A recent study confirmed that there are 45 Cetaceans (scientific name referring to whales, dolphins and porpoises) found in Australia’s oceans. Many of these species are transient, with Humpback and Southern Right Whales famed for their remarkable migratory journeys from the nutrient rich waters of Antarctica. In fact, the world's largest population of Humpback whales, estimated to be made up of more than 30,000 individuals, migrate every year off the coast of Western Australia, to breed in the warm waters off the Kimberley coast. This is mirrored on Australia’s east coast where over 12,000 Humpback Whales migrate over 2,500km (1,500 miles) each way.
Along the coastline of southern Australia, Pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) can be seen in the wild, often along rugged stretches of limestone, granite and basalt. The three common species (Australian Sea-Lion, Australian Fur Seal and Long-nosed Fur Seal) are typically more upright when on land, and can move with agility, making them a delight to watch and interact with in the ocean.
Summer: Dec-Feb, Ningaloo & Exmouth
The Ningaloo area supports 10 percent of the world’s Dugong population where they can occasionally be spotted coming to the surface for air. The Dugongs feast on Rhizones around the inner reef shallows (which are the roots & shoots of the seagrasses) and are generally quite shy. These animals can live up to 70 years but are slow breeders, emphasising the importance of the region in conserving the species.
Bottlenose and Australian Humpback Dolphins are abundant in the area, with babies being calved around this time. It is only recently that the Australian Humpback was acknowledged as a separate species, with it’s distinctive dark triangular dorsal feature making it easy to differentiate from Bottlenoses. They usually live in pods of up to six individuals, but can be seen in larger groups and prefer to remain close to the coast in water less than 20 metres deep.
Short-beaked Common, Spinner and Humpback Dolphins can also be spotted occasionally, with both Common and Spinner usually being spotted in very large pods.
Winter: Jun-Aug, Ningaloo & Exmouth
One of the world’s great natural migrations of 30,000 individual west coast Humpback Whales, takes place off the coast of Western Australia. The cooler water coincides with the highest concentration of Coral Spawn and Plankton, providing plentiful food for these amazing aerialists, with the opportunity to swim with them from July onwards.
A large majority of Humpbacks use the shallows of Ningaloo Reef to calve and the mothers protect their Neonates (newborns) with their pale colour and floppy dorsal fins in these waters away from predators, holding them up to the surface to breathe, for the first few days.
Orcas are prevalent at this time, attracted by the Humpback calves with research suggesting up to 15% are lost due to attacks. Pseudo Orcas, Minke Whales, Pilot Whales, Short-beaked Common Dolphins, Spinner Dolphins are occasionally sighted whilst Bottlenose and Australian Humpback Dolphins are abundant as they prey on fish and squid. The Ningaloo area supports 10 percent of the world’s Dugong population, with these passive creatures occasionally spotted coming to the surface for air, in-between feeding on the roots & shoots of the seagrasses in the Ningaloo shallows.
Autumn: Mar-May, Ningaloo & Exmouth
The Ningaloo area supports 10 percent of the world’s Dugong population where they can occasionally be spotted coming to the surface for air. Although they are present throughout the year, May tends to be the peak viewing time as the waters cool and they head northwards. The Dugongs feast on Rhizones around the inner reef shallows (which are the roots & shoots of the seagrasses) and are generally quite shy. These animals can live up to 70 years but are slow breeders, emphasising the importance of the region in conserving the species.
The mass spawning of coral after the full moon in March and April energises the food chain in the region, with baitfish a tempting appetiser for the plentiful Bottlenose and Australian Humpback Dolphins. Pseudo Orcas, Minke Whales, Pilot Whales, Short-beaked Common Dolphins, Spinner Dolphins are also occasionally sighted across the rich marine waters.
Spring: Sep-Nov, Ningaloo & Exmouth
A staggering 30,000 west coast Humpback Whales migrate through the region at this before heading back to Antarctica before summer. Mothers will typically move their calves into the Gulf area at Exmouth over these months, to fatten them up for the lengthy journey south. In just three months, the calf will double its size from four to eight metres in length. The opportunity to swim with these creatures until the end of October is an unforgettable and for many, a spiritual experience.
Orcas are active in the area, largely due to the presence of the Humpback calves, with these amazing hunters successful in preying on the calves despite the mother’s best efforts to protect their young. Pseudo Orcas, Minke Whales, Pilot Whales, Short-beaked Common Dolphins, Spinner Dolphins are occasional visitors to the area as is the largest ever creature to dwell the earth, the Blue Whale.
