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Whale migration: The Facts

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Wild About Whales
Whale tail slap. Photo: S Cohen

The annual whale migration is certainly a site to behold. Each year, NSW national parks welcome many eager visitors who flock to some of the most scenic locations and headlands all along the coastline to catch a glimpse of these magnificent mammals as they glide past. Sometimes you may be lucky enough to see their spectacular breaches, fin waves or dramatic tail slaps that signifies to us that they’re there.

But did you know what the annual whale migration is actually all about? Once you know what’s really going on, it can make your whale watching experience even more special.

Here’s the lowdown on the annual whale migration:


The annual whale migration. Whales migrate because over time their feeding grounds and their breeding grounds have become separated. Now our whales undertake some of the longest migrations, between their food source and safe breeding areas, in the animal kingdom.


The whales of course. Whales developed from land mammals that lived in warm salty waters about 55 million years ago. They belong to the order of animals called cetacea, which also includes dolphins and porpoises.

Humpbacks are the main species you will see off the NSW coastline, as well as southern right whales, and sometimes even blue whales, minkes and orcas (killer whales).

As of 3 July this year, a total of over 1,600 Humpback whales have been spotted from the whale count site at Cape Solander, Kamay Botany Bay National Park, south of Sydney.


They start their swim north around June and July, and then start making their southbound journey from around September to November. The peak of the season is around end of June and throughout July when the highest numbers of whales can be seen from the NSW coastline. The whale watching season is getting longer because, thankfully, whale populations are increasing due to conservation efforts over recent years.


The best land-based whale watching spots can be found in our national parks all along the NSW coast, stretching from Byron Bay in the north, to Eden in the south.


So why are they doing this? Whales need to survive the very cold Southern Ocean by developing a thick layer of fat to keep them warm. They build up the fat from their food and newborn whales don’t have this thick layer and would not survive if born in the Antarctic. They need warmer water where they can build up their insulation layer they get from their mother’s very rick milk. The whales start their swim north to find warmer waters in which to breed, and then start making their southbound journey with newborns in tow – the return journey is when you will often see them closer to shore frolicking and suckling and taking their time with their babies as they’re in less of a ‘hurry’ than when they head up the coast.

Interesting whale facts

  • Over 50% of the world’s cetacean species are found in Australian waters.
  • Rock engravings and contemporary stories show a strong relationship between local Aboriginal people, whales and The Dreaming.
  • The tail of the Humpback whale can be up to one third of its body length.
  • Whales are related to the hippopotamus and even cows – it is believed that they both evolved from a similar species more than 50 million years ago.
  • Humpback whales are very social and sing more than most other whales – their songs can be heard for several kilometres under water.
  • Whales can’t sleep for very long as they need to go to the surface for air.

How can you get involved?

During the season, you can get involved by sharing your whale sightings on Twitter, Facebook, or by sharing via the Wild About Whales mobile app for Apple or Android.

As well as whale watching, there are plenty of other activities to experience in our coastal national parks, from bushwalking and photography, to Discovery tours and spotting a wealth of other marine and land based wildlife.

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