Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Whales in the waters

Towns with decent harbours along the southern coast of Australia boomed during the heyday of the whaling era. Whales come north from Antarctic waters to calve and feed as nutrient-rich currents push up against the continental shelf.
Fortunately, whales are no longer killed, and the industry has vanished. Today, whales are a big draw for tourism, and the many cliffs along these shores provide excellent vantage points to observe these giants.
Logan’s Beach in nearby Warrnambool is a popular whale watching destination, and when we visited there recently, we were rewarded with the sight of a Southern Right whale basking in the swells just beyond a group of keen surfers.
Southern Right whale off Logan's beach, Warrnambool. Note the surfers in the foreground.
The lookout point has excellent interpretive signage, and explains that the “Right” whale was so named because it was the “right” one to kill: it was slow, had plenty of oil and floated when dead.
Not so “right” for the whales though: an estimated population of 60,000 when whaling began in earnest on these coasts in 1806 had declined to only 300 animals by the early 1920s—and of those, only 60 were female.
Southern Right whales were granted protection in 1935, and since then the population has risen slowly to an estimated 1,200 whales in Australian waters.
Further west along the coast, Portland was a major whaling centre until the industry collapsed in the late 1840s. The tourism centre near the harbour includes an informative museum with a whale skeleton in the lobby. They also have a whale watch email notification service, so we signed up.
Almost daily now we are getting reports of nearby sightings. When we saw that two whales were reported off a beach nearby, we rushed out. Not only were there two very close to the shore (perhaps 40m), but we spied two more a few hundred metres out.
Mature whales can be 18m long and weigh 80-100 tonnes, so seeing them in so close was a real thrill. In both cases, one animal had more prominent crusty “callosities” on the upper jaw, whereas the other was more evenly black. Another local enthusiast there thought we were probably seeing two sets of mother and calf.
Two Southern Right whales just offshore near the outflow of the Surrey River at Narrawong, VIC.
These two and two others -- probably both sets of mother and calf -- were as close as 40m from the shore. (The image quality is low because this was taken hand-held with the camera's digital zoom.)
We’ll be eagerly watching the whale notifications, and hope to catch a sighting from one of the many cliffs in this area.
The Glenelg Shire Council’s web site provides a history of whale sightings reported in the Portland area.