More common are Bottlenose and Australian Humpback Dolphins, with babies also being calved around this time. A keen eye will also be able to spot the vulnerable Dugong, with the region supporting a population of up to 1,000 individuals. They are typically seen in pairs or by themselves, and only breed every 3-7 years.
Summer: Dec-Feb, Eyre Peninsula
Australian Sea-lions use the beaches on Hopkins Island as a haul out, resting between foraging trips. Juveniles bound toward the boat with their unmistakable glee and excitement, performing somersaults and graceful swirls just waiting for snorkelers to join them.
Summer is when the Long-nosed and Australian Fur Seals congregate to breed, with fierce territorial battles between males at this time. The Neptune Islands Conservation Park is home to a colony of over 40,000 Long-nosed Fur Seals, with an estimated 3,500 pups born at this time. These newborns do not venture into the water until April, which spurs the arrival of the massive female Great White Sharks that prey upon these inexperienced swimmers.
Bottle-nosed Dolphins are common encounters across the bays and coves of Coffin Bay and Port Lincoln National Parks.
Spring: Sep-Nov, Eyre Peninsula
Across the Neptune Islands, male bull Long-nosed Fur Seals claim their territory with fierce territorial battles developing at this time. Most of the female Great White Sharks have left the region at this time, however, male Great Whites are still present meaning that young pups still need to keep an eye out for these amazing predators.
Male Australian Sea-lions head out into the Southern Ocean to feed on a variety of fish and crustaceans, returning to their colony in condition to take on competing males for the attention of females.
Bottle-nosed Dolphins are common encounters across the bays and coves of Coffin Bay and Port Lincoln National Parks. Bottlenose dolphins may breed throughout the year, but they usually give birth to their calves in late summer. A female may be pregnant for up to 12 months and a calf may suckle for as long as 18 months.
Autumn: Mar-May, Eyre Peninsula
Australian Sea-lions lap up the sun on the northern beaches on Hopkins Island, resting between fishing journeys to the continental shelf. Juveniles bound towards visiting boats with their unmistakable glee and excitement, performing somersaults and graceful swirls just waiting for snorkelers to join them.
The breeding season for Australian Sea-lions is variable across the year, with. females giving birth to only one pup. They may not breed again for two to three years. Long-nosed Fur Seal pups can be seen playing around the shallows and rock ledges around the Neptune Islands, however, from April onwards, Great White Sharks arrive to prey upon these unsuspecting newborns.
Summer: Dec-Feb, Phillip Island
Male Australian Fur Seals return to Seal Rocks for the breeding season after foraging in Bass Strait for ten months. Territorial behavior and fighting amongst mature bulls is a common sight at Seal Rocks, as they defend their territory, often inflicting wounds to other bulls. Cows (adult female seals) give birth to one pup, with the season peaking around mid December with up to 4,000 pups being born in the area. Their bleating (lamb-like calls) can be heard loud and clear as the pups call out for their mothers. During summer the seal population at Seal Rocks swells to over 30,000 seals!
Bottlenose Dolphins swim in smaller mixed-age pods of up to 10 over the summer and are often seen along the Phillip Island coastline foraging for food and regularly approach boats out of curiosity. Short-beaked Common Dolphins are smaller than the bottlenose dolphins and have a distinct hourglass light grey to yellowish pattern on their side. They usually swim in larger pods than the Bottlenose dolphins and are highly active as they showcase their acrobatic whilst ‘surfing’ the bow waves.
Orcas occasionally cruise the Phillip Island coast during summer to hunt for seals, and other marine animals and seabirds as they migrate eastward. These impressive whales are the fastest swimmer of all the cetaceans and can reach speeds of more than 50km/h while hunting.
Winter: Jun-Aug, Phillip Island
During the winter months Australian Fur Seal pups are weaning off from their mother’s milk and learning to fish for themselves, targeting small fish such as pilchards and leatherjackets, squid, octopus, and cuttlefish. Cows and juveniles tend to forage closer to their colony, near the Phillip Island coast.
The population size of the Short-beaked Common Dolphin increases during the winter months as more food seems to be available closer to shore. Large pods of up to 40-50 dolphins forage for fish and squid within 500m of Phillip Island’s southern and eastern coastlines, whilst Bottlenose Dolphins regularly approach the boats out of curiosity.
Winter is the time when Humpback Whales migrate from Antarctica along the Victorian coastline northwards for calving. Humpback whales can be seen along the Phillip Island coast from June to August. Pods of 2-10 of adult and sub-adult whales can be seen travelling close to shore, often displaying fascinating surface activity including tail-slapping, pec-slapping, spy-hopping and breaching.
