A few weeks ago we took a big boat from Brisbane to a small island called Tangalooma where we would go on a tour to see humpback whales! Whales are my favourite animals and I had only seen one before on the way to the Agincourt reef before from a distance, so I couldn’t wait to go and see them up close that day!
The humpback whale is a species that can grow up to a length of 16 metres, although the biggest humpback whale that was ever sighted was known to have been about 27 metres long! Humpbacks are known for their fabulous breaching shows and other spectacular behaviour that they perform at the surface of the water. Male humpbacks are known for their fabulous song that can last 10-20 minutes which is one of the most complex songs in the animal kingdom. Its purpose is not clear, though it may have a role in mating.
Humpbacks also have two ways to feed, the either feed individually or help each other and work as a team. Humpbacks eat tiny microscopic shrimp-like creatures floating around the water called krill and plankton and sometimes they even eat very small fish. These whales use their brush-like teeth called baleen to feed. They first open their mouths very wide and let all the water and tiny sea plankton and krill enter their mouths. Then they close it shut and drain all the water out through the brushes of their baleen leaving the small creatures behind.
Another technique these large oceanic creatures use for feeding is bubble net feeding, when they hunt as a team. Humpback whales usually bubble net in a large group. About 3 humpback whales take a deep breath and dive down at around 50 metres deep and form a circle while the others stay at the top. Then, the whales at the bottom start to blow bubbles out with their blowholes. The bubbles float to the surface of the water. The krill and very small fish get trapped in the middle of the bubble net and can’t get out. They decide to swim up to the surface to escape. But what the fish and krill don’t know is that there are whales at the top as well, and when they emerge at the top, the whales lunge on their food and filter out the water using their baleen. This is how humpback whales bubble net feed together.
Calves usually drink an average of 600 litres of their mothers milk per day, which helps them to develop a thick layer of blubber which will protect them from the icy waters of Antarctica when they head south during their feeding season.
We were very lucky to be in Brisbane in October as Humpback whales only visit the eastern coast of Australia from April to November and we just saw them in time. They are not at risk on the Eastern coast of Australia, but they are near Mexico, Western Africa and most of all, Japan. Japan is very highly known for their whale hunting, and every year, when the whales in the west pacific run out of food and make their way to the East of Russia, Japan catch them. There are many different groups of Humpbacks. The Atlantic Ocean group, the West Pacific group and the Middle Eastern group all have different features including the colours of their flippers, the amount of blubber they need to have to stay warm and other things too.
Here is a map I drew of the humpback whale migration route and where they are endangered and not.
Australia have two subpopulation groups: one is the Western Australia Humpback group and the other one is the Eastern Australian humpback whale group. The Eastern Australia group migrates from the Eastern tip of Antarctica, whereas the Western humpback group migrates from a few hundred miles further down in Antarctica. The group of humpback whales we saw were coming from Western Antarctica where they mostly feed during December, January, February and March, and then slowly begin their long migration route to Western Australia where they breed during the warmer seasons and that is the reason why we saw so many calves with their mums that day.
- West Indies
- Cape Verde Islands/North-west Africa
- Central America
- Second West Pacific (exact location unknown)
- West Australia (west coast population)
- East Australia (east coast population)
- Oceania (these animals pass through Australian waters adjacent to Norfolk Island)
- South-eastern Pacific
- Gabon/South-west Africa
- South-east Africa/Madagascar
- Arabian Sea
During the 20th century, Japan was heavily involved in commercial whaling. Japan carried on hunting whales until the international whaling commission (IWC) went into effect in 1986. Japan agreed to the IWC but continued to hunt whales using the scientific research provision in the agreement and Japanese whaling is conducted by the Institute of Cetacean research. This is allowed under IWC rules, although most IWC country members decide to oppose it. The whale meat from these so called ‘scientific whale hunts’ was sold in shops and restaurants. I really hope it stops and it is so sad to see them hunted.
Our whale watching adventure
We left Brisbane very early in the morning and drove to where our boat was about to depart. After a one and a half ride on a big catamaran, we finally arrived at Tangalooma island. We all got off and most people stayed at a resort on the island but we were going back on the same boat for the whale watching tour with a few other people. When we came back on, it was very pleasant as there weren’t as many people as before and we had lots of room to sit down.
We left the bay and sailed off to sea near Tangalooma island and soon enough, there was an announcement saying there were three humpback whales just outside the boat! I ran outside to see and sure enough there were two calves and their mother right in front of me! They arched their back but didn’t breach or show their heads to us. Then, after coming about 40 metres away from the boat, they swam away, with their mother leading the way. I was so amazed at their size!
As we moved on further away from the shore, we spotted more and more humpback whales, it was absolutely amazing! We finally came to a group of about 6 whales. They where all just showing their backs slightly at the surface of the water. Suddenly, one dived and its tail showed and went down below the surface. It was so huge and floppy! We decided to leave them alone and move on as maybe they were starting to get a bit bothered – they were smacking their tales and diving down to ignore us. We were just about to move on when all of the sudden, the same massive male calf which had dived under the water breached about 25 metres away from the boat! It was stunning! He was so close! I couldn’t believe what I saw! He jumped out at the surface and his body made a loud smack sound as it hit the surface again. For a calf, I though he was simply enormous! I think that I even felt a few drops of water land on me when he breached. Two techniques are used by big marine animals in order to breach. The first method, most common in sperm and humpback whales, is by swimming vertically upwards from depth, and heading straight out of the water. The other more common method is to travel close to the surface and parallel to it, and then jerk upwards at full speed with as few as 3 tail strokes to perform a breach.
There are about 40 types of baleen and toothed whales. My favourite 4 whales are the southern right whale, the sperm whale, the killer whale and of course, the humpback whale.
