Enjoy the whale spectacle, just keep your distance

Flukes of Humpback Whale.
D W H Walton
The humpback highway, stretching from the icy cold waters of the Antarctic to the balmy waters of the Great Barrier Reef, is once again flowing with traffic.

From their tail-slapping displays to powerful breaches through the water, migrating humpback whales are putting on one of nature’s greatest annual spectacles.

A humpback whale breaches off American Samoa, a study site in the South Pacific. One of the sources of samples in this study was skin shed by breaching whales. - Scientists Identify Core Skin Bacterial Community in Humpback Whales

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s species conservation manager, Mark Read, urged whale-watching enthusiasts and visitors to keep a safe distance for the safety of these majestic creatures, as well as onlookers.

'These giants of the deep never cease to amaze, even for people like whale researchers or tourism operators who are lucky enough to have interactions with them each year,' Dr Read said.

'But given the growth in recreational vessel registrations and the popularity of commercial whale watching, it’s becoming increasingly important for people to abide by approach distances.

'The number of humpback whales is growing annually by 10 to 11 per cent, so one of the best things we can do to reduce the risk to the whales and the people watching them is to abide by approach distances.
'Vessels need to stay more than 100 metres away from a whale, while in the Whitsundays Whale Protection Area the distance is 300 metres.

Three humpback whales escort the team from Cape Town. PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG during leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Cape Town, South Africa to Abu Dhabi, UAE. (Credit: Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race)

'They must also keep a distance of at least 300 metres from a whale calf.

'If a whale approaches the vessel, operators must keep the motor out of gear and wait for the whales to move away before motoring away.'

Other tips include avoid making sudden noise, speed or direction changes; being quiet when you’re near a whale; and moving away immediately if the whale suddenly changes behaviour and appears agitated.

The east coast population of humpback whales has slowly clawed back from the edge of extinction since whaling was stopped in the early 1960s.

22 August, 2007 - NO PHOTO SALES - HANDOUT IMAGE FOR DAILY EDITORIAL PURPOSES ONLY - PICTURE BY AND FULL COPYRIGHT: JACK ATLEY/ www.jackatley.com/Hamilton Island - PHONE DIRECT: +61 400 505 445 - STORY: Audi Hamilton Island Race Week - PIC SHOWS: Humpback whales are seen in front of competing boat, 'Wot Yot', competing in the IRC Class, on Day 5 of the Audi Hamilton Island Race Week Yachting event off Hamilton Island, Queensland, Australia, on Wednesday, August 22, 2007. Race Week attracts comp

It’s believed numbers were reduced to 200–500 individuals, compared to the current estimate of around 17,000–19,000.

Dr Read said humpbacks make the trek to the Reef between May and September to court, mate, give birth or rear their calves.

'The more people who see these magical creatures, the more it reinforces the message that it’s important to protect them and the surroundings that support them,' he said.

Whale Watching Hervey Bay
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'Their sheer size makes them one of the most iconic elements of the Marine Park’s rich biodiversity.'

Fifteen species of whales can be found in the Great Barrier Reef. While humpback whales are the most commonly sighted, other species include dwarf minke whales which are largely seen in the far northern part of the Marine Park, as well as false killer whales, killer whales, short-finned pilot whales, sperm whales and various beaked whales.

Whale watchers are encouraged to submit their photos or footage to GBRMPA's Sightings Network which helps in the management and conservation of the Great Barrier Reef.
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