About our Whales

Warm blooded, air breathing mammals that we once hunted, and now revere.

These social, intelligent creatures thrive in an environment that is not generally kind to those without gills.

In Australia, their lives are played out across the southern hemisphere, forever migrating between the warm equator to nurse their young and the frozen pole to feed.

A unique relationship between Orca and man

Interactive Killer Whale Trail

Take the interactive Killer Whale Trail

The migration pattern has been long understood by the people and whales of the Sapphire Coast.

First were the Yuin people whose relationship with the killer whales dates back centuries. The Yuin believed that when a whaler or warrior died, his spirit became a killer whale who continued to care and provide food for his people. Beach rituals were held to honour these intelligent and powerful predators and the killers would herd grampus (a dolphin-like cetacean), onto the shores of Twofold Bay, providing food for the people.

Later when Europeans began shore based whaling, the killer whales competed for the whale carcass. The Aboriginal whalers protected them, and taught the Europeans that they could work together. An incredible relationship between orca and men was re-born and lasted this way for 100 years. The killers would alert the whalers to the presence of a whale, accompany them on the hunt, and even protect them if their boat was smashed in the hunt. Several books have been written about this relationship and whaling in Eden, and can be found at the Eden Killer Whale Museum. See the ABC documentary Killers in Eden.

Then, as now, Orcas and even Humpbacks have been named, tracked, and are greeted like old friends by our charter operators and researchers. Killer Whales Australia has identified around 17 individual orca who have visited the Sapphire Coast. Several of them regularly return. See the catalogue here.

Feeding

Humpback whales and common dolphins feed on pilchards in Twofold Bay, Eden. Image: Phil Small Photography

Humpbacks & common dolphins feed in Eden.
Image: Phil Small Photography

When Humpbacks feed here, they lunge through the water with their mouths open to catch krill, plankton and even pilchards. It’s a sight seen only in the polar waters, and on the Sapphire Coast. Feeding is more often at the beginning of the season in September, with adults and sub-adults, then mothers and calves as the season progresses.

A Humpback can eat up to a tonne of food a day. Calves drink 450 litres of milk. It’s lucky our sea is rich, sometimes so thick with krill it is resembles soup.

Orca spread their efforts over much larger areas. In Eden in the 1840s there were around 50 killer whales working together in three pods. One pod would be stationed outside of Twofold Bay, driving whales towards the coast where the other two pods were waiting. One would attack the whale, with the second pod ready to block any escape.

Getting to know individual whales

Whales on the Sapphire Coast.

Whales play on the Sapphire Coast.

Like us, whales have unique characteristics which can be noted and tracked. Photographic tracking of dorsal fins, flukes, the undersides of tails, scars and even skin colour are among popular methods used by researchers. In the 1830s whalers identified the killer whales by the shape of the dorsal fin, resulting in names like Humpy, Hooky but allowing for the allocation of others like Old Tom and Jackson.

Whales are also tracked through their sound, particularly toothed whales who use echolocation-type clicks, although more and more is being discovered about the song of the baleens whales too.

Originally whales were tagged with a stainless steel tubes, fired from modified shotguns. Nearly a thousand whales where tagged in on our east and west coasts and Antarctic waters by several nations. A further 960 were tagged in the southwest pacific islands. Tracking showed the massive majority of whales returned to the same breeding and calving areas in which they were marked.

Other intensive surveys include aerial surveys following historic whaling routes. Spectacular joy flights that include whale watching is another popular way to view whales on the Sapphire Coast and available from Merimbula Airport.

Species

Humpback WhaleSouthern Right whales are usually the first to appear on the southern migration, appearing close to shore between July and August and often staying for a few days. It’s these characteristics that made them prime targets for shore based whalers in the 1830s.

Humpacks soon follow, and are at their highest numbers between September and November.

Encounters with Humpbacks and Southern Rights are the most frequent, however Pygmy Right Whale, Minke, Brydes and the False Killer Whale, the Orca (or Killer Whale) and the Sperm Whale have also been recorded whales on the Sapphire Coast. The mighty and endangered Blue Whale has also been documented, travelling in pods of up to six whales. These massive creatures have been recorded at 29 metres in lengthSouthern Right Whale.

To a lesser extent the Orca and Sperm Whales have both been sighted further out to sea, usually by fishing or scientific charters drifting along the continental shelf, which is quite close to shore when compared to other Australian ports.

Bottlenose and Common Dolphins regularly patrol local beaches and often accompany boats as they make their way in and out of ports.
To a lesser extent the Orca and Sperm Whales have both been sighted further out to sea, usually by
fishing or scientific charters drifting along the continental shelf, which is quite close to shore when compared to other Australian ports.

Bottlenose and Common Dolphins regularly patrol local beaches and often accompany boats as they make their way in and out of ports.

Graphics courtesy of Wild About Whales

Find out more

Visit the Eden Killer Whale Museum

Take the Killer Whale Trail

Read Killers of Eden, a book by former Sydney journalist Tom Mead who researched the story over 15 years. Also read Killers in Eden, a book by Danielle Clode whose research appeared in the documentary below. Whalemen of Twofold Bay, is a pictorial collection produced by the late Rene Davidson, descendant of famous whaler George Davidson.

2016 Migration: Watch whales from sea & shore