Mugged on the first Ultimate Whalewatch of 2015

On January 13th, the research team ran the first Ultimate Whalewatch cruise of the 2014/2015 whale season. Mother Nature was on our side that day, with perfect calm weather conditions.

Over the past week or so, the research team had been sighting more and more humpback whales in Ma’alaea Bay, including mother-calf pairs, so our 30 guests were in for a good whalewatch trip on Ocean Liberty.

As expected, a few whale pods were sighted a few minutes into the trip. At a later stage, we were even spoiled for choice, with whales left, right and center. Captain Curtis decided to follow one of the competition pods that displayed a lot of surface activity, very close to Ma’alaea Harbor and Sugar Beach. That decision paid off.

Over time, the number of escorts dwindled down from five to just two. At one point, one of the adults, presumed to be the female in the original pod, approached the vessel so close that, when it exhaled, the blow hit a few passengers. The whale then slowly swam under the vessel, giving everyone on board enough time to admire the sheer size of this animal. What a great photo opportunity that was.

In Hawai’i, any vessel must wait until a pod is further than 100 yards before being able to move. This particular individual approached the vessel several times, repeating the same behavior, to the delight of passengers and crew. This is called mugging. Although mugging tends to be observed more in Hervey Bay, Australia, than in Maui, this season it seems that more and more vessels are getting mugged by humpback whales. Being mugged by a whale was a new and unique experience for passengers and some members of the crew. For others, over 30 minutes was a new record. No one seemed to mind that we were running late to get back to the harbor.

Let’s hope that this incredible experience is a good omen for the rest of the whale season! If you are on Maui before mid-April, please come and join us on an Ultimate Whalewatch eco-cruise.

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.

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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.