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Whale Watch Blog

Welcome to the Tangalooma Whale Watch Blog.

 

Here, you can keep up to date with all of the action aboard our whale watching boat, and learn some interesting facts from our Eco Rangers. 

Saturday, 27 July 2013
A mother whale visits us multiple times!

What a great day today, saw some amazing activity out on the whale watch! It started with a pod of two juveniles who came nice and close to the boat, which gave us a great chance for a close look at them. A pod of at least three bottlenose dolphins came up near the whales too! We followed them for a while but lost them after they went down for a big dive. We noticed that this happened over a spot known as Smiths rock, so the whales may have gone down for a good explore of this underwater site.

We headed towards flinders reef and found another pod of two whales, but very soon after that we saw a big breach a bit further ahead of our position. We decided to go and check out this pod and it was definitely a good decision. This was a mother and small calf and they were both breaching like crazy. We saw the mother come up multiple times, sometimes twisting as she jumped up and flailing her pectoral flippers in the air. The calf did the same, but hardly made a splash compared to the big mother! They continued to come closer to the boat and kept breaching. The mother started pectoral flipper slapping, while the calf was also tail slapping. Tail slapping can be a sign of frustration in whales, so the calf may have been frustrated at its mother. Maybe it was hungry, and mum wouldn’t give it any milk!

We stayed with these two for a while and also saw a loggerhead turtle come up near the boat. After a while they calmed down and had a bit of a rest, but we were all very satisfied with the activity they showed us beforehand. Six whales, three bottlenose dolphins and a loggerhead turtle today. Another beautiful day!

Eco Ranger Pat

Posted by Ben
Wednesday, 24 July 2013
Not only whales about today!

A great day of action for all today! We got to see eight whales close up, and there was plenty of action in the distance too.
Right as we got around the Cape we saw some nice big breaches in the distance, with two separate whales breaching about 200m from each other. By the time we got to the whales, they were swimming together. This is an example of breaching potentially being used as a form of short distance communication in humpback whales. The big splash from the breach may produce a lot of sound underwater, and humpback whales may use this to signal their position to others. After following this pod for a while we saw some more activity in the distance and went over to see what was happening.
This next pod was a bit inactive, but we still got a nice close look at them. As we were with this pod, we got to see plenty of breaches by pods in the distance which was great. There was another individual a bit closer to Moreton Island, and it was good to see the whale with Moreton Island in the background.   
We saw more breaching in the distance near Flinders Reef. Soon we caught up to a pod of 2 whales, and this pod was great. They displayed almost the full suite of behaviors for us up close. We saw a breach, pectoral flipper slapping, tail lobbing, tail raising and tail slapping. It was great! They went underwater for a while and we saw a loggerhead turtle pop up with a school of fish following it. Not soon after a bottlenose dolphin approached the boat, and then the whales came up again. Four beautiful animals in only a minute! Great to see the wide diversity of marine life that Moreton Bay Marine Park has to offer.
Eco Ranger Pat

Posted by Ben
Sunday, 21 July 2013
En Route to Flinders Reef

Another beautiful day out on the water today! We had light winds, calm seas and plenty of whales around. The first whale we approached was a young juvenile on its own, and gave us a surprise at one stage, coming under the boat and breaching on the other side right next to the boat. It also showed us a few nice tail lobs before we left it to go find some more whales. We went up towards Flinders Reef and saw two loggerhead turtles along the way. There are about 2000 of the endangered loggerhead turtle in Moreton Bay Marine Park!
Up near flinders reef we came upon a pod of four whales, and in this group was a mother with a very young calf. The calf was still grey in color and only 3-5m in length. It most likely would have only been a few days old. They both came very close to the boat, which gave us a good opportunity to look at them. The calf was swimming very close to its mother by her side, and by doing this, it is much more energy efficient for the calf to swim along, as its swimming in its mothers ‘slipstream’ with less water resistance. We stayed with this pod until they reached Flinders reef and started resting very close to the reef.
Afterwards we found three more whales, with one of them pectoral flipper slapping. It almost seemed that it was waving to us, saying g’day! These whales came very close to the boat as well, and it was a great experience watching the pec slaps up close. Eight whales in total today, plus some loggerheads as well, a good all round experience!
Eco Ranger Pat

Posted by Ben
Saturday, 20 July 2013
Escorted by a whale?

