An unexpected encounter with a Blue Whale on our afternoon cruise
We had our eyes peeled on the weekend cruise, hoping to spot a blow of a Killer Whale, because a few sightings have been reported in Tasmanian waters recently. April seems to be a good time of year to see these incredible predators in Tasmania. Last year we logged 8 sightings in the month of April, as you can see in our blog post ‘April – The Orca month’.
Although no Orcas had been spotted, we weren’t disappointed, since we got to spend the whole afternoon with a Blue Whale, one of the world’s rarest species and the largest animal that has ever existed on the planet.
Maybe a Pygmy Blue Whale?
The last time we’d seen Blue Whales was in February 2015, 3 years ago! Back then we watched 2 enormous animals feed on krill. Here you can find some photos of the Blue Whales scooping up food with their huge mouths. This time, we only saw one individual cruising up the coast from Cape Hauy with a constant speed of about 5 knots. This animal appeared to be a bit smaller than the ones we saw in 2015, we estimate a size of approximately 20 meters. We’ve passed on our photos to the Marine Conservation Program Wildlife Management Branch to help with the research of cetaceans on our coastline. Although Antarctic Blue Whales and Pygmy Blue Whales have a very similar appearance, the researchers are quite confident that it was most likely a Pygmy Blue Whale, as most near-shore TAS Blue Whale IDs have been Pygmy Blue Whales and the apparent size and proportions of the animal are suggestive. Pygmy Blue Whales are typically 15-20m at maturity (up to 30m for an Antarctic form), have a proportionally smaller and rounder rostrum and a shorter/thinner tail stock.
Responsible behaviour around these threatened animals is vital for their survival
For us it was heartbreaking to watch how some recreational boaters carelessly trolled lures over the Blue Whale on the weekend, chasing Bluefin Tuna. We can’t stress it enough how important it is to act responsibly when sharing the waters with marine mammals or birds. Many marine animals that we encounter here in Tasmania are listed as ‘vulnerable’, ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’. They have to deal with human caused noise, debris and toxins when navigating the Oceans. The least we can do is to act responsibly and stick to the guidelines that suggest safe distances to whales and dolphins.
Dwarf Minke Whale sighting on our Seal & Ocean Expedition
Cruising back up the coast from our Seal haul-out spot, we stopped for some play-time with a few curious Common Dolphins. Just as we were about to leave, we saw a dorsal fin pop up that didn’t quite look like a dolphin dorsal. After a quick scan, we saw the white lips of this beautiful Dwarf Minke Whale appear. 🙂
What does a Dwarf Minke Whale actually look like?
Most of our crew onboard knew that there was a good chance to spot some Humpback Whales, as they travel past our coastline to their main feeding grounds in Antarctic waters at this time of the year. But to see a Dwarf Minke Whale was quite a surprise and nobody really knew what to expect.
Minke Whales are amongst the smallest of the baleen whales. There are two species of Minke. One is the Common Minke which is restricted to the Northern Hemisphere with a dwarf subspecies occurring in the Southern Hemisphere. The Dwarf Minke reaches up to 7m in length. They were first recognised as a distinct species in the mid 1980s, when they attracted attention in northern Great Barrier Reef waters because they regularly approached close to boats and swimmers. The second is the Antarctic Southern Minke which can grow up to 9m.
Both the Dwarf Minke Whale and the Antarctic Southern Minke Whale occur in Tasmanian waters, however they are generally seen offshore during their migration North to their breeding grounds or on their return South over spring to early summer.
The best identifying features to distinguish the Dwarf Minke Whale from the Antarctic Southern Minke Whale are the smaller size and the white patch on their flippers. The Antarctic species has light grey flippers and the dorsal fin is located far back on their bodies.
Dwarf Minke Whales are known for their inquisitive behaviour
Whale-watching tour operators and tourists alike love to see the Dwarf Minke Whales in the northern Great Barrier Reef during the winter months, because they are generally very inquisitive. And so was our Dwarf Minke that we saw yesterday. It stayed with us for over half an hour, crossing from left to right under our bow and turned around to approach us from behind. A behaviour similar to that of a dolphin. Our guests certainly got to take lots of photos and great memories home from this encounter!
Speak up against whaling!
