Abyss Scuba Diving

The World Of Humpback Whales: Sydney's Top Spots & Fascinating Facts


Exploring the Majestic Humpback Whale: Top Viewing Spots and Facts

How do humpback whales navigate their extraordinary migrations, and what can we do to protect these ocean giants? Uncover the secrets of the humpback whale’s long voyages and the vital importance of humpback whale conservation.

Key Takeaways

  • Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are known for their distinctive body features and undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal, up to 16,000 km annually, with significant passing through Sydney’s waters during certain seasons.

  • They exhibit unique feeding techniques such as bubble-net feeding using their baleen plates to ingest large volumes of food and display complex social behaviours, including vocalisations by males that are critical in communication and mating during breeding seasons.

  • Conservation efforts, including the commercial whaling ban and the establishment of marine protected areas, have aided humpback whale recovery, yet they continue to face human-induced threats necessitating ongoing protection measures and responsible whale-watching practices.

Understanding the Humpback Whale

Humpback whale and baby swimming in the ocean

Humpback whales, scientifically known as Megaptera novaeangliae, are a fascinating species of our planet’s marine biodiversity. They belong to the Balaenopteridae family, a group known as the baleen whales, which are characterised by their long pectoral fins and distinctive body shape. The unique identifiers of humpback whales include their long and scalloped pectoral fins and a head adorned with distinctive knobs and a rounded jaw.

The name ‘humpback’ is derived from the noticeable hump of blubber ahead of the dorsal fin. This hump becomes visible during dive and is often adorned with barnacles, particularly on the rostrum and pectoral fins. A fascinating aspect of these marine mammals is their size. Female humpback whales reach lengths of up to 16 meters, with males being slightly smaller. Interestingly, their ventral throat grooves extend down to the navel area, and their humpback whale tails are also quite impressive.

Large whales, such as humpback whales, captivate marine conservationists and whale watchers around the world with their enormous size and unique features. Their intriguing behaviours and the attention they attract have significantly propelled conservation efforts.

In order to enhance our conservation efforts, we must comprehend intricate details about humpback whales, including their migration patterns, feeding techniques, and social behaviours. Let’s delve further into the captivating world of these marine giants.

The Marvelous Migration of Humpback Whales

Humpback whales migrating through the ocean

Humpback whales undertake an awe-inspiring migration journey, one that is among the longest of any mammal species. They traverse up to 8000 km between their tropical breeding grounds and colder feeding areas. Annually, they can travel a staggering 16,000 km  during their migration circuit. This journey takes them through the waters of Sydney, making it a prime spot for whale watching from mid-August to November during their southern migration with their newborn calves.

Each year, around 16,000 whales swim through Sydney’s waters, with humpbacks making up a substantial portion of this number. The timing of humpback whale migrations can fluctuate annually due to a blend of factors, including:

  • water temperature

  • sea ice conditions

  • prey availability

  • predation risk

Despite these fluctuations, the humpback whale migration, as well as the presence of southern right whales, offers incredible opportunities for observation and study, especially in Sydney Harbour, a prime location on the east coast.

Seasonal Movements

The migration of humpback whales is closely tied to the seasons. During warmer months, these whales concentrate on feeding in the colder, nutrient-rich waters, building up their blubber reserves for the winter months. However, come winter, they migrate to tropical waters for mating and calving.

Whale numbers peak off Sydney’s coast in June-July for the northern migration and September-October for the southern return migration. Therefore, the whale watching season in Sydney spans over five months, with over 20,000 humpback whales migrating through this period. This migration cycle, closely tied to the changing seasons, plays a significant role in the whales’ survival and reproduction.

Comprehending the humpback whales’ seasonal movements can enrich the whale-watching experience and help enthusiasts time their visits to coincide with peak migration periods. But what navigational skills do these remarkable creatures employ to cover such vast distances?

Navigating Vast Distances

Humpback whales undertake an annual migration that is one of the longest of any mammal species on Earth. During this migration, they can travel distances up to 10,000 kilometres while moving between their summer feeding grounds in high-latitude waters to winter mating and calving areas in tropical waters, where humpback whales live for a portion of the year.

This epic journey demands remarkable navigational skills. Despite the vastness of the open ocean, humpback whales are able to find their way across thousands of kilometres with astounding accuracy. The whales are believed to use a combination of the Earth’s magnetic field, celestial cues, and their memory of physical features along the route to navigate these vast distances.

