July to September are great months to go whale watching in Far North Queensland. And with plenty of time on my hands, this week, I joined a group of other Cairns unemployed tourism professionals to go whale watching and support our local tourism industry.
Whale Watching is simply spectacular! If you have never been, I urge you to try it: seeing these giants of the ocean frolicking in front of your eyes is just jaw droppingly awesome.
Every year, tens of thousands of whales make the annual migration from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic, to breeding grounds in the warmer, protected waters of the Great Barrier Reef. In fact, the destination is so good, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority says that around 30 species of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) can be seen in the region at this time of the year.
The most commonly spotted are the humpback whales and it is estimated that around 2,000 – 20,000 of them journey to the reef off Cairns each year. Next are the dwarf Minke whales. Killer whales (Orcas), sperm whales, Pygmy Right Whales & Bryde's Whales have also been observed.
As a matter of fact, 35% of the world's whale population is said to be breeding on the Great Barrier Reef!
And you are almost assured to see dolphins (common dolphins & bottlenose dolphins) most days on the Great Barrier Reef.
The Cairns whale season runs between May and September, with Minke whales making an appearance from May onward and humpback whales beginning to appear in the following months.
An added feature is the chance of seeing mothers with their newborn calves.
When some of the largest mammals on the planet make their way to the largest coral reef system on the globe, it is nature at its most majestic.
Why do whales migrate?
Most whales migrate to eat and breed. For example, baleen whales, such as the humpback whale and the Minke whale, feed mostly on krill, which is abundant in very cold waters. However, these cold waters are not a suitable environment in which to give birth – newborn calves are born without a protective blubber layer under their skin and would quickly freeze to death. So whales meet their need for food and suitable calving areas by travelling long distances from cold feeding areas, to warm, subtropical waters for calving and mating.
However, a study by marine ecologists at the Oregon State University’s Marine Mammals Institute earlier this year, discovered that in fact whales move to warmer waters to maintain healthy skin & to molt. Read the article
Whatever the reason, the annual journey of the humpback whale is one of the longest migratory journeys of any mammal on earth: their journey can take them up to 5,000 kms (and that is one way!) during which they do not eat, instead subsisting on their fat stores, known as blubber.
During migration, humpback whales separate into groups according to sex and age, and travel at average speeds of approximately 7km per hour. They are generally lead by young males, followed by adult breeding whales and finally pregnant females and calves.
Whales tend to have consistent migratory patterns based on the seasons. The timing of the migration varies each year depending on the location of their feeding ground, water temperature, sea ice, predator risk and abundance of prey. The humpback whales that migrate up the Australian east coast generally head north between June and August and head back south between September and November.
There are 2 major migration routes in the Australian waters: along the west coast and another one along the east coast.
Dwarf minke whales are the second-smallest species of whale at around eight metres in length. These graceful creatures migrate to the stretch of reefs south of Lizard Island, known as the Ribbon Reefs.
Southern right whales are similar to humpbacks in that they feed in Antarctica in the summer and then migrate north to Australia to breed and give birth (especially in southern corners of Australia, around the Great Australian Bight).
On the east coast, southern right whales tend to migrate between Cape Byron and Antarctica, but have been seen as far north as Hervey Bay, Queensland. But never as far as Cairns or Port Douglas.
But not all whales migrate…
That’s right,some species, including bowhead and beluga whales, travel to search for food throughout the year but do not migrate. Sperm whales, on the other hand, are known to be solitary animals that wander all over the world’s oceans, but they do not have a predictable migratory pattern.
Here are some facts about Humpback Whales
Humpback Whales are protected in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, these warm waters providing an important and safe nursery habitat for the gentle giants. Humpback Whales have long frolicked in these warm waters, however, large-scale whaling activities carried out in the mid 1900s is believed to have reduced the population from 25,000 to just 500.
A protected species in Australia since the 1970s, Humpback Whale populations have made a strong comeback, increasing around 11% annually. In 2007, there were believed to be between 10,000 – 12,000 individuals in Australian waters.
Humpback Whales are the fifth largest animal in the world. Females (larger than males) can grow up to 15m and weigh over 40 tonnes! They have the largest flipper size of any other whale, growing up to one third of their body length.
Humpback whales belong to the genus Megaptera, which is derived from the Greek words ‘mega’ meaning great and ‘pteron’ meaning wing. The ‘great-wing’ the Greeks were referring to is the pectoral (side) fins which can be up to 6m long on a Humpback.
Humpback Whales have a life expectancy of about 50 years.
Females reach sexual maturity at 4-5years.
Humpback Whales give birth to one young, generally every 2years.
