Whale watching tour - Credit Tourism Australia and Scott Slawinski

Every year along Margaret River Region’s coastline, some of the largest animals on the planet travel south to Antarctic waters. This epic whale migration peaks between July and December.

Marine scientist, Daniella Hanf, says Geographe Bay plays a vital role in their journey.

“Geographe Bay is an important resting area for three whale species; the southern right whale, the blue whale and the humpback whale,” she says. “For these reasons, Geographe Bay is recognised at state, national and international level as an important whale habitat.”

Daniella is a Principal Scientist at 02 Marine. Her speciality is marine fauna investigations and environmental management. She’s also a board member of Project ORCA and a researcher with the Cetacean Ecology Behaviour and Evolution Lab at Flinders University.

Whale Watching, Dunsborough
Photo credit Tourism Western Australia.

According to Daniella, southern right whales are most likely to be seen in July and August, with mums and calves around three kilometres from the coast, in waters less than ten metres deep. “September and October are an important time for humpback whales,” she says.

“Blue whales are found furthest offshore, usually around November and December.”

Photo credit Dylan Dehaas.

Killer whales have also been sighted along the Western Australian coastline, and have even been encountered at Geographe Bay.

“Killer whales are actually the largest member of the dolphin family,” Daniella says.

“Occasional sightings have been documented over the past ten years off Margaret River and Dunsborough, usually between August and October; there was a recent sighting close to the Geographe Yacht Club, near to shore.”

Whale in Augusta. Credit Tim Campbell
Photo credit Tim Campbell.

Right now, research is being conducted by Geographe Marine Research into whale migration through the south west, to better understand migratory patterns, as well as the impact of human interference, climate change and food sources on whale populations in the region.

Although Daniella is not directly involved with the research group, she says the work they are doing is vitally important to understanding how whales passing through the region can be better protected.

Humpback Whales
Photo credit Frances Andrijich.

“Unfortunately there are major threats to whales in WA, such as entanglement in fishing gear, cumulative underwater noise from development activities, vessel strikes and harassment from well-minded people, who get too close in boats, underwater, or with drones,” she says.

All of these activities have a big impact on mothers and their calves, who need to rest in order to regulate their energy. “If mothers and calves avoid resting areas, the mothers won’t have the energy to nurse their young and protect them from predators along the way, which means their health and potential for survival will suffer,” Daniella says.

Whale Watching
Photo credit Cait Miers.

In 1978 the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company in Albany became the last whaling station in Australia to close. In 1979, an anti-whaling policy was officially adopted in Australia, which put an end to whaling for good. Humpback whale populations were hit hard by whaling in the south west, but Daniella says numbers have rapidly increased since the ban came into force.

“The southern right whale population is bouncing back too,” Daniella says. “There have been more and more sightings in areas we haven’t seen in decades.”

Urgent research is also being conducted into how climate change could impact whale food sources in the Antarctic. If krill populations decline, this will likely affect the whales that pass along this part of the coast.

Photo credit Dylan Dehaas.

The good news is that regular people, without a scientific background, can do their bit to help protect the whales. “Give animals space, especially during sensitive times of resting and around mother-calf pairs,” says Daniella. “And if you’re boating, ‘go slow for those below’.”

Daniella also recommends staying at least a hundred metres from whales when boating, and not approaching them from behind or in front. “It’s best to approach whales parallel to their direction of travel,” she says.

Whale Watching
Photo credit Elements Margaret River.

If you do want to see a whale, booking a tour with a licensed tour agency is probably the safest way to do so. They will ensure the vessel stays a safe distance from the whales. Plus, they know the best spots and times to see them.

Whale watching from land is also a responsible way to admire these creatures, as there is no chance of affecting them in their natural habitat. Daniella says the Cape Naturaliste Whale Lookout is a good spot for seeing blue whales towards the end of the year. Or head to Augusta and take a walk around Flinders Bay on a clear winters day.

If you’d like to discover more about the whales that pass through the region, Daniella recommends heading to Busselton Jetty, where you may be lucky enough to see southern right and humpback whales in season.

Winter Walk Lookout Cape Naturaliste Dunsborough

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