Winter on the Mornington Peninsula is a special time of year that is made even more special by the arrival of large whales that turn our beautiful coastline into somewhat of a whale highway, giving us the opportunity to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural environment.
Humpback whales begin to appear along the Peninsula from May and may be sighted right through until August as they make their northern migration from Antarctic waters to their calving grounds in Queensland. Back in the early 2000s it was a bit of a novelty to see these animals around the Peninsula, whereas now it’s an expected privilege.
It used to be that we would simply watch these whales pass by, but in recent years things have changed. Observations of humpback whales feeding along the Peninsula and even within the bay suggest that we may be seeing an ecological shift for the species. We have also observed competitive behaviours more commonly observed in lower latitudes and even heard some humpback whale song, all never before recorded in our part of the world.
While humpbacks, growing to a maximum of 16-17m, are the most common whale sighted along the Peninsula, they are not the only large whale species to occur in this region during winter; the critically endangered southern right whale also appears along our coast at this time. Unlike humpbacks, southern right whales are mostly not on migration when in our area. For the most part, they have reached the northern extent of their migration. Southern right whales visit the Victorian coastline for calving and mating. While calving is thought to occur only in the west of the state, the species can be dispersed across the entire Victorian coastline, with the Mornington Peninsula being right in the middle.
So how do we tell the difference between a humpback and a southern right whale? It’s relatively simple, provided you get a good view of the animal. First and foremost, southern right whales lack a dorsal fin and have a much more ‘robust’ appearance compared with the humpback. Humpback whales have long elongated pectoral fins, while southern rights have paddle-shaped, squared-off pectoral flippers. Humpbacks also often feature large areas of white on their underside, flank and on their flippers. At the same time, southern right whales are predominantly black, with the exception of occasional white markings on the underside and white/yellowish patches known as callosities on their heads. Another, perhaps more difficult way to tell the species apart is by the shape of the blow, with southern rights having a distinctive V-shaped blow and humpbacks more of a bushy blow up to 5m in height.
While most sightings of whales are made along the ocean beaches, both humpbacks and southern rights do occasionally visit Port Phillip, with sightings recorded across the Peninsula’s coastline. The best places to look for whales are from any high vantage points facing the ocean. Cape Schanck is a popular place to see whales because they tend to pass quite close to the shore at this location.
It truly is remarkable to have these animals visiting our marine backyard and it is important that we do our best to understand and protect them. There are two key ways the community can help protect and conserve these animals:
• Report sightings of whales and dolphins to the Dolphin Research Institute’s Two Bays Whale Project through PodWatch https://www.dolphinresearch.org.au/report-sightings-page/
• Obey the Victorian marine mammal regulations. Do not deliberately approach whales closer than 200m in boats, 300m on jetskis or 30m for paddlers and swimmers.
To learn more about whales and dolphins in our region, visit the Dolphin Research Institute website at www.dolphinresearch.org.au
DAVID DONNELLY, research officer at the Dolphin Research Institute