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5 animals to see on your Gold Coast whale watching cruise (that aren’t humpbacks!)

By | Blog, Sightseeing & Dining, Whale Watching

5 animals to see on your Gold Coast whale watching cruise (that aren't humpbacks!)

Wildlife

There is no experience more incredible on the Gold Coast than whale-watching. But did you know that you will see more than just humpbacks on your whale-watching tour? The Gold Coast bay is home to a range of wildlife, from dolphins to whale sharks; what will you see?

Dolphins

Dolphins are one of the most beloved marine mammals on the planet. From their curious personality to incredible porpoising behavior (jumping in and out of the water), everyone gets excited when a pod of dolphins visits a whale watching tour. Dolphins are one of the most intelligent animals on Earth and are compared to being as bright as chimps and gorillas. They are swift predators hunting small fish, squid, and other small sea creatures. 

There are 38 oceanic species of dolphin, and there are three different dolphin species that frequent the Gold Coast waterways.

1. Common Dolphin

Common dolphins are found in large pods and are very family orientated. They have a sleek build with distinctive hourglass coloring with a yellow patch extending from their eye to their dorsal fin. Common dolphins rest in groups in shallow waters, keeping one eye open to look out for lurking predators. During the day, they are a very acrobatic dolphin species, and you will often see them leaping, head lunging, tail slapping, and approaching vessels to bow ride in the wake.

Australian common dolphin.

2. Australian humpback dolphins

Classified as a vulnerable species, it’s something special to spot an Australian humpback dolphin on your whale-watching trip. This species of dolphin travels in small pods of up to five individuals. Unlike other humpback dolphins, the Australian species doesn’t have a distinct hump but can be distinguished by their thick and curved back. They have a long beak that protrudes out of the water. They are a shy species of dolphins and would rather keep to themselves than interact with humans. They do, however, enjoy playing with other sea life such as jellyfish, seaweed, and shells.

3. Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin

Frequent visitors in the Gold Coast bay and the city’s canal system, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins are the most commonly seen dolphins on the Gold Coast. This species of dolphin is distinguishable by its dark grey back and pale belly, and chunky appearance. Bottlenose dolphins are very family orientated and live in pods of 10-15 individuals. They are a close-knit group, raising young calves, hunting, and playing together.

Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphin.

Minke Whales

Mike whales are often spotted early in the whale season in May through to early July. The smallest and most abundant of baleen whales, they are a rare sight to see on your whale-watching tour. Noticeable by their small size and unique coloring, they are a shy species and not as inclined to humans as their humpback cousins. Minke whales are believed to follow similar migration patterns as humpback whales; however, scientists are still unsure where they go once they leave Queensland waters. 

Minke whales are the most widely hunted whales in the ocean and continue to be the target of commercial whaling. Here in Australia, minke whales can swim safely in protected waters.

Whale Shark

The rarest marine creature you will see on your whale watching tour is the whale shark. The largest fish on Earth at an average length of 10 metres, witnessing this gentle giant must be seen to be believed. They are brownish blue in colour and covered in white spots. Their mouths can stretch open to 4 metres wide. Whale sharks are slow swimmers travelling up to 3mph.

Whale sharks are an endangered species, with only 10% reaching adult maturity. They are protected in Australian waters, encouraging safe breeding.

Minke whales are the most widely hunted whales in the ocean and continue to be the target of commercial whaling. Here in Australia, minke whales can swim safely in protected waters.

Whale Shark courtesy Getty Images.

Now that you have the knowledge of what to look for on your next whale-watching tour, secure your 2021 season seats today.

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When do the whales come back to the Gold Coast?

Whales

The question we get asked the most during the whale off-season is, “when are the whales coming back to the Gold Coast?“. We have been counting down since the end of last season for their return, and it’s still a little while yet. Our gentle giants make their way back to the bay in late May and return back to Antarctica in early November. With population numbers increasing every year, the humpback highway is a hub of activity during these times. 

The humpback whale migration is one of the longest journeys of any animal on the planet. From Antarctica’s cold waters, the whales embark on a 5000km return journey to north Queensland. They pass through the Gold Coast and slow down to rest in the protected waters close to the coastline. It is here that they put on a magnificent display of breaching, tail slaps, and peduncle throws.

When is the best time to see them on the Gold Coast?

The Gold Coast whale watching season begins in late May ending in early November. You can experience some of the best whale actions in the world during this time. As whales are wild animals, it can be hard to predict what behavior you’ll come across, but that is the exciting part of whale watching. If you’re eager to find cute baby humpbacks, they are seen in the bay from late July.

Where are humpback whales coming from?

Although they spend a fair amount of their life in Australia, humpbacks are residents of Antarctica. It’s in these polar waters that they feast on an abundance of krill to fatten themselves up for their journey to the warm northern breeding grounds.

