When is the best time of year to go whale watching?
Gold Coasters love their whales and for good reason – we are blessed to have the longest whale-watching season in Australia with a virtual parade of humpback whales passing just off our coastline.
Whale watching season typically runs from June to October and any month is a good time to get up-close and personal with these gentle giants. Everyone’s favourite aerial behaviour, when the whales launch their entire body out of the water in a spectacular breach, can be seen at any time. However, there are some other seasonal differences worth noting.
June is typically the beginning of the season and a parade of adult females with their calves from last season – now known as yearlings – and other young whales starting to make their way past the Gold Coast. The yearlings will still be nursing and are learning to navigate an ancient route known as the ‘Humpback Highway’ which spans from their icy feeding grounds in Antarctica to the warm breeding grounds of the Great Barrier Reef. These exuberant youngsters like to show off their full repertoire of surface behaviour and it’s one of the best times of the year to see enthusiastic surface displays such as head lunges and fin or tail slaps. June is also when southern minke whales are sighted in our waters.
July can be a special time to come whale watching – the migration is really kicking into gear and what was a trickle of whales in the early season now has become a strong flow of northbound whales. You may even be lucky enough to see a brand-new baby whale (called a newborn calf). You will need to look closely as they can be hard to see at first – they are quite small and almost look like a dolphin tucked in close next to Mum. Newborn calves are only 3 – 4 m long and are a light gray colour when they are very young. The Gold Coast is one of the only places on the migration that you can see these truly special little ones. You’ll also be able to meet and talk with researchers studying these newborns onboard.
August is an exceptionally busy time on the humpback highway and the waters off the Gold Coast team with whales as the peak of the migration arrives. Heavily pregnant females slowly swim north toward warm waters and non-pregnant females have also joined the mele. The action really heats up with the arrival of big males (called bulls) who are desperate to court females (called cows) and hopefully mate with them. You may see a large group of males chasing a single female at high-speed. They all want to become her boyfriend and they will splash and joist and push and shove each other in an event called a heat run. It’s exciting to watch these amazing courting rituals and to feel the immense power of so many whales at once.
During the month of September, the whales reverse direction and begin their way south on their very long trek back to Antarctica. During the southern migration we see the juveniles and newly pregnant females leading the pack south. Big males still keen on chasing the large females can now be seen chasing them south in a final bid at mating. We also get some special boat side visits during this time of the migration, as curious sub-adults may closely approach our boats. We call these encounters ‘muggings’ and you could find yourself eye-to-eye with these magnificent creatures. Time to forget your zoom lenses and receive a whale “blessing” as they exhale their warm breath close by. It’s an unforgettable experience.
Toward the end of the season in October we see the mums carefully and slowly guiding their calves of the season on their very first migration south. The Gold Coast Bay becomes a little nursery area as it fills with many mum and calf pairs stopping and resting in the bay. The mums are excellent caregivers and they utilise the bay for swim training and to give the calves some long drinks of milk. They are still practicing their swimming and we often witness them practicing their moves, tail slapping and pec slapping right next to mum. The breach is the trickiest behaviour for them to learn and you can’t help but smile and laugh as you see the calves flipping and flopping their bodies as they try to figure out how to jump! It’s adorable to watch.
In November we wish them good luck and wave goodbye as they head south, and we hope those bubs will arrive looking strong and chubby in the first arrivals of June next year.