Augusta's Whales - Background Information

Augusta has a strong connection with whales.

It is the whales that attracts people to this scenic, south-west tourist town every Winter. Whales being easily visible from Augusta’s magnificent coastline, headlands, beaches and its pristine Flinders Bay which serves as a sanctuary for the migratory whales after their escape from the freezing waters of the Antarctic over the winter months.

Types of Whales seen in Augusta

Most commonly seen are the acrobatic Humpback Whales which frequently use Flinders Bay as a ‘first port of call’ in their long migration northwards up the West Australian coast. Then there are the large, stocky Southern Right Whales which use Flinders Bay for breeding purposes and as a Nursery, giving birth in the shallow protected sections of the bay. In recent years, there have even been sightings of the endangered gargantuan Blue Whale off Augusta’s coastline.

Whale Song Festival

The whales normally arrive at Augusta’s shores from mid May onwards. Then every year, in the first long weekend in June, the Augusta community welcomes the return of its giant visitors with the Whale Song Festival. This popular festival with dancing, live entertainment and whale-oriented activities is an opportunity for tourists to witness the strong affinity that the local Augusta community shares with its whale friends.

Whale Rescues

Augusta’s branding and bond with the whales has in part emerged from the well publicised community rescue of a pod of False-Killer Whales stranded on its town beach in July, 1986. These toothed whales are not usually seen along the coast except for when they strand. When word spread of their stranding, the Augusta community rallied together under expert supervision to save them. It was an intense 3 day operation where all the town locals worked tirelessly taking turns to care for the whales, shepherding them off the beach, applying first aid, keeping them moist, carrying them onto trucks which transported them to protected but deeper waters near the Flinders Bay Jetty and finally guiding them out to the open ocean through a channel reef.

It was a painstaking operation with setbacks, re-strandings, bad weather and where the volunteers endured cold, rain and lack of sleep. Yet, at the end of the period, 96 of the 114 False Killer Whales were saved through the efforts of almost 500 people. At the time, the rescue dominated world headlines given it was the largest, most successful rescue ever of a mass stranding of whales. The actions of the Augusta community captured the admiration of the World. It was a heart warming news story that struck accord with so many people who were touched by the collaborative efforts of a small town to save these helpless whales. Since then, there have been other whale rescues in Augusta and whilst not of the same scale, they still reflect the community’s concern and affection for whales.

Whale Rescue Display in the Augusta Museum

Whaling

Augusta’s whale rescues revealed the quantum shift in general world attitude towards whales from the time of whaling where they were ruthlessly exploited for their oil and whalebone to more recent times where they have been treated with appreciation and respect. Today, it is hard to believe that the types of whales now seen and loved in Augusta were so severely affected by hunting to the point of near extinction.

It is also hard to believe that the beautiful Flinders Bay was the setting for the uncontrolled slaughter of so many Southern Right Whales in the early 1800’s. At this point in time, Southern Rights congregated in big numbers in the bay. These whales were targeted first by American and European Whalers. They were named the ‘right’ whale due to their high oil content and the ease with which they could be caught in open boats using hand harpoons, where their corpses tended to float making it easier for them to be towed to shore where the valuable parts were extracted. The beautiful and tranquil part of Augusta known as Flinders Bay First Settlement was previously referred to as ‘The Whaling’ due to the number of foreign whaling boats that frequented the bay. Whaling occurred in the bay from 1803 to 1895 and by 1900, the Southern Right Whales were rarely seen anywhere in Australian waters.

With the demise of the Southern Rights, focus shifted to the hunting of migrating Humpbacks in various parts of Western Australia. Although the numbers hunted were not great until the development of modern mechanised whaling methods with harpoon guns and fast diesel boats meant they could catch these faster whales which could behave quite aggressively when attacked. The greater unsustainable catches from the late 1940’s from both land stations in Western Australia and Antarctica led to a significant decline in the population. From 1963, Humpbacks were considered endangered and officially protected from hunting in the Southern Hemisphere. Their numbers had dwindled to the point where they were rarely seen again off the coast of Western Australia until the late 1970’s.

The good news is that the population of Humpback Whales now migrating up the West Australian coast is the largest group in the world at over 30,000. The Southern Rights and Blue Whales are on a much slower path to recovery than the Humpbacks but the increase in numbers sighted is encouraging.

Whale Watching

The increase in whale numbers has contributed to the growth and popularity of whale-watching in Western Australia, particularly in popular whale sanctuaries like the sheltered Flinders Bay in Augusta and further north in Geographe Bay, Dunsborough.

Whale Watching Cruises

Flinders Bay is becoming increasingly popular for whale watching cruises. These cruises provide excellent opportunity to get up close to these majestic marine mammals. The Augusta whale cruise boats have some of the best ‘see-rates’ in terms of successfully encountering whales during the season.

Flinders Bay is protected from the north westerly winds by Cape Leeuwin and the relative gentle conditions makes it perfect for pleasant whale watching. In addition, the boats do not have to travel more than a couple of kilometres out from shore before being in the midst of the whales. Interestingly, Flinders Bay is one of the few places in the world where you can observe the Southern Rights and Humpbacks actually interact with each other. These whale-watching cruises also view other interesting and diverse marine and bird life in the bay including a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals that inhabit Flinders Island to the south-west of the bay.

The construction of Augusta’s Boat Harbour at Flat Rock in Flinders Bay will be a boon for large purpose-built whale watching vessels like Naturaliste Charters enabling easy landing and boarding to occur and eliminating the current need for passengers to be transferred from tender boats at the Flinders Bay Jetty out to the whale watching vessels.

