In the Presence of Whales

We first discovered humpback whales in 1987. Or perhaps they found us. Either way from that fateful day in August we have fallen in love with the humpbacks of Hervey Bay.

No, they are not a different species of humpback whales – they are just ‘different’. Something magical happens when the whales leave their migratory pathway and divert into the shallow protected waters found on the inside of Fraser Island, a World Heritage site.

The average water depth in the Bay is about 40 feet. The bottom is white sand, and there is a 3-meter tide that runs daily. The water appears clear, but for the most part it is murky due to the large tide and stirred up sand. When the humpbacks are on their migratory run, they swim fairly constantly, at about 2-3 knots, and surface every 4-6 minutes. When they enter Hervey Bay they become extremely social and curious.

In August and early September, the bay is littered with large resting females, yearlings and subbies. And for some (yet) unknown reason they love to associate with boats. “Mugging’ or ‘sticky’ whales are common on every whalewatch trip. These are not just chance encounters that last a few fleeting moments. These are close encounters of the 2+-hour kind. Whales rolling under vessels, doing head rises, tilting their heads and raising their eyes above the water’s surface. It appears that they are really intent on watching us, as we are they.

It usually takes about 45 minutes to get to where the whales congregate, verses 10-15 minutes of Maui. But when you find the whales, the encounters in Hervey Bay can leave you breathless and out of memory on your digital camera. This time of the year the Bay is filled with whales as mothers with their newborn calves have also begun to arrive. And while the moms were skittish off Port Douglas and the Whitsundays, they seem to have not a care in world about our presence in Hervey Bay.

There are so many whales that we are spending 5-6 hours per day in the presence of whales, verses 30 minutes in Port Douglas. Breaching, pec slaps, peduncle throws, head slaps, singing – you name the behavior and you will likely see it.

But don’t take my word for it; take a look at some of the video clips and photos from the past few days.


P.S.: Sorry about not posting daily, but we have no Internet access at our research house. We rise and 6:00am, depart at 7 and return at 6 pm, and then do data entry until 11 pm and get up and do it all over again. There has been no time to find an Internet cafe! Check out our Facebook page, we can download some images from the field from our IPhone as they happen.

Greg Kaufman


Beth Salles (visitor) says:

One question Greg. Do you think they hang around your boat for so long because you guys are so quiet and they don't feel you are a threat? Unlike the bigger boats with tourists that would probably be louder and more vocal?

greg says:

The 'muggers' are generally females. The subadult females display what we affectionately call 'engine love', as they will spend an inordinate amount of time near our idling outboard. Our methodology is to keep everything the same when a 'mugger' approaches. So if the engine is running we keep it running, vice versa.

Mugging in Hervey Bay tends to happen more in August and early-September and then wanes as the season progresses. This is likely due to the age/sex class of animals present at this time, and tapers off when mothers with their newborn calves arrive in early-Sept.

Beth Salles (visitor) says:

Wow great videos. Must be such an awesome feeling when they get so close to the boat and just look up at you with those gentle soulfull eyes of theirs. makes you just want to reach over and hug them. Thanks for the videos.

curious jean (visitor) says:

Does the whale with the black belly have a name?

greg says:

Black bellied whales are unusual off east Australia, and does not always mean they have black (or mostly black) flukes either (also unusual). In order to track all our identified whales we first give them unique identification codes, and then name some of the unique or memorable ones (e.g. E502 = Nala). To my knowledge we have not 'named' this particular whale - yet.

Kim (visitor) says:

I love all the recent videos--it's like a mini vacation every time I see a new one. You said it's cold there--how does the water temp compare with their birthing/breeding grounds in Maui? Is there anything for the whales to eat in Australia or do they go without like they do in Hawaiian waters? Thanks again for all the great info you're providing!

greg says:

There is a bit more for them to eat in the warm northern waters of east Australia verse Hawaii because of how the east Australian current ebbs and flows through the season. We have had reports of feeding humpbacks from some fishers, as far north as Cairns, but these are infrequent observations. One whalewatch operator reported seeing whales with their mouths open near a pod of feeding gannets and dolphins earlier this month. As the whales head south, we have discovered an area where they feed regularly in mid-migration,
Eden, NSW. Stay tuned, that is where we are heading on October 1st, and I am sure we will have lots of great feeding video and photos to share.