Research has shown that Fraser Coast is the arguably finest location in the world for both the study of Humpback Whales and for the popular pursuit of Whale Watching. Many humpback whales arrive and pause in the waters of Hervey Bay from July through until November when they begin their return to the southern ocean. Hervey Bay is unique due to the fact that the whales are not in transit. The whales come into Hervey Bay to rest, play and frolic. The mothers use the rest to teach the newborn calves the necessary skills for their calves’ survival in the deeper, colder waters of the Antarctica. The large numbers of Humpback Whales coming to Hervey Bay stay on average ten days and the playful interaction with humans is stunning. There is no other place where people can have an equal experience as there is off Hervey Bay. Whale-watching vessels ‘park’ a safe distance from the humpback whales as set out by protective regulation and then the magic begins.
The whales are inquisitive and move close to the vessels to check out the humans and the various age groups perform different moves or position themselves for a good view of the humans on the Whale-watching vessels. This ‘up close and personal’ interaction is not possible anywhere else in Australia. ‘Nala’ is Hervey Bay’s own icon whale, adopted through the Humpback Icon Project (HIP) which sees about 60 whales adopted by regional councils around Australia. She is a well-known mother and a regular visitor to the Fraser Coast. The undersides of a whale’s tail (its fluke) can identify individuals. Like human fingerprints all flukes are slightly different. They vary in colour pattern and shape. Nala’s fluke is unique. Whale watching in Hervey Bay has become an important attraction for tourists and naturalists.
In recent years visitors to Hervey Bay have discovered the awe inspiring experience of watching the majestic humpback whale, and their encounters with the whales on the waters of Hervey Bay have been unforgettable. Some whale watching vessels have sound systems to enable passengers to hear whale song, and offer educational videos on the journey to the Hervey Bay Marine Park. Humpback whales are still the third most endangered species of all the big whales, but now their numbers are increasing by 13% each year. They are the fifth largest animal on this planet, growing up to 15 metres in length with a weight of up to 45,000kg (99,000lbs) – equivalent to 11 elephants or 600 persons each! Humpbacks are the most acrobatic of all of the great whales and displays a wide variety of leaping, rolling and breaching movements which provide fascinating viewing for whale watching. The humpback whale is also well known for its complex underwater vocalisations or whale songs particularly during breeding. Tour operators adhere strictly to Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, designed in consultation with the Hervey Bay operators, to protect the whales and keep them coming back to Hervey Bay year after year.
Interesting Humpback Whale Research
Scientific name – Megaptera novaeangliae The genus name Megaptera comes from the Greek for ‘Big wing’ and the species name, novaeangliae, from the Latin for ‘New England’, which is derived from the area from which the original (‘type’) specimen described by Borowski in 1781 originated (Clapham 2002).
+Identifying featuresLong pectoral flippers, up to one-third of the length of the body (hence the name ‘big wing’); ‘knobby’ protuberances, called tubercles, on the leading edge of the pectoral flippers and on the rostrum (head); scalloping along the trailing edge of the tail flukes; distinctive arching of the back before diving (hence the common name ‘humpback’). Humpback whales do not have teeth, but instead have between 270-400 baleen plates on either side of the mouth. Baleen is made of keratin, much like human hair and fingernails, and is used to filter small prey from the water. Size at birth – 4 – 4.5m and weighing ~1-2 tonnes Adult size – ~12 – 15m and weighing 25 – 40 t. Females are generally larger than males by about 1-1.5m.
+GestationGestation lasts 11.5 months and the calf is weaned by the end of the first year after birth. Females give birth on average every second or third year, but some females have been shown to give birth two years in a row. Maximum age – At least 48 yrs, but likely to be higher and probably closer to 100 yrs.
+Distribution and rangeHumpback whales are found in all oceans of the world and, like most baleen whales, undertake a seasonal migration from summer feeding grounds in polar waters to winter breeding grounds in warmer tropical and sub-tropical waters. The humpback whales found off the east coast of Australia are part of the Southern Hemisphere Group E population that generally feeds in Antarctica (Area V – 170° W to 130° E) from December to April and migrates to the Great Barrier Reef to mate and give birth from June to October.
+Population sizeBefore whaling, this population was likely to number more than 40,000 individuals (over 35,000 Area V humpbacks were killed between 1949 and 1962). Illegal whaling by the former Soviet Union included more than 25,000 humpbacks killed in waters south of Australia and New Zealand in the two summers of 1959/60 to 1960/61. Recent estimates suggest that by the late 1960s as few as 104 humpbacks were left in this population (Bannister & Hedley 2001). The current abundance of the population migrating along the east coast of Australia was estimated to be 7024 in 2005 (Paton et al., in press). This population is generally increasing at approximately 10-11% per annum, and was likely to be around 10,500 individuals in 2009.
+PreySouthern Hemisphere humpback whales eat krill (small shrimp-like crustaceans) almost exclusively, but some humpbacks also feed on small schooling fish. Mortality and threats Humpback whales, especially calves, are preyed upon by killer whales (orcinus orca), and there are also some records of large sharks attacking humpback whales. The major threats to humpback whales are from whaling, entanglement, ship strike and pollution. For the first time since the species was protected in Southern Hemisphere waters in 1963, humpback whales face the potential threat of being slaughtered by Japanese special permit ‘scientific whaling’ expeditions in Antarctica. However plans by the Japanese whalers to include this species in their ‘scientific whaling’ program have been postponed in recent years.
+Whale SongMale humpbacks produce long, complex songs during the breeding season. All the males in any given population sing the same song at the same time. Paradoxically, however, the pattern of the song changes rapidly with time, but all the males make the same changes at about the same time so as to maintain concurrent song matching. This represents one of the most complex vocal displays of any animal, and understanding the function of this signal, and particularly how and why it changes so rapidly, is a key issue for understanding the evolution of displays and acoustic signals in general. (Dr Josh Smith UQ)