Blue whales of Perth Canyon

Its been quite some time since I discovered that Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) visit Perth Canyon in Apr-May.  Perth canyon is approx 22kms off the coast of Fremantle and has depths of 700m-4kms!  It’s similar dimensions to the Grand canyon but of course you can’t see the scale with all that ocean on top.  The whales are coming to the canyon feeding on aggregations of krill – tiny marine shrimp, that feed a whale that can get up to 25m long!

I have always had an interest in Blue whales ever since seeing the 24m long skeleton in pride of place in the WA museum.  I have not been able to show my kids yet – but I’m excited that come 2020, it will be featured in the new building.

I volunteered to organise a WA Naturalists excursion utilising the family business Whale Watch Western Australia – the only company that visit the canyon for whale watching.  As part of my planning I checked out the company previously on a Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) tour in October off Fremantle.  I had been to the canyon once before on a pelagic bird watching tour where we had an amazing sighting of Orca (Orcinus orca).

We had planned to go a month before, but one day before the trip the boat hit a floating semi-submerged boat wreck and sheared off one of the blades on one of the props!  We had over 20 people signed up – so lots of communication as we all had to reschedule once they were able to get a replacement prop built from scratch and installed.

 

We boarded MV Steep Point just before 8am with 44 on board – 4 of us WA Nats members plus some family members.  The above photos are from my previous trip as I forgot to take new ones.  The day was perfect, not a cloud in the sky, with light easterly winds which were going to drop, no swell to talk off, and sunny & mild (~27ºC).

Leaving Fremantle

Rottnest to the East – not a common view!

We were surprised by a pair of humpbacks – an adult with a yearling calf – they were just west off Rottnest migrating North and the earliest of the season.

I saw a couple of Great crested terns (Thalasseus bergii) and then a pair of fisherman in a pretty small boat for how far out they were!

As we came to the canyon and started looking for whales we sighted some splashing a long way off, which turned out to be a few hundred Striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba).  The pod was hugely energetic with many launching into the air.  Really spectacular and a new species of mammal for me.

We then headed on to the northern most part of the canyon looking for Blue whales – they tend to be found on the walls as it is thought they herd the krill using the structure.  For some time we didn’t see any whales and I must confess I thought we might be too late in the season.  But then a misty blow was seen perhaps more than a km off and we headed towards it, seeing a few more blows on the way.

Blue whale blow @ Perth canyon

We then saw the blue whales – approx 25m long – which is the same length as our boat carrying 50 people!  Another lifer species for me – two in one day!

Blue whale @ Perth Canyon

The name blue whale was first referenced in the book Moby Dick and refers to the aqua blue colour of their skin when underwater (see the aqua strip in the image below – out of the water they are a mottled grey colour.

Submerged Blue whale @ Perth Canyon

We saw 4 individual whales ranging from the 25m adult above to a yearling approx 14m long (see darker grey image bottom right below) – which is the same length as the adult humpback we saw earlier!

One interesting fact is the mottled colouration on the whales can come from healed scars from cookie-cutter sharks.  They have circular sucker mouths and teeth that take a plug of flesh – the below image shows the whale just below the dorsal fin and then a close up where you can see the wounds from the shark.

After spending a good few hours with the blues we headed for home – the sun on the water was amazing.

Just heading out of the canyon we came across another (or maybe the same) pod of striped dolphin – these were launching into the air!

We also saw a few Australasian gannets (Morus serrator) on the way back.

I highly recommend the tour company Whale Watch Western Australia – they are a family run business and really care passionately for the whales and their customers.  The day tour included all meals, drinks and also beer, cider & champagne celebrating our sightings!  Fingers crossed I might be able to arrange an Orca trip out of Bremer Bay next April – I did say they might need to include child care in their packages!

Below are some photos from the boat to give an idea of the viewing.  On the shorter tours the captains cabin is only accessible with a higher level package.

The WA Nats crew for our expedition – a shame we couldn’t get everyone on the same tour.

All in all this was a trip of a lifetime – I am already planning to take my wife and 4 year old son to see the Humpbacks come September!

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2nd Blogiversary

I checked recently and its been just over 2 years since I started this blog and this is my 49th!

I started with my first ever sighting of a wanbenger or Brush-tailed phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa).

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Brush-tailed phascogale @ Mundaring

A year ago I shared my first blog anniversary post and I feel its been a pretty good past year as well – with more family involvement which is wonderful.  Liam, my 4 year old son, has joined me on a number of my adventures and also my beautiful wife Mel.  My daughter is now 19 months old – so she must be getting close to her first possum hunt and has come on many family bushwalks.

These were my target species from my first anniversary blog – 3 out of 5 now seen – not bad.

  • Numbat – seen my bucket list animal!
  • Red-tailed phascogale – photo evidence now
  • Mardo (yellow-footed antechinus) – need to do more research – some people see at Dryandra often
  • Rakali (water rat) – haven’t had a chance but heard of sighting at Lake Goollelal – so will have to try there.
  • Tammar wallaby – saw in Tutanning – still not been able to find a way onto Garden Is at night.

I have seen quite a few new species this past year but the highlight has to be my first numbat and maybe second a great viewing of a red-tailed phascogale that allowed me to take photos.

This next year I have a few new species on the list and a couple from last year still.

