An encounter with aliens
As some of you know, I write science fiction and I don’t much like the propensity for everybody’s aliens to be humanoid – two or four arms, legs, eyes etc. But you don’t have to go far to meet some very intelligent aliens which aren’t humanoid at all. For me, that means an hours travel in a boat.
Every year, humpback whales leave the Antarctic and head for warmer waters to give birth and mate. They travel up both the east and west coast of Australia. The east coast population arrives in the sheltered waters of Platypus Bay off Fraser Island between late July and early November. And there they stop, some for a few hours, some for a few days, to relax with their mates, feed the babies or look for a bit of sex.
Like most of the world, Australia used to hunt whales but the activity was banned in the 1960s. Since then, the decimated populations of whale species have been rebuilding. At the same time, the industry of whaling has been replaced with something altogether more gentle and delightful and I suspect much more lucrative – whale watching. When whaling was stopped in 1963, humpback whale numbers were down to less than 500 individuals on Australia’s east coast. Now the whale boat skippers report seeing as many as 250 a day in Platypus bay. But they’re not out of danger. Humpbacks give birth every other year and the gestation period is almost a year. Add to that shark nets and pressures by pro-whaling forces to recommence the hunt and the whale’s continuing survival is at risk.
They are filter feeders, meaning they eat krill which they scoop up in the cold waters of the Antarctic, filtering sea water through plates of baleen in their mouths. They have no teeth and don’t eat fish, so for six months of the year, while they’re on the annual swimathon to the tropics, they don’t eat. At all. Except the babies. They are born in warm water and need to grow and build up a layer of blubber to protect them from the cold down south. Being mammals, the calves feed on milk but they don’t suckle. Mother expresses milk into the water, where the baby can slurp it up. The milk has the consistency of yoghurt and is forty percent fat (as opposed to human milk, which is about two percent fat).
I went on my latest whale watching adventure a few days ago, along with people who had come to Hervey Bay from all over the world to see these marvellous creatures. In the years since hunting stopped, the whales have returned and they are as curious about us as we are about them. We were privileged to have a group of three teenaged boy whales (four or five years old, sexually immature and about ten metres long) take an interest in our boat. They hung around for a good half hour, circling the boat, spy-hopping, slapping around and generally behaving as teenagers do. When they grow up they’ll get to fifteen metres or so. The females will be slightly larger, as much as sixteen metres.
A few other whales put on a display for us. Humpbacks are very acrobatic. One reason is that unlike toothed whales (orcas, dolphins, sperm whales etc) they do not have echo location. They navigate by a sense of direction and sight. Breaching is a way of getting a good look around. When you bear in mind these creatures weigh up to forty tonnes, their athleticism is formidable. Just three flips of that mighty tail and they launch themselves almost completely out of the water. They also have enormously long pectoral fins (the ones at the side) which give them excellent manoeuvrability. Apart from breaching, you’ll see tail slapping, rolling, waving of those pectoral fins and head lunges.
These are all my pictures, taken on just four cruises. Whale watching isn’t the same as a visit to Sea World. These guys do what they want, when they want. The boats are not allowed to chase them or crowd them and those rules are enforced. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing, a glimpse into a world so very, very different to ours. It’s a privilege I would love to share with all of you.