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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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:
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
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
You see: A huge blow well offshore. Followed by another 10 to 30 seconds later. A huge, long straight back. It’s probably a:
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
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).
You see: Several tall black dorsal fins. It’s probably a pod of:
Orca (Killer Whale)
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
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:
You see: A whale blow at an angle, well offshore. A series of angled blows from several individuals. Its probably a pod of:
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.
Conservation status: Vulnerable IUCN
Whale Spotter Sperm Whale: http://whalespotter.com.au/?page_id=897
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.
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.
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