Dr Dazza: Fascinating whale facts

Published 9:00am 31 August 2022

Dr Dazza: Fascinating whale facts
Words by Kylie Knight

Dolphins and whales are a family of mammals known as cetaceans and they originated from a terrestrial group of mammals – the artidactylids of which the hippopotamus is a good example.

All cetaceans have a high global profile in terms of conservation. There are at least 14 species of cetaceans that have been recorded in the waters of Moreton Bay and directly offshore. One of these is the humpback whale.

The humpback whale is a type of baleen whale. Baleen is the filter feeding system that these types of whales use and it consists of plates with long bristles that form a sieve when the whale feeds and the krill that they feed on is retained and swallowed.

For the Quandamooka people of Moreton Bay, the humpback whale is known as Yalingbila and it plays an important role in their creation story for Moreton Bay.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are highly migratory and occur in all oceans. In the south West Pacific there are several populations of humpback whale, collectively known as Group E humpback whales. The eastern Australian population is the best known of all Group E populations.

The population migrates along the east Australian coastline and comes particularly close to shore at a number of locations including Point Lookout and Cape Moreton where the continental shelf is relatively close to the coastline.

Humpback whales feed in the Antarctic in summer months and migrate north in winter, although it is likely that some females remain on the feedings areas throughout winter and do not migrate. Typically, they do not feed as they migrate, although rare feeding events have been recorded.

Calving takes place in waters of the Great Barrier Reef before the whales migrate southwards again to their feeding grounds. In the Moreton Bay Region, the bulk of humpback whales migrating north are principally seen in June-July, while animals migrating south are principally seen in September and October. However, as their population continues to recover, it is becoming easier to see them over a longer part of their migratory period.

Dr Dazza: Fascinating whale facts
A newspaper advertisement for corsets made from whale bone.

History of whaling

It is the humpback whale that was harvested commercially when the Tangalooma whaling station was in operation. The consumer products derived from whales was extensive. Prior to the widespread use of plastics and very light steel, baleen was used extensive in fashion (corsets and hat rims) as well umbrella ribs and buggy whips. Whale oil was used in lamps, soaps, cosmetics, varnishes and paints. Whale oil was even used in margarine before it was replaced with vegetable oils!

Following legal and illegal hunting after WWII, the estimated population of approximately 10,000 to 20,000 humpback whales was reduced to between 200 and 500. Following protection, the population has and continues to make, a rapid recovery. The whaling station at Tangalooma on Moreton Island which closed in 1962 was the focus of commercial whaling activities in the Moreton Bay Region. The population has recovered strongly and although the exact number is uncertain, it is thought to be in the vicinity of 40,000 animals.

Whereas the economic benefit of humpback whales used to be as a carcass, their value is now as a focus of ecotourism activities with whale watching a popular activity at many locations including the Moreton Bay Region.

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