The long-distance migration of humpback whales is a testament to their incredible endurance and navigational capabilities. It’s a phenomenon that has intrigued scientists and whale enthusiasts alike, highlighting the remarkable adaptability of these marine giants.

Diet and Feeding Techniques of Humpback Whales

Humpback whales engaging in bubble-net feeding

Studying humpback whales’ diet and feeding techniques, including how humpback whales feed and what humpback whales eat, sheds light on their behaviour and survival strategies. They mainly consume:

  • Krill

  • Copepods

  • Other types of plankton

  • Small schooling fish

Humpback whales utilize a technique known as bubble-net feeding, where a group of whales swims in a spiral, blowing bubbles to form a ‘net’ to trap their prey.

This feeding technique, combined with their unique anatomy, allows humpback whales to filter enormous volumes of ocean water to capture and consume their prey. A key player in this process is the baleen plates. But what exactly are these baleen plates, and how do they work? Let’s find out!

Baleen Plates: Nature's Filters

Baleen plates are unique structures found in the mouths of baleen whales, including humpbacks. These plates are made of keratin, the same substance found in human hair and nails. Each baleen plate has a unique fingerprint-like pattern of tubercles on its edge, and these plates hang from the upper jaw of the whale in a parallel fashion.

During feeding, water enters the whale’s mouth and passes through these baleen plates, which trap small organisms. The plates serve as a strainer to separate the whale’s prey from the ocean water. Friction between the water and the fine hairs or fringes on the inner edge of the baleen plates helps to trap the prey. The captured food is then licked off the baleen by the whale’s massive tongue.

Baleen plates, therefore, are integral to the humpback whales’ feeding process, acting as natural filters that enable these whales to ingest the large volumes of food necessary for their survival.

Having examined the feeding habits of these giants, it’s time to investigate their social behaviors and communication methods.

Social Behaviors and Communication

Humpback whales are known for their remarkable social behaviours and communication methods. They exhibit defensive behaviours, such as:

  • thrashing their flippers and tails

  • slapping the water with their tails

  • breaching (leaping out of the water)

  • spyhopping (raising their heads out of the water)

when confronted by orcas to protect themselves and keep the orcas at bay. Furthermore, humpback whales engage in a unique form of conversational style communication by responding to ‘contact’ calls, indicating they comprehend and react to certain sounds and patterns.

An individual humpback whale, Twain, was observed to interact with scientists by circling their boat and matching interval variations between their playback calls. This demonstrated a level of curiosity and engagement with human activities, further emphasising the social nature of these marine mammals. Speaking of communication, male humpback whales are particularly famous for their vocalisations. Let’s explore these ‘Songs of the Sea’ in the next section.

Songs of the Sea: Male Humpback Whale Vocalizations

Illustration of a male humpback whale vocalizing underwater

During the winter breeding season, male humpback whales produce complex songs that can be repeated for extended periods, ranging from around six to over thirty minutes. These songs have structured elements comparable to rhyming, which aid in the recollection of the compositions.

Interestingly, the songs of male humpback whales evolve each year, never reverting back to previous melodies. All males within the same oceanic region sing the same song, indicating a shared cultural behaviour. The potential purposes of these songs include attracting female whales, echolocation, and facilitating the location of other whales.

The complex and evolving songs of male humpback whales during the breeding season are a testament to their impressive communication skills. Their vocalisations play a critical role in their social interactions and are a key part of their fascinating behaviour.

As we further explore the world of humpback whales, we’ll now turn our attention to the influence of human interactions and the persistent conservation efforts.

Human Interactions and Conservation Efforts

Human activities have had a significant impact on humpback whales. Commercial whaling significantly reduced humpback whale populations from historical levels, leading to their listing as endangered in 1970. However, protections like the IWC’s commercial whaling ban in 1966 and NOAA Fisheries actions have contributed to recovery efforts.

Yet, humpback whales continue to face threats from entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, and vessel-based harassment leading to stress and behavioural changes. Fortunately, NOAA Fisheries and partners have established marine protected areas, designated critical habitats, and developed recovery and monitoring plans, highlighting progress in humpback whale conservation.

Despite these successes, ongoing measures to protect humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins involve tackling issues like entangled humpback whale incidents, entanglement, and vessel strikes, with innovative study and rescue methods aiming at ensuring the conservation of these marine mammals.

