Rare southern right whale calf sighting a thrilling start to NSW far south coast whale watching season

The sighting of a southern right whale and her calf along the NSW far south coast has excited locals, photographers and marine experts alike as the whale watching season in the region kicks off.

August marks the time of year when some whales were still heading north as part of their annual migration on Australia’s east coast, while others were heading south.

In that crossover came the unique sighting of what appeared to be a white southern right whale calf.

“Any white animal, like we’ve seen with Migaloo, does get the attention of many people around Australia if not the world,” said wildlife scientist Dr Vanessa Pirotta.

“A small percentage of southern right whales are born very white, and in this case, this animal is known as a gray morph.

“Unfortunately, it’s not likely to stay white its entire life and will most likely become darker as it gets to adulthood.”

Southern right whales reproduce slower than other species so sighting a calf is a rare event.(Supplied: Peter Harris)

The southern right whale reproduced at a slower rate compared to the humpback, and was vulnerable to a number of threats in the post-whaling era including entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, acoustic pollution and even Killer Whales.

Dr Pirotta said although the current “salt and peppery” appearance of the calf wouldn’t remain, its existence had buoyed many working to ensure the survival of the species.

a white whale calf swimming in the water
The whale watching season usually doesn’t start until mid-August on the NSW far south coast but this calf is proof the mammals have arrived early.(Supplied: Peter Harris)

“It’s also an opportunity to see other species such as the southern right whale which is unfortunately not recovering as well as the humpback whale population,” Dr Pirotta said.

“When we do see one it’s of great significance because any contribution or addition to the southern right whale population is a special one for all of us.”

Pods on the move

Mid-August usually marked the start of the whale watching season on the NSW far south coast, but cruise operators were organizing tours early off the coasts of Bermagui, Merimbula and Eden.

a whale jumping out of the ocean
Humpbacks are usually more “acrobatic” and “energetic”, according to Mr Millar.(Supplied: Sapphire Coastal Adventures)

“We’ve had a great stream of southbound whales for a few weeks now,” said Simon Millar, director of Sapphire Coastal Adventures.

“We didn’t used to start until the end of August … [but] we’ve had multiple pods off Merimbula.

“It looks like it’s going to be an amazing season.”

Last year’s whale watching season was thwarted by COVID-19 restrictions, and this year tourism operators hoped to make an uninterrupted comeback.

Mr Millar also found the sighting of the southern right whale and her white calf to be unique, after not having spotted the species in three years.

“The southern right whales aren’t as typically energetic or acrobatic on the surface as the humpback whales,” he said.

“We tend to watch the humpback whales more even when the southern rights are around, but it was still great to see that new-born calf.”

a man and woman sit on the railing of their boat with their dog sitting in front of them
Mr Millar and his wife Jessica had not seen a southern right whale in three years before spotting the white calf.(Supplied: David Rogers Photography)

The sighting occurred ahead of the Walawaani Muriyira-Waraga Bermagui Whale Event on August 13 which marked the official opening of the 2022 season.

The event would celebrate the cultural significance of the annual migration to the local Yuin people and would feature an ocean paddle out to welcome the whales.

a big whale in the water next to a smaller white whale
The southern right whale and her white calf traveling along the NSW far south coast.(Supplied: Richard Gonzalez, Insta @the.shot.father)


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