To see how trustingly this wild animal approached us and to observe such an amazing behaviour must encourage people to speak up for these intelligent creatures. Despite the 1986 IWC ban on commercial whaling, some countries refuse to end their whaling operations and use a loophole which allows for scientific whaling. Every year, Japan, Norway and Iceland kill around 1,500 whales between them. They generally die a slow painful death, as there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea.. Watch this video that was recently released by Sea Shepherd Australia.
If you would like to learn more about whales in Australian waters and see Tasmania’s rugged coastline, check out our tour options and join us on your next holiday in Tassie!
Nowadays, spreading the word about responsible observing of marine animals is more important than ever. With an increasing number of boat tour operators and recreational boat owners taking people out to watch whales and dolphins on the water and photos of ‘super close encounters‘ getting talked up more and more on social media, it also imposes an increased risk of impacting on the animals.
Different types of whales are driven by different factors. Some whales, like the Humpback Whales, migrate between warm equatorial waters and cold, nutrient rich waters. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, they head North to mate and give birth, seeking warm sheltered bays to nurse their calves after being born when they are still quite vulnerable. The mums have just travelled about 5000 km and given birth to a 1 ton baby. During breeding season, they don’t eat anything and live off their body fat reserves, yet have to feed 200+ litres of milk per day to their calves. One can only imagine how exhausting this process would be for the Humpback Whales. Needless to say, that mum and calf require some time to recover and to fortify themselves for the long journey ahead. Thousands of kilometres of swimming, before they reach their feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean.
When close encounters get a bit too close..
Keeping this in mind, one should not approach the animals too closely, to ensure they can have their well deserved rest. If they become inquisitive and choose to come for a closer look, that’s great! And it actually happens quite often. 🙂 In that case, it is recommended to take the engines out of gear during the ‘mugging’ (when whales are close and swim around the vessel) and not to engage the vessel into gear until the whales have been sighted a safe distance away from the boat.
Not long ago, we spotted a Humpback Whale with lacerations on his back. On a closer look it appears like an injury caused by a propeller of a boat.
Show some respect!
Choosing a responsible boat tour operator or knowing the guidelines for cetacean viewing helps immensely in protecting the animals which we are so passionate about. Not every business that claims to be an ‘eco tour operator‘ acts responsibly. We’ve been told many stories from guests on our recent tours that have experienced some disrespectful behaviour towards wildlife on previous trips they have joined (i.e. ‘herding’ dolphins into bays to snorkel with them, chasing whales with full speed, etc.). That’s not cool, so make sure you do your research.
There are a few key principles for the appropriate viewing of whales and dolphins:
Follow the recommended approach distances (as shown in the image below)
Don’t touch or feed the animals
Adopt a slow speed when cetaceans are around and don’t ‘chase’ them
Take engines out of gear when whale ‘mugging’ occurs (when whales become curious and stay close to the vessel)
And ENJOY your time with the animals, as it is a gift from the ocean! 🙂
The 1st of August gave us the great opportunity to track and study a slow travelling family pod of Orcas on our coastline. Five Killer Whales had been sighted the day before off Schouten Island which is located about 47nm (87km) further up the coast. We were notified that the animals were slowly moving South, indicating a good chance to go ahead with some research work.
What’s on the menu today?
Wild Ocean Tasmania provides the research vessel for PhD student Ben Sellers from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS). Ben’s aim is to find out more about the dietary habits of Killer Whales in Australian waters. Scientists have a fair idea what types of prey the Killer Whales target thanks to sightings of researchers, tour operators and citizen science. Prey items include Seals, Rays, Tuna, Penguins, Squid and even Whale calves. However, more research has to be done to confirm the dietary choices of Killer Whales on a regular basis.
Tissue samples can be used to examine the feeding habit of an individual animal. By looking at the fatty acid composition of the Killer Whale’s fat and comparing it to its potential prey, scientists can make some conclusions about what that individual has eaten over the last few months. This process presents more in depth information than we would be able to gather relying on sightings only. Ben Sellers uses a modern biopsy method that allows him to take tissue samples with specially designed darts. Strict regulations and permits are in place to ensure the animals welfare. One of the rules prohibits using this technique when calves are sighted in the pod. For our Orca encounter on Tuesday, it meant that no biopsy samples were going to be taken, as we spotted a young animal, approximately 4 years of age.
Identification of individual Killer Whales
Orcas are listed as ‘data deficient’ on the IUCN red list of threatened species. There is not enough information available to issue a conservation status for these animals. So even though no biopsy samples were taken, the encounter with the three Orcas on Tuesday afternoon presented a great chance to collect valuable data material to help with the identification and behavioural studies. The identification of individual Killer Whales is vital to expand the ID catalogue – managed by David Donnelly from Killer Whales Australia – and to feed the database with more information in regard to the population size, distribution, life history and ecology and possible threats to this species.
