(WANNet) On the lookout for humpbacks

Submitted by Editor on Sat, 21/08/2004 - 17:40

SYDNEY, 23 May, 2004 - You can spot them by their binoculars, fleece jackets and gazes fixed on the horizon, watching earnestly for the flick of a dorsal fin or a sudden vertical spurt of water.

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August 21, 2004

By Danielle Teutsch

They are whale watchers, and the onset of winter next week heralds the start of their favourite season.

In what is fast shaping up to be an annual ritual for NSW coast dwellers, thousands of people are expected to take up lookout posts from Byron Bay to Eden this year to catch sight of migrating humpback whales.

A few of the whales, the so-called leaders of the pack, have already been spotted off the NSW coast.

The whales swim about 3000 nautical miles from Antarctica to the equator, occasionally delighting onlookers with dramatic blowing, breaching and tail-slapping.

Ronny Ling, president of the volunteer marine rescue organisation ORRCA, said he hoped sightings of humpbacks would improve this season. Although the usual number of whales, about 3000, made the journey north last year, they remained frustratingly far from the coastline to the disappointment of whale watchers.

National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) figures show there were sightings of 520 humpbacks, 28 minke whales and one blue whale last year.

The year before, there were 932 humpback sightings.

"Last year sightings were significantly down," Mr Ling said.

"There is a lot of speculation why, but we think currents may have kept them further out from the shore."

In contrast, the rarer southern right whale made several high-profile appearances, with five sighted last season. Southern right whales are more easily spotted because of their penchant for hugging the coastline and seeking refuge in bays and harbours.

To cater for booming interest in whale watching, NPWS set up a whale-watching platform at Cape Solander in Botany Bay National Park last year.

NPWS wildlife management officer Geoff Ross said the platform had been popular with the public. NPWS figures show 7000 cars visited the area last year.

Mr Ross said it was difficult to predict how many whales would make an appearance this year.

"With wild animals you never know what you are going to get," he said. "The exciting thing is that the longer you sit there, the greater the chance of seeing something."

Mr Ling said a dedicated band of whale watchers had formed in NSW, gathering at prime sites to swap stories and enjoy the camaraderie of cetacean spotting. He said there was a certain bonding quality about seeing a 15-metre whale suddenly breach or slap its fin among the monotony of the whitecaps at sea.

"They love to talk about it and compare tales," he said. "There is something special about whales, a sense of wonder and awe. "And the beauty of it is that it's free."

- For sightings of marine mammals, phone the ORRCA hotline on 9415 3333.

http://smh.com.au/articles/2004/05/22/1085176041547.html

Copyright © 2004. The Sydney Morning Herald.

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