It’s not just whales you’ll see when whale watching in NSW. Marine ecosystems are home to an extraordinary range of species, ranging from tiny plankton – which is the base of the marine food web – to seals, penguins, sharks, marine turtles, sea and shore birds and right up to the gentle giants themselves - whales. Like all ecosystems, this is a delicate web and if one species disappears or their numbers decline, catastrophic impacts can be experienced by other marine creatures in the food chain.
Whale watching gives you the opportunity to experience marine ecosystems up close and get a better understanding of how all species relate to each other. For an even closer view, you should consider diving or snorkeling.
Some of the animals you should look out for when whale watching include:
Seals and sea lions are mammals that feed in the sea, surface for air and return to land to rest and breed. Because they spend so much time in the ocean, both seals and sea lions have adaptations like streamlined bodies and flippers which make it easy for them to move in the water. This, however, makes it awkward for them to move on land. Seals and sea lions can be found in colonies along the NSW coast. One cheeky seal has even been captured catching a ride on the back of a humpback whale!
Penguins are a distinct group of highly specialised, social and flightless seabirds. Penguins spend long periods of time at sea and come ashore only to breed and moult. Penguin wings have evolved into flat, paddle-like flippers. This allows them to be superb swimmers with swimming speeds of up to 24km per hour having been recorded.
There are 17 penguin species in the world, however only the little penguin, also known as the fairy penguin, is found along Australia’s east coast. Little penguins are monogamous and mate for life. Little penguins are found in substantial numbers on many islands off the NSW coast.
Sharks have struck fear into humans for centuries; however very few species pose any real threat. There are over 400 species of sharks worldwide. The largest species, which is also the largest of all fish, is the whale shark, which can reach up to 13m long.
NSW waters are home to a variety of shark species, but only the great white, bull and tiger sharks can pose a significant risk to humans. There are several diving spots along the NSW coast where you’ll be able to see sharks in the wild.
Marine turtles, along with other turtles and tortoises, belong to the order known as ‘testudines’. They can be found in all of the Earth’s oceans except for polar regions. Marine turtles can live for up to 80 years and are very well adapted to their life in the sea.
Australian waters are home to six of the seven species of marine turtles found in the world: loggerhead turtle, olive ridley turtle, leatherback turtle, flatback turtle, green turtle and hawksbill turtle. Although marine turtles are found all along the NSW coast, they can be hard to spot. Due to their size, you’re more likely to see them in the water if you’re on a boat or kayak.
Sea and shore birds
‘Seabirds’ is a collective term that refers to those bird species which spend a large part of their life feeding and breeding in or near the marine environment. Seabirds include gulls, terns, albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters or mutton birds, cormorants, gannets and boobies.
At almost every headland and coastal national park, you’re likely to come across certain species of native seabirds. Keep an eye out for these guys in a NSW national park near you.