Book Holiday Haven Accommodation

A–Z of our New South ‘Whales’

Holiday Haven
25 May 2023

Every year off NSW’s Shoalhaven coast, you can witness a splashy superhighway of spectacular sea specimens. This massing of massive marine mammals starts in late autumn as populations of humpback and southern right whales first travel north from their feeding grounds to warmer breeding grounds, before returning – with calves in tow – later in the year. To enlighten you this whale watching season, we present our A to Z guide to this parade of prodigious proportions…

A is for ANTARCTICA – It’s here that the whales begin their journey each year. These colder waters are great for feeding but too cold for young to survive in, so they journey north and return later when calves have enough of an insulation layer.

B is for BALEEN – A keratin-like substance (similar to fingernails or hair) that forms as plates in the mouth of many types of whale – including blue, humpback and southern right. These baleen plates act like sieves to collect food from the seawater and are distinct from toothed whales (such as sperm whales or orcas).

C is for CETACEAN – The collective name for marine mammals that produce milk, give birth to live young and breathe air. These commonly include whales, dolphins and porpoises. Fun fact: over 50% of the world’s cetacean species are found in Australian waters!

D is for DORSAL FIN – This is the fin commonly found on the back of many marine creatures – most infamously on sharks and looking similar on dolphins. Humpback whales do have a dorsal fin on their back, but it is small in comparison to its body. Southern right whales have no dorsal fin – making them easy to identify.

E is for EXTINCTION – Right up until the 20th century, whales were hunted into near-extinction, prized for their meat and oil – with humpback populations worldwide fewer than 5000 in the 1960s. Australia banned all whaling in 1978, but countries such as Norway and Japan continue to do so commercially.

F is for FEEDING – Whales such as southern rights are ‘skim feeders’, holding their mouths partly open just beneath the water surface and skimming water continuously while swimming to capture prey in their 200+ baleen plates. Meanwhile, humpbacks use bubbles to form a type of ‘net’ that collects their prey before eating in one go, hence the term ‘gulp feeders’.

G is for GUWARRA – This is the name given to whales by the local Jerrinja tribes of the Shoalhaven region. There is a special connection between local people, whales and The Dreaming, seen through carvings, stories and artworks all along the coast. Areas such as Culburra Beach hold historical importance and it’s here that indigenous Jerrinja would have had front row seats to the annual migration for thousands of years. 

H is for HUMPBACK –  The most commonly seen species of whale off the NSW coast. Adults are usually about 15 metres in length (50 feet) and their numbers have recovered to an estimated 135,000 worldwide. The humpback whale is famous for breaching or surfacing, making for entertaining whale watching.

I is for IMPRESSIVE – What can we say? These majestic creatures are simply impressive – and if you get the chance to witness them up close, you should!

Image - @jordan_robins

J is for JERVIS BAY – And a great place to see whales up close is the calm waters of Jervis Bay, a popular ‘paddling pool’ for the creatures, especially when they’re sheltering young on the return journey. You can get up close and personal with award-winning cruises from Jervis Bay Wild and Dolphin Watch Jervis Bay – both operating from Huskisson for more than 25 years.

K is for KARAOKE – Did you know that male humpbacks can sing very complex songs? Each song can last up to 33 minutes and that can travel up to 10 kilometres away. The purpose of singing is unclear, although it’s possible it is a way of echo-locating other whales – especially considering singing has become less frequent as whale population numbers have recovered.

L is for LONGER – The whale watching season is actually getting longer every year. Why? Simply because there are greater numbers of whales, meaning a longer traffic jam of these gentle giants along the coast each year!

M is for MAY – This is typically regarded as the beginning of the whale watching season along the Shoalhaven coast. This is when whales are in more of a hurry as they travel north, with a baby on the way.

N is for NOVEMBER – This is typically the end of the season each year, as whales – showing off their offspring – return south to the cooler waters of Antarctica. They’ll usually be slower on the way home, the equivalent to a ‘Baby on Board’ sticker on the car – often coming in closer to the shore to frolic and feed as they go.

O is for ORCA – Also known as the killer whale, this striking black and white specimen is actually the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family, trading baleen for teeth and living up to its name by being one of the few predators of migrating humpback and southern right whales – especially new calves. They can also be spotted off the NSW coast.

P is for PECTORAL FINS – Noticeably extra long in humpback whales, these are a whale’s ‘arms’ and are often seen with humpbacks when they lie on their sides and wave or slap the water. Quite a sight!

Q is for QUESTIONS – Humpbacks and right whales are famous for ‘breaching’ – where they will lift at least 40% of their huge mass out of the water in a sudden jump and flip motion. There are many questions as to why they do this, with answers ranging from a signal to warn off predators, a way to show off its fitness when it's too noisy for mating calls or even to remove parasites from its body. It might also simply want to have a look around!

R is for RIGHT – The “right” in the name of the southern right whale has nothing to do with orientation of fins or similar. In fact, the actual reason is quite wrong – coming from the days of whaling, when it was quite simply regarded as the ‘right’ whale for hunting because it moved slowly and would float when killed. 

S is for SPOUTING – As members of the cetacean family, whales do not have gills – so can’t stay underwater forever. They need to breathe air, and do so by ‘spouting’ through their blowhole (their version of a nostril). The spout we see isn’t water coming out but rather warm air from the lungs as it breathes. Then it does a clever trick by absorbing oxygen into its blood and muscles that enables it to ‘hold its breath’ underwater for an average of 60 minutes. (Some whale species can go up to 4 hours!)

T is for TAIL SAILING – This intriguing phenomenon is exactly as it sounds – with a whale lifting just their tail out of the water for long periods of time, and this acting like a sail in the wind. Humpbacks and southern right whales are especially known for it!

U is for UNIHEMISPHERIC – Because it needs to come to the surface regularly, a whale needs to be aware of its surroundings at all times. Yet it also needs to rest – which is why it developed a process called ‘unihemispheric sleep’. This allows it to shut down half its brain at a time, like on standby power – and effectively sleeping with one eye open!

V is for VIEWPOINTS – There are plenty of great land-based viewing spots along the Shoalhaven coast to view migrating whales. These include Penguin Head in Culburra or Warden Head, Ulladulla, to name just a few.

W is for WINTER – It may not be the best season for working on your tan or enjoying a relaxing morning swim, but winter is the time for whale watching. In particular, June-August provides your best chances to catch stragglers still heading north as well as the first of the new parents on their way south again with calves. So grab a hot coffee and enjoy the experience!

X is for X-RAY – Cetaceans such as dolphins and whales receive echo information not from ears but in their jaws. This allows for thousands of data points (versus two-directional hearing) to assess the size, shape and depth of objects or creatures up to 10km away. Studies have shown that in some species, this type of sonar can even ‘see’ through skin like x-ray vision!

Image -@jervisbaywild

Y is for YEARLY – You really can set your calendar to it, such is the migration pattern of these magnificent creatures. And it’s just one of the reasons that so many return year after year to stay in the Shoalhaven – with our unspoilt beaches and pristine waters ideal for viewing whales in this cyclical and special journey.

Z is for ZOOPLANKTON – An important part of the diet of most baleen whales like humpbacks and southern right whales is zooplankton – microscopic animals that drift to the surface to feed on phytoplankton (microscopic plants). Krill is one of the largest types of zooplankton and looks a bit like a tiny shrimp. They may be tiny, but zooplankton are a huge part of the fragile marine ecosystem. Protecting them will help protect whales and ensure our winters remain wonderful for centuries to come!

Book Online