Southern Right Whales at Apollo Bay

As always, the southern right whales came in peace.

They, and other whale species, migrate from Antarctic waters to Australian waters in the winter months. When they make an appearance in the waters of Apollo Bay news of their presence moves through the community like a gentle current through the sea. It doesn’t take long before beach walkers are outnumbered by a handful of locals standing silently absorbed in the spectacle of these majestic marine giants, with whom for a short time at least, there exists the common bond of selection of Apollo Bay as the place to be.

On the day of the winter solstice 2018, it was the simple wonder of being in close proximity to these majestic giants that captivated me. A couple of mature southern right whales spent the afternoon just offshore at the location of the surf break the locals call 289.  They appeared to alternate between feeding for short periods, and cruising slowly up and down parallel to the shore. There was no swell or wind, the sky and the sea were beautifully blue, and there was a line of cumulus clouds on the horizon providing the perfect backdrop.  The peaceful presence of these whales somehow matched the mood of the sea and the weather.  At first I had hoped to see some breaching and diving. But as it turned out, I wouldn’t change a thing about this tranquil encounter.

There are many remarkable and fascinating facts about whales.  Google them.  The brief captions below do not extend beyond a few of my observations and thoughts during the couple of hours I sat in the sun’s warmth on a large piece of driftwood near the high water mark, feeling privileged to have a semi-private audience with this pair of wild southern right whales.

John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5635_20180621_Online
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5409_20180621_Online
They are long creatures.  The head is to the right of frame.  I estimated the length of this southern right whale at around 40 feet.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5357_20180621_Online
Cruising in close formation, with only the front part of the body above the water. The absence of a small dorsal fin is a simple method of distinguishing the southern right whale from the humpback.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5614_20180621_Online
Southern right whales only have two types of fin – the large and powerful pectoral fins (one is shown vertically extended in this picture), and the symmetrical tail flukes (one of which is visible in the image).  The whale was lolling on its side at this point.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5544_20180621_Online
The barely visible whale on the left is all but fully submerged. The head of the whale on the right is seen over its partially submerged tail. The broad span of the tail flukes with the central ridge of the tail end of the body can be seen above the water. Above that is the head seen from behind with the characteristic (and individual-identifying) bumps (callosities) on the head.  These whales were in relatively shallow water, which is why the apparent promise of the tail rising fully out of the water as the whale dived was not delivered on this occasion.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5548_20180621_Online
The whale had just turned, and is shown here with its head in the foreground and the powerful tail end of its body with the tail flukes spreading either side.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5557_20180621_Online
Another view from head to tail. The front of the mouth is clearly visible in this shot. After rising on each side as shown, the mouth line descends in a large curve, ending just near each eye on the side of the aft part of the head.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5508_20180621_Online-2
During manoeuvring while feeding, these two whales swam past each other virtually head to head. The whale on the left is spouting as it exhales, and the one on the right has its pectoral fin raised, and one tail fluke lightly disturbing the water.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5493_20180621_Online
Given their varying shape, I identify the fin on the left as a tail fluke of one whale and the fin on the right as the pectoral fin of the other whale, photographed as they swam past each other.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5477_20180621_Online
I was intrigued by the size, thickness and shape of the pectoral fin.  It is shaped very much like the flippers worn by divers and body surfers.  But this flipper is massive.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5454_20180621_Online
This shot of the raised pectoral fin gives some idea of its size and power. These fins no doubt play a big role in the surprising agility of these creatures in manoeuvring quickly and sharply.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5472_20180621_Online
The pectoral fin at work.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5527_20180621_Online
Pectoral fin and tail fluke. I have no idea what is behind the predisposition of these creatures to swim on their side like this.  My guess is that the two whales are responsible for the fin and fluke on display here.
John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5432_20180621_Online
Contrary to first impression, there are two whales in the photo. The furthest is spouting as it exhales.  As to which whale owns the tail fluke shown is anybody’s guess.

I had no idea when I took the first of the next four images that there would be four, or that any multiple images would result in the neat choreography of the fin display shown. The sequence was like a grand, slow-motion artistic gesture – a performance finale perhaps.

The following images show two whales swimming in close proximity, one with a pectoral fin in the air, and the other with a tail fluke visible above the water.

John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5666_20180621_Online

John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5678_20180621_Online

John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5680_20180621_Online

John Langmead_Whales 21 June 2018_5681_20180621_Online
Serendipitous symmetry.

2 thoughts on “Southern Right Whales at Apollo Bay

  1. You should be on the National Geographic Channel John. Word picture poetry. Breathtaking mammals aren’t they! How they evolved on the planet, as vegetarian leviathans, is extraordinary.

    And speaking of mammals, I’m watching a carnivorous Tiger hunting a kill in what I regard as the Grand Final of golf, the British Open at Carnoustie, Scotland. No one will die in this pursuit.


    1. ‘Vegetarian’ leviathans? I suspect krill (especially those with above average intelligence and bright personalities) would be offended at being downgraded to vegetables.
      Being in the presence of these creatures never fails to exhilarate.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s