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  • Writer's pictureDilini de Soyza

In search of the gentle giants of the seas

Ever since leaving Sri Lanka in 2014 to join hubby in Sydney, I have been looking for my happy place. For as long as I can remember, my happy place was the jungles of Sri Lanka. It’s where I disappeared to time after time to get away from all the hustle, bustle and craziness of the city and my day-to-day life. In Sydney, I found my happy place out on the water. Being a city surrounded by water, Sydney is quite a beautiful place to live in. The humpback whales that traverse the waters just out of the Sydney harbour was the icing on the cake for me.

My love affair with these gentle giants of the ocean started back in November 2013 when hubby took me out for my first whale watching cruise from Port Stephens. It wasn’t a very memorable cruise as the whales were a bit far away and weren’t doing anything interesting but they were intriguing enough for me to read up more about them. I was shocked to discover how little we knew about them and their behaviour and how we had nearly driven them to the brink of extinction through our greed. This made me want to get out there and discover as much as I could about these beautiful creatures and over the six years that followed, hubby and I have been out in all sorts of weather to do just that.

Humpback whales belong to the baleen whale family. Baleen whales are identifiable by the two blowholes visible on the top of their heads. Baleen whales are distinguishable from their toothed counterparts by the ‘baleen’ plates that hang from the roof of their mouth. Food such as fish, plankton and krill are caught in the hairs on the baleen whilst the saltwater is strained back into the ocean.

Humpback whales are affectionately known as the ‘acrobats of the ocean.’ This is due to their impressive array of behaviours including,

· Blow – This is how we find whales when on cruises. Whales blow air, water vapour and mucus as they surface to take a breath and these can be seen from quite a distance away.

· Spy-hopping – Sometimes whales lift their head and sometimes part of their chest vertically out of the water so that their eyes are just above the water line – this is called spy-hopping. It is believed that whales do this to take a look around above the water.

· Tail slapping – This occurs when a whale lifts its tail out of the water and then brings it down onto the surface of the water hard and fast in order to make a loud slap. This behaviour may be used to communicate, scare fish or may be a sign of aggression.

· Pectoral fin slapping – Humpbacks may slap the water’s surface with one or both fins (pectorals) simultaneously. This may serve as a means of communication to other whales. It is also an effective means to rid the pectorals of any parasites.

· Tail fluke up dive – The underside of a whale’s tail is called the fluke. Each fluke is unique just like our fingerprints. A fluke up dive is where the tail of the humpback appears out of the water in an upward arch and slowly rolls underwater in conjunction with a dive.

· Breach – The most exciting of whale behaviour is the breach. This is when a whale uses its tail to propel part of, or all of its body out of the water and comes down with a splash. Some believe that whales breach to communicate while others believe that it is used to rid the whale of parasites. But no one really knows exactly why – yet.

Australia is quite privileged when it comes to whales – over 50% of the world's cetaceans are found in Australian waters. According to recent estimates at least 45 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises either visit or live permanently in Australia, including 9 baleen whales and 36 toothed whale species.

The whales that we see off the coast of Sydney, spend the summer in Antarctica feeding on krill and putting on lots of weight. They leave their summer feeding grounds in March/April and we start to see them off the Sydney coast between May and August on their way up to the Great Barrier Reef where they calve and breed. We then see them heading back south between late August to mid-November.

This gives those of us living in Sydney, two distinct seasons to watch these whales go past our coast. Between May and August, we see the adults go by and there’s nothing as impressive as watching a 40-tonne animal jump straight out of the water. Can’t picture how big a 40-tonne animal would be – well that would be equivalent to two semi-trailers erupting out of the water. It truly is a magnificent sight and one that will take your breath away.

But the fun doesn’t end there. Between September and November, we see mothers and calves heading back to Antarctica. They tend to spend more time on the surface and the calves are usually a lot friskier than the adults, performing their repertoire of tricks over and over and over again. They might not be as big as the adults but the array of behaviour exhibited by these babies are still impressive and they are a joy to watch.

After nearly being hunted to extinction in the 1960s, humpback whale populations have increased. Good news indeed. But humpbacks still face threats from climate change and even more so from countries like Japan and some European nations continuing to pursue commercial whaling. My only hope for these gentle giants of the seas is that they are allowed to live in peace so that our future generations can also see and appreciate one of nature’s greatest creations!

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