Thursday, August 9, 2018

A very local alien


A couple of curious youngsters eye us off. That's Fraser Island in the background.

I'm lucky enough to live close to Fraser Island in Queensland, Australia. The tour people will tell you Fraser is the largest sand island in the world – and they'll also tell you Hervey Bay is one of the best places in the planet to interact with humpback whales on their annual migration from the ice of Antarctica to the warm waters of the tropics. Up there the females have their calves, and then meander back down to the cold south, stopping regularly to feed their babies. The youngsters need to grow and fatten up on their mother's milk to survive the cold temperatures. 

The calm waters of Hervey Bay between mainland Australia and Fraser Island provide an ideal stopping off point. The juveniles come in to hang out and do some people-watching, the males pop in to fight for mating rights, the mums come in with their babies to get in a few large feeds.
The migration takes place between early July and early November and the whales you'll see in the Bay will depend to some extent what month it is. The early arrivals in July and August are mainly juveniles. Whales become sexually mature at around six or seven years. Before that, they're like teenagers - curious, wanting to explore.  They'll come right up to the boats. to people watch. They're like teenagers exploring their world. They can see very well through both water and air, and they can hear, too.

This one is doing what's called a spyhop, hanging vertically in the water with its snout above the surface. It's looking at the people on the boat.


The whales are curious and they're attracted to sound, movement, and colour. Visitors are encouraged to wave and call out to them.

They're happy to perform for an audience, slapping their pectoral fins, their tails, or performing spectacular breaches.


This picture gives a bit of perspective. Whales are BIG.


This whale spent about an hour checking us out. She's on her side, looking at us. Her eye is just in front of that large white blob on her side. You'll see her underside is mainly white. That's a characteristic of southern hump backs. In the Northern hemisphere hump backs are mainly black all over.

September and later the adult whales arrive. Males are interested in sex with as many females as they can manage and they'll fight for breeding rights, using the barnacles on their heads as weapons, pushing and shoving and making a lot of noise. 


Fighting males. There are three in this pod and the churned water, shoving, splashing and spraying (with sound effects) is amazing.

This mother and baby were very comfortable with the boat. She's brought the calf over to see us. In the past mothers would put themselves between the boat and the calf, but increasingly the whales know the boats here are not a danger.

They also know the big males are a risk to their calves. Whales don't play happy families. A big male will shove a calf out of the way to get at mum for sex. But we did get to see a courting couple (so to speak). BTW, the females are bigger than the males.

Females with calves are only interested in feeding and protecting their calves. A humpback calf is about fourteen feet (about four and a half metres) long at birth, but it needs to put on weight quickly to survive the cold waters of Antarctica. Hump backs are baleen whales (filter feeders) and they eat krill and very small fish. (As an aside, this is why I object to 'wild krill oil' being sold at 'health' stores. It's whale food. Why save whales if you're going to deplete their food source?) /rant.

Back to baby whales. Whale milk has the consistency of yoghurt, with a very high percentage of fat. The baby drinks about one hundred pounds of this stuff per day, putting on weight fast. Apart from feeding, caves have to learn how to do whale things, like what to do with those enormous pectoral fins and how to breach. Mum will show how it's done once or twice, and then the baby practices. Late in the season visitors will often see a calf doing breach after breach. In contrast, Mum hasn't had anything to eat since she left Antarctica. Breaching expends quite a bit of energy, so she's not going to do repeat performances.

 This calf has flung itself right out of the water in a spectacular side breach.
This little lady was only about three weeks old, trying to work out what to do with her pectoral fins. Her mum was just under the surface nearby, having a whale version of a nanna nap, secure that her baby was safe with the boat so near.



The whale doesn't spray water from its lungs. It is expelling breath from its blow hole. The air is travelling at 200kmh and vaporises the water above the blow hole. But there's plenty of water vapour to make a rainbow.

Well... that had better do. This is a compilation of many trips up to Platypus Bay. I could go on but it'll get a bit long. I wrote about my most recent whale-watching trip over at my own blog. Every trip is different, every trip is worthwhile. If you're ever in this part of the world in the months when the migration's on take the opportunity to meet an intelligence very different to ours. Quite alien, in fact.

2 comments:

  1. Amazing photos and insights! I'm envious. Whale-watching is on my bucket list.

    I love Humpbacks, but my dream is to see a Blue--largest creature that ever lived on the planet. And probably the rarest of rare, thanks to the whale hunters. I'm so happy so many of the whale populations are coming back now, but mankind is not a neighborly species to share a planet with, unfortunately for them.

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