6 things you never knew about humpback whales

If you’re a fan of this blog, you know that we love whales. Really. We. Love. Whales.

Dig around and you’ll find posts like How to speak whale and This is what swimming with the dwarf minke whales is really like. But I bet you didn’t know these 6 things about the oceanic superstars that come to play in Hervey Bay.

1. It’s a three-act season and every performance is different.

Hervey Bay may be the whale watching capital of the nation, but don’t expect the same old Beastie Boy dance moves every time you go.

Nope, according to Keith Reid, Captain of Freedom III, there are three distinct shows to the four-month season and the type of whale action you see depends on who’s come to the bay to play.

June and July brings the first adult singletons into the calm waters to rest and recreate. You’ll see Tinder-type dating moves on a baleen scale with plenty of huffy puffy blows of air and mighty displays of tail slapping as the alpha males stake out their sandbanks.

Want cute and curious? Then clock your visit for August and September when newborn calves ‘mug’ and ‘spyhop’ their human fans. Totally playful, these little tykes (cute, but still more than four-metres long) rise up vertically above the waterline and suspend themselves just metres off the bow to eyeball the two-legged creatures on board.

In October, young calves show off their puppy-like grooves (cue: Pharell’s “Happy”), with bubble trails, tummy flashes, repeated pectoral slaps, grunts, and breaching. The season ends with daring displays of breaching and loud tail slapping as the last of the families leave the bay for their southern migration.

Check out this quick video to see some similar action spotted on the Gold Coast.

2. Peduncle is a real word.

Peduncle is not a pervey old bloke. It actually refers to the karate-chopping action of a whale thought to be a wee bit uncomfortable with an approaching boat (or another whale).

So what’s it look like? Imagine an oversized version of Olympic diver Greg Louganis in a neoprene suit, hurtling headlong into the water. At the last second, he flips out, rotates sideways and then crashes – big liver down belly flop into the ocean. That’s a peduncle and when it comes with 12 tonnes of ponderous blubber, it’s an awesome sight to see.

3. Whales are the eagles of the ocean – they see everything.

When that annoying kid on the whale boat keeps flapping his arms around like a seagull closing in on the last chip at a beach picnic, he’s actually doing you a favour. Whales are not only alerted to boisterous action, they’re thought to be curiously attracted to it – hence the more you wave, the longer they mug.

For the record, unlike humans, whales have a single cone in their eyes which is sensitive only to blue/green light. They only see in black and white, so no need for that hot pink sailor suit next time you go.

4. Whales need to exfoliate too.

How does a 12-tonne whale rid its nose of a colony of barnacles hitching a free ride? Well, with fairly limited flipper action for scratching the shells away, whales hurl their torso out of the ocean and then crash back down. The abrasive breaching dislodges the freeloaders thought to add up to 200 kilograms of weight and lots of drag to a whale.

Interestingly, some scientists suggest that the jagged layer of barnacles may also be used as a knuckle-buster style weapon for ramming and slamming male rivals vying for female attention.

5. Whales can hold their breath for 40 minutes.

Which means that the whale sighted in a NNE position one moment could be MIA by the time your whale-watching vessel motors by.

You see, whales have a highly efficient breathing system that allows them to absorb up to 90 percent of the 200 litres of oxygen they inhale, compared to just 15 percent humans do. They can also slow their heartbeat and constrict select arteries allowing them to dive for long periods of time. For the record, scientists have recently discovered that whales also have a higher concentration than humans of the oxygen-binding protein, myoglobin.

6. Humpbacks don’t mean to hit, but…

Just like you and I, whales can be clutzy. Sure, they know where their body is, but in moments of excitement, an element of clumsiness can creep in. Freedom III’s Keith Reid has a ding in his boat from a playful humpback that swam tummy up across the bow, lifted its pectoral fin – all four metres of it – and brought it crashing down. “It isn’t intentional, but it does happen,” Keith says.

So spare a thought for this young Aussie adventurer who had a very close encounter with a pod of humpback whales while on a tiny kayak. (*Language warning.*)

P.S. You may go on Freedom III to see the whales, but the profiteroles will take me back. Captain Keith is the Iron Chef of the floating profiterole. His home-baked puffs of yum are divine. For the record, I ate four!

*Photography: FreedomIII and Darren Jew.