We left the whales alone and headed away from Tangalooma island and into the deep sea. I could just about make out the outline of the coast of Brisbane and we cruised along the calm waters. Then, another heard of about 20 humpbacks were spotted! They came right beside the catamaran boat and curiously swam around. They were so close! One calf came right beside the boat and actually bashed against it with its body! I was so shocked I nearly dropped my camera. There are lots of ways these whales behave, for example, blows from their blowholes and breaching is a very restful and social way of behaving, whereas arching their backs and tail slaps are signs of distress.
We came upon so many different groups of humpback whales with so many different personalities. Some calves were very playful, although some were very shy. The baby whales would often breach and come about 10 metres away from the boat, and some mothers were very protective of their calves and kept their distance from the boat, although most of the humpbacks we met were very open to meet strangers and were also quite curious. It is actually quite rare to have whales come so close up to boats as the humpback whale population has been decreasing very quickly in the past, due to mainly ship strikes, but also other things like noise pollution, entanglement in fishing nets and other threats as well. The worldwide population of today is at least 80,000, with 18,000-20,000 in the North Pacific, about 12,000 in the North Atlantic and over 50,000 in the Southern Hemisphere down from a pre whaling population of 125,000. It is very sad to see their population going down, but it is said that during the last 10 years, the population of humpback whales has increased a tiny bit, which is good. Hopefully, the population will increase as much as it was before, and maybe even further.
I really noticed how interested and social these creatures were. One of them came right up to the boat, turned on its side and slapped its flippers in the water. This is called a pec slap, short for pectoral fin slapping. It is a very friendly and social way of behaving. He was a baby male and showed interest in us and slapped his fins at the surface of the water to attract our attention. The baby whale then got shy, dived under the water and joined his mother.
As we cruised on, we spotted our first fully grown, adult male humpback whale. Females are known to be bigger than the males in size (males are 12.2-14.6 metres long with the females slightly larger at 13.7-15.2 metres long) and the average weight of a adult humpback whale can weigh up to 48 tons, just about the weight of 5 adult elephants! The adult humpback came of about 70 metres from the boat and suddenly slapped his head in the water. This was a sign of aggression. It is said by the rules of marine life watching that you are not allowed to go more than 100 metres close to a whale, and 50 metres for dolphins. But, the whales are allowed to come as close to you as they want, depending on their mood and behaviour. The whale slapped its head several times to make us alert, and after some time we slowly moved away from him.
We finally arrived near a small uninhabited island. There as it was just grass, rocks and sand. Suddenly, the water beneath the boat turned green. This meant that the water was getting more and more shallow. We made sure that we didn’t get too close to the island as our boat migh touch the bottom. We spotted a herd of what we thought were three whales. But they were really small. And they were so fast. We wandered what species of whale they might be. Suddenly, one of them poped its head out from the surface – they were bottlenose dolphins! Bottlenose dolphins are one of the most intelligent and friendly animals on earth. These dolphins are very social and stay together most of the time. Sadly, bottlenose dolphins are usually seen in aquariums and marine life parks such as Sea world in Miami, Shanghai Ocean aquarium in china and many more around the world. It is so sad to know that most people know bottlenose dolphins through captivity, and it was so nice to see these wonderful dolphins bobbing up and down, free in the wild and not in a sad concrete enclosure. They were so fast and swam around the boat a few times. We left them alone and went around the island before heading back to Tangalooma.
We came to a shipwreck near the shore. This was called Tangalooma wrecks. We were told that there are many fish living in the wrecks and it is a really good spot to see fish when you are snorkelling. We saw a fishing man in a pedal boat come up to the wrecks. All of the sudden, a massive back arched about 10 metres away from the fisherman’s pedal boat. It was another humpback whale! It came right up to the man, arched its back and dived under the water again! The pedal boat looked tiny compared to the whale. The waves that were created by the massive creature nearly tipped the tiny pedal boat over! The whale stayed near the wrecks for a few minutes, then swam away to the left where it breached a lot.
After meeting so many whales that day, we finally hit the shore back at Tangalooma island and took another boat to Brisbane. It was such an amazing experience to have been so close to these fascinating whales! I hope I get to see them again one day. When I’m older, I want to work as a marine life saver who untangles whales and dolphins out of fishing nets and things like that, and I really want to save whales and dolphins from captivity. My mum recommended we watch a documentary called “The Cove“, a 2009 documentary film directed by Louie Psihoyus. It was a really sad movie on dolphin hunting in Taiji, and trying to save dolphin and whale hunting in Japan. It was so sad seeing all the dolphins being hunted, so if you are very sensitive I wouldn’t recommend it, but it was very informative and it really made me want to try and help and save these endangered animals.
Migaloo, the white humpback
Migaloo, the white humpback whale is an Australian humpback whale that is completely white in colour. When Migaloo was first sighted, he was known to be the first white humpback whale on earth until he had a son with a normal coloured Humpback female in 2011 and his son was named MJ, or Migaloo Junior. The name Migaloo comes from the Aboriginal Australian word “White Fella”. Migaloo has been seen more than 50 times since his first documented appearance in 1991 near Cairns, Australia. Other mostly white Humpbacks have also been sighted: Willow lives in the Arctic, Bahloo lives near Migaloo on the East coast of Australia, but both have a few black spots, so Migaloo and MJ are really the only all white Humpbacks so far. The Australian marine animal watching government has required for tourist boats to stay 1000 foot away from whales, but a special law has been made for Migaloo to have boats stay 1600 feet away from Migaloo as he may be a bit more aggressive towards having so many people taking flash pictures of him and staring at him so much. I hope I might get to meet him one day.
Goodbye whales! I was so lucky to see so many of you and I have learned so much that day. Thank you so much.