EXCLUSIVE: Five friends were overwhelmed in January after being approached by one of the world’s most elusive creatures in shallows off the South Australian coast.
Initially fearing it was a shark, the swimmers were relieved to learn the creature was actually a three-metre pygmy right whale, a rare species of which there have been just 20 official sightings. Video shot on New Year’s Eve and shared this week shows the 3m-long juvenile swimming close to two men as they hold their breath underwater.
The encounter is one of five separate sightings of a juvenile pygmy right whale on the Eyre Peninsula, collated by Yahoo News Australia. Scientists are struggling to contain their excitement after the recent encounters, particularly because high-quality underwater footage was gathered.
Little is known about the species, but observations have only occurred in the Southern Hemisphere. It belongs to a family of baleen whales that was thought to be extinct until 2012.
Looking at the footage, Dr Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist affiliated with Macquarie University, described the videos as “really cool”. “It’s almost like watching a dolphin, but it’s not, it’s a completely rare species of whale,” she said. “There’s an opportunity to learn from him”.
While the sightings have been welcomed, Dr Pirotta said she hoped authorities will “monitor the situation closely”, particularly because the whale doesn't appear to be afraid of humans.
Another researcher reviewed footage from January and noted two scratches on the whale’s back, possibly caused by a boat strike, leading her to urge people in boats to keep their distance.
In a statement, National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) warned ongoing interactions with the whale could have “detrimental impacts”, adding it is illegal to harass or feed them.
At this stage, NPWS regional coordinator Dirk Holman isn’t concerned the whale is becoming habituated to human presence. “However continual interactions with human activities and vessels does put the whale’s health at risk from boat/propeller strikes, excess energy expenditure and increased disorientation,” he added.
Swimmers encounter whale in shark-infested waters
The first confirmed sighting was made by two paddle boarders on December 20, and this made national news. On December 31, extensive underwater GoPro footage was shot by 19-year-old Emma De Maria and her partner William Elverd and shared with Yahoo News Australia.
Ms De Maria and her partner were nervously balancing on a paddle board when they saw a fin moving in the water towards them. “I was freaking out,” she said. “It came under our board, hooked left and looked like it was going to come straight at us.”
It was when the creature spun around that Mr Elverd spotted its distinctive tail and realised they were interacting with a whale and not a shark. “He was circling us and just wanted to play, but he was still bigger than our board by a long-shot," Ms De Maria said.
Despite Ms De Maria's sisters Caitlyn and Elysia and friend Charles James entering the water to see the whale, it didn’t show any signs of fear. “It was coming up so close to us, not even a ruler’s length away. It was just wanting to play and doing tail flicks,” she said.
Concerned about the animal’s welfare, Ms De Maria’s group was careful not approach it and left the water after 20 minutes. She has asked that the whale’s exact location not be shared online. “We were shocked that we got that experience. It was cool, but we wouldn’t want anyone to harass it,” she said.
Expert excited as three more pygmy whale sightings recorded
Port Lincoln photographer Fran Solly knew exactly what species she was looking at when she saw the pygmy right whale as she helped rescue a beached one two years ago at the site.
She was responsible for recording three sightings in January, and noted a presence of boats in the area. "There were several people on paddle boards and in dinghies and it was just going from one to another," she told Yahoo News Australia. "You could see it was looking at us and very interested."
These encounters were shared with South Australian Museum honorary researcher Dr Catherine Kemper who specialises in the species and believes the animal to be a newly weaned male.
Speaking with Yahoo News Australia, Dr Kemper described the Eyre Peninsula as “a bit of a hotspot” for pygmy right whales, along with the north coast of Kangaroo Island, Tasmania and New Zealand. Indirect information suggests mothers have their calves in the area, and weaning likely occurs in these waters.
“We think we know a bit about them, but every little bit of information, including these really exciting recent ones add a little bit to the story,” she said. “I encourage people to report them.”
While those who recently encountered the whale appear to have put the whale's welfare first, Dr Kemper has some concern that other thrill-seekers may travel to the area specifically to try and interact with the whale and this could be detrimental to its safety. “People will get excited and do the most stupid things.” she said. “They treat the animal like it’s a person, but it’s an animal.”
It was Dr Kemper who first noticed two recent “superficial cuts” on the whale’s back in footage from January, and they could be the result of a light boat strike. While the injuries are not life-threatening, they are an indication that its welfare does need to be closely monitored.
While another whale spotted in Portland Harbour in the 1980s stayed for two months, Dr Kemper believes it’s more likely the Lake Eyre individual will leave soon. Where whales go when they leave Australian waters is unknown. Based on a few sightings and basic knowledge of their eating preferences, it’s believed they spend the rest of the year in the Subtropical Convergence, a plankton-heavy region that’s roughly 40 degrees south.
What to do if you encounter the pygmy right whale
Following reports of the pygmy right whale, NPWS confirmed rangers will be monitoring the Eyre Peninsula, including the area where the juvenile was sighted.
Mr Holman warned pygmy right whales can grow up to 6.5 metres in length and weigh up to 3430 kg, which is heavier than a large four-wheel-drive. “While it’s very unlikely a human will interact with an adult pygmy right whale in the future, if this was to happen, with the mere size of this species there would be potential for harm,” he said.
People on the water should not approach whales in South Australia and anyone who encounters one should keep a distance and safely leave the water when possible. “Any interactions with wildlife present a risk to both people and the animals, so people should be aware of the potential of harm, which can be completely unexpected and accidental, if approached by an animal of this size,” Mr Holman said.
On the water, individuals should keep 100 metres from whales, or 50 metres from dolphins. Anyone who spots a pygmy right whale can contact NPWS on 08 8688 3111, or the South Australian Museum.