Whale sightings start off Port Stephens

PORT Stephens’ cruise operators have spotted the first of the migrating humpback whales as they make their way north.

Tamboi Queen Cruises skipper Terry Aldrich saw five humpbacks across the weekend, which was unusual for this early in the season.

Have you spotted any passing whales? Email your pictures with details to news@theherald.com.au

The first sightings coincided with the launch of Whalefest on Saturday at Nelson Bay Foreshore. The event signals the start of whale watching season with market stalls and family activities.

Imagine Cruises director Frank Future said the whales were moving up from the Antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean and were mostly at the southern eastern tip of Australia.

He said some of the first whales travelling past the Port Stephens coastline would be mothers and their calves who were nearly one-year-old.

Migration numbers for the humpback whales this season are expected to be about 15,000.

Mining threat to whale tourism industry

TWO booms are under way in Australia, and scientists warn they are on collision course. Soaring minerals exports threaten to run into escalating whale populations.

The first clear evidence of where east Australian humpbacks breed has found they favour waters off rapidly expanding Queensland ports.

With these whale numbers climbing at about 10 per cent each year, scientists predict increased ship strikes as more mothers and calves move inshore.

And the federal government is today expected to release new offshore oil and gas exploration acreages in key blue whale habitat, sparking a contest over these marine giants as well.

Despite becoming a common sight off the NSW coast, humpbacks have remained hidden from view in critical breeding grounds of the 2300-kilometre Great Barrier Reef.

Using Coastwatch aerial sightings data, and global humpback habitat as models, the University of Queensland’s Joshua Smith found two hotspots: east of Mackay, and in the Capricorn and Bunker island groups off Gladstone.

The movements of a dozen satellite-tagged humpbacks indicated there was a key migration corridor through the waters off Gladstone, and an important wintering area off Mackay, he said.

Both ports are among at least seven in Queensland due for expansion in the minerals boom.

Dredging at Gladstone harbour for a major gas terminal on Curtis Island already has drawn the attention of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.

It will decide within weeks on whether urban and industrial expansion endangers the reef’s World Heritage status.

The humpback waters off Mackay coincide with a major designated shipping area in the barrier reef, including the junction of shipping routes, Dr Smith said.

‘‘We could predict from the model that there is likely to be a greater reliance on the coastal waters of Mackay and Gladstone as the season progresses, and mothers with newborn calves utilise these areas more,’’ he said in the journal Marine Ecology.

‘‘Increased shipping can lead to increased ship strikes and have a serious effect on the recovery of whale species, which has been well documented in North Atlantic right whales.’’

Fellow humpback specialist Michael Noad also sees increasing dangers for the burgeoning recreational boating community.

Without tighter regulation, he said, ‘‘people probably will lose their lives, which is very unfortunate’’.

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