Are the whales jumping for joy in Hervey Bay?

Breaching, or jumping out of the water, is a behavior that the PWF researchers in Hervey Bay and in Maui observe frequently. A commonly asked question is “Why do whales breach”? The short answer is that no one knows a single cause for this behavior; however, there are a number of theories about what drives such impressive whale acrobatics.

One possibility is that the whales breach just for fun, similar to humans and other terrestrial mammals when they are excited or playing. Another option is that they use breaching and other surface activity as a way of communicating to other whales. If you’ve ever been close to a breaching whale, you know that the sound is astonishing. The sound is also quite loud underwater and may be used to communicate the whale’s location or activity level to other whales in the distance. It has also been suggested that whales breach to deter predators or other perceived threats.

Young calves may have a completely separate motivation for breaching. As more mother and calf pairs enter Hervey Bay, researchers and whalewatch passengers alike can’t help but to notice the awkward jumps of young calves. These calves are trying to imitate what the larger whales are doing with mixed success. Breaching calves are entertaining to watch, but there has been recent research suggesting that through repeated breaching, humpback whale calves increase the amount of myoglobin in their muscles. Myoglobin is a protein that binds iron and oxygen, and high concentrations of myoglobin can improve the diving ability of marine mammals.

There are a variety of possible explanations for why whales breach, but it is most likely that whales do not breach for any single reason, but rather do this behavior for a number of reasons that serve different functions throughout the seasons and over the course of their lives.

Written by Eilidh Milligan

Mugged by whales

Every year, from July to November, humpback whales come to Hervey Bay on their southern migration. In contrast to the open coastline, where whales are in a “migration mode” to their feeding grounds in the Antarctic, the bay is shallow, sheltered, and warm. It is the perfect place for the whales to aggregate, rest, and socialize. As a result, whales display a vast array of behaviors and interactions that make Hervey Bay a very unique whalewatching destination. Not surprisingly, some people refer to Hervey Bay as “Australia’s whalewatch capital.”

In addition to the most common humpback whale behaviors that can be seen in Hervey Bay, such as breaching, tail slapping, head lunging, etc., whales in Hervey Bay will often approach a vessel and stay within close proximity, interacting with people on board for significant periods of time. This behavior is known as “mugging”.

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Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040 and Registration #307.

Hervey Bay is the only area in the world where curious humpback whales consistently mug vessels. It is not uncommon to be unable to go anywhere because a pod of whales keeps interacting with your vessel. Indeed, you need to wait for them to move away first, following Australian regulations , which require whales to be 100 metres from a vessel before engines can be operated.

HB001-PWF

When being mugged, whales will approach the vessel, and sometimes circle around it. The whales will often look at the people on board, tilting their bodies to one side or spyhopping, when a whale vertically pokes its head out of the water in order to scan the surroundings. People are always in awe as it is a very unique experience. Sometimes it makes you wonder who is actually watching who.

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Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040 and Registration #307.

Whales also dive under the vessel to pop up on the other side, repeating this behavior over and over. It often feels like playing a game of hide and seek where people on board will move from side to side in an attempt to guess where the whales will surface next. At times, the whales can be so close that our camera lenses are too big to take a photo.

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040 and Registration #307.

Photos taken under QLD permits: QS2011/GS040 and Registration #307.

Below is a video that the research team filmed last whale season from our research vessel that captured what it is like to be mugged by whale(s).

Being mugged by a humpback whale for the first time is an exhilarating and breathtaking experience that will stay with you forever. Every day is different on the water but if you get the chance to be mugged again, I promise, you will never get tired of it.