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Whale: When / Where can I see Whales?

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Whale • Order Cetacea
When and where can I see Whales?
Whales in the southern hemisphere spend the summer in the waters of Antarctica, feeding on krill. With the onset of autumn, accompanied by falling temperatures, the whales begin their annual northward migration towards more temperate, sub-tropical/tropical waters, where they give birth and mate.

Australia is one of those lucky places where you can quite easily see whales, often from certain beaches and cliff-faces along our coastline. For an even closer encounter, there are whale watching tours and charters, especially at some of the more popular destinations such as Hervey Bay in Queensland or Merimbula in New South Wales.

Whales travel pass Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, heading either up past the coastline of Western Australia, or the east coastline of New South Wales and Queensland. In August 2007 newspapers in the Northern Territory reported humpback whales migrating along the Territory coastline.

The first day of June officially kicks off the whale watching season, with migrating whales actually being spotted from May through to October. The peak period for whale watching off the New South Wales coast is considered to be between June-July. Humpback whales start to leave Antarctica from late April, are seen heading north through to August and can be spotted off both the west and east coasts of Australia as they travel to breeding areas off Western Australia, Queensland and the tropical waters further north.

Whale breaching, Merimbula © AusEmade Pty Ltd

Each year has seen an increase in whale numbers and sightings. Two of the prime whale watching locations in New South Wales is that of Cape Solander, where NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service have established a whale watching platform and Port Stephens, which has recently attracted more visitors than the famed Hervey Bay in Queensland. In Western Australia, Point Quobba at Shark Bay and Ningaloo Marine Park are the prime whale watching sites. See below for list of vantage points.

The southerly migration starts in spring, occurring from August through to December, when the whales head south back to their feeding grounds, with the first whales often seen passing through Perth waters early spring. The first whales are usually the newly pregnant females, followed by the immature whales of both sexes, then the mature whales. Mothers with new-born calves stay in the warmer waters longer and usually travel south more slowly. This enables the calves to grow and develop a thicker layer of blubber, that offers protection from the cold feeding waters of Antarctica.

Whale spy hopping © Dorothy LatimerFrom May to November, Southern Right whales seem to stay close to the southern coast of Australia. Mothers with calves are often seen just beyond the surf break and can be spotted from cliffs and headlands stretching from along the Great Australian Bight, along Portland Bay, Port Fairy, Warrnambool and along the Otway Coast. They can also be seen near Cape Leeuwin and the bays along the Western Australia Coast and Storm Bay in Tasmania.

In Sydney whales have been seen passing less than six kilometres from the coast, with 3 whales actually having entered Sydney Harbour in 2002. The largest number of whales seem to pass Sydney about mid June (22nd). The Southern Right Whales can often be seen in very shallow waters, including estuaries and bays. They have also been known to swim in the surf zone. On the return route south during September to November, whales are usually further out, about 12 to 14 kilometres from the coast of New South Wales.

Some of the best whale watching sites are those located at previous whaling operations, such as Albany, Cape Byron, and Eden, towns that were positioned where they could see the whales during their migration. Sites known for whale watching include:

