September 2022 UPDATE
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 that I enjoy for several months a year on my home turf. No Covid travel restrictions on this one for me!
At this time of year – June through to early December – Geographe Bay, in Western Australia’s south west region, is 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. 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.
Geographe Bay was named by French explorer Nicolas Baudin after his ship, Geographe back in 1801. Point Piquet – the principal whale monitoring place – 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.
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.
Last year this effort was strengthened with a new research group, Geographe Marine Research Limited, launched by local citizen scientists. GMR is a non for profit organisation, promoting whale conservation and whale environments through targeted world-class research in the South West of Western Australia. GMR’s research aims to extend knowledge about the whale migration along the South West coast, and to compliment research programmes undertaken by other groups.
GMR has adopted a clever adaption of technology using lidar on a drone to accurately measure and identify whales. GMR also is working towards the use of data loggers to achieve a better picture of what’s going on under the water and to listen to the whale songs.
The data accumulated by GMR is made available to scientists on application.
Geographe Bay is very popular with locals and tourists for water activities including fishing, boating, surfing, jet skiing, swimming and wind surfing. So there is a vital need to study the implications of human interference on the migrating whales, especially the mother calf pairs. The monitoring by GMR and other volunteers aim to assess whale numbers, species and to identify whales by their individual markings, so that return visits to the Bay can be recorded.
For the migration season last year 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. With October usually the busiest month, monitored sightings for this season have continued to rise.
In August this year, volunteers at Point Piquet counted around 800 humpbacks passing by in Geographe Bay.
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 I’ve enjoyed 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 because of their massive 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 year to show schoolchildren. It would be wonderful if properly drawn whale outlines could be established in the car park to give the public a better idea of the size of whales.
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! I always feel privileged to capture the pods with my camera!
The whale migration season in 2021 stretched from May – unusually early. It was a little later this year, but as I write this, the season is moving into its peak time in September/October – 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!
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! Even better – singing!
Last year 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 saw a lot of last year arrived in the Bay in May, and sheltered in Geographe Bay for almost two months – often less than 50 metres from beaches! The pair were a regular sight from the shore, and the baby – quite tiny when first spotted – became strong and fairly boisterous by the time they left to resume their journey to the Southern Ocean! A whale monitor friend of mine 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.
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.
Visitors to Point Piquet often ask what time will the whales appear? I’ve also been 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.
But if you are there in September or October, you would be extremely unlucky not to see them!
Yes, I’m one of those volunteers out monitoring and photographing, often as early as 6am. I caught this whale below, slipping by in the golden hue of the early morning rising sun last year.
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 plenty out of focus breeches – but I keep trying!
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:
The drone photo above, of three humpbacks off Point Piquet in Geographe Bay, was taken by GMR Director Ian Wiese. All other photographs were taken by myself.