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Rising humpback population prompts early start for whale-watching season
The phenomenal growth in the humpback whale population along Australia’s south and east coast has resulted in an early start in their annual northerly migration north.
Whale-watching season for tourism operators such as the Sunshine Coast's Whale One traditionally begins on the first weekend in June.
However, a number of sightings off Caloundra and Alexandra Headland in the past two weeks has prompted Whale One owner John Matterson to bring his season forward.
Matterson told the ABC “the whales have come up very early this year.
"There have been quite a few reports and particularly ones in close from Caloundra to Point Cartwright and Alexandra Headland. It is very unusual."
Southern Cross University Marine Ecology Research Centre founding Director Peter Harrison said whales were moving earlier because their numbers had grown so large.
Whale numbers were decimated between 1959 and 1961, mostly by illegal whaling, until there were only a "couple of hundred left".
This season, about 33,000 whales are expected to make the 5,000 kilometre migration north from the Antarctic to Queensland's warm tropical waters.
Professor Harrison said the humpback whale population had grown so large, it was now the biggest it had ever been, adding “as far as we know, the population is now larger than it was prior to whaling.
"Researchers have gone back to look at catch records and our best estimates are the whale population (pre-whaling) was hovering around 26,000 for the natural population size.
"That was almost completely decimated, mostly by illegal whaling from a Soviet fleet which was estimated to have killed 25,000 whales between 1959 and 1961.
"After this, there were possibly only a few hundred whales left and there was almost total extinction."
In 1962 the whaling stations at Tangalooma, on Moreton Island and in northern NSW were closed and there were not enough whales left to make whaling viable.
The population has grown steadily every year, but Professor Harrison said it would start to slow, and there was no concern it would grow too big to be sustainable.
He added “what will happen is the rate of population increase will start to slow and come back to a normal level of growth.”
In tandem with the recovery of humpback whale numbers, killer whale (orca) populations have also risen.
NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Wildlife Team Leader Susan Crocetti advised “we've had quite a lot of reports in the last few weeks of killer whales being seen off the coastline.
"Killer whales have always been around, but in terms of the frequency and the numbers of humpbacks being seen, it certainly does seem to be an increasing trend how many we are observing.
"They will try to prey upon humpback calves. Killer whales tend to love tongues, so sometimes we might get footage of a humpback whale calf that's unfortunately been attacked by killer whales and they'll only take the tongue, which is just amazing."
Craig Sergant, a commercial skipper in Port Macquarie, said orcas predominantly liked to chase female whales with their newborns.
He added “those females generally close very close to the coastline with their calves, so the orcas have to come in close to find those.
"I've found a calf offshore here at Port Macquarie that we assumed the orcas had only just left the calf and removed its jaw.
"We're lucky in Port Macquarie because through the mid-season we've got whales going in both directions for about four weeks.
Images: Humpback whale (top) and Sea World's Whale Watching on the Gold Coast (middle and below).
19th September 2017 - QUEENSLAND GOVERNMENT APPROVES SWIMMING WITH WHALES VENTURE IN HERVEY BAY
29th May 2017 - WHALES GATHERING AT HEAD OF BIGHT FOR AUSTRALIAN CALVING SEASON
18th August 2016 - SWIMMING WITH HUMPBACKS BEGINS AT NINGALOO REEF
23rd November 2015 - MORE WHALE WATCHING OPPORTUNITIES FOR MORETON BAY
23rd July 2015 - ECOTOURISM AUSTRALIA’S ECO CERTIFICATION GAINS GLOBAL APPROVAL
9th June 2015 - WHALES COMMENCE SEASONAL MIGRATION ALONG EAST COAST OF AUSTRALIA
12th November 2011 - VISITOR STATISTICS SHOW WHALE SHARK TOURISM ON THE RISE
20th March 2019 - MORETON BAY BACK IN BUSINESS
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