We had an absolutely brilliant day today! We spotted another newborn baby humpback whale today, only 3-5 metres long and very light grey in colour, so no older than a few days, maybe a week. And the little tucker was incredibly active! It was breaching, breaching, breaching… at least twenty times! So cute!!! Mother and calf were not in the slightest bothered by our presence, they actually swam straight up to us several times and had a really close look at the boat.

The mother and calf were accompanied by another adult, probably a male. These so called male “escorts” are often seen travelling together with a mother and calf, which is why people used to assume that whales form stable long term partnerships, maybe even mate for life. However, it turns out, this escorting male is not necessarily the father of the calf! Humpback whales are not monogamous and may mate with several partners each breeding season. The males probably don’t even know which calves are theirs; they certainly don’t play any role in raising the young.

Scientists now believe that the male escort is following the pair in the hope of mating with the mother. Normally humpback whales only have a single calf every few years but on rare occasions they can give birth in consecutive years. Often the male escorts tend to be young males that may not have access to females at the right stage of the breeding cycle, as they would have to compete with older, larger males for those preferred females.

Whatever the escort gets out of it, it certainly offers a great level of protection for the newborn baby!

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Ben
Friday, 19 July 2013
A glimpse into the sex life of the humpback whale

In the words of one of our guests, today we got an “interesting glimpse into the sex life of the humpback whales”… We had a very exciting sighting of a pair of adults, probably a male and a female that were quite clearly involved in some sort of courtship behaviour! There was a lot of chasing, rolling around at the surface, pushing into each other… It appeared that the male was trying to mate with her but she was “playing hard to get”, swimming away from him, displaying the occasional tail slap or tail lob to ward him off.

Humpback whales are not monogamous and males and females have very different mating strategies. The males want to mate with as many females as possible to spread their genes to as many offspring as possible. The females however produce only a few eggs and then invest a lot of energy during the pregnancy and weaning of that one calf. So the aim for the female is to find the best possible mate, the strongest and fittest male to father a strong healthy calf. It looked like the male in this pair may not have been living up to her high standards!

After we had been watching these two for a while, they were suddenly joined by another two adult whales, probably another two males! At this point things started to heat up even more, with the males now competing with each other! They displayed some huge breaches (no doubt showing off how big and strong they are) and kept ramming and chasing each other. What an exciting display to watch – certainly not something you see every day!

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
Thursday, 18 July 2013
An amazing show!!!

Wow, the humpback whales put on an amazing show for us today! We saw lots of pods all around and they were really active!

We spent most of our time with a pair of whales that was steadily moving north and stayed very close to our boat for a good 45 minutes. They displayed several beautiful high breaches right next to us, and kept approaching our boat. They certainly didn’t seem bothered or scared by our boat at all, in fact we felt like they were showing off for us!

At the same time there was a second pod of humpbacks travelling parallel to our pod, about 500m or so off to one side and they showed a few really high breaches as well! It was hard to tear ourselves away when it became time to head home…

But only 10 minutes into the ride home we actually came across another pod of two juvenile humpbacks that were both breaching and slapping their pectoral flippers on the water almost continuously! We just had to stop and watch for a little while longer and I think by the end of that, surely everyone on the boat must have gotten at least one or two photos of breaches!

To finish off we even caught a quick glimpse of a flying fish sailing away from our boat! These are interesting fish that jump out of the water and spread their fins almost like wings, allowing them to glide or sail above the water for over 100m!!! That’s their escape strategy if they feel threatened. For example, if a larger fish is after them, the flying fish jumps out of the water and essentially escapes out of sight of the predator. They won’t enter the water again until quite a distance away, by which point the predator will have lost track of it. Certainly a clever way for a fish to escape!

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
Monday, 15 July 2013
One calf every 3 years

Two babies in a row!! We saw another mum with a young calf today! This one was already dark grey in colour so a little bit older than the first (yesterday) but still very small. Maybe a month or so old? As I wrote yesterday, it’s unusual to see calves this early in the season, let alone two days in a row. But certainly a good sign for the population, to see lots of calves being born!

One of the main reasons why whaling is not sustainable and why most great whale species were hunted close to extinction when whaling was happening commercially around the world, is that whales reproduce very slowly. In the case of humpbacks, they start breeding at around 5-10 years of age, then they give birth to a single calf, every 3 years on average. And that’s actually one of the faster reproductive cycles compared to other whale species such as the bowhead whales that don’t mature until they are around 25 years old! That means if you’re taking more animals out of the population by hunting than they can put back in by breeding, that population will decline. It’s also the reason why many other whale populations around the world have not recovered at all or only very slowly.

