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Whale migration heats up with humpback numbers tipped to increase


Jessica Nelson
26 May 2020
Fluke of whale 'Nala' photographed by Dr Trish Franklin
Fluke of whale 'Nala' photographed by Dr Trish Franklin

Australian Eastern Humpback whales are on the move to the warmer northern waters and breeding grounds of the Great Barrier Reef.

This year’s annual migration is a different experience for whale watchers, with COVID social distancing restrictions meaning fewer boats on the water.

Southern Cross University researcher Dr Wally Franklin said whales have been making their way past Byron Bay and into Queensland waters. He said younger males tend to take the lead, followed by mature whales, then mothers with their calves.

“Sightings will certainly start to build up now that we’re in late May. The end of June tends to be the peak of the northward migration as the whales head up into the Great Barrier Reef area with August being their peak birthing and breeding month,” said Dr Franklin, from the University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre.

“The humpback whale population could be around 40,000 this year, which is getting near to where we estimate they were prior to whaling after World War 2. In the 1960s there were only about 150 whales left so we are very privileged to have this group.”

Dr Franklin and his wife Dr Trish Franklin have been involved in humpback whale research for more than 30 years, founding The Oceania Project in 1988. This year they are publishing three major research papers on whale behaviour from their long-term study of humpbacks in Queensland’s Hervey Bay.

The couple has observed and photographed more than 16,000 whales since 1992 - the year they first met Migaloo the famous white whale.

“The whales start coming into Hervey Bay from mid-July to mid-October and use it as a nursery to teach their young, then start migrating south again with the southern migration past the east coast running right through to early November,” he said.

“In all our time researching whales we’ve never seen a humpback give birth – in fact no one in has ever observed and reported a humpback birth. The females are incredibly private about birthing.”

When current restrictions ease and whale watching tours begin again, Dr Franklin reminds operators and private vessels to maintain legal distancing requirements around whales. Vessels must not approach any closer than 100 metres to a whale or 50 metres to a dolphin, with Migaloo given a special exclusion zone of 500m. Boats are only allowed to approach whales from their right or left flank and never directly astern or ahead which could interrupt migration behaviour.

“Migaloo is outstandingly special and garners a lot of attention when he arrives, which is usually around early July. Sometimes he turns up off the west coast of New Zealand in June then arrives off Byron and Gold Coast area in July.”