Humpback whale, Sydney, New South Wales
Now is the time to spot humpback whales as they make their annual migration along Australia’s coast.
By Jessica Wilkinson
Published: June 8, 2017
Between May and November, you can spot whales from many scenic spots along Australia’s east and west coastlines. Sydney-based editor, journalist and photographer Rachelle Mackintosh has a love for wildlife and a particular penchant for spotting humpback whales as they migrate along the coast of Australia. Rachelle has done everything from tracking wild tigers in Siberia to photographing polar bears on the tundra in northern Canada, but when she’s at home in Australia, she turns her attention to the ocean – taking photos for her wildlife blog Faunographic.
Rachelle has given us her top spots for spotting whales in Australia — from Eden in New South Wales and Queensland's Hervey Bay to Western Australia’s Coral Coast.
Get to know about Australia's whale migration season
I'm going to start with a random question about whales — what are the little nobby things on their skin?
"Depends! Some of them will be barnacles or lice, but most of them will be oversized hair follicles (the black ones - you can’t see the hair, but you can see the bumps).”
Okay, onto the serious stuff. Tell me a little bit about the humpback whale migration…
“The annual humpback migration works in two main phases, and both of them offer different (but equally awesome) experiences for whale watchers all along the east coast of Australia. At the end of summer, the whales leave Antarctica and start heading north to the warm waters of Queensland where they breed and give birth etc (they can’t give birth in Antarctica because the calves don’t have enough blubber on them to withstand the winter temperatures). Once they’ve had a good old’ shindig they grab their young ones and start migrating south again so they can be back in Antarctica for the summer to feed. At the end of summer, the whole process begins again, hence, 'annual migration'. It's a loooong trip too.”
When do the whales arrive in Sydney?
“Between late May and July you get the main thrust of the northbound migrants passing through. Then, in early September we see the mothers and calves passing by Sydney on their way south. The calves can be pretty acrobatic and curious, so if you’re lucky you’ll get a mugging (this is when the whale approaches the boat to check you out). Or, you’ll see a competition pod.”
What’s a competition pod?
“That is where a group of males will jostle and head-lunge on each other to try to get with a lady whale. I saw a competition pod of six here in Sydney two weeks ago just off Maroubra, and they were surrounded by at least 200 common dolphins. The water looked like it was boiling as all of the critters bounced around. It was incredible! This kind of behaviour is not really good for photography because most of the action is happening under the surface, but the atmosphere is so electric that you just put the camera down and enjoy nature doing its thing.”
What tours do you use in Sydney?
“There are several operators to choose from across Sydney, but I go out with Whale Watching Sydney because their boat is fast and comfy, the crew have become friends, and they know everything about whales.”
Where else can you see whales along the New South Wales coast?
“Down south, Eden used to be a centre for Australia’s whaling industry but it’s now a must-visit for any whale lover. Apart from their annual whale festival (October) and local museum, a trip out with one of their handful of whale-watching companies is awesome because the whales will often stop for a bit of a rest there, so they’re extra chilled and curious. And if you camp at Ben Boyd National Park you’ll get a spectacular view as they pass by.”
You mentioned the whales head to the warm waters in Queensland – where is the best spot for seeing whales further north along the east coast?
“Hervey Bay is known as the whale watching capital of Australia and for good reason – the humpbacks love it there. The conditions are perfect for whale watching – calm, clear waters, glorious temperatures and plenty of breathing space for everyone (Sydney can get a bit busy with boat traffic). The first week of September is a great time to see babies in Hervey Bay. Again, there are several operators to go out with, but my pick is Tasman Ventures as one of their guides is the legendary Vicky Neville, a local icon who is known as the ‘whale whisperer’.”
Have you been whale spotting anywhere else in Australia?
“I’ve also seen whales off Coral Bay in Western Australia and I’d love to go back and see them there again… but I’m DYING to get to Bremer Bay. They’ve recently seen humpbacks there but it’s usually a hotspot for orcas."
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