whalewatching

Winter whale-watching along the Victorian coast

While the idea of going for a swim in Melbourne’s cold winter waters might seem like a nightmare for some, hundreds of others have recently flocked to our shores for a welcome winter holiday. For a few short months each year, the Victorian Coast becomes home to some of the world’s largest and most majestic creatures - whales.

The whales are migrating up to 10,000 kilometres from the colder Antarctic waters where they’ve spent the summer feeding, to the shallower, warmer waters of New South Wales and Queensland. On their way north along the eastern Australian coast, a handful visit the Bass Coast between April and November each year to calve and rest.

That’s right – they’re in our backyard, and they’re easier to see than you might think.

Last month, I went on a four-hour whale-watching cruise around Phillip Island, only an hour-and-a-half drive from Melbourne. I spend the first hour of the cruise eagerly looking out to the horizon – is that a whale? No, it’s another buoy. Finally, a promising blow in the distance indicates we’ve found what we were looking for, and the boat heads in the direction of the sighting.

Humpback Whales seen from a distance.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Humpback Whales seen from a distance. Image: Ella Loeffler

The vessel approaches the whales, abiding by strict regulations under their permit – they must keep a 100-metre distance at all times. It is up to the whales if they choose to approach the vessel any closer, although often they do, in which case the engine is turned off.

Coming up for a few breaths, the Humpback Whales give us a good look before they disappear underwater for several long minutes with a flick of their tail. They leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface - and an excited energy in the air as we wait for them to reappear.

Every year, two main species of whale – the Humpback Whale and the Southern Right Whale – are welcomed by the Bass Coast. Humpbacks have a characteristic white underside and a dorsal fin, while Southern Right Whales are generally black, and are smaller but heavier than humpbacks. Occasionally, Orcas (or Killer Whales) also come for a visit to feed on seals, but the crew tells us that on the days when Orcas are spotted, there is nothing else in the water.

Whales leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface after they disappear.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Whales leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface after they disappear. Image: Ella Loeffler

Wildlife Coast Cruises, together with the Dolphin Research Institute, contribute to the Two Bays Whale Project, which relies on citizen science to build a database of whale sightings. In 2017, an estimated number of 458 individual whales were sighted in Port Phillip and Western Port Bays. These figures are promising, especially considering the dark history of industrial whaling, which saw whale numbers plummet dangerously close to extinction. But it seems that these populations have bounced back, highlighting the importance of continued research and protection of these species.

'Ten o’clock!' calls the crew, pointing to the resurfaced pair of humpbacks, as everyone huddles to one side of the boat. Watching the whales, I feel a child-like exhilaration I haven’t felt in years. Everyone else on board seems to share the same feeling – all you can hear are awestruck exclamations and camera clicks.

Commentating on the loudspeaker, the crew at Wildlife Coast Cruises are careful not to anthropomorphise, highlighting that we really don’t know much about the behaviour of these captivating yet cryptic creatures. But it’s hard not to see these animals as playful, curious beings. One of the crew members hangs off the back of the boat, slowly clapping his hands – apparently, this attracts whales.

At one point, we find ourselves surrounded by three small pods of Humpback Whales, all in different directions. Seemingly jealous that the attention is not on them, a large group of fur seals arrive, playing in the water around the boat. A minute later, there are dolphins swimming along the bow, catching a free ride. Pelicans, albatrosses and gulls fly past – I don’t know where to look, overwhelmed by the abundant wildlife.

Fur seals are a common sighting off the coast of Phillip Island.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Fur seals are a common sighting off the coast of Phillip Island. Image: Ella Loeffler

Dolphins can also be spotted on the whale-watching cruises at Phillip Island.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Dolphins can also be spotted on the whale-watching cruises at Phillip Island. Image: Ella Loeffler

When things calm down again, we’re watching a pod of three whales lazily swimming along. The crew tells us that they only exhibit breaching behaviour (jumping out of the water) five to ten percent of the time, and not to get our hopes up. But just as we’re about to head back in, one of the whales flings itself out of the water, landing with a huge splash; the sheer size and force is incredible. No one really knows why whales breach – it could be to clean themselves, or as an act of aggression. Or it could just be a playful leap. Either way, it makes a wonderful end to our cruise as we head back to Rhyll jetty.

There is still much debate over why whales breach, but it is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular events to witness in the natural world.  Image: Ella Loeffler

There is still much debate over why whales breach, but it is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular events to witness in the natural world. Image: Ella Loeffler

The cruises at Phillip Island run between June and August, and have finished for the year. But if you’ve missed out, don’t worry – what comes up must come down, which means you can catch the whales returning through Wilsons Promontory from September to November. And Jess from Wildlife Coast Cruises promises a good show at the Prom – 'we had a 100% success rate for sightings last year with up to 50% of cruises sighting breaches.'

If you’re looking for a new way to experience our beautiful coastline, a whale-watching cruise is a great chance to get outdoors and see some of the spectacular wildlife Victoria has to offer.


Ella Loeffler studied a Bachelor of Arts and Science at Monash University, combining her love for literature and animals. She is currently completing her honours in Zoology at Deakin University, where she is researching the foraging ecology of the critically endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoot. She is passionate about wildlife conservation, and hopes to continue working in threatened species management.


This article is an honest review and has not been sponsored in any way by Wildlife Coast Cruises or affiliates.

Banner image courtesy of Wildlife Coast Cruises.

Exploring Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park

As we speed towards the cooler months, we Victorians might think it’s time to say goodbye to outdoor activities for a while. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Cold weather is all relative – and winter is the time of year when whales come up from Antarctica to breed and take advantage of our comparatively “warmer” waters in Bass Strait. So, now is the perfect time for whale-watching!

Last year I went on a boat trip around the islands of Wilsons Promontory, and my eyes were opened to the magical and majestic underwater world that lives just on our doorstep this time of year. I thought I’d share with you a few snapshots from the day.

First, we saw the Australasian Gannets (Morus serrator), plunging straight into the waves to catch fish. They were so quick, often you would just catch a splash out of the corner of your eye.

Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

Then came the pod of dolphins keeping pace with the boat and jumping above the waves. These Short-beaked Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis) live in large pods (I couldn’t count how many we saw!), and can be found in offshore waters around Australia.

Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

We then passed some Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) lounging on the rocks in the intermittent sun and frolicking in the waves. Apparently when they “wave” their flipper in the air, it’s not to say hello - they are actually using the air to evaporate water and cool down their body temperature.

Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly

But we were always on the lookout for those elusive creatures that had drawn us all there – the Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). And finally, just peaking above the water, the back of a male humpback in the distance. Much still remains a mystery about these amazing creatures – they are arguably the hardest and most expensive vertebrate to work on because of their lifestyle, mobility and remote habitat. But catching a glimpse of one was truly a rare and exciting gift.

Image: Ella Kelly

Image: Ella Kelly


Ella Kelly.jpeg

Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella


Banner image courtesy of Ella Kelly.