Whale Watching in New South Wales
As the first humpbacks start their annual journey along New South Wales east coast to the warmer waters off Queensland, they can be seen between June and August, although sometimes they may be spotted from May to October. Mothers with their calves can be spotted returning south to Antarctica during September to November. Other species such as sperm whales and orcas can also be seen further out, near the continental shelf.
  • Angourie Point, Yuraygir National Park.
  • Barrenjoey Headland, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.
  • Bermagui
  • Camden Head, Camden Haven
  • Cape Byron State Recreation Area and Byron Bay
  • Cape Solander, Botany Bay National Park - offers great vantage point. See some images of whale at Cape Solander.
  • Clarence Coast, the headlands and lookouts on the Clarence Coast provide ideal locations for people to watch for whales. South of Angourie a number of locations can found in Yuraygir National Park such as Angourie Point, Red Cliff, Plover Island at Sandon, Rocky Point at Minnie Water, Diggers Headland, and Station Creek.
  • Coffs Harbour
  • Crackneck Lookout, Wyrrabalong National Park.
  • Far North Coast, encompassing the Tweed Coast region. See some images of whale near Fingal Head.
  • Eden, Twofold Bay - popular feeding ground.
  • Hat Head National Park - Korogoro Point.
  • Iluka Bluff, Bundjalung National Park - Woody Head also offer vantage-points.
  • Jervis Bay, Jervis Bay National Park - popular feeding ground.
  • Kattang Nature Reserve
  • Merimbula - see some images of whales at Merimbula.
  • Mid North Coast - includes Port Stephens
  • Moruya Heads, Eurobodalla National Park.
  • Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve
  • North Head, Sydney Harbour National Park.
  • Port Stephens, it may be a matter of opinion, but Port Stephens is said to have now eclipsed Hervey Bay in Queensland as the whale-watching capital of Australia. The bay provides an excellent location to watch the humpback whales on their annual northern migration (June to August) and their southern return (September to November). The bay is also home to a large pod of bottlenose dolphins.
  • Red Point, Ben Boyd National Park.
  • Sapphire Coast, extending from Bermagui, Merimbula, Eden.
  • Sydney, Barrenjoey, Long Reef, North Head, South Head, Bondi’s Ben Buckler.
  • Tomaree Head, Tomaree National Park.
  • Wollongong
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Whale Watching in Northern Territory
NT newspapers reported humpback whales migrating along the Territory coast, on their way south. Sightings included:
  • Lee Point, Darwin
  • North Gutter, about 50 km from Darwin
  • Wadeye
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Whale Watching in Queensland
Hervey Bay region is the place to see humpback whales, arriving about July, where they stay until November, before heading south again. This is their playground and where they rest, a great place to see them with their young.
  • Brisbane - located about 14 kms inland on the Brisbane River, that empties into Moreton Bay.
  • Bundaberg
  • Cairns Coastal Region
  • Capricorn Bunker Group
  • Fraser Island, Fraser Coast.
  • Hervey Bay, Hervey Bay Marine Park - this is where the whales rest and play.
  • Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
  • Mackay
  • Moreton Bay Marine Park, Moreton Island, Moreton Bay.
  • North Stradbroke Island, Point Lookout.
  • Port Douglas
  • Southport, part of the Gold Coast.
  • Swain Reefs Complex and Bell Clay
  • Whitsunday Islands and Region, Hamilton Island, between May to September each year, humpback whales are found in the waters around Whitsunday Islands. These shallow waters are warm and provide shelter, making it the ideal calving ground and nursery for newborn whales.
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Whale Watching in South Australia
It is estimated that at least one third of all southern right whales in the coastal waters of Australia, were born in the bays of the Great Australian Bight. Between May and October, whale watchers can often see the southern right whales mating, calving and nursing their young. The cliff tops along the Head of Bight region offer some great viewing of the whales, as they are often seen within 100 metres of the shore. Several other species of whales are known to migrate through the area, with the added bonus of the chance to see dolphins, sharks and the Australian sea lions.
  • Encounter Bay
  • Fowlers Bay
  • Head of the Bight, cliffs along the Great Australian Bight.
  • Kangaroo Island, south coast.
  • Middleton, Fleurieu Peninsula.
  • Port Lincoln
  • Port Macdonnell
  • Robe
  • Streaky Bay
  • Victor Harbor, whale watching occurs around July to August, when southern right whales return to the sheltered bays to calve and mate. The southern right whales are often seen within 100 metres of shore. Victor Harbour is also home to a colony of little (or fairy) penguins.
  • Wilsons Bluff, Eucla.
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Whale Watching in Tasmania
  • Bruny Island, between May and July, and September and December, both humpback whales and southern right whales travel past Bruny Island, with some stopping to take shelter in Adventure Bay. On occasion, other whale species including the pygmy right whale, minke whale and the orca can also be spotted as they migrate past the island.
  • Derwent River
  • Frederick Henry Bay, East Coast.
  • Great Oyster Bay, East Coast.
  • Storm Bay
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Whale Watching in Victoria
  • Otway Coast
  • Port Fairy
  • Portland Bay
  • Warrnambool, each year southern right whales can be seen returning to Warrnambool to give birth in the sheltered bays along the coast. As they like to stay close to the shore, they are easy to spot. The free viewing platform off Logans Beach Road is a great place from which to view them as they start arriving in June, staying until September. The rare blue whales can also on occasion be seen well off the shore during May.
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Whale Watching in Western Australia
Despite their name 'whale sharks' are not whales, they are actually the world's biggest fish, growing up to 18 m in length. Between April and July, the whale sharks arrive in Exmouth to feed on the zooplankton that thrives in the warm water. Whilst whale sharks swim the world's ocean looking for concentrations of food, Ningaloo Reef is one of the only places they are known to return to regularly, in large numbers.

Source: Variety of sources including the Australian Museum, NSW Parks & Wildlife Service,
 QLD Environmental Protection Agency, Parks & Wildlife Tasmania

Humpback Whales © Dorothy Latimer
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