So it’s great to see our humpback population at such high numbers again these days and increasing steadily with more calves born every year! We certainly always feel very privileged and lucky when we get to spot one of those newborn babies – and they are just so cute!

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
Sunday, 14 July 2013
A very special cruise!

A very special whale watch cruise today – we saw our first humpback whale calf of 2013!! We found the mother and calf pair swimming in the shallow water just off North Point. The baby was still very little and light grey in colour, suggesting that it may only be a few days old, maybe a week or so. Very cute!!

Normally the humpback whales give birth on the breeding grounds at the northern end of their migration, around the Great Barrier Reef islands. So this little one was born a bit early and they were still travelling North. But it looked healthy and was swimming strongly alongside its mum, which is fantastic! When I say ‘little one’, that’s a relative term of course – they are ‘little’ only by comparison with their 15m mums. A newborn humpback whale is already 3 to 5 m long and already weighs over a ton! However, when they are first born, they don’t have the protective blubber layer that keeps the bigger whales warm in the cold waters of the southern oceans. That’s why the humpback whales migrate to warmer tropical waters to give birth to their calves as those babies would not survive if they were born in Antarctica. So the calves have to put on fat very quickly to be ready for the migration back south with their mums a few months after being born. To do that, they drink milk (they are mammals like us after all!) and whale milk is very fatty – about ten times fattier than the cow’s milk we drink. It actually has the consistency of tooth paste! A baby humpback whale can drink as much as 600 litres of that milk every single day!! That obviously allows it to put on fat very quickly. In fact they will double in size during the first year of their lives!

There certainly were a lot of ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ on the boat today as we watched this baby whale swimming alongside its mother! We wish them all the best for their journey!

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
Saturday, 13 July 2013
Ten Whales!

Today we had a total of ten humpback whales nearby, including two pairs, a single juvenile that showed off a few breaches and a large pod of five adults.

The first pair of whales we found included an individual that had a deep cut in his back, just in front of the dorsal fin. I had a good look at it through the binoculars to make sure there was no fishing line cutting into the flesh. But I could see no sign of any lines, so most likely the injury may have been caused by a boat propeller.

Unfortunately boat strike is a very serious risk for many of our marine animals especially whales, dugongs and turtles that all move relatively slowly but have to come up to the surface to breathe air. Ship strikes as well as entanglement in fishing gear are some of the major threats for whales today. For rare species like the north Atlantic right whales, such accidents are actually one of the main reasons why their population has not recovered from the low numbers that remained of them after commercial whaling stopped. Even though they are now fully protected, there are still only around 300 northern right whales left in the world because at such low numbers, even the deaths of a few individuals each year because of ship strikes or fishing gear entanglement is enough to stop them from recovering. We are lucky that our humpback whale numbers have recovered so well after whaling stopped. However, the downside is that as whale numbers increase, so does the chance of boats accidentally running into them.

That’s why it’s very important if you are out boating especially now during whale season, to always keep an eye out for animals around you and drive slowly enough to be able to stop or alter course if a whale should surface in front of you. Also make sure that you know and adhere to whale watch guidelines – these apply to commercial whale watch operators as well as recreational boaters. Never approach a whale to closer than 100m and drive very slowly and carefully when within 300m of a whale.

The whale we saw today seemed to be healing quite well from his boat strike injury and he is lucky that it was not deep enough to injure his spine or anything like that. But he was quite wary of boats, the pair of them kept their distance to us and changed directions to swim away from us – so we stayed with them only long enough to make sure that he wasn’t entangled in any lines and then left them in peace. 

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
Friday, 12 July 2013
4 Juveniles travelling together

We spent our cruise today with six humpback whales. First we saw a group of four juveniles that came close up to our boat a few times, having a good look at us. One of them was particularly curious, bringing its head right up out of the water when it surfaced right next to us several times. After a while we noticed another whale breaching off in the distance so we went to have a closer look and it turned out to be another juvenile. He/she did a couple more breaches and slapped the big pectoral flippers on the water several times before joining up with another whale. The two of them then travelled on together and we turned back towards Cape Moreton to have a look at the coloured sands and cliffs.

