Bumper season for whale fans

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A southern right whale breaching last week.
Camera IconA southern right whale breaching last week. Credit: Narelle Colbung

With whale sightings every week, Shannon Smith spoke to a local expert about how the season is shaping up.

While the most common sightings this year have been southern rights and humpbacks, whale watchers can spot other species off the south coast such as pygmy blue, dwarf minke, pilot, Bryde’s, fin and sei whales.

Local whale expert, marine scientist and environmental consultant Kirsty Alexander from Albany’s South Coast Cetaceans, said it had been a great season for all species.

“We have seen more blue whales than in previous seasons which hopefully translates to increases in the population,” she said.

“There have been southern right whales in King George Sound since June, some days as many as 15 which has made for great whale watching from land as well as a good opportunity to collect data to help us understand how and why places like the Sound are used by the visitors.

“Most of our blue whales and humpbacks have completed their northern migration to the Kimberly and beyond, and will soon begin to head south again during September, while most of the southern rights will have headed south by the end of September, although we do continue to see a few during October.”

Southern rights have been seen breaching close to shore and Ms Alexander said there were reasons for the behaviour.

“This species is not heading north, our southern coastline is where they are heading,” she said. “Our sheltered shallow bays offer protection from predators for calving and mating, which is why the whales are here.

“The bays provide protection from predators, as most don’t venture so close to shore and the sounds of the surf zone also make it harder for predators like killer whales to hear them.

“Whales breach for a number of reasons. Communication is one — sound travels four times better in water than on land. Breaching is also a good way to build muscle, ready for their first long migration from our coast to their feeding grounds in the sub-Antarctic.”

For the best viewing spots this year, she said southern rights can be seen from Middleton Beach and Marine Drive, as well as from the sand and rocks at Cheynes Beach. The best vantage points for humpbacks are Salmon Holes, Peak Head and the Wind Farm.

She said it was a good time to remind people of the rules around the ocean giants. Boats must maintain a distance of 100m from a whale and since January 1 this year the separation distance is 60m for drones.

“(The rules are) for your safety as well as theirs,” she said.

“Just the pectoral flipper of a humpback can weigh a ton, they are enormous animals.

“Most importantly, they need to be able to rest, give birth to calves, nurse their young and mate to produce the next generation.

“As of January 1 this year, the separation distance is 60m for drones.”

Humpbacks in King George Sound.
Camera IconHumpbacks in King George Sound. Credit: Kirsty Alexander

Fun facts about whales from Kirsty Alexander:

“My favourite thing is that whales are as individual as people once you know what to look for. Just as you and I have a unique ‘fingerprint’, so, too, do whales. This is found in the widely varying shapes and markings on each side of their dorsal fin and in the shape and colour patterns on the underside of their tail or flukes.”

“Southern right whales are identified by the patterns of the callosities. These are the rough patches that look a bit like a pile of stones on their head.”

“A southern right whale male has the largest testes of any animal, 500kg each.”

“Those white southern right whale calves we sometimes see in the media are not albino, and not as rare as we might think. Around 5 per cent of the population are this light colour morph. They are born white but as adults they become a dark mottled grey.”

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