  • Blue whale – I have a Blue whale trip planned that was meant to be a few weeks ago but there were boat troubles with the commercial tour operator – hopefully I will be able to reschedule soon.
  • Mainland Quokka – I have also been researching mainland quokka sites that are not that far from Perth.
  • Pygmy possum – I have information of a location at a certain time – so hopefully come November
  • Mardo – carry over from last year
  • Rakali – carry over from last year
  • Honey possum – still not seen one – might need to go for a trip to Cheynes Beach.

I am also hoping to find a few more frog species – looks like I have now seen all the 5 local burrowing Heleioporus species – with the Hooting frog (H. barycragus) a couple of weeks ago and I have had confirmation that the unknown frog we found at Tutanning is like a sand frog (H. psammophilus).

 

 

Rock-wallabies of the Wheatbelt and Frogs that go hoot!

I had been planning for a while to take my 4 year old son Liam to see Black-flanked Rock-wallaby (Petrogale lateralis) in the wheatbelt.  My friend Jimmy had seen them about a month ago – so I had good information that it would be ok to take my son.  Also Jimmy was game to join us – its a 2.5hr drive each way with some walking in the reserve and then rock clambering.  My son was so excited to come – he had been asking only days prior if we were going to see rock-wallabies!

Our destination was Mount Caroline Nature Reserve – one of about half a dozen sites where the rock-wallaby can be found in the wheatbelt.  The rocky outcrops where they live are surrounded by crop fields, so they have become islands in a desert of habitat.  They can also be found in a number of locations across WA and also SA/NT in the central region.

We left at noon, taking a lunch break in York.  We then drove the rest of the way arriving about 3pm, parked up and walked into a habitat corridor that joins the reserve with Gardner Rd.

I had to carry Liam some of the way but once we hit the rocky outcrop he was off and away!  We soon spotted Ornate crevice dragons (Ctenophorus ornatus) scurrying quickly on the rocks.  It was a day with some cloud cover so we hoped the wallabies might be out a little earlier than dusk.

Ornate crevice dragon @ Mt Caroline NR

The rocks had amazing structures – with lots of erosion seen on the boulders and rock-wallaby scat seen inside the caves.

Granite boulder @ Mt Caroline NR

We walked to the top of the rock advising Liam that he needed to be quiet – but he was also very excited!  He threw little rocks off the top even after we said it would scare the wallabies away.  Jimmy did a little recce in front and sighted a Euro (Macropus robustus) dashing off into cover, out of view.  I didn’t see it and the outcrop is classic habitat for them, but not often seen.

Liam with Jimmy @ Mt Caroline NR

Liam was super confident on the rocks but, as his Dad, he had me a little worried….. he clambered everywhere with no fear!  As we got to the top of the rocks and peaked over the Western face we saw our first wallaby dash away – too quick for a photo.  We then saw another jump away and sit on a rock a ways off.  Liam saw this one and was very pleased!

Black-flanked rock-wallaby @ Mt Caroline NR

Jimmy spotted 3 wallabies just over the drop at a feeding station which must be maintained by DBCA (old DPAW) but they had scattered by the time Liam & I got into a viewing location.

Feeding station @ Mt Caroline NR

We started to see more wallabies as it got closer to sunset.  They can be quite skittish and you need to be quiet and not make sudden movements.  The animals know every cave and crevice and can disappear in an instant.

Liam really enjoyed himself – but see the fly net – there were plenty of flies around!  He  also enjoyed pointing out scat in amongst the rocks.

I was finding it a little hard to take photos while keeping Liam safe on the rocks so Jimmy kindly looked after him while I went for a solo explore.  They clambered up a big boulder and chilled.

I had some lovely views of a red-capped robin and grey butcherbird calling.

The sun was beginning to set and it was a lovely view from the top of the rock.

Sunset @ Mt Caroline NR

I then spotted a rock-wallaby sitting on really steep rock face – just glued to the side of the rock.

Black-flanked rock-wallaby @ Mt Caroline NR

Their feet and paws are ideal for gaining grip on the granite rock faces.  The below photo series shows just how dexterous they are.

The light was beginning to fade so we headed back towards the car.  Hard to say how many wallabies were sighted as they may have been repeats – I guess maybe 5-8 perhaps?

Mt Caroline NR from the West

On the way out we could see that the wallabies do get away from the rock and head into the farmers crop by the tracks under one of the fences.

Rock-wallaby tracks under a fence @ Mt Caroline NR

We got back and the light was dropping rapidly – we had a quick picnic dinner and started to head for home.  We had half a plan if it rained to see if we could find some frogs in Chidlow and Liam was keen.  The weather was coming in and we drove through a few rain bands – so that was promising for frogs.  Jimmy had seen Hooting frogs (Heleioporus barycragus) in Avonholme Circle, Chidlow during April (previously after rain).

This was one of my target species for the year so we took the opportunity.  We walked along the dry river bed but no calling was heard – it took about 10mins but we soon picked up the first frog by eyeshine in the spotlight and then found another.

We also found a couple of Western Banjo or Pobblebonk frogs (Limnodynastes dorsalis) – they are recognisable by their central vertebral line and red colouration around the thigh area.

We then found a third Hooting frog which was the most attractive of the 3 found – solid front legs and diagnostic yellow colouration on the flanks.

Hooting frog @ Chidlow

Finally it was time to head for home, getting back at 10:30pm – way too late for a 4 year old – but an amazing adventure for all!  So many new things for Liam, a new frog for me and Jimmy with the patience of a saint to allow me to bring my son!