The greatest wildlife-watching show
There are 80 species of whale worldwide, of which 40 can be found in Australian waters. Whales are a marine, air-breathing mammal. Their general movement and migratory patterns may follow seasonal weather, water conditions and the movement of their main food, krill, which live in the cooler waters off Antarctica.
According to some estimates there are 10 to 20 million people who will engage with whale watching each year. The revenue generated by this industry is thought to be nearly $1 billion. As a tourist attraction, the industry is expanding across the globe in places like the United States, Dominican Republic, Canada, South America, South Africa, South Pacific islands, Panama, Mexico and, of course, Australia.
The Humpback Whale is clearly the most well known of all the whales. It is an iconic whale-watching species. This whale grows up to 16 m long and migrates from its Antarctic feeding grounds between June and August, returning from August through till September. In some cases the Humpback may migrate up to 5000 kms, mating and calving along the eastern coastline as well as from Shark Bay to the Kimberley in the west. These whales are generally highly mobile with their iconic breaching and tail flapping, and a popular nursery site for them is Hervey Bay in Queensland, making this a fantastic location to whale watch.
The Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) is one of three species classified as right whales. It grows up to 15 m and can weigh 45 tons or more. They migrate from the krill-rich Antarctic waters to breed and calve. The Head of Bight in South Australia continues to be a significant region for these whales during calving, and some 92 per cent of the females return here every 2 to 3 years to give birth. They are also a popular sight at Logan’s Beach in Victoria.
It is thought that Southern Right whales prefer areas where there are shallow warmer waters with large cliff or headlands because their main predator, the Killer Whale (Orcinus orca), finds that the cliff background makes it difficult to use echolocation to locate calf. Southern Right whales tend to stay in coves and bays for days at a time, so are highly visible from shore. They can be seen coming in very close to shore to give birth.
Where to see whales
In recognition of their popularity, those who want to go whale watching can now make full use of apps and websites that send out sighting alerts and other news. You need to be out during key whale migratory times and you can either be land based or out on a boat.
On land, you need to set yourself up with binoculars on high points, such as headlands. Lighthouses offer elevated positions and are usually surrounded by parkland open to the public. Some lighthouses have restrictions, so make sure you find out beforehand.
Offshore humpbacks whales usually come in as close as 1 to 3 km. Typically, you can see them on the northward journeys if you are land based. Southern Right whales will often come in as close as 100 to 400 m along the large headlands or cliff coasts – Bunda cliffs in South Australia is a good spot to see them. They also will often remain near shore over longer periods and are pretty reliable.
Good places to see whales from the land are:
- Point lookout on Stradbroke Island in Queensland (from June – November)
- Booderee National Park and Cape St George Lighthouse at the end of Stoney Creek Road in New South Wales
- Logan’s Beach in Warnambool and Cape Nelson in Portland in Victoria
- Storm Bay in Tasmania
- Encounter Coast and Victor Harbour in South Australia
- cliffs along Great Australian Bight Marine Park (Bunda Cliffs, Twin Rocks)
- Natural Bridge, Eagle Gorge and Red Bluff in Kalbarri in Western Australia (from June to December).
Numerous larger-scale operators offer boating opportunities, as do some well-educated professionals trained as whale researchers and scientists . Being out at sea allows more frequent sightings and good-to-excellent photo opportunities. It is also an amazing experience. Some boats are equipped with a hydrophone to listen in on whales vocalising. There also air operators that do flights around the migration periods. This is more important for aerial surveys and allows sightings of Sperm (Physeter macrocephalus) and Blue whales, which are further offshore. Good places to board a boat for a whale-watching experience are:
- Port Douglas
- Cairns and Ribbon Reef, especially for Dwarf Minke whales from May to August
- Hervey Bay, often referred to as the capital of whale watching
- Moreton Bay
- Gold Coast
New South Wales
- Tweed Heads
- Cape Byron
- Port Macquarie
- Port Stephens
- Twofold Bay
- Port Fairy
- Bonney Upwelling, in Portland, an abundant feeding ground for Blue whales
- Great Oyster Bay
- Mercury Passage
- Frederick Henry Bay
- Adventure Bay, Bruny Island
- King George Sound, Albany
- Augusta, on the shores of secluded Flinders Bay
- Cape Naturaliste, Dunsborough
- Geographe Bay area
- Perth Canyon, off Rottnest Island
- Shark Bay
- Pender Bay, Kimberley
Key whale-behaviour terms
Breaching: This is when whales, especially the Humpback, project out of the water, sometimes rolling.
Slapping: When whales slap their pectoral fins.
Spyhopping: When whales just stick their head out of the water.
Lobtailing: An activity of tail flapping, often with tail swinging.
Spouting/blow: Whales breathe through a blowhole – the initial blow may reach 4 m in the air, and they do this between1 to 2, and up to 4, times a minute after a deep dive.
Mugging: This is when whales approach boats to inspect them.
Calf feeding: Often seen with Southern right Whales inshore and Humpback Whales offshore.
<<box heading>>Tips for photographing whales
You need bright sunlight for image quality and depth. Keep the sun behind you for maximum image potential. Set your aperture for depth of field from F10 to F13. Some photographers prefer an ISO setting of 400 to 800. Often speeds of 1000/2000 are needed for those breaching shots, so manually set your camera or place on sports mode. The fast speed will capture the moment.
Be whale aware
If you are out on a boat watching whales, you want to have a good time and see them clearly. But getting too close can cause distress and harm to these wonderful animals. Please heed the warning set out in the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching to make sure it’s a great day for you and them.
- Be alert and watch for whales and dolphins at all times.
- When in a vessel, do not approach closer than 100 m from any whale or 50 m from any dolphin. The 300-m rule applies to special whales or dolphins and, more importantly, whale cows and calves.
- The caution zone for vessels is the area within 300 m of a whale and 150 m of a dolphin. No more than three vessels are allowed within the caution zone at any one time and vessels should operate at no-wake speeds within this zone.
- Approach whales and dolphins in parallel and slightly to the rear – not from directly behind or head-on.
- When leaving whales or dolphins, move off at a slow (no wake) speed to the outer limit of the caution zone (300 m) from the closest animal before gradually increasing speed.
- Keep a lookout and avoid disturbance to mother whales or dolphins and their calves. Mother and calf will be close together and the calves are sometimes difficult to see.
- If there is a sudden change in whale or dolphin behaviour, move away immediately at a slow steady pace.
- Whales and dolphins sometimes form social groupings and may approach your vessel – if this happens place the engine in neutral and let the animal(s) come to you, or slow down and continue on course, or steer a straight course away from them.
- Do not get into the water if you see a whale or dolphin. If you’re already in the water do not disturb, chase or block the path of a whale or dolphin and, if possible, return to your vessel or the shore.