Whales and the Great Australian Bight

Whales and the Great Australian Bight

One of the highlights of the Great Australian Bight is that it’s a seasonal home to migratory whales. The natural open bay across the southern coast of Australia has a pristine environment and is home to many different marine species. However, it’s the annual movement of Southern Right Whales and Humpback Whales along the coast that entices many people to visit Ceduna, the Eyre Peninsula, and the Far West Coast.

If you’re an animal lover who is after the once in a lifetime experience of spotting these beautiful mammals off the coast, this article will provide plenty of information about whales in the Great Australia Bight.

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Whales in the Great Australian Bight

The Great Australian Bight is well-known for being the home of some incredible marine life. While the endangered Southern Right Whales are often the main attraction, you can also spot Humpback Whales as well.

The Bight is covered under the Great Australian Bight Marine Park. This park has similar benefits to a land-based national park and is aimed at protecting the calving and gathering area for whales. It was established in 1995 and covers an incredible 45, 822 square kilometres with depths ranging from 15m to 6000m.

About Southern Right Whales

Southern Right Whales are an at-risk species and is thought to have a total worldwide population of around 12, 000. Of that number, around 1500 of them make their way to Australia’s southern coast each year during the cooler months. They are quite unique in that that don’t tend to venture above the equator to sup-tropical waters and are generally only spotted around coastlines of the southern hemisphere.

After a summer of feeding in the waters around Antarctica, the Southern Right Whales make their migratory trip to Australia for warmer water. The long journey is thousands of kilometres, and the incredible round trip is made every year. They arrive in Australian waters around May and depart around October, depending on the climate and season.

The water of the Great Australian Bight is used as their breeding ground and nursery and is where they mate, birth and feed for many months over winter. It’s thought that the protected bay and deep water of the Bight is the most ideal breeding ground for them, in order to both protect the infants and train them for the long migration back to Antarctica.

You can identify Southern Right Whales by their v shaped blow, callosities or thick patches of skin on their head and no dorsal fin. They can weigh up to 70 tonnes as adults and up to 18m long, making them one of the larger whales in the world. While their exact life span is not known, it’s thought that they can live up to 100 years old.

Southern Right Whales as endangered species

In the 19th century, the population of the Southern Right Whales was thought to be around 60, 000. However, over decades of whaling their numbers dropped to severe levels. While their protective status sine 1937 has meant that their numbers are slowly increasing by about 7-8% each year, the overall population numbers are still well below pre-whaling levels.

The importance of the Great Australian Bight as their protected breeding ground has meant that Australia has seen a larger increase in numbers compared to other parts of the southern hemisphere.

About Humpback whales

Similar to the Southern Right Whales, Humpback Whales migrate from the feeding grounds of Antarctica to the warmer waters of Australia in winter. However, Humpbacks make their journey much further north than Southern Right Whales. They typically migrate up to an incredible 25, 000km each year from polar waters to tropical oceans.

They journey up to the northern coast of Western Australia and Queensland before returning to the Southern Ocean late in the season or the journey back to Antarctica. You can usually see them in the Southern Ocean earlier in the year on their way north and from around September to November each year on their way south. You can see Humpback Whales along both the entire eastern and western coast of Australia at different times of the year. However, along the Great Australian Bight, they tend to congregate more to the eastern side around the Eyre Peninsula.

Humpback Whales can be identified by their dorsal fin, knobs on top of the head and long side fins. They can weigh up to 30 tonnes and grow to 16m in length. They are most well-known for their surfacing and diving techniques that have become iconic in Australia. Their breaches are quite popular amongst whale watchers and it’s an incredible sight to watch, especially up close on a whale watching tour.

One of the most unique facts about Humpback Whales is that the males produce a very complex song lasting 10 to 20 minutes and often repeated for hours. All of the males in a particular group produce the same song which changes from season to season. It’s not clear exactly what the intended purpose is, but it’s considered an incredible feature of these impressive mammals.

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Humpback Whales as vulnerable species

Like the Southern Right Whale, Humpbacks were targeted by the whaling industry almost until extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the end of commercial whaling, the population numbers have since climbed a little back to around 80, 000 of them worldwide. They are currently listed as vulnerable by the Australian government and enjoy plenty of protection within Australian waters, which are considered whale sanctuaries. However, they still face threats in the form of over-fishing, noise pollution and entanglements in fishing equipment.

When is the best time to see whales in the Great Australian Bight

You can spot these beautiful creatures from May until October each year. However, the exact timing can change depending on the year and climate. In the first few months, you will likely only spot adult Southern Right Whales off the coast of the Great Australian Bight. However, by late August it’s possible to see mothers swimming with their calves, which is a special thing to see.

Humpback Whales are more common later in the season until around November, as they make their way back south after spending some of the winter in the northern, sup-tropical waters.

Where is the best spot to see whales in the Great Australian Bight

You can spot whales off the coast along the entire stretch of the Great Australian Bight from the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia across to Western Australia. However, arguably the best spot to see them is at the Head of Bight on the Bunda Cliffs. This northernmost extent of the Bight is where you’ll find the Whale Watching Centre with viewing platforms available facing in both directions. It’s considered one of the best land-based viewing areas for whale watching in the entire country.

It’s estimated that half of the Australian population of Southern Right Whales use the area around the Head of Bight for breeding, making it one of the most important places for these endangered mammals. You can often see 70 or so whales off the coast at the Head of Bight in August, which is when most of the mothers give birth to calves.

While Humpback Whales occasionally make their way across to the Head of Bight area, they tend to stick further east and west along the coast. You can have a good chance of spotting them off the coast of the Eyre Peninsula and further east to the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. Or, you can also see them off the coast in the Lower Western Australia region, if you head across the Nullarbor in time for winter.

Whale watching tours at the Great Australian Bight

For those who want to get even closer to these incredible mammals, a whale watching boat tour is one of the most sought-after experiences in the Great Australian Bight. The cruises head off the coast of the Eyre Peninsula and take you out to see the whales frolicking in the water. Many of the tours leave from Fowlers Bay, not far west of Ceduna, which is considered the jumping off point for the pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight.

Another more exclusive and unique opportunity for a whale watching tour is to head out on a scenic flight across the Bunda Cliffs. If you opt for a flight across the Great Australian Bight in winter, you’ll likely be able to see the whales from the air, which is another incredible experience to have on the Far West Coast. However, there are restrictions in the interest of the whales to not fly too low or close to them, but it’s still a unique opportunity to grasp the beauty and vastness of the ocean. Find a self-drive tour itinerary from Ceduna here.