sell pictures. Take a look at Red Bubble or at Dreamstime or at My Profile on Can Stock Photo

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

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

Check out the size of the whales against this runabout - and they're not even bog ones

Check out the size of the whales against this runabout – and they’re not even big ones

A whale leaves a footprint made by the huge tail

A whale leaves a footprint made by the huge tail

Rainbow in the spray. It has just exhaled

Rainbow in the spray. It has just exhaled

This was so close I couldn't catch all the action

This was so close I couldn’t catch all the action

But I did with this one.

But I did with this one.

The whales are back

Whale season is a great time here at Hervey Bay. The whale migration, when the whales swim north from Antarctica up to the warm waters of the Whitsundays and beyond, then back down to the feeding grounds in the icy south, happens every year. The whales appear in late July, with the first arrivals being sub-adults which haven’t yet reached sexual maturity. They’ll motor along at about eight knots up the Queensland coast – quite a clip. But some, in fact rather a lot, drop into the calm, shallow waters of Hervey Bay for a spot of R&R. They’ll stay for a day, or a week, depending, I suppose, on what their fancy takes them. They relax, slow down, play. Do a spot of people-watching. And we people are just as pleased that they drop in to meet us.

I took my first whale watch cruise for the 2015 season on the big yellow whale-watch boat, Spirit of Hervey Bay. (That’s a link to their Facebook page, where you can see lots of lovely photos.) Unlike our usual clear, calm winter days, the weather was a bit ordinary, with a turbulent sky and choppy seas. But there’s always a plus. It seems when the weather’s a little rough, the whales tend to put on a performance. And this day was no exception. Here’s a few shots for your edification. And put it on your bucket list. Sure, you can see whales in lots of places. But there aren’t too many where they’ll hang around and play.

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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.