Letter from Australia by Chris O’Connor. For years Australia and the rest of the world hunted humpback whales almost to extinction but Australia has made a giant leap in their preservation. Humpback whales have been removed from the threatened species list after a significant increase in numbers in the 60 years since they were first protected. The number of humpback whales in Australian waters has grown from just 1,500 at the height of the commercial whaling industry to an estimated 40,000.
Commercial whaling in the southern ocean in the 19th and early 20th century pushed many whale species, particularly the humpback and southern right, to the brink of extinction. More than 30,000 humpback whales were killed by whalers operating in Australia and New Zealand before local whaling operations ceased taking the species in 1963. They received international protection in 1965 in recognition of a dramatic decline in global numbers.
The last commercial whaling station in Australia, the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company in Western Australia, closed in 1978 and Australia adopted an anti-whaling policy in 1979.
Humpback Whales are one of the largest species of whale, averaging a length of between one to 16 metres and weighing 25 to 30 metric tons. Named for the small hump on their dorsal fin, humpback whales are known for their complex breaching behaviours that make them popular with whale watchers. At the right time of the year – in-between winter and summer people in their boats often have whales breach near them off the east coast of Australia and also in the Great Australian Bight. Having said that, Australia has very strict rules about getting up close and personal with the humpback having a 100 metre protection rule. But with something that can weigh 30 tons why would you want to get up close and personal.
These playful creatures live off their blubber in the colder months, only hunting in summer. They are carnivorous, eating mostly krill, small crustaceans, and schooling fish. They have several hunting techniques: direct attack, stunning with a slap to the water, or creating a ‘bubble net’ around their prey.
Arguably the most well-known and best-loved of all the whales, humpback whales are known to sing for minutes or hours. Solitary male humpback whales are most often heard singing, with their haunting moans audible for several kilometres underwater. Scientists have not yet agreed on a single reason for why humpback whales sing – it could be to attract females, to communicate or to navigate – and so it remains one of nature’s most endearing mysteries.
Every year, humpback whales undergo incredible migrations between feeding and breeding grounds. They feed near Antarctica and the southern ocean and give birth in the tropics, and each year, individual humpback whales travel as much as sixteen thousand miles (25,000 km) between these two areas.
If you fancy one as pet – and I joke – be warned. Humpback whales eat up to 3,000 pounds (1.4 metric tons) of food a day, including krill and small fish. Makes the tiny fish swimming around in a bowl on the table a little insignificant!