The bow of the boat cut through the warm waters of Australia’s Hervey Bay. The cool air, heavy with salt and early morning mist, lapped at my skin. Half an hour earlier I had stumbled sleepily from a Greyhound coach, thrown my backpack over my shoulder and walked towards the ocean. It was first light and the small Queensland town was not yet awake. The boat slowed to a drift and cut the engines. Now the only sound was the chime of water ringing on the hull as the calm seas became glittered topaz under the flare of the morning sun. The gentle sway of the boat was threatening to carry me into a deep sleep when the tranquility was abruptly shattered. The ocean’s skin was torn open as a monstrous Humpback Whale exploded its enormous bulk out of the water, before crashing down in a twisting foamy eruption.
I was awestruck by the sight of this leviathan in flight. I didn’t own a digital camera. My film camera clicked myopically in uneducated hands, without a hope of capturing the breathtaking experience. The adult Humpback is a mighty Being, growing to 18 meters (60 feet) and weighing in at an extraordinary 40 tons. If you attended school in North America that yellow bus you travelled on would have been a little smaller than a Humpback. No one knows why the Humpback does this full body breach. They are the only species of whale to do so. Perhaps they are just having fun, because they can. Perhaps they dream that their huge pectoral fins will one day take them circling into the sky like the other great ocean wanderer, the albatross.
The Humpback whale is a rare conservation success story. In 1988 this whale was still listed as an Endangered Species, with extinction seemingly inevitable. Then something remarkable happened. We got smart! Commercial hunting of Humpbacks was prohibited by the International Whaling Commission and the world’s population of these extraordinary animals has been steadily growing ever since. The Humpback is now listed as Least Concern.
My next encounter came some years later in one of the great cities of the world; Sydney, Australia. For a few months of the year Sydney’s Pacific coastal waters become a superhighway for migrating Humpbacks. In the spring around 1200 Southern Humpback whales head north to their breeding grounds at the south end of the Great Barrier Reef. In the autumn mothers lead their rapidly growing calves on the unprecedented 5000 km (3000 miles) journey back south to the rich feeding grounds in the frigid waters of Antarctica.
I would very much like to enjoy being with whales on a small boat, alone, rather than on a commercial whale watching vessel, but I know that is selfish of me. It is our desire to be with whales, and the industry that has mushroomed out of this desire that will surely guarantee these magnificent animals are protected for decades to come.
My most recent encounter with the magnificent Humpback came off the coast of Vancouver Island, in the astonishing Salish Sea and along the Great Bear Coast. I travelled on a small boat from Telegraph Cove, deep into the Great Bear Rainforest in search of Grizzly Bears. Here, in the early morning rain the surface of the sea was a stew of cetaceans. We stopped briefly to spend time with a Humpback. I was struck by how these massive animals feed so close to the rocky coast and navigate the narrows between the scattered islands. As the whale sank into the deep it presented first the leathery hump that gives it its name, followed by the iconic whale tail dive. The hump is not actually a physical hump but rather a body shape that the whale takes as it rolls into a dive.
The following day I got to spend a little longer in the company of giants, this time in the spectacular Salish Sea. Like an ancient Douglas fir trunk, a huge whale back broke open the surface of the sea, rolling in the eddying current. Cracking like a gas cylinder, the whale exhaled, sending a fountain of mist high into the air. This is how to find whales. The sound is unmistakable and the distant plume of white “smoke” against the inky ocean can only be made by one thing.
The Humpback whale has an extraordinary ability that only a privileged few get to experience. This is the whale song of the male humpback. It is said to be the most complex song of any creature on the planet. The discovery and subsequent unfolding of the complexity of this song was essential to humans building a relationship with a creature that could no longer be viewed as a dumb animal. It has helped to save the Humpbacks very existence. The song appears to be used to network between males. All whales in an area will sing the same song, but this song will evolve as a group over a period of time. The song was discovered in the 1970s during the Cold War when a Bermudan listening for Russian submarine activity stumbled on the unique, haunting sound. Sailors of yesteryear spoke of the haunting sound that vibrated through their wooden hulls. These encounters of song from an unknown source deep in the ocean gave rise to many a myth and legend.
The Humpback is a global whale that swims in every ocean on the planet. No other mammal attempts the extraordinary 10,000 km (6,200 miles) odyssey of the Humpback migration.
I have been blessed to see these mighty whales in the North and the South. I have watched them as they navigate some of the most beautiful coastal waters on the planet. I should be satisfied, but I have a gnawing urge. Someday I need to be in the water with these gentle giants to look them in the eye and perhaps, if it is my turn, to hear their siren song.
Join the conversation below. Have you been in the presence of whales? What did you experience?
Connect others with wildlife by sharing this post on social media and, If you enjoyed this post, please follow Incidental Naturalist.