The Humpback whales of Western Australia have almost finished their southern migration for this year, 2020. The majority of the whales are now back in their summer feeding grounds in sub-antarctic waters, a few THOUSAND kilometres away from Margaret River, Western Australia!
If you are looking for things to do in Margaret River, a Humpback Whale tour is a unique experience you are sure to love. Throughout the Humpback whale season we are asked a plethora of questions. From passengers of all walks of life and backgrounds we are witnesses to the natural curiosity that humans have.
How Big are Humpbacks?
To begin with, at Naturaliste Charters we often hear, “we know they are big, but HOW BIG?”. To this our normal response is “about the size of a bus.” Humpback whales can reach up to 17 metres long (in comparison to our vessel Alison-Maree which is 20m). It can be overwhelming to see them next to us where we get a true idea of their size. Most adult whales range from about 12 – 16 metres in length with the females generally larger.
How old do Humpbacks get?
It is said the oldest Humpback recored was approximately 90 years old! This was found through testing the whales ear wax. Yes you read that right, EAR WAX! This method of genetically testing age is still fairly new so as technology advances we may be able to get a better understanding as to how long they truly live for!
Nomenclature and Diet
Humpback is the common name for Megaptera novaeangliae (scientific name). This directly translates to “big-winged”. Named after the whales extended pectoral fins. They are the only whale to feature this where fins can reach up to 5m long EACH! They assist the whale in propulsion and ease of movement in the water. Helping them propel (breach) out of the water too!!
They are a large baleen whale (Mysticete) which means they have hundreds of baleen plates in their mouth. The way they feed is through a process of filtering. They take a BIG gulp of seawater and prey and then use their tongue to push the water out through the sieve like hairs of baleen. They then swallow their prey down a throat no wider than an AFL football. Prey items usually consist of plankton, krill, bait fish and other small fish. There have been a few videos surface online recently of people getting CONSUMED by Humpbacks when feeding. In this instance the human, and their kayak, would be promptly spat out as they cannot be swallowed down the whales small throat passage.
Are Humpback Whales dangerous?
Humpback whales are not inherently aggressive. They are like most animals, dangerous if provoked but typically peaceful and gentle creatures. They certainly have their own methods of defensive but are not seen attacking. The courtship behaviour is the closest they will come to aggression as they push and shove each other for a mate, even so this is not life threatening behaviour. They have been known to protect other whales of similar or different species and also different species all together! Seals and even humans have been observed being “protected” by the empathetic Humpbacks. More and more video evidence is released on these protective behaviours and can easily be found online if you are curious!
The main actions we see from Humpbacks which are scientifically deduced to be defensive is the tail slapping or lobbing. Slapping is where the whale is stationary and raises its tail stock and flukes out of the water then forces the tail down back onto the water like a slap. This makes a loud noise above the surface and emits plenty of vibration below. Tail lobbing is where the Humpback stays stationary in the water column but opens it pectoral flippers wide, arches its back and throws the tail sky ward or on a diagonal like a side swipe through the air. Not only does this make a loud noise but can move a fair bit of water too. Predators would want to steer clear.
Why do Humpback Whales migrate?
We know that these whales give birth during their migration but there is more evidence that this is not the only reason they travel thousands of kilometres, past the south west, to warmer nursing grounds in the nor-west of Western Australia. Humpback whales will shed excess bacteria laden skin from their bodies as the warm water softens it up. Breaching, slapping and even rubbing on hard surfaces such as the sea floor, boats and rocks will then remove the skin. This will go on for the whole six month migration, almost like a six month visit to the day spa!! This excess skin then provides essential nutrients to the coastal fish and bird ecosystems here in WA.
Lumpy Bumpy Whales
One more fun fact about Humpbacks is that they may appear to be the opposite to aerodynamic with their long dense flippers and lumpy bumpy tubercle laden skin but these features actually make them glide through the water! A tubercle is the orange-sized bumps on the whales rostrum (head & snout area) and their pectoral flippers. Each tubercle contains a single hair with highly sensitive receptors or nerve endings! The spacing and amount of tubercles is what makes the whale glide with ease. Creating a slip stream which uses minimal energy! Cool, right! I guess when you are THAT big you need features to make your annual 11,000km migration slightly easier!
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