Three distinct identification features can be used to identify an individual:
The primary form of identification are high quality photos of the dorsal fin from both sides. The dorsal fin of each animal has a unique shape as well as distinct nicks, scarring and notches and usually yield sufficient information to assign an image to an individual Killer whale.
2. Saddle Patch
The secondary feature used for the identification of individual Killer Whales is the saddle patch right behind and below the dorsal fin. The shape, contrast and scarring of the saddle patch is unique to each animal and is usually used in conjunction with the dorsal fin as an identifying feature.
3. Eye Patch
When images of the dorsal fin and saddle patch are at a poor angle for the use in stand-alone identification, the eye patch can be a useful third option for the individual identification of Killer Whales.
We’ve sent our best ID photos for identification purposes off to David Donnelly from Killer Whales Australia and got informed that the same animals have been sighted off Phillip Island in 2013, indicating that the young one must be 4+ years old. None of these animals have yet been listed in the ID catalogue featuring about 60 individuals. The catalogue is a work in progress. Using robust methods, David and his team from KWA assess each image for its useability for identification. All images assigned to an individual killer whale have to be verified by at least two additional independent observers. If all three observers agree on an individual, that animal is then given a unique identification number and added to the catalogue.
Exciting sound recordings of Killer Whales
When tracking the Orcas, we also had the opportunity to film the youngest one underwater and record some rare acoustics of the animals. The footage shows the little one swim towards our vessel and then pass it to follow it’s mother. The audio recording is currently being analysed. Researchers suggest it might be the mother calling it’s young to come closer. Watch the video and listen to the beautiful vocals at the end of the clip!
If you are coming to Tasmania for a short stay or a long weekend and don’t have enough time to do extensive hikes, a boat cruise along the coastline of the Tasman Peninsula offers a great alternative to see the National Park from a different perspective. You will get to explore hidden caves, fascinating sea stacks and a variety of marine life.
Select the tour you would like to join, choose a date on the booking calendar and enter the Promo Code JUNE17 when you are prompted to do so. Alternatively, you can send us an email or give us a call and mention the Promo Code JUNE17.
What to expect:
June is a great time to visit Tasmania, since the main tourist season has come to an end. Our afternoon ‘Coastal Adventure’ tour is the perfect choice for photography enthusiasts that would like to capture Tasmania’s amazing scenery just before sunset, when the coastline lights up in beautiful colours.
And for those tough wildlife lovers: We still operate our Seal & Ocean Expeditions, that will give you a litte insight into Tasmania’s underwater world and the life of Australian and Long-nosed Fur Seals. One bonus of joining our snorkel trip during the cooler months is: The water clarity on calm days is just breathtaking! No need to worry about the cold, our polar fleece onesies and drysuits will keep you toasty warm!
The large number of Orca sightings last month plus numerous sightings in January, February and March have proven that Tasmania’s East Coast is one of the hotspots to see Orcas in Australia.
Orca sightings in April off Tasmania’s East Coast:
30.4.17 O’Hara Bluff, Tasman Peninsula (male and female at sunset)
29.4.17 Waterfall Bay, Tasman Peninsula (pod of 4, travelling North early in the morning)
25.4.17 Near Policeman’s Point, Bay of Fires (2 animals, one of them listed in the ‘Killer Whales Australia ID Catalogue: EA_0002 aka Split Fin, we’ve seen the same animal together with two others here off the Tasman Peninsula in January)
25.4.17 East of Eddystone Point, Northeast Tasmania (pod of 3)
21.4.17 Seven Mile Beach, near Hobart Airport (small pod)
20.4.17 East of Maria Island (EA_0002 aka Split Fin)
plus two unconfirmed sightings off the Hippolyte Rock near Tasman Peninsula and in the Northeast near the Bay of Fires
This was our romantic encounter with two Killer Whales at sunset on Sunday afternoon:
A post shared by Wild Ocean Tasmania (@wildoceantasmania) on
Where to report Orca sightings?
Orcas can often be seen from the shore. If you do see an Orca, please report it either to us at Wild Ocean Tasmania (0473-770416) or to David Donnelly of Killer Whales Australia (0401-011022). Your contribution would greatly support the team of researchers in gathering information about the behaviour and distribution of Orcas in Australia.
