Why whales migrate and where do they go?

Huge numbers of humpback whales are about to being their annual migration from the warmer northern waters to their rich summer feeding areas of the Southern Ocean.

After spending time in the warmer ocean areas past Australia, humpback whales begin their annual journey south to feed off the krill around Antarctica.  They’ll be moving slowly and often have young ones with them.

If you’ve never been whale watching, we’ve got one simple bit of advice – just do it!  

You don’t need binoculars or a spotting scope to enjoy a close-up encounter with these magical creatures, but they will help you capture unforgettable memories.

Many species of whales are migratory creatures. In a similar way to some birds, this means that they move from one geographical area to another to stay ahead of harsh winter conditions, to feed and of course to add more members to their family.  For humpback whales this can mean an annual journey of some 10,000km. There’s no set date for whale migration and factors like water temperature and abundance of food are factors, but April to November is generally when humpback whales are seen along the east and west coast of Australia. (There’s also some evidence to suggest they move away from predators such as killer whales.)

From June to August, whales head north away from the harsh winter conditions in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, before turning around and heading back down to feed in the summer. Around September onwards is regarded by some as an especially good time for whale watching as you might be able to spot some slowly travelling south with their new calves.

The tiny animals that humpback whales feed on.

Why do they make such a massively long journey every year? Food.  Humpback whales are filter feeders. They scoop up massive amounts of water in their mouths and use fine, comb like structures called baleen to filter out some small fish and crustaceans, which are mostly krill. Krill are tiny animals and you’d need to eat a lot of them for a decent feed. Lucky for whales like the humpback, they exist in outstanding numbers in the far southern seas.  The WWF estimate there’s 700 trillion adult krill and their combined weight is probably equal to that of all the humans on Earth! They make an ideal food source for whales. The problem is waters around Antarctica that where krill exist become very inhospitable in winter.

Whales are protected animals.

All species of whales are protected in Australian waters.  Whaling was one of Australia’s first primary industries.  Decades of hunting several species of whales severely dented their numbers, but it was the industrial scale harvesting of whale in the 20th century that saw some whale species brought closed to extinction. By the time east coast whaling was banned in 1963, it was estimated there was possibly just over 100 humpback whales alive on those waters.  Now the population is estimated to be around 40,000.

Protection means more than just not killing them for profit. There are strict rules around approaching whales and other marine mammals that professional tour operators will adhere to.

Seeing humpback whales.

Humpbacks are by far the most abundant species of whales in Australian waters. During their annual migration they will often be seen close to the coast.

At BINTEL, we commonly have folks call us and excitedly tell us what they’ve seen and ask if they’ve seen a whale.

If you’re on the coast and spot either a water spout or the back of the whale as they prepare to dive, then yes – you’ve seen a humpback whale!

Humpback whale water spout

Humpback whale diving

These patterns of behaviour repeat every few minutes as whale travel up or down the coast. They also travel in groups, so if you see a water spout in one spot and then another shortly after a little way away, it’s likely another whale.

You could see the whale’s tale as is dives or even be lucky enough to see a whale breaching. This is when they hurl most of their body out of the water and crash back down on the surface.


We’re not exactly sure why whales breach. It could be a form of communication both locally and longer distance.  It’s spectacular to see an animal this large doing something like this, and maybe even a form of play for these bus sized creatures.

We’d highly recommend taking a whale watching tour if you get the chance. Professional tour operators know the waters and the patterns of whale behaviors.  Multiple tour companies operate out of Sydney, but Byron Bay and Hervey Bay are also popular spots. (If you have any suggestions especially on the west coast, please feel free to comment below!)

Even better views of whales

As you view whales from a distance, some decent optics will help you see more clearly.

If you are whale watching from a boat, we would suggest a pair of binoculars, around 8×42 or 10×42 (8 or 10 being the magnification and 42 being the size of the front lens in mm). You can check out BINTEL’s range of binoculars here.

Before heading out on a whale watching cruise, have a chat with us about what would be the best pair of binoculars for you. Most of the binoculars we provide are waterproof and will be fine with bit a of splash of seawater

Binoculars will also give you better views when whale watching from the coast. They’re likely to be much further away so a spotting scope such as these from Celestron will give you close up views.  Even when travelling flat out, whale simply don’t move that fast so a tripod mounted spotting scope will let you keep track of them for longer.


Earl White


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