The Southern Ocean whale watching season starts in June and ends in October. During this period, humpback and southern right whales enter coastal waters for calving and are clearly visible from the shore in many parts of the Great Southern.
Southern right whales are bulky and move slowly, grow up to 17.5m and can weigh around 80 tonnes. They are usually black with white patches near the navel and do not have throat grooves, but a series of lumps or callosities on the head in front of the blowhole. These crusty, horny outgrowths of skin can grow as high as 10cm, with the largest section perched on the tip of the upper jaw. The shape, size and distribution of these callosities give every whale unique physical characteristics. The whale's blowholes are widely separated and produce two distinct spouts, which rise up to 5m in a v-shaped fan of mist. They tend to inhabit the cooler latitudes and were the first of the large whales to be hunted. Slow moving, floating when dead and yielding large amounts of product, they were seen as the ‘right’ whales to catch. Though still classed as endangered, the southern right population is steadily increasing at approximately seven per cent a year.
Humpback whales have enormous flippers, which are almost one third of the creature’s total body length and heavily scalloped on the leading edge. The whale's body is robust and its head broad and rounded. Its dorsal fin is small, but varies in shape and is set two-thirds of the way back from the head, mounted on a distinct fleshy step or platform unlike any other baleen whale. The humpback is usually a shade of black with white throat grooves. Its flippers are almost pure white underneath, while the undersides of the flukes are marked with a variable pattern of white, making each whale unique. The humpback's blow is distinctive, seldom more than 3m high with a broad, bushy balloon of spray. The humpback population has been recovering at around 10 per cent a year since they became protected in 1963.
Whale behavioural characteristics
Breaching or lunging is when a whale leaps out of the water - although the distinction between the two is fairly arbitrary. A breach is when at least 40 per cent of the animal's body clears the water, while a lunge is a leap with less than 40 per cent clearance. A breach is a genuine jump with an intent to clear the water, whereas a lunge is the result of a fast upward sloping swim, perhaps as a result of feeding, which has caused the whale to clear the surface of the water unintentionally. When breaching, humpback whales travel close to the surface and parallel to it, then jerk upwards at full speed to perform a breach. In a typical breach, the whale clears the water at an angle of about 30 degrees to the horizontal. Around 90 per cent of the body clears the water before the whale turns to land on its back or side. To achieve this amount of clearance, a humpback needs to leave the water at around 8m per second or 29kph.
Fluking or tail-finning is when whales and dolphins embark on a deep dive, they sometimes lift their tails into the air and thrust their bodies into a steeply angled descent. This type of dive clearly shows the underside of the flukes making identification easier. Flukes are composed of flesh and not anchored by skeletal anatomy. In all species, they are flattened horizontally. The tail-fin down dive occurs when the whale’s flukes are brought clear of the water but remain turned down, hiding the underside from view.
Lobtailing is when a whale lifts its tail-fins out of the water and then brings them down onto the surface hard and fast in order to make a loud slap. Similarly, species with large flippers may also slap them against the water. Lobtailing is common amongst humpback and southern right whales. Large whales tend to lobtail by positioning themselves vertically downwards into the water and then slapping the surface by bending the tail stock. All species of whale usually slap several times in a single session and the sound can be heard several hundred metres underwater from the site of a slap. Scientists have speculated that lobtailing in humpbacks is a means of foraging. The theory is the loud noise creates fear in fish, which in turn causes schools to tighten, making it easier for the whale to feed on them.
Logging is exhibited when resting. It is defined as lying without forward movement on the water’s surface with the dorsal fin or parts of the back exposed. Logging is particularly common in southern right whales.
A penducle throw is when a humpback converts its forward momentum into a rotation, pivoting with its pectorals as it drives its head downward and thrusts its entire fluke and peduncle (the muscular rear portion of its torso) out of the water and sideways, before crashing into the water with terrific force. This behaviour usually takes place among the focal animals (female, escort, challenging male) in a competitive group, apparently as an aggressive gesture. Possibilities include escorts fending off a particular challenging male, females who seem agitated with an escort, or an individual not comfortable with the presence of a boat. Occasionally, one whale performs a series of peduncle throws, directed at the same target.
Spyhopping is when a whale rises and holds its position partially out of the water, often exposing its entire head and upper body and relying on buoyancy control and pectoral fin positioning to keep it upright. Spyhopping is controlled and slow, and can last for minutes at a time if the whale is sufficiently inquisitive about what it is viewing.
Suggested Great Southern whale watching spots:
Rotary lookout, Marine Drive - Southern right whales can be seen close to the rocks directly beneath the lookout.
Sandpatch, via Princess Avenue, off Frenchman Bay Road
Whale World off Frenchman Bay Road, 20km from Albany CBD
John Cove, Bremer Bay - Southern right whales are often found less than 70m from the beach at John Cove.
Point Ann - located within the Fitzgerald River National Park and known as the main calving area for southern right whales.
To see whales up close, visit the albanygateway.com.au whale watching directory for more information of tours operating from Albany.
Several whale tour companies operate from Albany Jetty, every day of the week, weather permitting.
If you plan to take a boat into open water in search of whales, then it is important to follow the following rules as set out by the Department of Environment and Conservation.
Only people with vessels licensed by the DEC are allowed to operate commercial tours for whale watching. People on private vessels (including surfboards, kayaks, yachts and launches) do not require whale watching licences, but must adhere to these rules and guidelines governing whale watching. Aircraft are not permitted to fly within 300m of a whale, except by special authorisation. Swimming with, feeding or touching whales is not permitted. Such actions may cause stress to the whale and are dangerous to people. If you are in the water and a whale approaches, you must endeavour to keep a minimum of 30m between yourself and the whale. Any marine vessel, whether powered by a motor, paddle or sail within 300m of a whale is within the animal's contact zone.
- A vessel must not cause a whale to alter its direction or speed of travel.
- A vessel must not disperse or separate a group of whales.
- A vessel, whether under power or drifting, must not approach a whale from a direction within an arc of 60° of the whale's direction of travel or an arc of 60° of the whale's opposite direction of travel
- A vessel must not approach a whale within a distance of 100 metres (except licensed 'RESEARCH' vessels in particular circumstances).
- Where a whale approaches a vessel and the distance between the whale and the vessel becomes less than 100 metres, the vessel master must place its motor or motors in neutral or move the vessel at less than five knots away from the whale until the vessel is outside the contact zone.
- A vessel must not block the direction of travel of a whale, or any passage of escape available to a whale, from an area where escape is otherwise prevented by a barrier, shallow water, vessel or some other obstacle to the whale's free passage.
- A vessel master must abandon any interactions with a whale at any sign of the whale becoming disturbed or alarmed.
- If a whale is diving for prolonged periods or swimming evasively it is being disturbed.
- It is an offence to harrass whales. If they are continually disturbed they are known to permanently abandon an area.