Be careful of baby whales heading south

Published 8 October 2003

Southern Cross University (SCU) whale researchers are urging people using NSW coastal waters to be particularly careful over the next six weeks as humpback whales with new calves migrate south.
The first significant numbers of mothers and calves were spotted off the NSW north coast over the long weekend.

PhD researcher in the Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre, Dan Burns, said he’d only seen two mothers and calves in a month, but then spotted five pairs in two days off Lennox Head.

“I’ve been out there for about a month and I’ve only just started to get significant numbers of mothers and calves: we saw four on Sunday and another one on Monday,” said Mr Burns, 27, from Byron Bay.

“The pregnant females are the last to head north after feeding in Antarctica, then they take their time in the warmer northern waters when the calf’s only young before they head on the big trek south,” he said.

Mr Burns said this was the first year he or any other researchers have done a study of the whales’ southern migration around Byron Bay, as they usually focus on the northern migration which peaks around July.

For his PhD, Mr Burns is identifying the whales using photographs of the underside of their tails, called the fluke, and their dorsal fins, with the aim of building up life histories of the whales. He is already starting to recognise some whales. He said there were few babies on the northern migration as the whales tended to mate and give birth in the warmer waters off Queensland.

“The mums and calves tend to be pretty quiet (during migration), but sometimes they go into teaching mode, as we saw with one pod on Sunday,” he said. “The mum was trying to show the calf different behaviours like pec slapping (slapping the whale’s pectoral fin or ‘arm’ on the water), breaching and tail slapping.

“The calves tend to be a bit uncoordinated, with limbs and tails flailing everywhere. It can be quite funny to watch.”

The southern migration starts in mid-August, with the last whales coming through in early November, Mr Burns said. The whales are more dispersed heading south than they are going north, although they tend to come through in pulses, he said.
Whales require 'personal space’ and harassment can severely stress them or even make them feel threatened, creating the risk of danger to the whale and to people nearby. Keeping distance is especially important in the case of the adults with calves, which may be either resting or suckling.
Water craft are required to stay 300 metres away from mothers with young calves. Aircraft may not descend lower than 300 metres, or helicopters 400 metres.

For more information see SCU Whale Research Centre website at

CAPTION: A mother and calf photographed at the weekend off Byron Bay by Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre.

Media contact: Sara Crowe or Kath Duncan: 6620 3144, 0417 235 154.