For the third year in a row, a special interest whale named ‘Milky Way’ has returned to the waters of Encounter Bay.
The whale was observed and photographed by whale watchers dotted around the coast near Basham Beach last Wednesday (July 24).
The ‘white’ whale, technically referred to as a grey-morph, is a rare variant of the Southern Right Whale species.
This whale would have been born as a white calf and has darkened to a grey colour as it matured. About two or three percent of new born calves may be white.
Some male calves born white then darken to milk-chocolate brown. Having a grey-morph whale is very special.
Through Southern Right Whale photo identification projects, individual whales can be identified by their callosities, which are unique patterns of thickened skin growth (white lumps) on the top of the head.
The callosity pattern of the head of each whale is unique to that animal, in the way that our finger prints are unique to us as individuals.
However, identifying this whale is made easier because of its colouring and unique pattern of dark spots and dashes on its back and head.
Body colours of a southern right are usually black or dark grey, although whales often have some white splashes underneath on their chin or belly.
I first spotted and photographed the whale at Waitpinga Cliffs in August 2011 and observed it again in the exact same location September last year.
On the day and in the full sun, the whale looked so white under the water. But in other conditions it looks grey or even a light golden tan colour.
The grey whale has now been catalogued as ‘Milky Way’ SE1227 after also being sighted at Portland, Victoria last year.
For me, it is exciting to see this special whale return to our waters again and it was a real privilege to be able to name it ‘Milky Way’ for the catalogue.
Collecting and comparing photographs of whale markings helps identify individual whales that visit our coast and a catalogue is currently being set up for Encounter Bay.
There are quite a few photographers that want to be involved in the project. SOme are out there whale watching every day, trying to get good identifying images of individual whales. It's all very exciting.
Southern Right Whales travel to our warmer waters from their subantarctic feeding grounds to mate and give birth.
During this past week around 12 whales, now including four mothers with calves, were spotted on most days within the core ‘nursery area’ of Encounter Bay.
For many years, Basham Beach and surrounding coast has been recognized as a Southern Right Whale calving and nursery area, similar to Head of Bight but on a smaller scale.
The calves are very active at this time and are seen playing around their mothers with tail slapping and the older ones even breaching.
We are now in the peak of the season and there are also single whales engaging in a lot of courtship behaviour.
The coming weeks will provide great whale watching opportunities.
Boats are reminded to slow down and watch out for whales especially within the Encounter Bay breeding grounds.
The calving and nursery area needs greater protection to provide a safe haven for the whales.
Unfortunately ‘Milky Way’ has not been sighted again since Wednesday afternoon after a boat, travelling at speed, passed the whale in close proximity.
A similar incident also occurred last year resulting in this same whale leaving the area on that occasion.
It’s not just the speed and risk of vessel collision, it is also the acoustic disturbance that effects the whales.
Sound travels five times faster and is much louder under water.
Whales, who rely on sound as their principle means of communication, are known to exhibit distressed behaviour in the presence of loud and/or prolonged noise.
The public is encouraged to contact the SA Whale Centre anytime and report all whale sightings.
If you spot a light-coloured whale, please report immediately, as it just may be Milky Way.
You can also check online for latest whale sighting reports and for whale watching guidelines and regulations by visiting www.sawhalecentre.com or phone the SA Whale Centre on 8551 0750.