Whales are very humanly passionate. They flirt with each other through graceful and intimate ‘dances’, they compose songs to communicate across vast distances, and the bond between mother and calf is so strong that they stay eyeball-to-eyeball or within fin distance of each other for more than a year.
And the sex life of a humpback could make it onto the pages of a Barbara Cartland novel, with all its fervent chasing, slapping, lunging, breaching and belly-to-belly fin clasping.
These human-like attributes may go some way to explaining why perfectly rational people are inspired to don a cagoule and sit for hours on the open sea squinting for the merest glimpse of a dorsal fin.
There is something about these creatures that makes any kind of encounter with them exhilarating.
Mark Westwood is a National Parks and Wildlife Service guide based in Narooma on the NSW Eurobodalla Coast, where humpbacks feeding and playing on the edge of the continental shelf come exceptionally close to shore in June and again from September through to November.
He thinks people love whales for a strange mix of reasons.
“It’s the size of them,” he says, “and the romance that was built up through the whaling industry. It’s the sounds they make, the interaction they have with people, a feeling of respect – it’s all of those things combined.
“And the return of their numbers is tangible – people can see we’ve protected these creatures and they are returning in bigger numbers every year.
“Quite often the whales interact with people on the charter boats – we have to stay a distance away from them but they choose to come closer. I’ve had experiences where whales have played right next to and under the boat.”
Every year, many thousands of humpbacks undertake a herculean 10,000k migration from Antarctica to Queensland and back again to mate and give birth.
In an evacuation of military precision, the females attempting to wean their reluctant young leave first, followed about 12 days later by the immature whales and another ten or so days later by the males and resting females.
Last of all come the heavily pregnant females who stay for as long as possible in the nutrient-rich Antarctic waters fattening up for their arduous journey.
The whales converge at Cape Byron and speed on to Hervey Bay where some mate in their uniquely energetic way.
After 11 months’ gestation, the pregnant females give birth to 4-metre long calves in the warm northern waters, gently raising them to the surface so the air can stimulate their blowholes to open and fill their lungs to keep them afloat.
The newborns feed almost immediately and drink around 3 gallons of milk at each of their 40 feeds in every 24 hours, which means that while they quickly grow fat and strong, their mothers and the rest of the community are in increasingly poor shape after eating little or nothing since leaving Antarctica.
The newly-pregnant females, now ravenous and eating for two, lead the journey back down south with the resting females, followed by the immature group, the males and lastly the mothers and calves.
It is on this return journey that the whales are prevalent all along the Eurobodalla Coast and particularly around Narooma. The edge of the continental shelf runs unusually close to shore providing nutrition-rich krill and warm currents which, Mark Westwood says, they “hitch a ride on.”
And it’s not just hump backs – Southern Right Whales, Fin Whales, Brydes Whales, Sei Whales, Blue Whales and Orcas have all been seen off Narooma in recent years and there has even been a sighting of a rare albino hump back off Montague Island.
As a NPWS veteran of nine years, Mark has watched numbers increase significantly year on year.
“There are certainly more whales around each year – they’re recovering from their hunting days,” he says.
“There was one day we call the ‘day of 100 whales’ when we went out to Montague Island and they were all around us for as far as you could see – there were two blue whales right next to us about a metre away. That was quite a day.”
The tragedy is that these gorgeous creatures playing, feeding and nursing their cherished young in record numbers off our coast can again be targeted by hunters as they make their way back.