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Whales in the surf break: play or distress

July 14, 2016

IMG_3769All photos copyright Mic Smith

About 6.30am at Heron Avenue Mermaid Beach a group of locals saw a pod of humpback whales apparently having a good time very close to shore.

“An amazing show”.

By 7am more locals were becoming concerned by the whales almost in the surf break.


“It’s not normal behaviour.”

“Are there fish?”

“Maybe it’s the mullet run. It’s on at the moment.”

“There are a lot of birds.”

A big whale comes in from the deep and visits the pod. He stays a while and then moves off to the north. The original pod which includes a calf moves backwards and forwards along a 100m stretch of beach, close to the surface.

They circle each other spouting.

As the whale leaves a local surfer Gary says it’s a sign that the whales are in trouble; a whale coming to answer calls of distress.


“I wonder if one of them is tangled in the shark net.”

“Can’t see anything on them. But where is the shark net? Maybe they’ve dragged it in.”

The men on the platform discuss calling SeaWorld but I say we should call the government shark net department. I search for the number on my phone.

Best to alert them early, I say, as they were too late to save the whale that drowned in the shark net at Tugun a few years ago. The response had been slow because of the distance and because it was a Sunday.

A few years ago, some Tugun residents had seen a whale splashing, acting strangely close to shore. They informed the lifesavers first but the lifesavers said they couldn’t interfere with the shark nets and it wouldn’t be safe either. The couple had then called the Shark Control Program (SCP – part of DAF) hotline 1800 806 891 or 132523. They had come but by then the whale had drowned and sunk to the bottom. The couple swam out and took some pictures.

After he makes the call Gary leaves. “I can’t watch these poor whales.”

However it’s still unclear if there is any distress or if it is some other behavior.

I hang around taking photos for another hour, with the whales still moving back and fourth. Then they disappear. How can you tell the difference between whales playing and whales in distress in time to save them if they are tangled in some net?


Recent footage of entangled whale at Double Island Point.

Legally anyone is able to try to free an entangled whale if they can, but be careful if you aren’t fully trained.

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