Humpback Highway

Whale watching season starts early in Australia, thanks to conservation success.


Humpback whale breaching

Known for their impressive acrobatic displays and melodic songs, humpback whales can grow up to about 55 feet (17m), with pectoral flippers accounting for about a third of their bodies.


Seeing these majestic whales breach the water is an unforgettable sight, and one that whale watchers off the east coast of Australia are enjoying earlier than usual this season, as a thriving humpback whale population migrates north from Antarctica to the Great Barrier Reef along the “humpback highway.”


According to the Director of the Oceania Project Dr. Wally Franklin, sightings have already been reported off the coast of Sydney and other locations along the whales’ migration route in an early start to the season, which usually sees its peak at the end of June into July.


“Around 20 years ago we’d get the first one or two whales coming through about Easter time, but there was around an eighth of the number of whales that there are now,” said professor Mike Noad, director of the Centre for Marine Science at The University of Queensland. “So one or two at Easter time now becomes 16 or 30.”


Not long ago, things were very different for the humpback whale. According to Noad, about 99 percent of the humpback population was decimated by whaling, leaving only about 300 humpback whales in eastern Australia before commercial whaling was banned in the 1960s. Noad said he believes there are currently about 40,000 humpback whales in the region.


“All we had to do was stop killing them, we haven’t done much else apart from leaving them alone,” Noad said.


From the 1990s to 2015, the humpback population increased by ten percent each year, according to Franklin, which was a surprise to researchers.


Once the humpback whale population was determined to have reached a healthy level, major surveys were defunded by the federal government, with the last being conducted in 2015. Humpbacks were removed from Australia’s list of threatened species in February of this year.


Franklin said evidence has been found that whales from other Pacific locations have been drawn to eastern Australia, as The Great Barrier Reef is an ideal place for humpback whales to breed.


“The benefit of it is that whale watchers along the coast of New South Wales and Queensland get to start seeing the whales earlier, and they’ll see them longer,” said Franklin.

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