Tag Archives: Whale research in Tasmania

Orca attacks a baby Dolphin off Eaglehawk Neck

This Orca charges towards our boat as the Dolphin calf tries to get away from its predator.

Witnessing Killer Whales predate on a Bottlenose Dolphin calf

The passengers of two of our Scenic Tours had a once in a lifetime experience on Saturday when we witnessed a pod of Orcas hunt and kill a Bottlenose Dolphin calf. We’ve been collaborating with researchers from Killer Whales Australia since we started our boat tour business in 2014 and we have been waiting to capture a moment like this for years! It’s like watching a wildlife documentary unfold right in front of your eyes!

Orca herds the baby dolphin & pushes it out to sea

An Orca popped up beside our vessel, getting ready for the attack on the Dolphin calf.

It all started with a big splash that our skipper spotted on the first tour on Saturday morning. We’re in the middle of the Humpback Whale migration and everyone on board was keen to find some active whales. As we headed in the direction where the splash was spotted, we came across a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins. Usually, Bottlenose Dolphins are extremely playful creatures and tend to charge towards our boat to play in the wake. This time, they behaved differently. The Dolphins seemed to have split into several smaller groups heading in different directions. It was obvious that something was going on and within seconds we spotted the large black dorsal fin of an Orca.

This photo shows the Orca rounding up the tiny baby Dolphin (to the left of its dorsal fin).

We are still waiting for the researchers from Killer Whales Australia to confirm this, but it was likely a female Orca who separated a Dolphin calf from the pod, herded it and made it swim further out to sea. We watched the brutal attacks from the Orca, charging at the helpless little Dolphin calf, pushing it and grabbing it by its pectoral flipper.

The baby Dolphin tried hard to get away from its predator, even swam towards our boat several times to seek cover. It appeared that the Orca just wanted to let the dolphin calf wear itself out.

Orca charging at the Dolphin calf upside down.
The Killer Whales grabs the baby Dolphin by its pectoral flipper as it tries to escape.

Will we find the Killer Whales again on our 2nd trip?

It was hard to leave the scene, but we had already extended our trip by 50 minutes and we had the next group of people waiting at the pier, eager to get out on the water as well. So we headed back to the pier to swap groups. Everyone knew it was a very slim chance to find the Orcas again as about an hour would have passed by the time we got back out to the area where we expected the Orcas to be. We called some recreational fishermen on the way out, but no-one had seen the Killer Whales. As we approached the area where we would expect the Orcas, we slowed down to scan the surroundings and there was certainly a lot of luck involved when the huge dorsal fin of a male Orca appeared.

Two Killer Whales side by side.

Not long after, we saw the baby Dolphin floating on the surface. One of the Orcas grabbed it again and it was super sad to watch the little dolphin die. At the same time it was a very humbling experience for everyone on board to be there at the right time when those incredible apex predators made a successful kill. The Orcas then popped up again with open flesh in their mouths which proves that the dolphin was killed to feed on and not just for play. This is valuable data for the researchers. Over the last few years we have been supporting a PHD candidate who is looking into the diet of Killer Whales in South East Australian waters. You can check out this blog post to find out more about the research that has been done off the Tasman Peninsula.

Tasmanian Whale Fluke Project

A peduncle throw of a Humpback Whale
This behaviour is known as a ‘peduncle throw’. The peduncle of a whale is the muscular area where the tail fluke connects to the body. The whale powerfully throws its tail sideways, slamming the water with a big splash.

Each year we cannot wait for the moment when our East Australian Humpback Whales swim past the Tasmanian coast as they migrate between their sub-tropical breeding grounds and their Antarctic feeding grounds. Relatively little research has been done outside of these breeding and feeding areas, that’s why we joined forces with our marine biologist friend Dr Mads (Maddie Brasier, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies UTAS) and we started the Tasmania Fluke Project.

This project is all about investigating the importance of Tasmania to the East Australian Humpback Whales by collecting ‘fluke’ images. The fluke is the underside of the whale’s tail that is raised above the water as the whale dives, tail slaps or throws the peduncle. Each fluke is unique in its markings, scars, and trailing edge which means they can be used to identify individual whales, a bit like our fingerprints.

A tail-slapping Humpback Whale in Tasmanian waters
A whale’s fluke is unique to each individual, just like our fingerprints. Taking photos of the flukes helps us identify the whales and monitor their movements.

Fluke identification is a non-invasive scientific method that has been the basis of whale research since the 1970s. By matching our Tasmanian flukes, we can start to understand how long individual whales are spending in Tasmanian waters and if individual whales are returning to Tasmania each year. We are also comparing them to an international dataset at Happywhale.com which can help us understand transit times and migration routes as they travel between the poles and the sub tropics.

It has been amazing to see an incredible number of Humpback Whales off the Tasmanian coastline this year. We’ve been seeing whales on every trip for nearly two months now. But it has not been this way for some time. Just 60 years ago the Humpback Whale population was reduced to less than 1000 individuals! However, since the ban on commercial whaling, Humpback Whale numbers have been increasing and could be approaching >40,000 Whales in the next few years (Noad et al. 2019).

A Humpback Whale slapping its tail in front of Tasman Island
A Humpback Whale slapping its tail with Cape Pillar and Tasman Island in the background.

Despite this increase, Whales and other marine life are still threatened by human activities and our impact on the ocean, including entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris, boat collisions / vessel strikes, plastic ingestion, chemical pollution and climate induced ecosystem change.

We hope that the Tasmania Fluke Project can help raise awareness about the importance of Tasmania to the east Australian Humpback Whale population as a migratory stopover.

You can help by sending any fluke images you would like to contribute to Dr Mads (madeleine.brasier@utas.edu.au or @madsbrasier on Instagram), by reporting any sightings of entangled Whales to the Tasmanian Whale hotline (0427 942 537) and of course by actively supporting Ocean conservation.

The logo of the Tasmania Fluke Project

Here are some of the easiest ways to help the Whales and our Oceans: 

  1. Support responsible whale watching companies 
  2. Abide by national whale watching guidelines when you are on the water
  3. Eat less seafood and only eat seafood from sustainable sources (check out the sustainable seafood guide
  4. Reduce your plastic use and keep the Seas clean by disposing of rubbish responsibly
  5. Help clean up our beaches and waterways
A powerful peduncle throw performed by a Humpback Whale on tour with Wild Ocean Tasmania
Another powerful peduncle throw, performed by one of the Humpback Whales we spotted on our tour.

Hope you have been enjoying the Whales this season, if you haven’t seen them yet, make sure you get out there (you can book your tickets here).

If you’d like to stay up to date with the sightings that we’ve had and the fluke images that have been captured along the Tasmanian East coast, check out our project page on ‘Happywhale’ at https://happywhale.com/org/878