As a child and teenager I spent a lot of time at Pt Picquet fishing with my father, especially over the winter period. Despite spending many hours looking out to sea I never saw any whales and I never met anyone who had. I now know that most species were almost totally wiped out with the numbers of survivors often down to a few hundred. Today some species such as the humpbacks have made a spectacular recovery and at the height of the whale watching season we can see over 10 pods an hour passing Pt Picquet. Officially there are 35,000 humpbacks migrating up and down the West Australian coast and the numbers are growing at 7% per annum. However this is the number that has been quoted for something like 10 years simply because there hasn’t been a more recent comprehensive survey. Other species such as the Southern Right Whales and Blue Whales are still endangered
Southern Right Whales
The Southern Right Whales (SRW) are my favourites primarily because they mostly migrate to the Great Australian Bight and as the numbers increase we see a few (probably less than 50) each year in Geographe Bay. They are critically endangered and there are believed to be less than 10,000 worldwide. They are rarely seen north of Rottnest. The mothers and calves are here to look after the calf and fatten it up for the return to Antarctic waters over summer. Left undisturbed they will remain in a bay for lengthy periods (often weeks). The males have other things on their minds, and are well equipped to carry out these activities (google Southern Right Whale penis to see what I mean!). The mothers are extremely sensitive to disturbances eg from boats, SUPs, or even paddlers. The calves are curious and will often approach boats, but the mother will usually round up the calf and then they leave the area.
Image #1 Southern Right Whale barnacles
This image shows the white “barnacles” that all SRW’s have. These are leathery patches of skin called callosities which is Latin for beauty spot! These callosities remain for life and are used by researchers to identify individual whales.
Over the years I have been fortunate on two occasions to photograph a rare white SRW calf in Geographe Bay. These are not albinos as they are not completely white. There are probably 3-4 born each year worldwide.
Image #2 rare white Southern Right Whale calf.
This image was taken in October 2013 at Castle Rock.
Image #3 rare white Southern Right Whale calf.
This image was taken in October 2016 at Rocky Point. The calf had been sighted several months earlier at Augusta and named “Pearl”.
As the calf grows older the creamy coloured areas will turn a dark grey.
The earliest I have seen a SRW was at the end of May at Sugarloaf Rock.
Humpbacks travel further north in their annual migration. The main calving and breeding grounds are just north of Derby. Around Cape Naturaliste we rarely see humpbacks on their northern migration as they travel out to sea, possibly to avoid the south flowing Leeuwin current. However on the return migration we see large numbers with estimates that approximately 15% of the 35,000 are travelling close enough to the coast to be trapped in Geographe Bay as they travel south. They then turn west to go around Cape Naturaliste. The majority are small groups with mothers and calves.
Humpbacks are the aerialists of the whale world. We frequently see then breaching, tail slapping, slapping their pectoral fins and putting on displays. These actions seem to be a form of communication eg to enable a calf to find its mother when they are separated. We occasionally see humpbacks wandering aimlessly for a while unsure as to which way to go. One will breach, and soon after a humpback in a nearby pod will give an answering breach, and both pods will them make their way towards Cape Naturaliste. Mothers appear to teach the calves to breach while on their southern voyage. The calves seem to have inexhaustible energy supplies and sometimes breach continuously for hours.
Image #4 Humpback whale breaching
Image #5 Humpback whale breaching.
Image #6 Humpback whale dorsal fin.
Image #7 Humpback whale tail flip.
As the numbers of humpbacks grow we see some extremes of behaviour – for example a small number females give birth south of Augusta each year – perhaps prematurely – who knows! In 2016 two such calves born early got separated from their mothers and washed ashore at Lefthanders in a huge storm. I saw these two little guys try for hours to get out through the massive surf, and they kept getting washed back to the beach. Eventually they got out when the surf quietened down, but their mothers were nowhere to be seen. In that storm all means of communication were useless.
Image #8 the seas at Lefthanders
Image #9 Baby humpback in surf at Lefthanders
The next day I saw two baby humpbacks (with no mothers anywhere around) heading north past Sugarloaf. I like to think the two had joined together and were off to find their mothers. It seemed they were heading the right way and I hope they found them.
Blue Whales are the largest things that have ever lived. We see them from late September through to early December. They often pass Pt Picquet very close in (<50m) and seeing them close up is amazing. They are believed to be migrating from breeding grounds in Indonesia to somewhere in the Bass Strait.
Image #10 Blue whale
Blue whales are very hard to photograph from the land as they do not rise very far out of the water. All you see is a blue grey cigar shape, often a long way out and moving fast. Drones are the best way to photograph them, but in October 2016 DPAW made it illegal to fly a drone near a whale. This is unfortunate as drones were providing us with the ability to not only photograph them, but also to understand their behaviour. For example this blue whale was a female with her calf swimming under her in her slipstream.
Hamelin Bay beaching.
In March 2009, 80 long finned pilot whales beached themselves at Hamelin Bay. Eventually only about 6-8 were saved. Volunteers spent time in the water pouring water over the mammals in an effort to save them, but had to leave the water as the light faded because of the danger of sharks. These mass stranding’s are still a mystery to scientists.
Image #11 the scene at Hamelin Bay with hundreds of volunteers trying to save the whales.
Image #12 Volunteers assisting a whale.
Image #13 the media reporting the event.
Although this was only 8 years ago, drones were something the US military flew. One photographer had a system which used a kite to carry a camera in the air. It seemed like a good idea at the time! Perhaps we could resurrect the idea to get around DPAW’s rules on flying drones over whales!
Image #14 Photographer using a kite to carry a camera in the air.
2017 Whale Watch Update
The humpbacks have arrived 2-3 weeks earlier than 2016. In August there were approximately 400 humpbacks recorded passing Pt Picquet compared to less than 10 in 2016. Even though the humpbacks were late starting in 2016 they finished at the same time as normal, so they came through in a rush. Let’s hope 2017 is similar.
For the first time a blue whale was sighted at Pt Picquet at the end of August and another sighted from the lighthouse a little bit earlier. This is a major development – previously (only 5 years ago) they came through Geographe Bay in November-December. No one has any idea what is happening, but it is probably related to availability of food (blue whales don’t have a lot of blubber and migrate from food source to food source).
There have been approximately 12 minke whales seen from Pt Picquet so far this year. They are moving fast (no Japanese whalers chasing them!) and are difficult to spot so there may have been a lot more.
There have also been around 20 Southern Right whales seen around the coast. The Southern Rights mostly migrate to the Great Australian Bight, and are critically endangered. As the numbers build up some come around the Cape Leeuwin-Cape Naturaliste corner and attempt to find a nice quiet bay to bring up the new calves. Unfortunately they are usually harassed by boats and leave. (It is mostly the mother calf pairs that seem to be sensitive to boats). So please urge any of your boating friends to give them plenty of room.
Whale watching is good at Pt Picquet where there is usually someone to tell you where to look, and the whales sometimes come very very close. The whale lookout at Cape Naturaliste is also good, but anywhere down the west coast is good. However they will usually be 1-2km+ out.
Image #15 2017 breaching humpback.
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