Southern Right Whales can be seen occasionally from June to August, with Orcas also trailing the larger whale species during the northerly migration. Their distinct black and white patterns and the imposing tall dorsal fin never ceases to amaze visitors.
Spring: Sep-Nov, Phillip Island
Male bull Australian Fur Seals start arriving and claiming territory in Spring, causing audible and sometimes violent fights between competing males. After they have claimed their territory they will herd females into their area for breeding.
Spring is also the time that there is a higher volume of of Common & Bottlenose Dolphin calves amongst the pods. Exhilarating acrobatic flips are a common sight as they approach and bow ride the boat, and on calm days their clicking sounds from above the surface of the water can be heard.
At the end of the migration season (beginning of spring), Humpback Whales leave their breeding grounds off the Australian East coast and migrate southwards to Antarctica. On this journey the whales can be seen travelling along the Wilsons Promontory and Phillip Island coastline in small pods, often cow (female) and calf travelling together. Many whales often display fascinating behaviours such as breaching, tail and pec-slapping, believed to be an important communication and socializing tool. Some whales can even be seen to feed amongst bait fish, often accompanied by Common Dolphins and Australian Fur Seals, as well as seabirds including Australasian Gannets and Crested Terns.
Autumn: Mar-May, Phillip Island
Australian Fur Seal pups spend a lot of time swimming, diving and practicing chasing prey over the Autumn, with the pups’ curiosity to boats evident as they confidently approach in large pods within metres. Cows venture out to sea for longer periods in search of food, often leaving their pups on the rocks for up to 10 days. Pups have their first moult too, changing their distinctive black fur for a brown-silver coat.
Short-beaked Common Dolphins can be found swimming in larger pods with many riding the bow of the boat. Their acrobatic moves are a sight to behold as they ‘surf’ the waves. Feeding behavior is commonly seen off Phillip Island’s southern coastline where one can witness the tail-slapping technique as they chase and herd bait fish together. These feeding frenzies often attract Australian Fur Seals, and seabirds such as Australasian Gannets and Crested Terns. Small pods of up to 10 Bottlenose Dolphins can often be seen in Western Port Bay near Phillip Island’s northern coastline, as they forage for squid and fish.
Winter: Jun-Aug, Kangaroo Island
A long history of habituation at a remote colony of Australian Sea-lions at Seal Bay has resulted in access and observations often compared with Antarctic or Galapagos pinniped encounters. Walking along the beach guides, visitors will learn about their feeding ecology and breeding cycles. This species preys upon fish, squid, cuttlefish, octopus, rock lobster, other small crustaceans and penguins.
Australian Sea-lions are different from most pinnipeds, as their breeding period is nearly 18 months and therefore not seasonal. Prior to the breeding event, male Australian sea-lions head out for extended feeding trips and return to the colony in prime condition, ready for the breeding battles during which they lose a considerable amount of condition.
Bottle-nosed dolphins can bee seen around the bays and coves, often surfing waves on the south coast.
Summer: Dec-Feb, Kangaroo Island
Summer is when the Long-nosed and Australian Fur Seals congregate to breed at Cape du Couedic in Flinders Chase National Park, with the Long-nosed being the more abundant species. Often the call of territorial males is the first cue that there is more than one species present. There are fierce territorial battles between males at this time, which can be viewed from the boardwalk at Admiral’s Arch.
Gentle sea conditions over Summer build up a wide flat beach which Australian Sea-lions take full advantage of. A colony of around 1000 Sea-lions reside at Seal Bay, where careful habituation ensures an excellent observation opportunity.
Bottle-nosed Dolphins are common encounters in the myriad of bays and coves which surround Kangaroo Island and evidence of their feasting on Cuttlefish can be found in the form of gnawed cuttle-bones.
Autumn: Mar-May, Kangaroo Island
Gentle sea conditions over Summer and Autumn build up a wide flat beach which Australian Sea-lions take full advantage of. A large colony can be see basking on the sand in-between fishing trips to the continental shelf.
The breeding season for Australian Sea-lions is variable across the year, with mature bulls fighting for access to females. At this time they become aggressive and territorial, defending their harem of females from other males. Females give birth to only one pup and may not breed again for two to three years. They consequently defend their pups vigorously.
Long-nosed Fur Seal pups can be seen playing around the rock ledges and pools at Cape du Couedic in Flinders Chase National Park, spending time mastering their diving and chasing skills so they can begin hunting in the winter.