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.

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