Learn how to optimise your whale-watching voyage
Are you looking to go whale-watching? You’re not alone! Every year, more and more tourists flock to Australia’s east coast in search of majestic humpback whales.
But, before you make the trip down to your desired destination, it’s important to understand the migration system of these creatures first.
Knowing when they are most likely to be around will help ensure that your experience is memorable; after all, who wouldn’t want to witness something so awe-inspiring?
In this blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into humpback migrations – what they mean, where they go, and why choosing the right time is so important for getting the most out of your next whale-watching voyage.
Explore the world of humpbacks with Drs Wally & Trish Franklin
Humpback whales are fascinating creatures, and Dr Wally Franklin, renowned marine scientist and Oceania Project co-founder, can attest to that.
Dr Wally and his late wife, Dr Trish Franklin, dedicated over three decades to studying these majestic creatures. Dr Trish focused on understanding their behaviour, while Dr Wally delved into statistics and scientific data.
The principal behaviors of humpback whales were based on breeding and feeding, Dr Wally said.
The evolution of modern whales began about 50 million years ago, when a significant increase in global temperatures forced a particular land mammal back into the ocean to keep cool.
All modern whales evolved from that creature. Humpback whales, for instance, evolved to their present form between 12 and 23 million years ago. They belong to the Baleen species of whales and dolphins, one of two. The other is Toothed whales, which we’re not covering in this article.
Dr Wally said that unlike most animals, humpback whales, which can live up to 100 years, don’t usually feel the weight of their bodies. They have neutral buoyancy in the ocean, experiencing weight only when they breach out of the water and return with a splash.
When it comes to reproduction, female humpbacks give birth every two years and don’t experience menopause. Some females, like Nala, a beloved whale in Hervey Bay, have been producing calves for over 35 to 40 years. On average, humpbacks have a calf every other year.
Humpbacks breed in tropical waters within the Great Barrier Reef and then migrate south to their feeding areas along the coast of Antarctica where the warm waters bring nutrients to the surface, creating a feast for humpbacks in the form of phytoplankton and the small creature that feeds on those grasses–Antarctic Krill.
Humpbacks’ lives are governed by their annual migration between breeding and feeding grounds.
In particular, the humpback whales in Eastern Australia travel together throughout this migration. Normally, humpbacks travel in small groups or pods, with two whales or a single whale being the most common.
However, in Hervey Bay, larger groups tend to form because of the aggregation of whales in that area. These larger groups are largely focused on caring for and socialising the calves and young whales.
Understanding their migration patterns is key to understanding their behavior.
How does the humpback’s social organisation differ from ours?
There is a significant difference between the social organistion of humpback whales and humans, Dr Wally said.
Dr Trish completed a piece of work based on 361 whales, in which she documented sighting histories ranging from two to 25 years, that showed the migration was dominated by two groups of mature females.
First, there’s a group of mature females who lead the migration early. These females are either pregnant or taking a break from caring for their calves. They leave the breeding area first, usually in August and September, and they are accompanied by a young cohort of whales. These young whales are between one and six years old.
So, during the early part of the migration, these mature females travel and socialise with the immature whales. They all leave Hervey Bay by the end of August.
The next group to arrive in Hervey Bay was the mature females with new calves. They don’t start coming into the Bay until early September because it’s the peak breeding month up in the Barrier Reef and the mothers keep the calves up there until they are strong enough and developed enough to begin the migration south. By the time the females bring their calves into Hervey Bay, they are already a few months old. So, these mature females are at the back end of the migration.
There are also three groups of mature males mixed in with the females. There are mature males without lactating females, mature males with lactating females, and males of unknown maturity without lactating females.
The calves are sighted in Hervey Bay in September and October.
Dr Trish discovered these calves return as yearlings in August of the following year. As they grow older, they begin to join the migration later each year until they reach the age of six, when they become socially and sexually mature. By the age of seven, they start mirroring what the adult whales do.
Isn’t that incredible? Humpback whales have such an interesting social structure, and it’s so different from what we experience as humans.
Witness the matriarchal society of humpback whales
The social structure of humpback whales was like a single organism dominated by mature females, Dr Wally said.
In areas like Hervey Bay, there are actually three females for every male, making it a matriarchal society.
But here’s a really interesting part. Mature males and young males tend to stick together during the migration, both during the northern migration to the breeding area and during the southern migration back.
Dr Wally said this was discovered back in the 1960s by a scientist named Dr Bill Dawbin. It turns out the structure of the migration reported by Dr Trish, was a mirror image of what Dr Dawbin reported more than 60 years earlier. So over time, the social structure of humpback whales and migration has remained consistent.