Moreton Island is the third largest sand island in the world and consists to 98 % of sand. The other 2 % make up a rocky headland at the northeastern end of the island: Cape Moreton. This rocky outcrop was formed some 180 million years ago by volcanic activity. Most of the sand actually comes from the mountain ranges down in New South Wales where the rocks are eroded away over time and end up as sand in the ocean. This sand then gets carried north along the east coast of Australia by the long shore drift currents and ends up accumulating behind Cape Moreton. That’s how Moreton Island was formed over the many millions of year. We have lots of differently coloured sands on the island, from bright white through to beige, yellow, orange, red, brown and even black sands. The different colours come from the different minerals that made up the rocks that the sand came from – for example iron would stain the rocks / sands red – but also from decaying plant matter. An exception are the white sands which don’t come from rocks, they actually come from animals! Marine animals like sea shells, coral and others build calcium carbonate shells or skeletons. Once the animals pass away those shells remain and get ground up by wind or waves into very fine white sands.

The coloured sands, dunes and rocks of the northern end of Moreton Island always make a beautiful backdrop to our whale watching cruises!

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
Monday, 8 July 2013
Why do whales strand?

Lots of pods of humpback whales around again today. We saw a total of 10 whales close by with many more spotted in the distance all around. Most of the pods we saw today were slowly travelling north on their journey towards the breeding grounds off northern Queensland. But we finished the cruise with a very active pod of three whales that were breaching many times as well as slapping their big pectoral flippers on the water. Quite a spectacular sighting!

A lot of guests have been asking me about orcas (killer whales) in the past few days, because of the recent stranding of several orcas at Fraser Island last week. Orcas have been recorded in the waters off Queensland several times but these have been unpredictable and sporadic sightings. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that they used to be quite common along our coast line, especially during winter when the humpback whales are here as well. These orcas hunt other marine mammals as prey and sometimes target whale calves. A few years ago, locals observed a pod of orca killing a humpback whale calf just off Point Lookout on North Stradbroke Island to our South. Maybe orcas have become rare in these waters due to the low numbers of humpback whales left after whaling stopped in the 1960s. But now that our humpback numbers are recovering, maybe orca sightings will become more common again as well!

As to why whales strand – well there are many different theories and probably many different reasons for different species and cases. For social species like orcas it often has to do with their tight social bonds. In the case of this recent stranding on Fraser, three whales died while the rest of the pod could be refloated and seems to be doing well at this stage. One of the ones that died was a female with a young calf. A necropsy (animal autopsy) showed that she had a completely empty stomach and no milk in her mammary glands (despite having a young calf). This suggests she may have been sick or very weak before the stranding. Orca pods have very strong social bonds. They consist of immediate family groups that spend their whole lives together. The oldest female (the matriarch) usually leads the pod. In this case, the sick female may have been the matriarch who ended up leading her pod right up into the shallows of the Great Sandy Straights because she was too weak to cope with rougher seas (especially given the very high swells we’ve had along the coast for several days just previous to the stranding). It is good to see that the rest of the pod seem to have recovered from the stranding and appear to be healthy. But they have remained in the area since the stranding last week, probably because they lost three members of their pod there. We know of several whale and dolphin species that they do grieve or mourn for lost family members. For a highly social species like orcas, losing three members of their tight-knit family group must be devastating.

I hope that the remaining pod will be fine and also that all the media coverage they have received over the last few days will increase people’s awareness of the incredible social behavior and intelligence of these animals! They are really not all that different from ourselves in many ways!

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
Sunday, 7 July 2013
You never know!

What I love about whale watching is that you never know what you will get out there! Some days the humpback whales are extremely active, sometimes they are more quiet. Sometimes they are busy socializing with each other and completely ignore us but other times they are quite interested in us. Well, today was one of the latter cases – we had an absolutely incredible encounter with a juvenile female who played with us for almost an hour!

When we found her she was travelling north by herself and caught our attention by displaying a few breaches. As we got a bit closer to her she made a beeline straight for us and the next minute she came up for a massive breach right next to us! Wow! She continued breaching, then did several tail lobs, then started tail slapping many times in a row, then turned onto her back and did upside-down tail slaps for a while, then some pectoral flipper slaps….. basically she was showing us every single behavior in the books! In between she came up for several VERY close approaches to our boat. At one time she breached literally 30 cm off the bow!!! Then she surfaced a metre in front of the boat, rolled onto her side and looked up at us with her big eye at the surface of the water!

What an amazing sighting that I think all of us will be remembering for a long time!

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
Saturday, 6 July 2013
First adult humpback whales coming through!

Very cool sighting today of the first big adult humpback whales coming through!