The last thing we would have expected to see on our Coastal Adventure last Wednesday was a baleen whale… While Humpback Whales can be seen on our coastline almost daily between October and December and Orcas, who belong to the family of toothed whales, are frequent visitors to Tasmania’s coastal waters all year round, other species of whales are not that common inshore.
We stopped our vessel to enjoy the company of a huge pod of about 500 Bottlenose Dolphins as a large misty blow appeared in amongst all the action. No need to explain how excited we were! It was obvious that this species of whale was a rare visitor to Tasmania’s coastal waters.
Sei Whale or Fin Whale?
We quickly grabbed our camera to hopefully get some ID shots. The sickle shape of the dorsal fin, the dark bluish-grey colour of the dorsal surface when looking against the sunlight, the blow and the size of this animal (about 15+ meters long) all indicated that it might be a Sei Whale. But the turquoise colour when below the surface confused us a little. The animal appeared to maybe even be a Fin Whale, the second largest living animal on the planet. Fin Whales make the lowest frequency sound in nature which can be heard by other Fin Whales thousands of kilometres away. Pretty incredible!!
Both the Sei Whales and the Fin Whales are listed as endangered. They have been excessively hunted for their meat, blubber, oil and baleen during the commercial whaling time. Recent surveys indicate that there are now fewer than 15,000 Fin Whales in the Southern Hemisphere and around 40,000 in the Northern Hemisphere. The current population of Sei Whales is estimated at 80,000, nearly a third of the prewhaling population.
We handed our photos over to our marine research colleagues to find out what sort of whale this might have been. Unfortunately, the whale didn’t show it’s rostrum nor it’s tail and the researchers are still undecided what type of whale we’ve encountered. Regardless of the species, it was a great experience for everyone on board. Especially our youngest sailors will have a lot to tell their friends after the school holidays! 🙂
UPDATE: According to the team of the Marine Conservation Program Wildlife Management Branch of DPIPWE and their interstate colleagues, the general consensus is that it was most likely a sub-adult Fin Whale, Balaenoptera physalus. The turquoise colour beneath the surface indicates a Blue or a Fin Whale, but the size and position of the dorsal fin rules out the Blue Whale. Also the straighter anterior edge of the dorsal fin is unlike most Sei whales.
Very few sightings of this species have been confirmed in Tasmania. Fin whales are typically found in deep offshore waters. So thanks to everyone involved in helping with the identification!!
If you would like to join us on our Coastal Adventure tour, click here to check the availability. We offer great deals for families, plus children under 6 years of age travel free of charge!
Lots of Killer Whale sightings in Tasmania early 2017
We couldn’t have asked for a better start into the new year! A pod of Orcas was sighted off the east and southeast coast of Tasmania several times early this month. We had the pleasure to spend an hour with a male, a female and a juvenile killer whale on our Seal & Ocean Expedition on 2nd January. Yes, we had to extend our trip slightly… 😉
The teenage Orca was very inquisitive. He came over and played beside our boat. We watched him roll around upside down, checking us out from underneath. Then he accelerated to grab and bite a jelly fish in half, what he then celebrated with lots of tail slapping. All within meters of our boat.
Underwater video of wild Orcas in Tasmania
The fact that the Orca came so close to our boat allowed us to film him underwater. Here you can watch our underwater footage of a young Killer Whale in the wild, where he belongs! Enjoy 🙂
Orca research in Tasmania
Researchers still don’t know much about the behaviour of Killer Whales in the wild. Their aim is to identify individual animals and to find out more about their diet and distribution. We work closely together with Killer Whales Australia, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of Orcas in Australian waters. Killer Whales can be identified due to their dorsal fins (distinctive shape, nicks and scratches) and their saddle patch (the area just behind the dorsal fin). We try to get high resolution photos of these areas to send off to the Australian Orca Database for their ID catalogue. Researchers are also hoping to collect skin and tissue samples of the Orcas from aboard our vessel, using a modern biopsy method, which can help in identifying their precise diet.
Last week has been amazing in terms of wildlife sightings. Not only have we been treated with some more Humpback Whales that were feeding off the Tasman Peninsula, but we also got to spend our day with a superpod of Bottlenose Dolphins in excess of one thousand animals last Thursday.
Dolphins as far as we could see!
