BACK FROM THE BRINK
Humpbacks are slow swimmers compared with species such as fin and blue whales, and were heavily exploited by whalers from the 1920s to the 1950s. Dwindling numbers led to worldwide protection in the 1960s, though some subsistence fishers were allowed to go on taking small numbers. Since then most populations have shown a strong recovery, particularly in Western Australia, South America and Southern Africa.
Before industrial whaling the humpback population of Western Australia was estimated at 21,686 whales. By the time the whaling stopped in 1963 there were thought to be just 568 individuals. Since then the population has grown about 10 per cent annually (measured 1999–2008) and has reached an estimated 22,000–30,000.
Because oceans are vast and whales spend much of their time under the surface, it’s impossible to know exact numbers, but the Western Australia population is now the largest breeding population in the world. According to the International Whaling Commission, the rebound in humpback numbers worldwide is taking populations back towards estimated pre-whaling levels of 75,000–100,000.