As we all flock to the best vantage points along our coastline to watch the humpback whales make their way up the coast, we are really watching ‘Big-winged New Englanders’ because, strangely, that’s what their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means. Humpback whales were named by early marine scientists in New England, in the US, who became fascinated by the giant creatures swimming off their coast.
And, along Australia’s eastern coastline, it’s the young, hormone-fuelled males that tend to lead the migration north for the mating season, competing with each other on the theory that the early whale catches the female.
‘With a belly full of krill and driven by hormones, they put on an amazing acrobatic show,’ says Terrigal Ocean Tours’ skipper, Andrew Jones. ‘A pod of competitive whales is an incredible sight, with up to seven whales charging along trying to outdo each other.’
So watch out for the spectacular breaching, tail-slapping, spy-hopping, lob-tailing, fin-slapping humpbacks strutting their stuff heading north from May to July. Word on the water has it that Migaloo the white humpback – perhaps the most famous of them all – was spotted on his way north off the Victorian coastline.
‘The sighting has everyone on Migaloo watch,’ says Dr Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University’s Department of Biological Sciences. ‘We are not 100 per cent sure if it is Migaloo, but we will keep an eye out for him. We’ve also seen minke whales off Sydney, and we’re hopeful that 2021 will be a year of amazing whale activity.’
Marine scientists believe that, like dolphins, there may be a number of reasons behind the whales’ love of leaping out of their watery world. Some think they leap for the sheer joy. Others that it may help loosen barnacles that have grown on their skin. And, because males tend to put on the most spectacular display during their migration, there’s also a school of thought that the whales are showing off their physical prowess to rival males and to admiring females when launching their 40-tonne bodies out of the ocean.
Humpbacks grow up to 18 metres in length and weigh the equivalent of 600 people (or, if that’s too much for you to visualise, the equivalent of 11 full-grown elephants). They are not the biggest whales (that record goes to the blue whale, twice its size) but they do hold a lot of world records. Their flippers grow to five metres, making them the largest animal appendages in the world. They also migrate further than any other mammal with the longest recorded migration at 18,840 km, in a swim that went from American Samoa to the Antarctic Peninsula.
Did you know humpback whales don’t have a humped back, but they did once have knees, even ankles and toes (according to 34 million years-old-fossils found in the Egyptian desert, of all places). Humpbacks get their name because they arch their backs as they prepare to dive. And although they tend to come up for air every 10 or 15 minutes, humpbacks can stay under water for up to 45 minutes but, unlike humans, they need to remember to breathe. This could be problematic while they sleep, but scientists believe they keep part of their brain awake just for that purpose.
It’s important for newborns to be able to rest in mum’s slipstream though, so you won’t find a whale mum catching any shut-eye until her calf gains enough blubber weight to keep himself afloat. Newborns also like to piggyback on mum to take a rest.
On the way back home to the Antarctic, during August and September, you may see the mums patiently repeating their acrobatic gestures over and over to teach a still-clumsy calf how to slap a tail that doesn’t yet know how to perform. It’s a sight that’s as amusing as baby elephants who have to learn how to control their trunks.
‘During spring, the mothers pull into protected bays like Terrigal and Broken Bay to rest and feed. It is a magical experience to see a newborn calf with its mum,’ says Andrew Jones. ‘We have even seen a calf playing with a bunch of seaweed and passing it to mum.’
Whale songs are another way these marine mammals communicate and, again, during the mating season the males sing for hours at a time in the hope of wooing a female, as far as 30km away, to entice her to come a little bit closer. Whales can also ‘whisper’ during their migration home when the mothers have calves with them. Researchers think ‘whale whispering’ maybe a way for the mother and calf to stay in contact, but remain under the radar of nearby killer whales.
‘The population of east coast humpbacks dropped to about 800 during the whaling era, but has recovered to 35,000 plus, and is increasing by about 11 per cent each year,’ says Andrew Jones. After such an amazing comeback, the sad news is that climate modelling by an international team of researchers shows that declines in krill populations from climate change could lead to local extinctions of whales as early as 2100.
‘This includes Pacific populations of blue, fin, and southern right whales, as well as fin and humpback whales in the Atlantic and Indian oceans,’ says Dr Olaf Meynecke, one of the marine scientists at the Griffith University Coastal and Marine Research Centre. The one heartening fact is that, ‘When it comes to their migration and breeding cycles, recent studies have shown humpback whales can adapt with changes in ocean temperature and circulation at a remarkable level.’
Let’s hope those next generations of whales continue to slap, flip, flop, breach and sing well into the future.
The humpback whale migration is one of the most unforgettable wildlife experiences in Australia, and the Central Coast has access to spectacular views from our coastal lookouts and, for closer views, on whale-watching boats.
The best land-based whale-watching vantage points on the Central Coast include:
- Gerrin Point Lookout, Bouddi National Park, Bouddi
- Marie Byles Lookout, Killcare Heights (easy car access but further from the ocean)
- Captain Cook and Winney Bay Lookouts, Copacabana
- The Skillion, Terrigal Haven
- Wyrrabalong Lookout, Cromarty Hill, Forresters Beach
- Crackneck Lookout, Wyrrabalong National Park, Bateau Bay
- Norah Head Lighthouse, Norah Head
- Wybung Head, Munmorah State Conservation Area, Budgewoi
WORDS CATHARINE RETTER