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This Is Northern New South Wales

Song of the Humpback

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Each year between May and November Australia’s eastern coastline is gifted with the migration of humpback whales. These whales begin their migration north, leaving Antarctic waters to find subtropical areas to mate and give birth to young. This annual relocation can be up to 10,000 kilometres in distance, a significantly long journey for these charismatic mammals. The majority of humpback whales will migrate north from June to August and will head back south between September and November. Groups of young males will typically lead each migration while cows either pregnant or with calf in tow follow behind the rear. The time in which migration commences varies each year depending on such factors as water temperature, predation risk and pre-abundance.

Humpback whales are a species of baleen whale. Adults tend to range in length from 12 to 16 metres and weigh up an astounding 36,000 kilos. It can be identified for its unusually long pectoral fins, slender but stocky body shape, and head which is covered in knobbly tubercles (hair follicles). These acrobatic animals are typically known for their breaching displays.

Due to the geographic layout of its long stretch of coast, is known as one of the best locations for watching humpback whale migrations. Locals and tourists cluster in numbers upon headlands to watch these majestic mammals carry on their long journey close to our coastline. Although this beautiful stretch of shoreline provides a protective haven for these whales from large swells and predation from larger predators – which tend to target new born calves – our coastline is home to one of the most significant hazards for these animals: shark nets.

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Shark control equipment has been used up and down Australia’s East Coast since 1962, and consists of strategically placed drumlines and nets. There has been recent discussion nationally and worldwide as to how effective this shark control program is. Are they necessary? Do they do more harm than good for the ecosystem? Most importantly, how do these nets effect whale migrations? Historically, whales have suffered mortalities as a result of these shark nets since the 1960’s. Last year, more than eight whales had issues with these shark nets, some individuals being entangled for an unacceptable period of time, causing unimaginable distress. Some instances have led to the drowning of juvenile whales with the cow watching the events unfold. Is the scientifically and statistically proved unlikeliness of a shark attack, worth having these nets, which are so detrimental to whales and other species in general (dolphins, turtles, dugongs, protected species of sharks)?

It is important to remember that these animals were once subject to significant whaling practices worldwide. Their population virtually hunted to the brink of extinction and fell by an estimated 90% before a moratorium was introduced in 1966. The species has since partially recovered but is still heavily impacted by entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and noise pollution worldwide.

With the current migration of whales looming over us, what can we expect? Unfortunately with a high number of whales anticipated to visit our coastline this season, we can expect that there will be issues with shark control equipment. So how can we, as a community help ensure these whales have a safer migration this season? Education is a key component in the conservation of these whales. People should learn more about these animals, their migration route and seasonal periods, their biology, feeding patterns etc. This helps us to better understand the large mammals we share our coastline with for the upcoming months. Do your research online, teach other people about humpback whales for they are a vital component of our natural ecosystem.

Over the years in my field as a marine biology student, I have shared an extensive amount of personal experiences with these whales. They are unlike any animal I have been in the ocean with and I am sure that many North Coasters have shared equally humbling experiences with these gentle giants of the sea. Let us become more community aware about these animals this migration season and do our best to aid this species in safely reaching their destinations. If you do find yourself in the water with a whale remember to listen, because the song of the humpback is hauntingly beautiful and like no other you will ever hear.

Sean Samer 

Photography by Kirra Pendergast

If you see a stranded whale, an entangled or a sick whale or seal in distress please report it as soon as possible to the Cape Byron Marine Parks, NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service State Duty officer on 02 9895 7128 or ORRCA whale and dolphin rescue on 02 9415 3333 (24 hours hotline).