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Whales begin gathering at Head of Bight for Australian calving season


THE first southern right whales have arrived at Australia’s Head of Bight, marking the beginning of what is expected to be another bumper whale watching season.

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Two whales were seen in the shallow waters at the beginning of the week with a further sighting today. The whale season typically runs from May to October at Head of Bightnear the remote Nullarbor Plain in South Australia.

Last year, a team of researchers from Curtin University counted up to 172 whales including 81 mothers with calves on a single day – a record since data began being collected in 1991.

About 33,000 people went through the Head of Bight Visitors Centre in 2016, which is on Yalata Aboriginal Lands and run by the Aboriginal Lands Trust.

The centre, perched atop the Bunda Cliffs overlooking the Bight, includes several boardwalks and viewing platforms.

Aboriginal Lands Trust acting CEO John Chester said a good number of whales and tourists were again expected this season.

He said in the peak of the season, between July and September, large numbers of mothers with calves could be seen within 50 metres of the shore.

img - Curtin University Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study1

Picture courtesy of Curtin University Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study.

“And you’re not just looking at one, there could be two or three in close suckling their calves and a bit further out in the Bight the males will be breaching – it’s just absolutely spectacular,” Chester said.

“It’s the only place in the southern hemisphere where you get that many whales together at one time.

“From now on there will probably be more turning up every day and by the end of May there will likely be a lot of whales there giving birth,” Chester said.

Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) were almost wiped out by commercial whaling in Australia from 1820 to 1935.

There are now an estimated 12,000 southern right whales in the world with sub species in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa. The whales spend the summer months in Antarctic waters feeding up on krill. Expecting mothers migrate to the warmer, sheltered waters at Head of Bight in May and stay until October.

Females give birth every three to four years and reach sexual maturity at nine years of age. Adults can grow up to 18 metres long, weigh 80 tonnes and are believed to live for about 80 years.

Its shallow, sandy bottom, protection from wind and its location within the Great Australian Bight Marine Park has helped Head of Bight become one of the largest southern right calving areas in the world.

The nearby Nullarbor Plain is the world’s largest single piece of limestone and is one of the most remote places on earth. Its arid landscape stretches for 1100km from east to west and includes one of the world’s longest stretches of straight road.

img - HoBMAP

Despite its remote location – 1100km west of the South Australian capital Adelaide and 1700km east of Perth, the capital of Western Australia – the Head of Bight Visitor Centre welcomes up to 250 whale watchers a day at the height of the season.

“It picks up as the season goes along and the whole car park is just full of caravans, cars and four-wheel-drives,” Chester said.

“The income we are getting is put back into the management of pest plants, feral animals and the upkeep of the platforms and the centre.

“We’re already now looking at developing it further – it’s starting to outlive its size.”

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