Pregnancy lasts around 11 months.
The calving and mating season takes place in the southern hemisphere winter, between June and October.
Calves are about 4 metres long and can weigh up to 2 tonnes at birth. They grow quickly and put on a heavy layer of insulating blubber before returning to the Southern Ocean with their mothers.
Calves are weaned at approximately 11 months and are vulnerable to attacks from sharks and Killer Whales.
Feeding: whales have baleen instead of teeth which they use to collect shrimp-like krill, plankton and small fish from the sea. These bristly baleen plates filter, sift, sieve or trap the whales’ favourite prey from seawater inside their mouths. Baleen is made out of keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails and hair.
Rather than chew their food, humpbacks swallow it all, expelling what they won’t digest from their blow holes.
ID please: All whale tails are different: Just as no two zebras have the same stripes or cheetahs have the same spots, whales are completely identifiable by the markings on their tail fluke. Like fingerprints or tattoos on their tail, scientists, tour operators and Queensland Parks rangers use these markers to track and research whale patterns along the east coast.
Humpback whales sing: It might be music to their ears, but if you’ve ever heard whale song, you’ll know the sound is haunting. Interestingly, it’s only male whales that sing, making these marine giants the ultimate boy band of the sea.
Their songs can be heard up to 30km away.
Whales see everything: Whales are not only alerted to boisterous action, they’re thought to be curiously attracted to it. If you’re on board a whale watching vessel and come across humpbacks, the skipper is likely to ask you to wave. Trust us, it’s not (just) for their entertainment – it’s so the whale is inquisitive enough to come eye-to-eye with the boat.
Breaching is akin to a humpback body scrub: Humpbacks are very acrobatic, often leaping or ‘breaching’ high out of the water before crashing back down. Sometimes they twirl around in the air while breaching. Scientists have been studying whales breaching for years, and while the jury is hung as to why they do it, everyone is united that it’s an awesome sight. Some scientists explain breaching as the whales’ means of dislodging barnacles and parasites from their torso, while others suggest it’s just for fun.
Whales can hold their breath for 40 minutes: If you thought you could hold your breath underwater for a long time, just wait ‘til you see whales.These marine giants have a highly efficient breathing system that allows them to absorb up to 90 percent of the 200 litres of oxygen they inhale, compared to just 15 percent humans do.
And what about Minke whales?
The name is a partial translation of Norwegian minkehval, possibly after a Norwegian whaler named Meincke, who mistook a northern Minke whale for a blue whale.
Research is continuing to define the exact species of the dwarf Minke whale that visits the Great Barrier Reef. There are two known species of Minke whales, the North Atlantic Minke whale and the slightly larger Antarctic Minke whale. It is thought that the Great Barrier Reef dwarf Minke whale is related to the North Atlantic Minke, or is an un-named species.
The Dwarf Minke whale is the smallest baleen whale, identified by about 50-70 throat grooves. The largest Dwarf Minke whale that was accurately measured was 7.8 m (25 feet) long with adults weighing 5-6 tonnes.
They have a characteristic white band on each flipper, contrasting with its very dark grey top colour. Like fingerprints are to humans, these markings are unique to each whale, making each one different from the next!
They have two blowholes, like all baleen whales.
The Minke does not feed on the Great Barrier Reef, but fatten up on krill in the rich waters of the Antarctic before their annual migration.
Minkes display some extraordinary behaviour such as spy hopping, where they lift their head out of the water and observe the boats above the surface. Often they are seen tail-slapping the water, which may be an acoustic signal to other whales in the vicinity. Minkes are known to breach, but not quite as the Humpback Whale, which are also seen on the Great Barrier Reef in the winter months.
The Minke whale migration through the Great Barrier Reef was only discovered in the mid-1980’s.
Adult Minke whales can weigh up to six tonnes!
They live to approximately 60 years old. One way to tell how old a Minke whale is by counting the waxy layers in their ears. Really???
They may not be the oldest, but Minke whales are one of the fastest types of whales. They can travel at speeds greater than 30km per hour, which is fast for a whopping whale!
Like humpback whales, Minke whales are baleen feeders. This means they munch on krill and small fish with their comb-like rows of bristles which allow water to flow through but traps their food.
Minke whales typically come to the surface to breathe every two and a half minutes, but can stay under water for more than 12 minutes.
These whales rarely have predators, however, can be preyed upon by packs of killer whales and some large sharks.
When underwater you can hear the Minke whales singing to each other, which is their main form of communication. If you have ever wanted to speak whale to an actual whale, here is your chance!
The average gestation period for dwarf Minke whales is 10 months.
