With humpback whales making their annual migration to the northern waters of the Great Barrier Reef, Robert Prettejohn has made an exciting recording of humpback whale song. Few recordings of such intensity and clarity have been recorded in Great Barrier Reef waters.
An eco-advocate who owns the deluxe eco retreat Thala Beach Nature Reserve near Port Douglas, Queensland Australia, Rob was boating near Snapper Island offshore from Port Douglas when a pod of humpback whales approached.
A massive male humpback was escorting a female and her calf – it was the marine mammal equivalent of the nuclear family on an outing!
“The calf was very playful. You can see in one of my underwater images where he is peeking at me over his mother’s back. Mum was very attentive, nuzzling the calf while Dad kept a paternal eye on them both,” Rob said.
The female appeared to be training the calf in essential life skills in the sheltered waters inside the Great Barrier Reef. Previously hunted to near extinction through large-scale whaling, it’s not unusual to see humpbacks in Great Barrier Reef waters between May and September each year. After gorging on krill, plankton and small fish in Antarctic waters, they head to north Queensland to nurture calves and regain their strength before returning to the Antarctic.
“I watched the mother breaching, demonstrating to the calf how it was done. Then the calf had a go at it, launching himself out of the water while Mum looked on proudly. It was a truly beautiful experience,” said Rob. His images captured the moment as Mum and calf settled into their lessons.
Importantly, Rob was also able to record humpback whale song as they communicated with other members of the pod.
“Their remarkable sounds are a small window into the complex social world of these fascinating mammals,” Rob said.
Listed as vulnerable under both the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and Queensland’s Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 2006, humpback whales communicate with vocalisations often inaudible to human ears. Whale song consists of distinct sequences of groans, moans, roars, sighs and high pitched squeals that may last up to 10 minutes or longer. Humpbacks rely on vocal communication more so than their other senses of sight and smell. It is believed these sounds are used to identify other individuals, for long-range contact and to warn others of threats as well as navigation. Baleen whales (such as humpbacks) do not have vocal chords so scientists are still unsure how whale songs are actually produced.
It’s not Rob Prettejohn’s first significant whale encounter. Back in 1981 he was the first person to document dwarfe minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef. His images were the first ever seen of minke whales in these waters. Rob’s hand drawn sketch based upon what he had witnessed underwater was later used to identify the dwarfe minke whale species in 1985.
He said at the time, “It is astonishing that my eye to eye encounter on August 5, 1981 in the Coral Sea just to the east of Saint Crispin’s Reef was the first recorded between our species and theirs.”
“I cherish that I was the first human selected by them to make their magical and gentle presence known – an approach so gentle and deliberate, I had no doubt it was designed to offer me reassurance. After my encounter I made a sketch as soon as I returned to our boat, noting the salient features,” he said.
Tropical north Queensland is a popular destination for visitors keen on viewing wildlife in their natural habitat. Driven by Rob’s passion for the environment, Thala Beach Nature Reserve has developed a reputation amongst global travellers seeking immersive wildlife and nature experiences.