The Humpback Whale migration peaks towards the end of June in Sydney. I try to spend a few mornings on the coast over this period and arrived in Bundeena at dawn last Saturday. The dawn usually offers quieter conditions than later in the day. Not so last Saturday, with southerly winds howling through the night and into the morning.
The wind was blowing a ragged chop across the sea. Huddling into the slight shelter of an overhang I was starting to think there was no chance of spotting a spout amongst the white caps. No whales at dawn, but very quickly it became clear that the conditions were perfect for seabirds, including dozens of albatross. Most were Black Browed Albatross or Shy Albatross, with a few Yellow Nosed Albatross and one Giant Petrel.
The albatross fly straight into the wind, using the updrafts generated by the flow of air over the waves to gain height then gliding just above the surface. In strong winds they rarely need to flap their wings. The wintery storms are perfect for these long distance gliders and coincide with the annual die off of one of their favourite foods, Giant Cuttlefish. It is worth checking cuttlebones on the beach, as the larger ones often bear the distinctive v shaped incision of albatross beaks.
The albatross weren’t the only large seabirds, with lots of Australian Gannets patrolling along the coast. The majority were motley juveniles, while about a quarter were the brilliant white adults. They were flying 20 metres or so above the water, which put them at about the same height as my vantage point. They were flying close to the cliffs and into the wind, which meant that they would suddenly appear at the corner of my ‘shelter’ and zip past in barely a second. Not a lot of time to grab a photograph but at least they were close.
The seabirds occupied my attention until the light levels rose enough to see a bit further out to sea. I saw several pods of humpbacks over the next hour. Their spouts were almost invisible amongst the waves and whitecaps, but conversely the sloppy conditions were exposing their heads, flanks and backs much more than normal. Even better, the whales were helping me spot them by regular breaching and pectoral slapping. All of the pods did at least one round of breaches as they passed, which made me wonder whether they were using the loud slapping noises to keep in contact in the rough conditions, a way of shouting ‘still over here’.
Amongst all the commotion there was a hint of something else going on in the pods. Peering through the telephoto lens I could see smaller fins amongst the Humpbacks. Bottle nosed Dolphins. At first I thought the dolphins were simply checking out the passing whales, but I soon realised they were riding the bow waves created by the vastly larger Humpbacks.
For the next hour each pod of Humpbacks that passed my vantage point were accompanied by bow riding dolphins. I think I was simply lucky enough to have found a spot where the dolphins had decided to ‘ambush’ the Humpbacks, although there may have been several pods of both species travelling in convoy. Either way, the middle of winter, along with truly horrible conditions, delivered a wonderful and entirely unexpected experience with Sydney wildlife.