We found a large pod of six whales that had four large adults and two smaller juveniles in it. Humpbacks can reach a size of 15-16m in length and 45 tons in weight, with females getting slightly larger than males. This pod appeared to have one very large animal in it, probably a female that was being chased by three adult males, with another two juveniles hanging around. The four adults were in a very tight group the whole time and were going quite fast, generally travelling northwest towards the breeding grounds but with many directional changes, zigzagging along. We were trying to stay alongside them but as they kept zigzagging they actually kept coming straight across our bow or even going straight under our boat several times which gave us some fantastic close up views of them!

I think we were watching a behaviour commonly called a “heat run”. Basically, a female that’s ready to mate will attract males but then swim off, enticing them to follow her. As the males are following they are competing for position next to her, pushing each other out of the way, jostling, sometimes even breaching right on top of each other. After a while only the strongest and fittest male will remain by her side, which of course is the preferred mate for her as he will likely father a strong calf.

The two juveniles in our pod seemed to be following close by but not right in the middle amongst the adults, probably observing, maybe learning the behaviours of the adults. None of the whales seemed to care about our presence, they were too distracted by each other and it was fantastic to be able to watch these social interactions between them. A small glimpse into the social life of humpback whales!

 

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
Friday, 5 July 2013
Are they communicating with their breaches?

Lots of pods of whales around again today. We started with a group of three pods, two pairs and a single humpback whale, that were travelling about 500m apart. The two pairs joined up for a while before splitting again. Humpback whales have a very fluid social system. They usually migrate in small pods (pairs or up to 5-6 travelling together). But those groups are not very stable, they may stay together for a few hours or days but then split up and form different groups.

Moving on, we found another two whales that were quite active, with several tail lobs at the surface. At the same time we noticed other pods further north breaching and splashing, so we started to head towards those pods and were rewarded with a fantastic display! One of these whales (a juvenile on his own) was head lunging and head slapping while another pair of juveniles, not too far off, were breaching! We got to see many beautiful breaches very close to the boat, some of them very high, almost completely clearing the water!

It is thought that surface behaviours like breaching, fin slapping, head lunges or tail lobs are a form of communication for these whales. They do produce sounds or calls as well, but the loud ‘bang’ of a full breach would certainly attract the attention of other whales, even quite far away! Quite often we do see a lot of breaching or other surface activity when there are several pods in the area, like today. Other reasons for breaching also include showing off strength or dominance (especially when you get males competing over a female), playing (especially in the young calves) or even getting rid of parasites on their skin.

Whatever the specific reason may be, it’s certainly a spectacular behaviour for us to observe!

 

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
Thursday, 4 July 2013
Calm day and 11 Whales!

A beautiful calm and sunny day today and the humpback whales were out in force again! We saw a grand total of 11 today, including a pod of three that seemed very interested in us. They stayed with us for quite a while, approached us to within touching distance of the boat four or five times, and displayed a few tail lobs and fluke-up dives (bringing their whole tail fluke out of the water before a deeper dive).

It’s just fantastic to see so many whales out here these days, especially considering that only 50 years ago this population had been hunted very close to extinction. Tangalooma has a long history with the whales, before it became a family resort it was one of the largest shore-based whaling stations in the Southern hemisphere. Operating from 1952-1962, Tangalooma was responsible for the killing and processing of a total of 6277 humpback whales and even one blue whale in these very waters. But they were not the only whaling station, with three other stations along the east coast of Australia, plus international whaling fleets in Antarctica all hunting this same population of humpback whales. It has been estimated that before commercial whaling started, this population consisted of around 40,000 individual humpback whales. But after only 10 years of commercial hunting, the population had been almost wiped out with an estimated 300 or less individuals left. And that was the reason why whaling ended along the east coast of Australia in 1962: there were simply no whales left to hunt.

Luckily the humpback whales were placed on the protected species list shortly after and thanks to that protection, they have been able to slowly recover. This population is now increasing at around 10% every year and this year we have an estimated 17,000 humpbacks migrating along our coastline again. That’s certainly a long way up from the few hundred left in the 1960s, although still less than half the original population size.

Many other great whale species that were hunted commercially have not been able to recover so well and are still very rare or endangered. So we are incredibly lucky to be able to come out and see so many whales right off our coast here, on any given day! Lets make sure they stay around for  future generations to enjoy as well!!

Eco Ranger Ina

Posted by Chad
 
 
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