SYDNEY — A record-breaking number of whales is expected to pass along Australia's east coast in the coming months, during the annual migration from Antarctica to tropical breeding grounds. Whale watching companies say populations of humpback whales have been rising steadily in recent years, attracting large numbers of tourists.
Off the coast of Sydney it is peak hour on the "humpback highway" as passengers board a boat hoping for an up-close view of the massive mammals in the wild.
Australia has been at the forefront of efforts to conserve whale species and to stop Japan’s annual hunt in the Southern Ocean.
Will Ford is a director of Whale Watching Sydney
, a tour company that closely tracks the annual migration.
“One of the main arguments against commercial whaling is that the whale watching is a far more sustainable and far more profitable business. It is a pretty amazing migration," he said. "They start down in the Great Southern Ocean around Antarctica, which is where there feeding grounds are in summertime, and over two or three months they will swim all the way from that area all the way up to the tropics, so almost a quarter of the Earth’s circumference, just about. The amazing thing is most of the whales won’t eat on that whole migration, so they are doing it all basically on an empty stomach.”
Tour guide Jonas Liebschner says each year the number of whales spotted has increased by around 10 percent, signs that endangered populations are rebounding because of commercial whaling bans.
“Two humpback whales on our left-hand side there and, actually, I think this is a mother and a calf, so that is a little bit unusual for this time of year," Liebschner explained. "Generally what the humpbacks do is that they go north to give birth and to mate, then they come back with their calves. But it looks like there is a newborn calf here already, in which case we actually have to stand off a little bit further.”
Liebschner says it is a rare treat, isn’t it, for visitors to eastern Australia to see these fantastic animals so close up.
“They are generally very relaxed and sometimes they come right up close to the boat and what we do is actually sort of make a little bit of noise on the boat, so we stamp our feet and do that sort of stuff. And, then, sometimes, I feel like the whale is actually answering to that. Like when I stomp on the boat a little bit, you can see the whale slapping its tail and doing all sorts of stuff," he said. "I reckon I have been in a conversation with a couple of whales, yes.”
For those who make it to Sydney, seeing these massive animals in the water can be a life-altering experience.
The humpback whale migration continues through August, before the population begins making its way back to feeding areas in the Antarctic.