Warrain the humpback whale

The Story of Warrain

Animal #: E0010

What better name for an Australian humpback whale than “Warrain” – a word of an Australian aboriginal dialect that means “of the sea”.

Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team has been studying humpback whales off the coast of Australia for 26 years. Our scientists have sighted Warrain on nine different occasions since 1986. These repeated sightings have allowed us to get to know this intriguing whale, and have helped to shape our understanding of Australia’s humpback whales.

Humpback whales are found in all of the world’s oceans, and are known for their seasonal migrations, considered the longest in the animal kingdom. In general, humpback whales devote the warmest months of the year (summer) to feeding on krill and small fish in productive, cold waters, generally near polar regions. The whales live off the resulting fat reserves during the rest of the year. With the arrival of autumn and early winter, humpbacks migrate to warmer water areas, where they mate, give birth and care for their young.

Warrain is part of a population of more than 12,000 South Pacific humpback whales whose seasonal migration takes them along the eastern coast of Australia. During the warmer months of the year, these whales feed near Antarctica, in the Southern Ocean. From June to August, these whales can be seen along Australia’s eastern coast, as they migrate northward. Fortunately for whalewatching enthusiasts, their migration is close to shore! The whales make their way along the coast to their breeding areas in warm tropical waters. The whales are seen again along Australia’s eastern coast from September through November, while they migrate southward back toward Antarctica. They typically stay further off shore on the northern migration and stay closer to shore on the southward migration, likely because of the young calves traveling with the mothers.

You’ll notice that we refer to Warrain as a male. Our researchers were able to determine Warrain’s gender, because he was observed singing on two different occasions. Singing is a behavior exhibited only by males and is associated with the time of year when whales are mating. While there are many theories about why whales sing, the purpose of the song is not fully understood.

Our acquaintance with Warrain began in 1986, when Pacific Whale Foundation’s researchers sighted him on June 22 in a pod with one other whale – a yearling. Warrain and the yearling whale were swimming with dolphins off an area known as Point Lookout, a small coastal village located in Queensland, on the eastern coast of North Stradbroke Island. You can see that location on the enclosed map. (A side note: our researchers have many recorded entries of dolphins in the company of humpback whales, both in Australia and Hawaii.)

Warrain was observed by our team again in 1988, viewed on several occasions in late September in Hervey Bay, which is also in Queensland. This expansive bay, bordered on one side by the world’s largest sand island (Fraser Island), is a stopping off point for many humpback whales migrating along the coast. The individual whales that we see in the bay are often seen repeatedly over the course of a few days. We believe they then leave to continue their migration. During our repeated 1988 sightings of Warrain in Hervey Bay, he was sometimes in the company of other humpback whales. He was also observed singing – on September 24th!

Hervey Bay again proved to be an opportune place for our scientists to view Warrain on September 19, 1989. During that encounter, Warrain was with another humpback whale.

1991 brought another sighting of Warrain. This observation took place on June 24th, when Warrain was sighted with another whale, this time off Point Lookout in Queensland. The accompanying whale was a subadult – a whale that has not yet reached sexual maturity. Humpback whales generally reach sexual maturity at about five years for females, and seven years for males.

In October of 1992, Warrain was again observed in Hervey Bay. During this encounter, he was an escort to a mother whale and her calf. Male whales do not form long-term bonds with female whales, and do not remain with the female to help “father” her offspring. However, males will join mother/calf pods for short periods of time. Because females can become pregnant soon after giving birth, scientists theorize that the males may be seeking an opportunity to mate.

Warrain was seen again by our research team on September 25, 1993. He was alone, in Hervey Bay – and he was singing!

Our next sighting of Warrain took place on October 10, 1999. He was one of three escorts with a mother/calf pair in Hervey Bay.

Then came a wonderful surprise. On October 27, 2003, Warrain was observed in a pod with a sub-adult whale near our study area off a small fishing town named Eden, along the southernmost part of Australia’s eastern coast. While whales don't engage in significant feeding at the mating and calving areas or during their southward migration, whales are observed feeding near Eden. We did not see Warrain feeding, but we were pleased to view him at this new location on his migration.

Our research team saw Warrain again in his familiar haunt of Hervey Bay. This sighting took place on October 12, 2008. Warrain was in a very active pod with three adult whales and one subadult whale.

The compilation of Warrain’s story was made possible through a process known as photo identification. Our researchers in the field take photos of the tail flukes and dorsal fins of the whales they encounter, noting the exact GPS location, time of day, pod composition, behaviors and weather conditions at the time. Because whale flukes and dorsal fins each have unique pigmentation patterns, shapes and other distinguishing factors, we can differentiate one individual from another. Throughout the year in our research lab, our team compares photos obtained during recent field studies against photos of previously identified individual whales. It is always exciting to find a “resight” – a whale that was sighted before on one or more occasions. To have nine resights of Warrain makes him a very special whale for our research team.

Warrain sighting map