Why don’t they breed in Antarctica?

Whales have a thick layer of fat called ‘blubber’, which keeps them warm and protected in the cold Antarctic waters. They develop this blubber by gorge feeding krill during the summer. However, as the season ends, the water temperature begins to drop, and it is time for the whales to migrate north. They must move to warmer waters as newborn calves are born without any fat stores, meaning if they were born in Antarctica, they’d quickly turn into a whale-popsicle. Calves are born in the tropical waters of north Queensland, where they feed on their mother’s nutrient-rich milk, which is bright pink with a yogurt-like texture. On their return journey home, the baby whales will have enough fat stores to survive.

A new born calf swimming with their mother.

What do they eat on their migration?

Antarctica is a humpback’s only feeding ground, so they will fast for their entire 5000km migration. They eat enough krill and plankton before they depart to sustain themselves during their journey, consuming up to 4-tonnes of food a day. You can often determine their direction of travel by the whale’s size; northern travellers are quite fat and large, whereas returning whales show more skin and bone.

Who will I see?

Humpback whales arrive at different times depending on their age. Immature adults, who are much smaller and often seen travelling together in pods, and the previous season’s mothers and calves are the first to head north. Pregnant females and mature males stay back in Antarctica longer to fatten themselves up as much as possible. They do this because females must have enough fat to sustain both herself and her calf, whilst males want to be as big as possible to impress their prospective mate.

Excited passengers being ‘mugged’ by a humpback whale

We feel the anticipation building with reports of early sightings off the coast and can hardly wait until late May to officially begin our whale watching season. Be part of the whale’s incredible journey and book your seat now.

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Why do humpback whales migrate north?

Whale Watching

Between May to November, the Gold Coast coastline comes alive with humpback whales and their mesmerizing displays. Their acrobatic feats and entertaining behavior keep keen-eyed whale watchers coming back year after year. But why do the humpbacks themselves return at the same time every year? The answer is that the Gold Coast is a stop on their annual migration from Antarctica to Far North Queensland.

The Great Migration

What is migration?

Migration is the seasonal movement of animals from one region to another. It is found in all groups from the animal kingdom, from birds to butterflies. Some of the most common reasons are food supplies, breeding, and climate. 

Humpback whales begin their annual 10,000km round trip in Antarctica’s cold waters and migrate to Far North Queensland’s warmer climates. During the summer, humpbacks spend their time in the polar region gorge feeding krill to fatten themselves up for their long voyage. From here, they head towards their tropical breeding grounds to mate and give birth.

Northern Migration

May-August

The first humpbacks to begin their journey are pods of immature adults and last season’s mothers and calves. Pregnant females and mature adult males stay a little longer in Antarctica to have more time to gorge, feeding to fatten themselves up for their journey. As they fast until they return to the feeding grounds, future mothers require as many fat stores as possible to feed both themselves and their calf, whilst males bulk up to be the biggest and strongest to impress potential mates.

The northern migration is all about females: Pregnant females heading to tropical waters to give birth and ready to mate with males, who spend their days chasing after potential mates. Females will be pursued in extravagant displays of aggression by a ‘competition pod’. Competition pods are groups of male whales of up to 20 individuals who are trying to impress the chosen female. The competitions can be violent, with males shoving, lunging, peduncle slapping, and even biting at another to assert their dominance until one outlasts the others

Male’s in a ‘heat run’, a pod of whales chasing a female. They are more passive and last longer than competition pods.

Southern Migration

August-November

Things are calmer on the way south as the humpback population begins to relax. Instead of females, food is the greatest motivation to return to Antarctica. Male humpback’s desire for mating has subsided, and females are now either pregnant or have given birth.

The journey south showcases different behavior than the fast-paced, hormone-driven chase north. As they are not chasing or chased, humpback whales ease and become more curious and playful. They often swim close to boats, bringing themselves eye to eye with lucky whale-watchers as they pop their heads out of the water to say hello. You will also see an abundance of mothers and calves. Mum teaches bubs to breach and is a charming and amusing spectacle as they clumsily try to launch out of the water.

Late October to early November sees the last of the humpbacks as they bid farewell to the Australian coastline on their voyage home.

Calves are distinguished by their small size and pale grey colouring.

When does whale watching begin on the Gold Coast?

Humpback whales often trickle in early before the official whale season begins; however, going off yearly migration patterns, most of the population passes through at the end of May through to early November. During this period, Sea World Cruises offers daily whale-watching cruises departing three times a day from the Sea World Cruises Main Beach Terminal. With over 35,000 humpback whales migrating annually, we offer a 100% whale sighting guarantee.

Don’t miss out on seeing these magnificent creatures for yourself.

BOOK NOW

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