The Road to Recovery

The goal of the 1991 Humpback Whale Recovery Plan was to support the reclassification of humpback whales from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’ and their eventual removal from the Endangered Species Act’s list. This plan aimed to ensure the recovery and protection of humpback whales. As part of recovery efforts, NOAA Fisheries developed a plan in 1991 that included protecting breeding and feeding grounds for the humpback whale population.

Special attention is also given to individual whales. For example, Migaloo, the only known all-white humpback whale in Australia, receives special protection, including an exclusion zone decreed by the Queensland government. To further reduce the risk to these majestic creatures, efforts to reduce vessel collisions with whales recommend giving whales a wide berth, avoiding areas with high whale concentrations, or if that is not possible, slowing down and keeping a vigilant lookout.

These continuous protection and conservation endeavours emphasise the significance of collective action in securing the survival of these magnificent creatures.

Let’s now transition to a more immersive topic — whale watching in Sydney.

Whale Watching in Sydney: A Glimpse Into Their World

A whale watching tour in Sydney with humpback whales

Sydney offers a unique opportunity to witness the spectacular migration of humpback whales. Whale watching tours in Sydney provide customers with expert commentary on whale behavior and opportunities to see other marine wildlife like dolphins and seals. The cost for a three-hour whale watching cruise by Whale Watching Sydney starts at $69 per adult, while a four-hour cruise is priced at $95 per adult.

Other options include Captain Cook Cruises and Sydney Princess Cruises, offering whale watching tours for approximately $69 and $99 per person, respectively. Notably, these tours have a high success rate of over 95% for whale sightings, with a free cruise offered in the rare event that no whales are sighted. Additionally, customers can extend their experience at Taronga Zoo or acquire a 2-day Whale Explorer pass after participating in a whale watching cruise.

During the whale season, scuba divers often receive an unexpected bonus to their underwater adventures—a complimentary whale-watching experience. As they explore the depths, it's not uncommon for humpback whales to approach the dive boats, offering a close-up encounter with these gentle giants. This is particularly true at the "Whale Watching Platform", a dive site aptly named for its frequent cetacean visitors. Similarly, at Martin Island, where divers experience diving with the seals, the presence of whales adds an extra layer of excitement to the dive as they gracefully navigate the waters, often visible from the dive boat.

A humpback whale between the Abyss Scuba Diving, dive boat and Martin Island

Responsible Viewing Practices

While whale watching offers an exhilarating experience, it’s imperative to conduct these activities responsibly to safeguard marine wildlife. Maintaining a safe distance from whales is a key regulation during whale watching to protect these marine mammals. The recommended safe observation distance for larger whales, including humpback whales, is 100 metres from sea or land.

Vessels must adhere to a specified approach limit, which ranges from 100m to 300m, to minimise the impact on the whales during whale-watching activities. These measures are put in place to ensure that these activities do not disrupt the normal behaviour of the whales and contribute to their conservation.

Responsible viewing practices are crucial in ensuring the sustainability of whale-watching activities and the well-being of the whales. By adhering to these guidelines, we can enjoy the beauty and majesty of these creatures without causing them harm or distress.


From understanding the unique characteristics of humpback whales, their migration patterns, diet, and social behaviours, to the impacts of human activities and ongoing conservation efforts, we’ve taken a deep dive into the world of these majestic marine mammals. It’s evident that while we’ve made significant progress in protecting and conserving humpback whales, there’s still much to be done. By participating in responsible whale-watching practices and supporting conservation efforts, we can all contribute to ensuring these magnificent creatures continue to grace our oceans for generations to come.

Book Your Learn to Dive Course Today

Frequently Asked Questions

What do humpback whales eat?

Humpback whales primarily feed on krill, copepods, other plankton species, and small schooling fish. They are mainly filter feeders.

How do humpback whales feed?

Humpback whales use a technique called bubble-net feeding, where they swim in a group, blowing bubbles to trap their prey in a net. This method helps them capture large amounts of food efficiently.

What is the significance of baleen plates in humpback whales?

Baleen plates are significant for humpback whales as they act as a strainer to separate prey from ocean water during feeding. This allows the whales to capture small fish and plankton for consumption.

How do humpback whales navigate during their migration?

Humpback whales navigate during their migration using the Earth's magnetic field, celestial cues, and their memory of physical features along the route. These combined factors help them cover vast distances during their migration.

What are some responsible viewing practices during whale watching?

When whale watching, it's important to maintain a safe observation distance, adhere to specified approach limits, and avoid areas with high whale concentrations to practice responsible viewing. This ensures the safety and well-being of the whales.