Many pregnant females will give birth on their northward journey, the single calf being approximately 3 metres in length and weighing 300kg.
Mother Minke whales wean their calves after approximately six months.
Whale watching tours
Day Tours ex Cairns
Whale Watching Tours Cairns tours run in July & August. They do not visit any reef sites and find whales by communicating with other vessels. Watching the whales (mainly the humpback whales) is purely from above the surface from the decks of the vessel. You have the opportunity before and/or after the Whale Watching tour to disembark at Fitzroy Island for some leisure time. Once there, you can hire snorkel equipment, kayaks or Stand Up Paddle Boards for your free time on the island, or opt for some walking along one of the island’s rainforest trails.
Overnight tours ex Cairns
Liveaboard Expeditions leave from Cairns to the Ribbon Reefs where you get to swim with the Minke whales, in June and July, for 3 to 7 days.
The inquisitive nature of the Minke Whale brings them close to boats to linger with divers and snorkelers, but all encounters take place on the whale's terms.
Operators hold a permit from the Great Marine Reef Marine Park Authority to offer a Swimming with Whales activity. A code of practice is in place to manage safety for both divers and whales, providing the maximum opportunity to see whales at very close range while ensuring the whales interact on their terms. Most diver and whale interactions generally occur while snorkelling.
All operators participate in research and guests are encouraged to assist by using data collection forms to record whale observations and by sharing their photos to the database.
You will also learn about their biology, behaviour and life history through onboard lectures by marine biologists and scientists.
Eye to Eye Marine Encounters runs a 7 Day / 7 Night (Monday to Monday) minke whale expeditions. John Rumney and his dedicated team of researchers and crew have been running swim with minke whale trips for 17 years and pioneered the swim with whale experience in Queensland. They were also instrumental in the development of guidelines that ensures all encounters are carried out on the whales’ terms and have now been adopted by industry as World’s Best Practice.
During the months of June & July, Spirit of Freedom offer a modified version of their Cod Hole 3 Day / 3 night (Monday to Thursday) trips. Over two and half days you will have the opportunity for up to 11 dives and as much in-water swim time with the whales: the underlying focus at all times here is to maximise in-water encounters with the whales. Return to Cairns is via a one hour flight from Lizard Island, so you get the added bonus of amazing scenic flight!
Divers Den offers a 4 days, 4 nights (trips depart Friday, return Tuesday) on board Ocean Quest, a 35m catamaran purpose built for a top class dive holiday, with a spacious dive deck, large open sundecks and hot, fresh water showers.
Day Tours ex Port Douglas
Day tour vessels who depart from Port Douglas such as Calypso, Silversonic, and Poseidon have permits to swim with the whales, but encounter them only sporadically.
Overnight tours ex Port Douglas
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offer 3, 4 or 7 nights snorkelling and whale research tours where the itinerary is dictated by the whales, visiting areas of high Minke activity and key dive sites. Every day has a high probability of whale encounters. Minke expeditions are suitable for both snorkelers and scuba divers.
You may also be lucky to see whales on a regular snorkelling or diving trip to the reef, as they are often sighted by the day trip boats.
Note: some tours may no longer be running due to travel restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and operators may temporarily suspend their trips at short notice. Swim with the Minke whales season is over for this year. Store this information for next year 😀
Tours are conducted in known whale hot-spots and operators communicate with each other when whales are sighted; however, there can never be a 100% guarantee that you will see whales. Nor can you be assured that they will blow, breach, tail or fin slap.
Australian Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) Whale Watching Regulations
To protect the Great Barrier Reef’s precious whales and dolphins, several regulations have been established for all whale watching tour operators and participants.
As a Great Barrier Reef Whale Tour Participant, you are legally required to adhere to the following points when you encounter a whale from a vessel, aircraft or in the water:
Do not kill, take, injure and / or interfere with whales and dolphins - interference includes harassing, chasing and herding.
Do not restrict the path of whales or dolphins.
Do not touch / feed, or attempt to touch / feed, a whale or dolphin.
Do not enter the water within 100 metres of a whale or within 50 metres of a dolphin.
Do not approach closer than 30 metres to a whale or dolphin if you are in the water. If a whale or dolphin approaches you while you are in the water, move slowly, do not touch or swim towards it.
Minimise noise when closer than 300 metres from a whale or dolphin.
Basically, you are asked to show respect to these magnificent creatures as you are in their environment.
Did we see any whales on our trip? We sure did. We saw a mother and her calf and another two adults. Well, we saw their backs and a tail or two, I should say. Unfortunately, they did not breach, nor did they flap their tails or their fins. They seemed to be rather intend on moving along. But it was so special to see them back in our tropical waters.
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