Watch Out, Whales About!

It’s that time of year again

In honour of IFAW’s National Whale Day today, I decided to celebrate the fact that the annual Humpback Whale migration has returned to Australia.  They’ve been spotted from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast in the East, and Augusta on the West Coast.  And the season is just beginning.

Humpback whales migrate annually from their winter feeding grounds in the krill-rich Antarctic to warmer waters where they breed and give birth.  In Australia we are fortunate that the whale migration comes closer to shore than most places in the Southern Hemisphere.  The best place to see the migration on the East Coast is either on a dedicated whale-watching tour or (from personal experience) North Stradbroke Island in Queensland, where the whales are forced closer to land by the current they follow North.  I haven’t been out Humpback whale watching on the West Coast yet, but I’ve spent some time studying Humpback whales as a volunteer for the University of Queensland, and I can tell you firsthand that it is truly amazing to see these animals in the wild.  Around 13-17,000 whales are expected to make the trip along the East Coast this year, so there are plenty to go around!  Most will return the same way from September onwards, mums playing with their new calves and males still trying to impress the females with their songs.  In fact, I personally think it’s better to see them on their southward migrations, since the whales aren’t quite so intent on reaching colder waters as the warmer ones earlier in the year!

But please keep your distance

The theme of this year’s National Whale Day is awareness.  According to IFAW there has been a rise in incidents involving deliberate or accidental harassment of whales and dolphins in our waters, and injuries from vessel strikes.  Come on guys, pay attention.  During migration the whales will encounter many dangers, mostly man-made.  These include fish traps, shark nets, strikes from pleasure vessels and increased shipping traffic hazards. As well as killer whale attacks and other nasty things.  That’s why it’s important to respect distancing regulations, keep your speed and your noise down, and watch out for whales when you’re out on the water.

Whales are big.  They are heavy (did you see what happened when one breached on a yacht not so long ago?).  Whales can also be unpredictable, so anyone who gets too close is putting themselves and the whale at risk.  Boats are required to keep at least 100 metres away from any whales; jet skis and other personal watercraft must stay up to 300 metres away.   In the whale protection zone of the Whitsunday, Lindeman and Gloucester Islands groups (where many whales deliver their calves), no boat can go closer than 300 metres.  The maximum penalty for intentionally moving closer to a whale than permitted under the conservation plan is $12,000, and on-the-spot fines ranging from $300-$500 may also apply for various contraventions.  The rules for ‘special interest’ whales like Migaloo or the white whale calf seen last year, are even stricter: no-one can bring a boat or jet ski closer than 500m or fly an aircraft closer than 2,000ft to these whales without written permission.  The maximum penalty for getting too close to a white whale is $16,500.

I don’t have that sort of cash lying around, do you?

There’s nothing quite like seeing wild animals in the wild, especially some as magnificent as the Humpback whales.  After all, they’re the iconic species that helped start the global movement against whaling and towards protection of our natural environment.  So love them, get out there and watch them, but please give them the space they need.

Humpback whale fluke up dive.  Image from University of Queensland

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One thought on “Watch Out, Whales About!

  1. Reblogged this on oceanicexplorer and commented:
    I’m excited for whale watching season: this doesn’t mention that they’ve also been spotted at Port Fairy on Victoria’s southwest coast and we’re hoping for lots more sightings in the next few months!

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