Sadly the time is coming when the whales that make their way to the South Australian coast will soon be returning to the Antarctic waters.
Victor Harbor, Port Elliot, and Middleton on the Fleurieu Peninsula are lucky to have these giant visitors return year after year, to the warmer and sheltered waters that become a nursery for the new born calves.
The Middleton and Port Elliot areas have had whales spotted practically every day since they first returned in May this year, and the same adults seem to return each year, identifiable by the white callosities (callus like growths on their heads) and other markings on their bodies.
I’ve spent a few days this year to specifically go whale watching and if it’s something you haven’t done before, all I can say is do it! It’s hard to describe the sense of wonder and awe you feel watching these giant creatures. I find it quite hypnotic and meditative just watching them and it’s a wonderful way to slow down and appreciate the beauty of the coast here.
You need to train your eyes to pick the tell-tale signs that a whale is about and being in an elevated viewing position will make it easier. At first you mightn’t notice anything more than a black line on the surface of the water, but then if you’re lucky, there are a few behaviours to watch for.
You will often see them blowing and sometimes this can be the first sign you’ll notice that a whale is out there. This is basically the whale exhaling and Southern Right Whales which are the most prevalent species around this area, have a distinctive V shaped blow of moisture.
Spy hopping is what it’s called when a whale pokes it head vertically up out of the water to have a look around and because their eyes are set down low, they come quite a way out of the water to enable them to see.
Pec slaps are a way they communicate so they will lay on their sides at the surface of the water and use their pectoral fins to slap the water. Other times you may just notice a whale lying on its side with the fin and part of the tail out of the water.
One of the most exciting things to see is a Tail Lift, which is literally when a whale lifts its tail out of the water and you get to see that unmistakeable shape. Sometimes they will slap their tails too.
The most spectacular behaviour though, and one that I was lucky enough to witness recently, is Breaching. This is when a whale launches itself out of the water then twists and crashes back down. They do this for a number of reasons including to communicate, to get a higher view, drive off predators or just for play. The whale I saw doing this was a calf so it was probably playing but it is just the most stunning behaviour to witness.
The calf on this occasion reared out of the water with no warning and came crashing back down, doing this a few times in a row before settling back into swimming alongside its mother. Calves can weigh around 1 tonne, so this is absolutely incredible to see. This happened just a few hundred metres off shore so I was lucky enough to get some photos as it was happening.
You have to have patience when watching whales and if you put in the time you may be lucky enough to see some of these things. It’s just a matter of luck if they show any of these behaviours, but to see it just once, is so worthwhile.