Each year between April and November, Australia’s eastern coastline comes alive with the spectacular migratoin of humpback whales. After a summer of feeding on krill in Antarctic waters, these beautiful animals migrate north to sub-tropical waters where they mate and give birth. During their annual migration of up to 10,000 kilometres, it’s quite easy to spot humpbacks from eastern coastal towns such as Lennox Head, Ballina and Byron Bay.
The exact timing of the migration period can vary from year to year depending on water temperature, sea ice, predation risk, prey abundance and the location of their feeding ground. The majority of humpbacks in Australian waters migrate north from June to August, and back towards the Southern Ocean from September to November. Groups of young males typically lead the migration while pregnant cows and cow-calf pairs bring up the rear. Adult breeding animals form the bulk of the migration in the middle stages.
Humpback Whales reach an average length of 12-19 metres and can weigh upt 36,000 kg. Althougth it isn’t the largest whale found in Australian waters it is arguably the most iconic. Recognised by Australians today as more valuable alive, both environmentally and economically, this species was once valued only when it was dead — mainly for its oil and baleen, or ‘whalebone’.
Humpback whales are identified by the underside and trailing edge of their tail flukes; each one is different just like a fingerprint.
Humpback Whales belong to the family of baleen wheels, which have a series of curtain-like filters in their mouths instead of teeth. Moving through clouds of krill or schools of smaller-sized fish, they suck in large amounts of water, then push the water back out through their baleens, trapping the krill inside. Sometimes Humpbacks will slap the surface of the water with their flukes or pectoral fins in order to stun prey with the shockwave.
Humpback Whales are generally loners; coming together occasionally to feed or mate. On the other hand, Humpbacks are regarded as being quite friendly towards other types of marine life, having been spotted socializing with other kinds of whales and dolphins.
When travelling, Humpback Whales move at about 5 to 15 km per hour. During feeding, they’ll slow to 2 to 5.5 km/h. When they want to really move they can speed up to about 25 km/h.
The ‘celebrity’ whale is Migaloo, an all white humpback. On 28th June, 1991, a seemingly albino whale was photographed passing Byron Bay, Australia’s most easterly point. He was believed to be about 5 years old at the time.
This unusual whale was, at that time, the only documented all-white humpback whale in the world. It was named “Migaloo”, which is the name the Australian Aboriginal community in Queeensland use to describe a “White Fella”.
Migaloo is part of the east Australian humpback population, now suspected to number around 30,000 in 2020.
Sightings of Migaloo provide valuable insight into the migratory behaviour of humpback whales along the east coast of Australia. For example, Migaloo has been sighted numerous times in consecutive years with the same male humpback whale known as “Milo”. Milo can be recognised by his unique pigmentation pattern, and before this, it was not known that humpback males travelled with companions throughout their migrations.
Beginning in Australia shortly after European colonisation, whaling and the export of whale products became Australia’s first primary industry. Australian whalers of the early 19th century hunted from small boats, towing their catch back for processing at shore stations. The development of harpoon guns, explosive harpoons and steam-driven whaling boats later that century made large-scale commercial whaling so efficient that many whale species were over-exploited in the 20th century and came very close to extinction.
The Whale Protection Act 1980 has now been replaced by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC Act) Act 1999. The Australian Whale Sanctuary, includes the entire Commonwealth marine area, beyond the coastal waters of each state and the Northern Territory. Within the Sanctuary it is an offence to kill, capture, injure, harass, chase or herd whales, dolphins and porpoises. The EPBC Act lists humpback whales as vulnerable and state legislation of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland provides similar protection.
It is estimated that when the Australian east coast whaling industry ended in 1963, the east coast population of humpbacks had been reduced to a little over 100 individuals. Thankfully, this population has shown steady recovery of around 10 –11% a year, and in 2020 was estimated at around 30,000.
The recovery of the humpback population has contributed significantly to the rapid growth of Australia’s whale watching industry. The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2005 have been developed to minimise impacts on whales, dolphins and porpoises and to give people the best opportunity to enjoy and learn about them. Everyone in Australian waters must follow regulations on how to behave around these animals, for example, touching or feeding them is not allowed. Vessels must travel carefully at low speed and stay at least 100 metres away, although a closer look is sometimes possible if curious whales choose to approach the vessel.
Individual humpbacks still face threats — they can become entangled in fishing gear or be struck by ships. Scientific whaling, pollution, climate change, ocean noise and unsustainable tourism may also affect the population. Humpback calves stay with their mothers for 11–12 months before becoming independent. During this time, the biggest threat they face is attack by killer whales or sharks.
Whale watching guidelines exist to protect humpback whales in Australian waters. These include slow approach speeds (6 knots) when within 300m of an adult humpback, and vessels are prohibited from approaching closer than 100m of adults, or 300m if a calf is present.
While you can spot migrating whales from any coastal location, even, if you’re lucky, from the beach, here are the best and elevated spots to guarantee a sighting: