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Surfers, boats warned to keep away as southern right whale

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Surfers and boaties are being asked to give a southern right whale and her calf a wide berth as they approach Sydney Harbour.

The rare pair have been making their way down the NSW north coast.

They are expected to reach Sydney this weekend, and may stop for a rest in the harbour for a couple of days.

“They’re travelling at a fairly consistent rate down the coast and we expect them to be off the Northern Beaches probably tomorrow and then passing Sydney, potentially moving into the harbour over this weekend,” National Parks and Wildlife Service whale expert Andy Marshall told ABC Radio Sydney.

While the special visitors are expected to cause some excitement, Mr Marshall said the mother and baby needed space to rest.

A mother southern right whale swimming through the water, with a small calf by its side.

The mother and calf need time to rest before they reach the rough Southern Ocean.(Supplied: Alex McNaught, Roving-Eye.com Photography)

“There are so few mother-calf pairs that every one of them is important to protect [to] give them their best chance at growing and getting ready for the rigours of the Southern Ocean,” he said.

Scared by surfers

The mother and calf were scared away from Avoca Beach on the Central Coast by surfers on Friday morning.

“A number of surfers, obviously excited by the opportunity to see a big whale in very close to the shore, swam out,” Mr Marshall said.

“Instead of spending the day resting and nursing in the sheltered corner of Avoca Beach, the pair absolutely got out of there straight away and abandoned the site.”

They’ve since travelled about 20 kilometres in just a few hours.

“We just don’t want to see that sort of disturbance repeating,” Mr Marshall said.

An image from the air looking down on a whale and calf in the water.

The mother is producing about 300 litres of milk a day for her calf.(Supplied: Alex McNaught, Roving-Eye.com Photography)

In 2020, a large number of surfers near Manly also frightened off a southern right whale mother and calf.

“That pair of animals did about four times the normal distance that they would usually travel overnight to get away from that disturbance,” Mr Marshall said.

By law, vessels must stay at least 300 metres away from a mother with a calf.

While it is tempting for swimmers to get closer, Mr Marshall said it would not take much to upset the animals at this critical point in their journey.

“Mum’s trying to produce about 300 litres of milk per day for this calf to build up strength and its swimming abilities, before charging off into the Southern Ocean, which is a pretty hostile environment for a young calf,” he said.

“So every day of disturbance on the New South Wales coast in their nursery areas is a risk for that calf.”

How to spot them

Experts suggest finding a vantage point on land to safely enjoy a glimpse of the giant mammals.

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Compared to the estimated 35,000 humpbacks making the journey along Australia’s east coast, there are just 300 southern right whales.

This mother and calf were spotted together for the first time at Coffs Harbour at the end of July and it is believed the calf is now about seven weeks old.

Southern right whales are similar in length to humpbacks, but are bigger and do not have a dorsal fin.

Mr Marshall said whale watchers should look for a large black body without a dorsal fin, as well as white skin growths on their head.

“They have very distinctive markings around their head, which are called callosities,” he said.

“And if you’re looking carefully, and you watch the blow, they have a very V-shaped blow, as opposed to quite a tall, upright blow that the humpback whale makes.”

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