Whales on our coast (There she blows!) And where they blow!
by David Farrar
Of all the experiences you can have in the natural world. Seeing a whale out to sea, has to be up there with them, as one of the best experiences you can have with wildlife. For me it’s on a similar scale, to being in the wild and hearing a large owl calling at night.
Or for me, “I am still waiting to travel to the northern hemisphere one day to see bears and hear wolves howling in the wild.”
It’s such an awe-inspiring moment, when you spot a whale and see the tell-tale signal of the whale blowing sea spray up in to the air. It’s just breathing really, through its nose, which happens to be on its back. All that evolution for one of largest mammals in the world. Then while you are watching, you observe its back and sometimes the mighty tail and if you’re really lucky a whale will breach its whole body out of the sea and splash a huge wall of white water, seen many kilometres away. This is so easy to see with your eyes without the aid of binoculars or a spotting scope.
For the local community all living so close by to sea level, we have this wonderful opportunity to see whales daily, from May through to December. At this time it’s mainly the Humpback Whale that’s travelling from Antarctic waters up to warmer climates on the east coast and into the Pacific Ocean and a population of Humpback whale also travel north and head west and up the west coast into the Indian Ocean. The Humpback Whale can reach between 13-18 meters long and weigh up to 45 tonnes. They can be identified off shore by very long normally white flippers with larger darker body above and white underneath. They have a small dorsal fin which is visible when they move forward diving and blowing as they go.
Many of us will not remember the last phase of Humpback whaling in Australia, 1949 to 1963, was from shore stations on the west and east coast. Populations were depleted to only 1000 individuals in 1963. Now fully protected in Australian waters under federal and state provisions and regulations. The Humpback Whale populations is estimated to be more than 30,000 now in the southern oceans.
The other whale we see regularly is the Southern Right Whale, which measures between 14 – 18 meters long and can weigh between 40 – 80 tonnes. These large whales have no dorsal fin on their back and have a large mouth. The Southern Right Whale has also suffered from past whaling operations and in 1970 the population was estimated to be considered as rare. Not much information was known of the Southern Right Whale population estimations were less than 500 whales. It’s estimated that maybe the current population is now approximately 4,000 Southern Right Whales now inhabiting the southern ocean.
They were called the Right whale, because back in the whale hunting days they were the right whales to hunt, due to the fact that they come inshore into shallow water and when harpooned and killed they floated and produced a lot of oil.
Southern Right whales arrive from around late May through to early November to calve in the shallow inshore areas. They can be found along the entire southern coast of Australia. The Southern Right Whales in past years have entered Waratah Bay and keep close inshore and rest next to the reefs just off the beach. The Cows with calves can stay for a week or more and this is why they are my favourite whale species to watch.
Both the Humpback and Southern Right Whale feed by filtering small pelagic crustaceans in the ocean surface area. They will also eat schooling fish species in large numbers all at once with each gigantic mouthful.
In Australasian seas there are many more whales and I will also mention dolphins now because you will see them as well if you are observant. In local coastal situations we see the Common Dolphin about 2.4 meters long and the Bottlenose Dolphin much larger at 3.1 meters long and there are also occasionally seen Killer Whale which can be up to 9 meters in length.
World-wide there are 80-odd species of whales and dolphins. There are 30 Whale species and 14 Dolphin species you could possibly see around the Australian coast. So we really only get to see a few species locally.
Where to see Whales and Dolphins locally.
Any headland is good, but the Venus Bay beaches from 1 to 5 are good. Beach 5 can be the best at certain times because of views towards Cape Paterson. One of the best spots where I go is the Cape Liptrap Lighthouse reserve. Your high up and you can see whales blow for such a long distance. Look for the white bed-sheets being thrown up! That’s what its looks like. In rough seas it’s easier to spot them when they surface, because I think they have to blow harder and the wind expands the blow. So it’s then easy to observe signs of the blow.
Waratah Bay and around the Prom is good. Phillip Island can be great and really think about taking a boat cruise, which is always wonderful during the whale visiting season.
It’s a good idea to take binoculars with you and a spotting telescope if you have one? Dress warm and enjoy the moments. Don’t forget a camera!
I have been lucky to see many whales, dolphins and seals around coastal Victoria over the years and I always have the same feeling of exhilaration each time I see a whale. There is something very special about seeing one of the largest animals on earth in the sea and on our local coastline.
Reference books used: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia P. Menkhorst and F. Knight. Mammals of Victoria P. Menkhorst.