An easy guide to identifying whales at sea along the Great Ocean Road.

On our 3 day Great Ocean Road wildlife tour we spend a lot of time at the coast, with the Southern Ocean as our backdrop. During the winter months – June, July, August – we are quite likely to see a whale out to sea.

Seeing whales from a boat is the best way to see them properly – you can get closer, and sometimes you can see multiple whales, and identify them easily. We recommend you do this with our good friends at Wildlife Coast Cruises.

But there’s something thrilling about driving along the Great Ocean Road and seeing a whale – or its blow – explode out of the ocean, unexpectedly.

how to identify whales great ocean road

Its far away, incredibly brief, and there’s usually no time for a photograph. But it stops everyone mid-step and mid-sentence:  “gasp….… A whale!!”

Then there’s the wait. Will it breach/blow again? How far did it travel since that last breach? How to identify the whale? Where to focus the camera to capture the next appearance?

Here’s an easy guide to identifying Great Ocean Road whales from one brief, far-away glimpse.

identification diagram whales great ocean road victoria

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You see: A whale blow, fairly close to shore. A big, black whale lazily lolling about on the surface. A bit of tail, a bit of head, sometimes a flipper. It is probably a:

Southern Right Whale

Eubalaena australis

ID KEYS: 
Blow: high V-shaped blow
Dorsal fin: no
Body & size: a large black whale
Head: black & white pattern (from callosities) on very lumpy head.
Social: not very. Usually just mother and calf together in our area.
Inshore: yes

Southern Rights are the most likely whale seen along Great Ocean Road in winter from late May to early November.Southern Rights normally surface every 10-20 minutes, but can stay submerged for one hour.The Great Ocean Road is one of Australia’s important breeding and calving sites for the endangered Southern Right Whale. These whales were hunted nearly to extinction by the commercial whaling industry, and even after 50+ years of protection, there are estimated to be only 3,500 in Australian waters. These whales have actually been legally protected since 1930, but illegal whaling by Soviet Russia during the 1960s and 70’s hampered their recovery enormously.

Conservation status: Endangered EPBC

Whale Spotter Southern Right Whale: http://whalespotter.com.au/?page_id=201

A group of Southern Right Whales:

And some Southern Right Whales very close to shore:

southern right whale great ocean road

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You see:  A huge black & white whale jump (breach) out of the water, making a huge splash. Huge flippers, out at an angle. A big white tail clear of the water. It’s probably a:

Humpback Whale

Megaptera novaeangliae

ID KEYS:
Blow: bushy-shaped, not huge
Dorsal fin: yes, small
Pectoral fins: huge, long
Head: flat knobby head with callosities
Acrobatic: yes, very
Social: a little
Inshore: possibly

Humpback Whales are fairly likely along the Great Ocean Road, and very likely along the East Gippsland coast. Humpbacks are amongst the most active and easy to identify whales, spending a couple of minutes at the surface, breaching, spy-hopping and lob-tailing. They are a bit social, migrating in pairs and small groups up to about 10 individuals. Humpbacks can remain submerged for 45 minutes, but usually come up every 7-15 minutes.

Conservation status: Vulnerable EPBC

Whale Spotter Humpback Whale: http://whalespotter.com.au/?page_id=191

Some great footage by Wildlife Coast Cruises of Common Dolphins, Humpbacks, then a Southern Right Whale at 01:51

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You see: A huge blow well offshore. Followed by another 10 to 30 seconds later. A huge, long straight back. It’s probably a:

Blue Whale

Balaenoptera musculus

ID KEYS:
Blow: very high (to 15m)
Dorsal fin: yes, small, set well back
Head: smooth long (no callosities)
Body & size: long, slim grey and huge
Social: not really
Inshore: no

Blue Whales are the largest animal to have ever lived (yes, the are bigger than any dinosaur!). They tend to be solitary. When feeding they will dive for around 9 minutes, then stay at the surface for about 3 minutes, blowing an average of 9 times.

Conservation status: Endangered EPBC & IUCN

Whale Spotter Blue Whale: http://whalespotter.com.au/?page_id=792

An amazing video from Naturaliste Charters showing Humpbacks, a Blue Whale (at 00:15) and Southern Right Whales (at 01:09).

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You see: Several tall black dorsal fins. It’s probably a pod of:

Orca (Killer Whale)

Orcinus orca

ID keys:
Blow: not distinctive
Dorsal fin: black, very tall (especially adult males – up to 1.8m)
Body & size: distinctive black & white whale. Smaller than great whales but much larger than dolphins.
Social: yes, very
Inshore: possibly

Orca are seen occasionally, anywhere along the Victorian coastline at any time of year. The Great Ocean Road, Phillip Island and East Gippsland are some of the most likely places to see Killer Whales in Australia, but these ocean predators range far and wide, and can’t be considered a common sighting.

Conservation status: Data deficient IUCN

Submit sightings, pics and video to: https://www.facebook.com/killerwhalesaustralia/

If you really want to see Orca, book a Bremer Canyon Killer Whale Expedition with our good friends at Naturaliste Charters, WA. Tours run 4 January to 25 April every year. Watch some of their amazing footage here:

 

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You see: A whale blow at an angle, well offshore. A series of angled blows from several individuals. Its probably a pod of:

Sperm Whale

Physeter macrocephalus

ID KEYS:
Blow: bushy blow angled to the front (one blowhole)
Head: distinctive blocky head
Dorsal fin: triangular dorsal hump
Social: yes, very. Pods of 20-25 seen.
Inshore: no

Sperm Whales are very social, and except for breeding males, most are seen in fairly large groups.

Conservation status: Vulnerable IUCN

Whale Spotter Sperm Whale: http://whalespotter.com.au/?page_id=897

Also read our blog about dolphins seen along the Victorian coastline. 

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If you want more than brief, exciting glimpses of whales in Australia, or if you want a high likelihood of whale sightings book Wildlife Coast Cruises Winter Whale Cruise. Cruise operates daily early June to early August. When you see a whale, make sure to send your photos to this page: https://www.facebook.com/twobayswhales/ (submit sightings of all whales in Port Phillip – Melbourne – or Westernport Bay – Mornington Peninsula & Phillip Island)

After your Great Ocean Road tour finishes in Melbourne you can hire a car and drive yourself to Phillip Island. Or take a train from Melbourne to Stony Point (Mornington Peninsula) then take the Westernport Ferry across to Phillip Island. Spend a few days – there is lots to see and do!  Read more about getting to Phillip Island here. 

Recommended itineraries that include whale watching. 

Echidna Walkabout, Wildlife Coast Cruises and Naturaliste Charters are all members of Australian Wildlife Journeys: an exclusive network of independently-owned, conservation-focussed wildlife IN THE WILD tour operators.

membership Australia's premier wildlife tour collection

 

identify humpback whale victoria

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NOTES & REFERENCES:

EPBC = Australian federal government Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act https://www.environment.gov.au/epbc

IUCN = International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species https://www.iucnredlist.org/

Victorian Government Marine Mammals guide: https://www.wildlife.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0033/27789/Marine_mammals_id_guide.pdf

Marine Species Identification Portal: http://species-identification.org/search.php

Australian government conservation listing Southern Right Whale: http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=40

WWF Southern Right Whale: https://www.wwf.org.au/what-we-do/species/southern-right-whale#gs.eqdsgs

 

identify southern right whale

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