While different types of dolphins, like Bottlenose and Common Dolphins, are a very regular sight for us on our boat tours (7 out of 10 days we see dolphins during our trips), it is rather rare to see THAT many! On very lucky occasions, about a handful of days per year, we get to join a superpod. 🙂
Superpods of dolphins generally occur in areas of high food availability and consist of up to a few thousand individuals. In comparison, an average dolphin pod has about 10 – 30 members. The temperate waters of Tasmania are rich in nutrients and therefore provide the food that attracts whales and dolphins to feed here.
Seeing a superpod of dolphins is a treat for all your senses, as they communicate through whistles and body language. The whistling sounds which the animals produce are easy to hear from the boat. Dolphins produce sounds using air sacs near their blow hole. The action of these air sacs is similar to filling up a balloon and then squeezing the end to let out the air. Each animal has a uniquely identifying signature whistle. Examples of body language are spectacular leaps out of the water, the snapping of their jaws as well as tail and head slapping. Sounds and gestures help the animals to keep track of other dolphins in the group, to navigate and to point out nearby food.
To see dolphins always puts a smile on your face! Probably because of their friendly facial expressions. If you would like to join one of our wildlife-watching tours, check out our scenic based Coastal Adventure trip or come and swim with seals! We would love to share this beautiful coastline with you!
This years whale-watching season has even topped last years!
We’re only half way through this years whale watching season and can say that it has been the best so far!! Although we are not an actual ‘whale-watching’ operator (because we understand that whales are wild animals, generally food driven, and sightings cannot be guaranteed) we go out of our way to find some whales for our guests (and for us…) on our wildlife tours. This year, we have been seeing whales on nearly every trip so far! Tasmania’s Southeast coast is cetacean rich and it is home to many different species of whales. Over the last couple of months we’ve spotted Humpback Whales, Orcas and even the endangered Southern Right Whale.
Very special mother and calf encounters
This years whale-watching season has been a very special one for us and our guests, because we got to witness some amazing whale calf behaviours. Most of the baby whales seemed to be very energetic and showed off with some spectacular breaches which gave our crew incredible photo opportunities!
Humpback Whale Calf learning to lunge feed
The most amazing day for us was, when we watched a baby Humpback whale practise to lunge feed. From the boat, we saw how the little guy accelerated and opened his mouth to scoop up some water. Tasmania is a great spot to watch adult Humpback Whales feed. Yet, to see a calf mimic it’s mother was a very special sight! Our drone allowed us to capture unbelievable footage showing the little one playfully learning how it’s done. You can even see it’s tongue when the calf opens up it’s mouth!
Spyhopping, flipper slapping, lobtailing, nursing and breaching
When a whale lifts it’s head (and sometimes the chest as well) out of the water, it allows them to have a better look around. This behaviour is known as ‘spyhopping’
Humpback Whale calves are quite vulnerable when they are young and have to put on weight quickly to be prepared for the long migration to Antarctica. They are one of the fastest growing species of whale, reaching 8-10 meters within the first year. The mother will feed her young over 200 litres of milk per day that is very rich in fat. Feeding can easily be identified, when the mother stays underwater and the baby returns to the surface every few minutes to breathe between feeds.
Researchers are still studying the behaviours of whales to find out more about the reasons why they breach or slap their tails and flippers. The slapping of pectoral fins and tail is most likely done to communicate with other whales, as the sound can travel far distances underwater and can be heard from other whales even kilometres away. It could also be a warning of danger or to work out their position in relation to land.
Especially Humpback Whales are known for their acrobatic jumps. To see a whale breach is something very special and a photographers dream. Although the whales seem to prefer rough and windy weather when breaching, this years calves have certainly enjoyed themselves on the most beautiful and calm days, guaranteeing that every passenger captured a spectacular photo to take home and remember this day forever. Why do Humpback Whales breach? There are several reasons for a whale to breach, one being the simple joy of jumping out of the water. Other reasons are trying to get rid of parasites, communication with other whales or to scare off predators.
When is the best time of the year to see whales in Tasmania?
In general, there is a chance of spotting whales any time of the year in Tasmania, as there are many different species of whales that occur in Tasmanian waters, not all of them are migrating whales. Orcas for example can be seen year round, when the food source is available. For migrating Humpback Whales and Southern Right Whales, the best time of the year to see them is during their migration down South (from warmer breeding grounds to their main feeding ground in the productive Antarctic waters) between October and mid Deceber. Saying that, last year, we’ve seen the last migrating Humpback Whale mid January.