Land-based Whale Watching

The beauty of Augusta is that the whales can frequently be seen blowing and breaching from various elevated headland and shore positions in and around Augusta’s magnificent coastline. A pair of binoculars will enhance the whale watching experience.

The invigorating ‘Whale Walk’ along Flinders Bay coastline is popular amongst whale watchers in Winter.

Whale Walk along Flinders Bay coastline. In the background is the area known as ‘The Whaling

Then there are numerous vantage points along Leeuwin Road. The most popular spot for land viewing is at the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse precinct situated on the most south-westerly tip of the state where the Southern and Indian Oceans meet. There you will often see large groups of tourists gathering on well-positioned timber-deck platforms with powerful telescopes, peering out at the Humpback Whales frolicking in the turbulent waters as they head around the Cape on their northerly migration up the West Australian coast. Those who can handle the climb of Western Australia’s tallest lighthouse are often rewarded with the best sightings. On the south most section of the Cape-to-Cape Walk from Water Wheel to Skippy Rock on the spectacularly rugged western side of the cape, the Humpbacks can again be seen out at sea.

Humpback breaching, far out at sea. Viewed from the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse Precinct

Whales can even be sighted from afar, spouting in Flinders Bay from the dining area of the charming, historic Augusta Hotel with its prime elevated position on the main town street providing spectacular views of the bay as well as Blackwood River.

Augusta’s Whale Classification

All the whales that are normally sighted off Augusta shores (Humpbacks, Southern Rights, Blue Whales) have lives that are geared to a cycle of migration; feeding in cold waters to the south in Summer and breeding in warm near-shore water over the Winter period.

These whales fall into the classification of being Baleen whales as opposed to toothed whales. Baleen whales are characterized by having baleen plates for filtering food from water, rather than having teeth. They use baleen plates to filter food such as Antarctic Shrill close to the sea surface.

It is fairly easy to distinguish between these three whale species.

Blue Whales

These whales are most likely to be identified out at sea by their uniquely powerful blow, up to 15 metres high, not to mention their massive size as the world’s largest animal up to 30 metres in length with a weight up to 150 tonnes. They have a long streamlined bluish-grey body, tiny dorsal fin, lots of throat pleats and they are renowned for being fast, powerful swimmers.

Humpback Whales

Humpback Whales can be identified from the distinct hump that shows as they arch their backs when diving. This humping reveals the distinctive dorsal fin on their back. Most Humpbacks are mainly blackish with white undersides. They are on average 15 metres in length and 45 tonnes in weight. They feature unusually long oar-like flippers, longer than any other whale and these flippers can be up to a third of the whale’s body length. On close inspection, one can see knobbly bits on their heads called tubercles, each containing one hair and thought to be used as a sensory device. The females are notably longer and heavier than their male counterparts.

Many of the Humpbacks coming to Flinders Bay are enjoying a good rest. They disassemble from their migratory pods in the Southern Ocean into groups of two or three in the bay. The mature whales are on a mission to partner up. After a restorative break in the bay, these Humpbacks continue their long journey northwards to the warmer tropical waters around West Australia’s Kimberley coast where they mate or give birth before returning south again to the Antarctic for Summer.

The good news for whale watchers on the bay cruises are that the Humpbacks are the most acrobatic of all whales. They have the awesome capability to breach multiple times in a minute.

Humpback breaching *photo compliments of Naturaliste Charters

The Humpbacks also exhibit other fascinating behaviour like ‘spy-hopping’ where they lift just their head vertically out of the water in a slow, controlled manner so they can check out their surroundings including the human whale-watchers on the boats. Tail fluking and flipper lifts are also frequently observed.

Humpback spy-hopping. *photo compliments of Naturaliste Charters

Southern Right Whales

The Southern Rights are large stocky whales, generally black with a remarkable series of whitish wart-like callosities on their enormous head. In contrast to the Humpbacks, the Southern Rights have no dorsal fin and no throat pleats. They are on average 18 metres in length and 80 tonnes in weight. Their blow is a distinctive v-shaped bushy one.

Southern Right Whale seen up close on a Naturaliste Charters whale-watching cruise

The Southern Rights have shorter migratory paths than the Humpbacks and generally do not travel much further north than Flinders Bay. They have no need to, as their thick insulating layer of blubber means their young calves can tolerate the colder waters of the bay. The Southern Rights use the bay for breeding purposes and also as a Nursery, to calve in the shallow protected sections of the bay. The most regular Southern Right visitors to the bay are the adult females, coming to give birth and suckle their young. Considerable time is spent by the mothers nourishing their one tonne plus calves in readiness for the eventual migration south.

The Southern Rights are often seen quite close to shore, lying like slow moving logs, low in the water. But, don’t under estimate them. Whilst not as active as the Humpbacks, they too are capable of executing spectacular acrobatic antics when aroused. They are also known to roll belly-up for long periods of time.

Augusta : the perfect winter holiday destination

The whales are one very appealing reason for visiting Augusta from late May through to the end of August. With Augusta being only a straightforward 3½ drive from Perth, the thrill of whale-watching makes Augusta the perfect ‘Down South Winter Escape’ destination. A fabulous way to spend a weekend or more. Perfect for those who wish to be entertained, educated and enlightened on the wonderful whales who visit our West Australian shores.

Written by Verona, August 2012.

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