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  What Whale is that?    
Image courtesy of and copyright to Harry Bredahl
Whale watching

What whale is that?

Whale watching is an exhilarating experience that only seems to get better each time and for those who live on, or visit coastal Australia from May to October, there is a very good chance of seeing the migration of two of the giants of the sea.

So there you are, sitting on a high coastal point that provides an excellent view out to sea. You are well prepared to be a whale watcher, ready with binoculars, thermos and plenty of patience. After a while you spot something. There it is again; it's a blow! Yes, you are looking at a whale, but what whale is that?


About 40 species of whales (Cetaceans) live in or migrate through Australian waters, Cetaceans means, whales, dolphins and porpoises, (but there are no porpoises in the Australian waters). Cetaceans are divided into two main groups Baleen (ie filter feeders) or Toothed. As a land based whale watcher you are most likely to see Humpbacks on their annual migration along our eastern or western coastlines. And along the southern coastline they will be Southern Right whales.

Also be on the look out for other Cetacea too. The Orcas are now said to be following the migrating whales. Bottlenose dolphins are among the most commonly observed coastal dolphins. While in the warmer waters Indo-pacific humpback dolphins and Spinner dolphins are seen. If you are in a boat Common dolphins are often observed riding the bow waves. Minke whales are said to have an inquisitive nature and swim around boats too. Pilot, Bryde's and Sei whales could be sited while Fin, Blue and Sperm whales are usually sighted in the off shore waters.

Here are a few things to look for to start on identifying your sighting.

Two blowholes must be a Baleen whale.
Yes a Humpback whale.

Flippers (pectoral fin)
The Humpbacks scientific name is Megaptera novaeangliae, derived from the Greek mega meaning great and pteron a wing, because of its huge wing-like flippers. These exceptionally long flippers, with knobs along the leading edge, are more like oars, than the paddle-like flippers of the other whales.

The Southern rights have a very large head. It is usually encrusted with large callosities (looks like rocky lumps), on the upper and lower jaws and above the eyes. Sperm whales have a large head too but their body is long and blunt, quite a different shape.

Tail and fin (fluke and dorsal fin)
Position and shape of the fin and tail can help with identification. Southern rights have no (top) fin. Humpbacks have an irregular wavy edge to their tail. And of course Orca males have a very tall distinctive fin.

Blow and blowholes
If you get favourable weather or a close encounter, you can identify much about the whale from its blow. Baleen whales have two holes and two separate blows can sometimes be seen, while toothed whales have one. The actually shape of the blow varies too. Sperm whales have the blowhole on the top left side of the forehead so their blow comes out to that side. And smaller (size and age) whales will have smaller blows.

Colour and markings
Whales are mostly black on the top and white beneath. Many of the big whales seen by whale watchers belong to the baleen group and are distinguishable by the long pleats or folds of skin running from their nose to their bellies, which expand during feeding. The Ocra's have that familiar white patch above the eye and white saddle across their back. Bottlenose dolphins have a blissful grin while the common dolphins have a dark strip from their beck to around their eye.

As you get to know a species of whale you will also start to build up an understanding of it behavioural characteristics. While you may not be sure what species it is, if you notice a different pattern of behaviour, it will give you the clue, to start looking for other identifying characteristics.


Bottlenose dolphins love to surf, (so do we on
the kayaks). Photography courtesy of
Byron Bay Sea Kayaks.

The governments have imposed regulations to ensure whales are not disturbed on their migration or at any time while in the national/state waters. Excellent brochures explaining identification, migration, behaviours and regulations are available from National Parks and Wildlife Services or Environment Departments in your state.

Whatever your whale watchers luck, I am sure your will also enjoy observing the movement, moods and moments of your marine and coastal environment.

Further Information
Click here for web links to further information about whales.

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