Now, let’s talk about the mature females.
Unlike the males who stay in the central part of the migration, the females actually change their position depending on their reproductive status. The first group of mature females to leave are either pregnant or resting. They head from the breeding area in the Great Barrier Reef down to Antarctica, where they stay for a long six months. They are the last to return to the reef to give birth. Once they have their calves, they’re the last to leave.
When they embark on their journey with their little ones, they are the first to turn around upon reaching Antarctica. So, these mature females with calves only spend three months in Antarctica, while those preparing their bodies for new calves spend a full six months.
It’s interesting how their migration depends on their maturation status.
Female humpbacks usually remain unmarked: learn why!
Another discovery made by Dr Trish is the behavior of humpback whales in groups.
There is a particular group known as the competitive group, believed to be a group of males vying for a single female. Dr Trish noticed something fascinating: the males in these groups exhibited strong agonistic behavior towards each other, which resulted in horizontal and lateral marks on the males’ bodies, but the female participating in the group remained unmarked.
This led Trish to identify non-agonistic social groups consisting mostly of young whales. These groups interacted with each other as they developed socially and also interacted with mature females. In Hervey Bay, these non-agonistic groups are present before the arrival of mature females with calves, who primarily interact with mature males who are seeking mating opportunities.
Dr Wally said the social organisation of humpback whales was comparable to nomadic indigenous groups in Australia. It lacks the traditional family structure found in our modern societies.
In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that humpback whales form family groupings, as do dolphins, orca whales, and humans. However, the bond between mother and calf humpbacks is well-documented.
Calves stay with their mothers for a full year, learning important skills such as how to feed on the Krill in Antarctica, and bringing them back to the point of origin so they complete a cycle of migration in their early life.
By the time the mothers get back with the calves towards Hervey Bay again, the calves are separated from their mothers and join the young cohort. Then it appears all the females are involved in looking after the whole of that young cohort.
It’s truly remarkable how humpback whales navigate their annual migration cycle, ensuring their calves thrive in their early life.
Have an unforgettable encounter with humpback whales
Whale-watching is an incredible experience that allows you to become enveloped in the fascinating world of these majestic creatures.
Specific steps can be taken to make your voyage even more memorable, from picking the perfect tour and time of day, to properly preparing yourself beforehand so that you can make the most out of your experience.
Through strategic planning and some luck, you will be rewarded with a thrilling and unique encounter with humpback whales. Who knows? Maybe you’ll have one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments when a whale swims by only a few metres away from you.
Now if that doesn’t sound like an unforgettable experience worth having, we just don’t know what does.
Be sure to check out The Oceania Project website at https://www.oceania.org.au/ for more fascinating information on humpback whales before embarking on your journey.
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Photos by Jocelyn Watts, Hervey Bay, 2014.
Q & A
Q: Where’s the best spot for whale watching in Queensland?
A: Hervey Bay is the ultimate place to witness whales in Queensland. It’s even considered the world’s first official Whale Heritage site, setting the standard for whale watching everywhere. However, humpback whales can be seen right along the Australian east coast from Antarctica to the Great Barrier Reef.
Q: When is the perfect time for whale watching?
A: Humpback whales migrate to Queensland between June and November. In the early part of the season, they travel north to the shallow waters of the Great Barrier Reef to give birth to their calves. Towards the end of the season, they bring their calves back to Antarctica. So, their return journey is when you’re most likely to see the calves.
Q: Do whales breach in the shallow waters of Hervey Bay?
A: Absolutely! Mothers use the shallow waters of Hervey Bay to teach their calves essential skills they’ll need in the deep and cold waters of Antarctica, so, in the latter part of the season, you’re likely to see mothers teaching their calves to breach.
Q: When is the best time of day to see humpback whales?
A: Humpback whales are most active in the morning and late afternoon, so those are the ideal times to catch them in action.
Q: What can I expect to see on a whale watch tour?
A: Whether from the coast or a whale-watching boat, you’ll be amazed by their impressive displays, like blowing, breaching, and tail-slapping. Sometimes, the whales may even come close to the boats and swim around them. While the boats maintain a safe distance, the whales might just come by to say hello!
Hear whale tales at Creating Waves
To hear Dr Wally Franklin talk about how citizen scientists have contributed to the Happy Whale recognition system and what you can do to help, register to attend the Creating Waves event at UniSC Fraser Coast Campus, Main Lecture Hall (Building B), Thursday, August 3, 6pm to 8pm. For more details, follow this link to the Hervey Bay Whale Festival post.
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