People and Places
24/06/2019
First whales of the season arrive in Victoria

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It was the first day of winter and the whale hotline started to buzz with sightings. Right on cue, humpback whales appeared in Port Phillip and along the coast of Phillip Island. Even more exciting was a sighting of a pod of killer whales at Port Phillip Heads on the same day. 

Victorian whale watchers have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of these amazing marine mammals as they move from the wild Southern Ocean into warmer waters along Australia’s coastlines. For many years, Victoria mostly missed out on seeing these whales. However, over the past decade whale numbers have grown and we are now seeing the migration of humpback whales spilling into the coastal waters of Victoria’s Two Bays region. 

The Dolphin Research Institute is keenly interested in monitoring whale movements, and with sightings becoming more regular it established the Two Bays Whale Project, a citizen science initiative specifically designed to capture information on visiting humpback, southern right and killer whales. This is a partnership with Wildlife Coast Cruises. 

“The project has been an amazing step forward for the monitoring and management of large whales in our coastal waters,” said project co-ordinator David Donnelly. “In fact, just last season our citizen science community were instrumental in tracking a humpback whale entangled in cray pots.” This information was shared with wildlife managers to assist with the emergency response. 

This year, whale spotters are asked to keep watch for a young whale with a massive wound on its tail. Last year this little whale was photographed off Wilsons Promontory. Through the citizen science network it was matched to photos of a calf with a fresh gaping wound, taken 47 days earlier in Hervey Bay. We suspect the calf had been attacked by sharks. In a remarkable feat, the mother whale was able to rescue her calf and travel more than 2000km to Victoria in 47 days. She would have also fed it about 100 litres of milk every day. We suspect they would have travelled to the sub-Antarctic waters to feed over summer, so are very keen to see if it survived. 

The Two Bays Whale Project is calling for citizen scientists to contribute sightings through PodWatch, its recently launched app. It’s really quite simple — go to www.dolphinresearch.org.au and click on the sightings link. For convenience, the system can be saved to your smart phone’s home screen and used like any other app, provided you have network coverage. 

The best land-based locations to see whales in the Two Bays region from June to September are Barwon Bluff, Port Phillip Heads, Cape Schanck, The Nobbies, Pyramid Rock, Cape Woolamai on Phillip Island, and the Bass Coast. Remember, though, substantial penalties apply to people deliberately approaching a whale closer than 200m on a vessel, 300m on a jetski, and lower than 500m in an aircraft or with a drone. 

Hunted to the edge of extinction during the industrial whaling era, humpback whales have made an impressive comeback, with eastern Australian numbers expected to reach around 35,000 individuals this year. This is quite remarkable when you consider the post-whaling population was estimated to be only 200-400 individuals. Unfortunately, the news is not so good for the southern right whale, with their southeast Australian numbers estimated to be between just 250 and 300 individuals with little noticeable increase in population. 

DOLPHIN RESEARCH INSTITUTE

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