Imagine crystal clear turquoise water in a beautiful bay with a mother and baby whale playing together within a few hundred metres from the shore. It’s a glorious experience, especially when they start singing. And for me, lucky me, it’s a sight and sound I’ve been enjoying quite regularly over the past few months on my home turf. No Covid travel restrictions on this one for me!
At this time of year, Geographe Bay, in Western Australia’s south west region, becomes a super highway for whales – Southern Rights, Humpbacks, Minky whales and the enormous magnificent Blue whales – as all four species move south on their annual migration to the Antarctica. And for many of the Humpies and Southern Rights, the Bay is a post natal stop off – they’ve had their babies – and they rest so that their young can gain strength in the Bay before moving further south. As the babies get bigger, they become more playful – another great sight to enjoy from the shore.
Research monitoring of whales has been held annually from Point Picquet on the southern side of the Bay near Cape Naturaliste since 2004 by trained local volunteers and small research organisations to determine the migratory patterns of the whales, and the likely impact of climate change on their populations, movements and food sources.
Geographe Bay is extremely popular with locals and tourists for water activities such as fishing, boating, surfing, jet skiing, swimming and wind surfing. So there is the need to study the implications of human interference on the whales, especially the mother calf pairs. The monitoring aims to identify whales by their individual markings, so that return visits to the Bay can be recorded.
So far for the 2021 season up until mid September – local volunteers had put in around 500 hours to monitor the whale migration through the Bay, with 1700 counted! Humpbacks were the most prevalent – more than 1600. Blue whales, Southern Rights and Minky whales made up the rest. More Blue whales had been spotted than ever previously recorded in the Bay – around 70 so far this year. With October usually the busiest month, monitored sightings for this season have continued to rise. The season can go through to early December.
How many whales go past Point Piquet at night, or when no one is monitoring, is anyone’s guess! The monitoring is just an measured indication of the passing whale traffic.
One of the best sights is of Blue whales charging through the Bay like stealth submarines – delighting onlookers when they decide to take a breather and check out their surroundings!
Blues are fascinating for the size – and you really only appreciate that with an overhead drone photo. Someone drew a rough outline of a blue in the Point Piquet carpark last week to show schoolchildren
Small Minke whales are often confused with the pods of dolphins that frequent the Bay throughout the year. The dolphins are regularly seen playing in the Bay or surfing the waves!
The whale migration season this year (2021) has stretched from May – unusually early. It’s likely to finish in November, although the occasional tail end Charlie can be spotted in December. The season peak in September/October is the one time of the year that I never travel anywhere else. The magic is happening on my doorstep! And my camera is at the ready!
Geographe Bay was named by French explorer Nicolas Baudin after his ship, Geographe back in 1801. And the best place to see the whale migration is at Point Piquet on the southern side of the Bay. The Point was named after Furcy Picquet, a Lieutenant on the Geographe.
Here, if you stand on the shore, whales can pass within a few hundred metres of you – an experience I’ve been lucky to have enjoyed many times over the last decade. The Point offers an 180 degree view, and an excellent outlook to the horizon to spot whales travelling further out from the coast.
I’ve been out on whale watching cruises – but for me, nothing beats standing on the coast and seeing a whale swim by metres away from me. Better still – breeching!
This month six pairs of mother and baby humpbacks were recorded passing close by Point Piquet within three hours. I arrived just as the last pair moved on by.
One Southern Right mum and her baby that I’ve seen a lot of in recent weeks arrived in the Bay early this year, and sheltered in Geographe Bay for almost two months – often less than 50 metres from beaches! They have been a regular sight from the shore, and the baby – quite tiny when first spotted – had become strong and fairly boisterous by the time they left to resume their journey to the Southern Ocean! A whale monitor captured them from above with his drone camera.
The annual whale migration through the Bay is a really wonderful sight. And monitoring and studying them has become increasingly important, particularly in this time of climate change.
Whales in this region were almost wiped out in the 1800’s and 1900’s when whale fishing was allowed. A whale station operated in the Bay in the 1800’s at Castle Rock, about 5 minutes drive from Point Piquet. At the time, whaling was an important industry for the fledging Western Australian British colony. Although it closed in the 1800’s, whaling continued in Western Australia until 1978 when the last whaling station in Australia closed down in Albany on the South Coast.
In the mid 1800’s, there were about 300 American, French, British and Australian whaling ships operating off the south coast of Australia with many shore stations where captured whales were killed and processed for products such as meat, bone, blubber and oil. It’s difficult now to imagine such bloody slaughter in Geographe Bay.
There are some excellent new research technologies being developed for whale research, but they are becoming more complex and expensive, growing beyond the capability of volunteer groups to finance.
So, in June this year, a new non for profit company Geographe Marine Research was announced to spearhead more financial support for ongoing scientific research into the Bay’s whale migration.
The Company, an initiative of local volunteers, aims to attract corporate sponsorship and public donations to support targeted research by scientists and research groups, finance new technologies and develop liaisons with other whale research organisations.
In recent years, the public has become a lot more aware of the Geographe Bay whale migration, and now on weekends and school holidays, big numbers of people head for Point Piquet or out into the Bay on whale watching cruises. For many, it’s the first time they have seen a whale close up, and remarkably some don’t realise it’s all mother nature at work.
This morning, a visitor to Point Piquet asked me ‘what time will the whales appear’? I also am asked what weather conditions are best to see them breech? The answer is – this is nature, and whales do what they do when they want to. Better research hopefully will provide more answers about their behaviours.
Yes, I’m one of those volunteers out monitoring, sometimes as early as 6am. I caught this whale slipping by in the golden hue of the early morning rising sun last month.
Of course, I’m always camera ready to capture a photograph of a breeching whale close to shore. But I’m an amateur snapper, and although I’ve captured some breeches further out to sea some distance from me, the ideal close by sharp focus shot eludes me. I seem to get some wonderful splashes though 😎and out of focus breeches – but I keep trying! There’s always next year!
For some far better photos than I can take, check out the gallery of Geographe Bay whale shots on the Geographe Marine Research company site: